Ulysses S. Grant, at only five feet eight inches tall, was an unimposing man, but he mightily distinguished himself both as a warrior and a statesman. The Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library and Museum located on the campus of Mississippi State University brings his story and accomplishments to life.
Why is the Grant Presidential Library in Starkville, Mississippi?
The Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library was founded in 2012, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Ulysses S. Grant Association. The library opened in Starkville on November 30, 2017.
The Ulysses S. Grant Association was founded in 1962 by the Civil War Centennial Commissions of Illinois, New York, and Ohio. Its mission was and is to collect and preserve every known Grant document and to evaluate Grant’s life and career. The Association’s collection was housed at Southern Illinois University from 1964 to 2009. During that process, over 200,000 photocopies of every known letter written by Grant, in addition to many original letters written by Grant, his associates, and family were collected. The Association published thirty-two volumes of Grant’s writings.
Grant was born in Ohio in 1822. He graduated from West Point in 1843 and served in the Mexican–American War. He resigned his army commission after his marriage to Julia Dent, and the family struggled until the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. Grant joined the Union Army, where he rose quickly to the rank of General. After Lincoln’s assassination, he was promoted to General of the Army. In 1868, he was elected the 18th President of the United States and served two terms. He was the first modern President.
Grant’s Early Military Years
Grant entered West Point at seventeen and in four years he would gain five inches in height and become a second lieutenant in the Army. Grant was a skilled horseman and wanted to be assigned to the Calvary but instead was assigned to an infantry unit. Although assigned as the regimental quartermaster, he would see combat in the Calvary in the Mexican American War. By 1847, with the ceding of the territory of California, he emerged as a seasoned officer. He began studying the strategies and tactics of General’s Taylor and Scott during the war.
Grant wrote that the Mexican War was morally unjust and meant to expand slavery. Grant was promoted to Capitan and ultimately assigned to Fort Humboldt in California. There he was unhappy and separated from his wife, and he resigned his commission in 1854.
After leaving the military, he tried several vocations, including farming. By 1860, he was working in his father’s leather business. He was a fish out of water. With the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 and President Lincoln’s call for volunteers, his seven years away from the military melted, and his career began again.
Upon reenlistment, Grant steadily progressed in rank, and by August 1861, he was appointed a Brigadier General. He would win his first major victory for the Union at Fort Donelson, where the press dubbed him “Unconditional Surrender Grant.” Lincoln soon promoted Grant to Major General.
Grant’s next test was the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. The Shiloh battle was the costliest in American History, with over twenty-three thousand casualties. It would signal the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.
In November 1862, with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Grant instructed his units to integrate former slaves into the Union ranks. He oversaw the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1964, which spelled the end for the Confederacy.
Lincoln would formally promote Grant to Lieutenant General of the Union Army in 1864, where he would answer only to the President. By then Grant was in command of some half a million troops. By March of 1865, and after General Sherman’s March to the Sea, the Confederacy was on its last legs. General Grant and General Lee met at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9 to discuss and sign the terms of the surrender, and the bloodiest war in U.S. history came to an end on May 9, 1865.
On April 14, 1865, President Lincoln invited Grant to attend a play with him at Ford’s Theater, but Grant declined. The President was assassinated that evening at Ford’s Theater. Grant continued as the Commander of the Army, and in 1866, Congress promoted him to General of the Army of the United States.
Grant worked with President Andrew Johnson on the reconstruction of South until 1868 when the two became to be at odds with each other. Johnson faced impeachment and narrowly escaped removal from the Office of President.
At age 46, Grant was unanimously nominated by the Republican Party in 1868. Grant would, at that time, be the youngest President to be elected to the office. As the 18th President of the United States, he is considered to be the first Modern President and served two terms. Although his time in office was fraught with scandal, he did manage to move forward with legislation.
Some of Grant’s more notable accomplishments were: ratification of the fifteenth amendment which prohibits the government from denying the right to vote based on race, color or servitude; established Yellowstone National Park, the countries first national park; formed the Department of Justice and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, barring discrimination in accommodations and public transportation.
Little known fact
The S as his middle name was a mistake. The Congressman, who nominated him for the appointment to West Point, included the S in as his middle name, and it stuck.
After the Presidency
Grant went on a two and half year world tour on May 10, 1877, after leaving the office of President. While his wife, Julia enjoyed it; he did not. Upon his return to the states, from the expensive tour, he again had to establish a career for himself. He invested in a brokerage firm, but Grant was not a skilled businessman.
Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1884, Grant finished his memoir the day before on July 23, 1885, at age 63. Grant’s would be the first Presidential Memoir. President Cleveland ordered thirty days of national mourning. Grant’s funeral cortege stretched seven miles through the streets of New York. He was laid to rest in Grant’s Tomb in Riverside Park New York. It is the largest mausoleum in North America.
The Grant Presidential Library has found its footing in just two years. You begin your tour with an eight-minute introductory film about the history of the Grant Association and Museum and of course, Grant himself. Ryan Semmes, the archivist for the collection, designed a marvelous exhibit on Grant’s life. Through the use of interactive displays and life-size sculptures, visitors can explore Grant’s life from his early days at West Point, where he found his purpose, through the skills he formed as a warrior in many battles and through his two terms as President of the United States.
Document Detectives where Authentication is Key
When a document on Grant is discovered by the National Archives or by a collector, the Grant Library serves as the authenticating authority of the artifact. I learned from Ryan P. Semmes, the libraries archivist, that there is such a thing as the ‘document police.’ Should the authenticity of a document be questioned, investigators from the Library of Congress or the National Archives will track the entire provenance of that document. There have been several forgeries found throughout the years.
Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana
Housed alongside the Grant Presidential Library is the Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana. Frank J. Williams, a retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, began collecting memorabilia and artifacts related to Lincoln at an early age. The Collection is one of the nation’s largest and finest Lincoln collections. Williams is one of the country’s most renowned experts on Abraham Lincoln. In 2017, Williams decided to donate his collection obsession to a place where it would be viewed and appreciated.
Williams’ first treasure that began his obsession with Lincoln was a picture of Lincoln that hung in a classroom where Williams attended school was a child. Today, the collection of over seven thousand pieces resides at Mississippi State University.
Only a small part of the collection is on display at present, and it will be ever-changing as items are added, and Williams continues to provide items to the University collection yearly. At present the focal point of the exhibit is sculptures. Numerous sculptures in both bronze and painted plaster relate the story of the world as it was during Lincoln’s time. With over one hundred artifacts on display here, be prepared to learn a lot about Lincoln’s journey from childhood to his death.