Mississippians might have ample reason to dislike Ulysses Grant, the Union general-turned-president whose military victory at Vicksburg helped turn the tide of the Civil War against the state and the rest of Dixie. The Magnolia State now is getting some payback.
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, making certain universities home to the papers of the earlier presidents, including those of the Republican, hard-drinking Grant, the nation's 18th commander in chief.
"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 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. — Grant's headquarters in the Civil War's early years before he thrust Union troops into the South.
At Southern, John Y. Simon began overseeing the collection in the early 1960s for the Ulysses S. Grant Association, a nonprofit now headed by Frank Williams, the Rhode Island Supreme Court's chief justice.
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 the age of 75.
The university wouldn't discuss the harassment case, calling it a personnel matter. Simon was still employed by the university until his death.
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 staked a claim to at least part of the collection, the association sued the school, saying the university was refusing to hand it over. The group protectively asked a judge to block the school from removing, disposing of or divesting any of the items, calling the collection "priceless."
The two sides finally struck a deal last month, when Southern agreed to relinquish the papers to Mississippi State and its Mitchell Memorial Library.
As part of the settlement, both sides agreed not to publicly discuss the rift.
David Carlson, Southern's dean of library affairs, admits the collection was a source of pride for the Illinois school for decades. But he says its usefulness to scholars beyond Carbondale was diminished because Simon often tightly restricted access to it. He also says much of the collection's most tantalizing stuff is featured in the 30 published volumes now widely held by many academic libraries across the country.
To Carlson, parting ways with the collection's research notes — the papers giving historical context to documents — may have been the biggest loss.
"Sure, there's some bragging rights there," Carlson said. But he notes the 20,000-student university still sports James Joyce, Irish literature and philosophy collections he touts as among the nation's best.
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 said that while the historical value of the Grant memorabilia can't be overlooked, "there are, of course, areas in his life and leadership that we disagree with."
"General Grant was cut from a different piece of cloth than were great men like General Robert E. Lee," the Confederacy's vanquished general but still a hero to many in the South, Fayard, 57, said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Mississippi State's housing of the Grant collection "will give Southern scholars an opportunity to see who this man really was," he said. "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."
On the Net:
Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, http://www.siuc.edu
Mississippi State University, http://www.msstate.edu
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.