George C. Rable Visits the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library & Williams Collection of Lincolniana

Glenn David Brasher's picture

H-CivWar readers, today I am proud to present a history site review by one of our most prominent Civil War historians, George C. Rable. Currently a Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama and enjoying more time to travel, Rable is working on a book about Lincoln and George McClellan that will no doubt add to his lenghtly and impressive list of award worthy books. The Lincoln Prize winning author and frequent public history speaker is a fervent supporter of historical sites and museums, and was more than happy to offer to H-CivWar readers his appraisal of the Grant Library in Starkville, Mississippi. (Glenn D. Brasher, series editor).


Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library & Williams Collection of Lincolniana

George C. Rable

      John Marszalek is undoubtedly tired of being asked how the Ulysses S. Grant Papers project (and now the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library) came to Starkville, Mississippi, but that is often the first question that comes to people’s minds in considering a visit to this impressive new presidential library and museum.  Of course one might easily point out that Grant’s place in American history (not to mention his eventual election as president) grew out of his rightly celebrated Vicksburg campaign that secured Federal control of the Mississippi River and cleaved the Confederate States of America in two.    

      Moving the Ulysses S. Grant Papers project from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, proved quite fortuitous in two important senses.  First the Papers project, then nearing completion, came under the skillful direction of John Marszalek. Most recently this has resulted in the Harvard University Press publication of the first annotated edition of Grant’s memoirs, and now plans are in the works for a scholarly edition of Julia Dent Grant’s memoirs and those of William T. Sherman.  Secondly, the willingness of Mississippi State University not only to house the Papers project but to create the Grant Presidential Library is a most fitting tribute not only to John Marszalek’s superb record of scholarship, but to his tireless work and multitudinous contributions to Mississippi State University.   

      Located on the fourth floor of the Mitchell Memorial Library on the Mississippi State University campus, the Grant Presidential Library offers a gallery on Grant and another displaying items from the Frank J. and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana.  In addition, the Library includes a state-of-the art research facility providing ready access to thousands of Grant-related documents—many of which were not included in the published thirty-two volumes of the Ulysses S. Grant papers.

      The museum itself should attract visitors of all ages and degrees of knowledge.  A ten- minute orientation video on the facility provides a very useful introduction. The galleries reflect the most recent development in museum design—a fine mix of inviting exhibits that should appeal to school groups as well as anyone with an interest in presidential and Civil War history.   The galleries present Grant’s life by centering around four major themes:  family man, general, president, and statesman.   There are life-size statues of Grant as a West Point cadet, Civil War general, U. S. president, and a poignant one of Grant seated writing his memoirs—as he battles throat cancer. These statues allow visitors to literally “size up” Grant. There are also interactive exhibits, including one for sending postcards. There are drawers for even the smallest child to open, and plenty of artifacts to examine.  

      The exhibits immerse visitors in Grant’s story by balancing both the historical and human dimensions of his life   At the same time, a restrained use of text encourages people to pause and learn without being overwhelmed or bogged down with the kind of minutiae that frequently drown out the major themes in some other museums.  Brief quotations from Grant himself effectively reinforce the themes of his life and reveal his often unappreciated way with words.  For example, there are Grant’s especially telling comments on war:  “Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace.”

      Strolling through the galleries, one learns about Grant’s service in the Mexican-American War, about his views on slavery and race, and of course about his service in the Union Army and two terms as president. There are the expected items—White House china—and the unexpected—Grant’s death mask.  A most unusual highlight is the large book of photographs---The Seven-Mile Funeral Cortege of Ulysses S. Grant—on display. Visitors can explore this priceless volume electronically and learn about the largest funeral in American history.

       Another gallery houses the stunning Frank J. and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolnania.  This collection, assembled by Frank Williams, former Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, includes sculptures, prints, cartoons, campaign memorabilia, and Lincoln busts.  One highlight is a large engraving of Lincoln by the artist Fritz Eichenberg.  The Williams collection includes thousands of books and pamphlets and such rare items as a first printing of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, signed by Lincoln as president in 1863, and an early copy of the Emancipation Proclamation printed in miniature for distribution to Union soldiers in the South.  In conjunction with the collection, there is the annual Frank and Virginia Williams Lecture in Lincoln and Civil War Studies.

      What particularly attracts visitors are the sixteen sculptures by John Rogers, “The People’s Sculptor,” who over his career, sold over 80,000 pieces, his most famous being the 1868 “Council of War” of Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant. Many people are also surprised to see a model of number 6469, Lincoln’s patent for a floating device to lift a steamboat over a sand bar, the only patent every filed by an American president. And, the ability to watch Chief Justice Williams on interactive television explaining the history of many of the pieces in the gallery (such as Norman Rockwell’s autographed “Young Lincoln” painting), is alone worth the visit.

      The Grant Presidential Library reflects efforts over the past decade and more to rethink Grant’s place in American history and move beyond crude notions of the man as simply a drunkard, a battlefield butcher, or corruptionist. This complements recent scholarly reappraisals of Grant and Ron Chernow’s wildly popular biography.  Although I had visited several other Grant historical sites, this one did more to provide a sense of Grant the man and at the same time pique an interest in learning more about a historical figure who has too often been caricatured rather than understood.

**** One important note for visitors: go online and get your visitor’s parking permit in advance to save time and hassle.  Parking on a university campus is often a challenge but is not a major problem here.  And the friendly library staff is eager to welcome visitors.