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Opening of the Grant Collection

The Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Papers at Mississippi State University Mitchell Memorial Library had its grand opening in March 2010. Courtesy the Ulysses S. Grant Association, Mississippi State University Libraries.

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A Black Physician's Story

A Black Physician’s Story was the result of taped interviews a historian conducted with the physician over a period of years. Book jacket image courtesy University Press of Mississippi.

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Grant memorabilia

Grant memorabilia at the U. S. Grant Presidential Papers Collection at Mississippi State University. Courtesy Ulysses S. Grant Association, Mississippi State University Libraries.

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Page from Volume 7 of the Grant papers

A letter on page 376 from Volume 7 of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. Click on larger view to read. Courtesy Ulysses S. Grant Association, Mississippi State University Libraries.

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Mrs. Grant's shawl

An evening shawl that belonged to Mrs. Grant was a surprise finding while organizing the papers in the U. S. Grant Collection after its December 2008 arrival at Mississippi State University. Courtesy Ulysses S. Grant Association, Mississippi State University Libraries.

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President U. S. Grant

Ulysses Simpson Grant (1822-1885) was elected president of the United States in 1868 as a Republican, and was re-elected in 1872. Photograph created between 1870 and 1885. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-110719.

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Grant writing memoirs

Grant writing his memoirs at Mount McGregor, near Saratoga Springs, New York. Photograph created June 27, 1885, a few weeks before his death on July 23. The Grant Collection contains copies of Grant’s handwritten manuscript. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-7607.

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Babcock journal entry

An example of a primary document: Orville Babcock’s July 4, 1863, journal entry, the day of the fall of Vicksburg. Click on larger view to read. Courtesy Ulysses S. Grant Association, Mississippi State University Libraries.

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MDAH reading room

At the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson, researchers will find a collection of resources on the state and its people that spans the days of prehistory to current history. Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

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Feature Story

How Historians Use Primary Sources: The Ulysses S. Grant Collection Provides a Lesson

History just does not happen on its own. Human beings make history as they live their lives — indeed it is impossible to separate history from life. Most of us live our lives quietly, earning a living, raising a family, participating in our societies, while never gaining, nor seeking, fame or notoriety beyond our immediate sphere.

Yet, sometimes there is no question that an individual made the kind of contributions to society necessary for inclusion in written history. No one could imagine American history without George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony, or Babe Ruth. However, there are people who never reached that level of international recognition, yet they deserve to be remembered in historical chronicles. In Mississippi history, Pushmataha, James Lusk Alcorn, Blanche K. Bruce, Mike Connor, Belle Kearney, and a host of others had an impact on this state, yet they are little known within its boundaries, let alone outside it.

The historian and the archivist

Who makes the decision whether or not to put an individual into our history books? This is the job of the historian who is trained to assess evidence against a well-informed historical background. It is the historian who looks across time into past societies and decides that this or that person deserves historical remembrance. This is not an arbitrary decision based on a whim. Historians decide who to include in the histories they write on a variety of criteria.

Persistence, dedication, and a desire to preserve the past and someone’s role in it are all important in the making of history. There is, however, another essential element before historians can write history: the building blocks of history must be available to them. Historians call such building blocks primary sources: letters and diaries, speeches and official records, newspaper clippings, remembrances of contemporaries, and other materials created at the time the subject under question was alive. Without primary sources, historians cannot study individuals, let alone evaluate their importance and add their accurate story to the rolls of history.

This is where another professional decides who to remember in history: that is the archivist in a manuscript repository. The archivist’s job is to gather the primary sources, preserve them, catalog them, and make them available to the historian. An archivist might discover a significant cache of materials and quickly see how significant a seemingly unknown person really was. The archivist will then alert historians about this information. In short, the historian and the archivist work together to create history. Neither can work alone; it is a joint effort with lines of activity frequently intertwining.

Primary source material

An instructive example is that of Mississippians Sadye and Robert Wier of Starkville. Sadye Wier kept records from her life and encouraged her husband to do the same. When he died, she decided to honor his memory by writing a book about his life as a black barber serving white clientele during the days of segregated Mississippi. Beginning in 1943, she was a pioneer black Mississippi State Extension Service Demonstration Agent. During her career she had taught many others a variety of tasks, and realized she needed professional help with the writing of the book. She turned to a historian, who interviewed her extensively and used the material she had saved. The result was a biography of her husband’s life. She then introduced the historian to a relative, Dr. Douglas Conner, a black Starkville physician and civil rights activist. Another book, even more significant than the first, was the result. Later, Sadye Wier worked with a librarian to produce a book of remembrances about her own life.

Sadye Wier recognized the importance of the material (the primary sources) she had saved and created and, in her last will and testament, named the same historian as her literary executor. He was given authority to make sure all the materials she had saved, but never organized, would be donated to the Special Collections in the Mississippi State University Mitchell Memorial Library. Here, archivists organized it and ensured its preservation.

Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Collection

Usually historians do not have to discover the primary sources they need to study a historical figure. That material is already available in some library, historical society, university or state archives. This is the case, for example, with General and President Ulysses S. Grant, whose huge collection of primary sources came to the Mitchell Memorial Library at Mississippi State University in December 2008. Grant is not a native of Mississippi; he did not spend the majority of his life here; but it was in Mississippi that he accomplished the feat that made him historically famous. His victory at Vicksburg during the American Civil War catapulted him into a lasting fame that he had earlier begun to build in battles in Tennessee, just outside Mississippi’s northern boundary.

The Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Collection is a treasure for the students and scholars of Mississippi and for researchers from around the world. Consisting of 15,000 linear feet of copies of letters to and from Grant, 4,000 volumes of books about him, subject files about people and events mentioned in the letters, a variety of scrapbooks, photographs and memorabilia, this collection provides researchers with significant material about U. S. Grant and his age. The material was gathered over forty years by the late documentary editor John Y. Simon, executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association, for the publication of thirty-one volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant.

These papers demonstrate the kind of information historians use to write the histories of individuals and their eras. A great deal of the material deals with Mississippi. There is, of course, material on Grant’s military campaigns in the state and his stays at various places, such as Holly Springs, Mississippi. There are reports to Grant from other Union Army commanders about their activities in the state. Confederate officers communicated with Grant, and he with them. Especially valuable, but relatively unused, are letters and other documents discussing Reconstruction in Mississippi and the reaction of Grant, both as commanding general and as president, to the violence against the newly freed slaves.

How to use the Grant Collection

How might a historian use this material to write a book or an article? The first thing in studying any topic in the Grant Collection is to get an idea of precisely what is in the collection. An efficient way to begin is to go to the Ulysses S. Grant Association website. Here the researcher will find information about the Grant Association that collected this material and the collection itself. Most important to the researcher is the section listed as “The Collection.” Under the sub-heading “Description,” there is a general overview and a listing of “series” and “subseries” into which the collection is divided and organized. Series II describes Vertical Files, containing information on people and events associated with Grant’s life and era, Research Files, containing copies of books and articles arranged by authors’ names, the research notes of historians Lloyd Lewis and Bruce Catton for their several publications on General Grant, and of John F. Marszalek for his biographies of generals William T. Sherman and Henry W. Halleck.

The heart of the collection consists of the copies of every known letter Ulysses S. Grant wrote or was written to him. In Series I, Source Cards, there is the equivalent of the old library card catalog. Here every manuscript has cards indicating sender, recipient, date, accession number, and source of the original manuscript. Many of the more than 200,000 Grant manuscript copies have already been published in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, and this is a good place to begin reading Grant documents. The copies, used in the preparation of the volumes, are available for research on site, and all the published volumes have been digitized and are available on the website at no cost. Series III contains documents not published in The Papers.

A researcher may go online, watch and listen to an audio-visual tutorial on how to search within these letters properly, and then search by name of the author or recipient of the letter. The researcher can then come to Mississippi State University in Starkville where an archivist will provide the desired letter for reading and/or copying. Or, the researcher can contact the archivists by mail or email and, for a nominal fee, receive a copy of the desired letter through the United States Postal Service.

How to evaluate the Vicksburg Campaign

It would be impossible to discuss every document which exists in the enormous Grant Collection, but it would be instructive to discuss, as an example, that part of the material which relates to Grant’s famous Civil War Vicksburg campaign of 1863. How might a historian use the Grant Collection to evaluate Grant’s role in this pivotal campaign?

The first place to go is the Mississippi State University Libraries online catalog. Here, materials in the Vicksburg Campaign are listed: Edwin Bearss’ three volume The Campaign for Vicksburg; Terry Winschel’s Triumph and Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign; Michael B. Ballard’s Vicksburg: The Campaign that Opened the Mississippi and Pemberton: The General Who Lost Vicksburg; and the personal memoirs of Confederate General John C. Pemberton. The Grant Collection contains more than 1,100 titles of American Civil War books and journals that provide researchers a list of secondary sources (that is, published books and articles on various Grant topics).

If one was interested in Grant’s communications with General Pemberton during the siege, for example, the Grant Association’s online edition of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant provides a wealth of information, specifically in Volume 7 and Volume 8. These two volumes contain numerous accounts of Pemberton’s whereabouts during the Vicksburg campaign, references to his correspondence which the Union Army seized, and his personal correspondence with Grant.

Searching through the Grant Collection website, a researcher will also find subject files devoted to the Vicksburg campaign. These files contain notes on the battle, articles written about the siege, comparisons between Vicksburg and Gettysburg, as well as the research notes of noted historians.

In Series III, Unpublished Files, a historian will find all of the documents in the collection which were not published in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. Here are found dispatches, special orders, and pieces of correspondence from the Vicksburg campaign, including incoming and outgoing records from Grant’s headquarters. In addition, there is correspondence between John C. Pemberton and Grant’s headquarters immediately following the surrender of the city.

In Series X, the researcher will find additional information on the Vicksburg campaign in the papers of another participant. Orville Babcock, an engineer, would later become one of Grant’s aides. In the small diary he kept in 1863, Babcock chronicles his days in Ohio and Kentucky in early 1863 before joining the Union attempts to break the stronghold of Vicksburg through the siege, beginning in June of 1863. He describes the work done on fortifications, the skirmishes around the city, and the eventual surrender of the Confederates. He also discusses the burning of the city of Jackson and the conduct of the soldiers as the capital fell. This Union officer, who would go on to become one of President Grant’s most trusted presidential advisors (and greatest liabilities), offers a unique perspective on the American Civil War in Mississippi.

Grant’s The Personal Memoirs were first published in 1885 and have since been republished many times. The Grant Collection contains multiple editions of the Memoirs, including first editions. The collection also contains, on microfilm, copies of Grant’s handwritten drafts of his memoirs. Researchers can thus read the story of the siege of Vicksburg in the general’s own hand.

For the first time in the history of the Grant Collection, it is available for research. Noted historians are using it for future books, and students are writing term papers from it. Thus, the work of historians, professional and neophyte, continues.

Ryan P. Semmes, M.L.I.S., M.A. is the assistant archivist in the Congressional and Political Research Center, Mississippi State University. He played a major role in the organization of the Grant Presidential Collection when it came to Mississippi State University in December, 2008. He is past president of the Society of Mississippi Archivists.

John F. Marszalek, Ph.D. is the Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Mississippi State University and the Executive Director and Managing Editor of the Ulysses S. Grant Association. He is a former president of the Mississippi Historical Society and winner of its B.L.C. Wailes Award for lifetime achievement.

Posted August 2010


Ballard, Michael B. Pemberton: The General Who Lost Vicksburg. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

Vicksburg: The Campaign that Opened the Mississippi. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Bearss, Edwin C. The Campaign for Vicksburg. Dayton, Ohio: Morningside, 1985-1986.

Conner, Douglas L. with John F. Marszalek. A Black Physician’s Story: Bringing Hope in Mississippi. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985.

Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885.

Pemberton, John C. Compelled to Appear in Print: The Vicksburg Manuscript of General John C. Pemberton. Cincinnati, OH: Ironclad Publishers, 1999.

Simon, John Y., ed. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 7, December 9, 1862-March 31, 1863. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979.

The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 8, April 1-July 6, 1863. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979.

Swain, Martha, ed. Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives, Volume 1. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003.

Wier, Sadye H. and George R. Lewis. Sadye H. Wier: Her Life and Work. Starkville, Mississippi: S. H. Wier, 1993.

Wier, Sadye H. with John F. Marszalek. A Black Businessman in White Mississippi, 1886-1974. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1977.

Winschel, Terrance J. Triumph of Defeat: The Vicksburg Campaign. New York: Savas Beattie, 2004.

Website (accessed July 2010)

Ulysses S. Grant Association.

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