By Jim Suhr
The Associated Press
CARBONDALE, Ill. (AP) – Mississippi might seem like an unlikely place to honor Ulysses S. Grant.
After all, the Union general’s military victory at Vicksburg helped turn the tide of the Civil War against the state and the rest of Dixie.
But after a legal dispute with an Illinois school, Mississippi State University has become the new home of 90 file cabinets stuffed with hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and memorabilia about Grant and some of his descendants.
The collection – one of the biggest involving Grant – had been a source of pride for Southern Illinois University for more than four decades until a falling out between that Carbondale school and the group that owns the items, prompted by sexual harassment claims against the man who oversaw the collection.
Mississippi State considers the stash a big deal when it comes to bragging rights. Presidential libraries didn’t begin springing up until the mid-20th century. That made certain universities home to the papers of earlier presidents, including those of the Republican, hard-drinking Grant, who was president from 1869 to 1877.
“It’s an incredible collection of amazing things,” ranging from original Grant documents to the Grant family’s Bible, said John Marszalek, a Civil War scholar and Mississippi State history professor emeritus who’s now shepherding the collection.
“All my colleagues are just beside themselves, saying, ‘Man, how’d you get so lucky?'” added Marszalek, a biographer of William T. Sherman, the Union general who was among Grant’s closest friends.
“This Grant collection is going to be a star on campus.”
That’s what it used to be at Southern Illinois, just 50 miles north of the Ohio River outpost of Cairo, Ill. That was Grant’s headquarters in the Civil War’s early years, before he thrust Union troops into the South and, later, became general-in-chief of all Union forces.
At Southern Illinois, John Y. Simon began overseeing the collection in the early 1960s for the nonprofit Ulysses S. Grant Association.
Simon eventually edited 30 volumes of Grant’s papers as the association’s executive director, transforming himself into an academic force in Civil War history while teaching about that period at the school for 44 years.
But his relationship with the university soured after the school began investigating him last year for alleged sexual harassment of some female co-workers – claims Simon disputed until his death last summer at 75.
In August, Marszalek accepted the nonprofit’s request that he take Simon’s place, and the push to move the Grant papers to Mississippi picked up steam.
After Southern Illinois staked a claim to at least part of the collection, the association sued the school, saying Southern Illinois was refusing to hand it over.
The two sides finally struck a deal last month, when Southern Illinois agreed to relinquish the papers. As part of the settlement, both sides agreed not to publicly discuss the rift.
David Carlson, Southern Illinois’s dean of library affairs, admits the collection was a source of pride for the school. But he said much of the collection’s most tantalizing stuff is featured in the 30 volumes now widely held by many academic libraries.
The fact that a collection about a Union hero who helped topple the Confederacy has wound up in Dixie is not lost on Marszalek.
“There’s an irony in it,” he said with a laugh. “People recognize this for its scholarly worth, and I think what has happened over time is that people have come to realize that the Civil War is over and we’re a united nation again.”
Still, Grant’s return to the South doesn’t thrill Cecil Fayard Jr., the Mississippi-based leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“U.S. Grant is not beloved in the state of Mississippi. Southern folks remember well his brutal and bloody tactics of war, and the South will never forget the siege of Vicksburg,” he said.