Cincinnati is located near Grant’s birthplace and boyhood home, in his native state of Ohio. And the city has become a dynamic destination for arts, culture and history, centrally located for the entire eastern US.
Mississippi Gets An A for Effort
Through an accident of academic hiring, in 2009, the collection of presidential papers maintained by Professor John Marszalek, which became the basis for the Grant Presidential Library, moved from Southern Illinois University, a likely location given Grant’s ties to the state and the Midwest, to the very unlikely location of Mississippi State University in Starkville.
When I went to Starkville in March 2022 to participate in the annual Grant Association conference, MSU did seem pretty far off the beaten path. The best I can say for it geographically is that, as Marszalek put it, MSU is half way between Shiloh and Vicksburg.
And indeed, my trip to Starkville did give me the chance to also explore both battlefields for the first time. I was grateful for the opportunity to visit these hallowed, iconic places in Grant’s military career, so key to the story of Union victory in the Civil War. At each stop, I put on my Union general’s uniform and snapped a few selfies that I put into a photo gallery of Western Theater Battlefields. So, thanks, Professor Marszalek!
And when I got to Starkville, I was impressed at the warm welcome that MSU and its president, Mark Keenum, gave to conference attendees. Keenum and his school have clearly given the same warm welcome for years to the Grant Library. After all, we’re talking about the home state of Jeff Davis here — and that whole Vicksburg Campaign thing too. Remember that, after Grant conquered the city on July 4, 1863, it took decades for Vicksburg residents to start celebrating Independence Day again. Memories run deep in Mississippi.
Yet, today, Keenum is at least one resident of the Magnolia State who doesn’t seem to be holding any grudge against the head Yankee general. To his credit, Keenum is clearly a true champion of the Grant Library and its small but well-designed museum on Grant’s life. For example, a few years back, Keenum assigned every incoming freshman at MSU to read Marszalek’s short biography of Grant, Hold on With A Bulldog Grip (note: the MSU sports mascot is a bulldog).
Even more impressive, MSU recently applied for, and then won, a multimillion-dollar federal grant to build a new, larger and freestanding building to house the Grant Library and museum, now located on the top floor of the university’s main academic library. As MSU Professor Anne Marshall, the new executive director of the Grant Library, explained in an email to US Grant Association members, “Mississippi State will oversee the construction and operation of the new library as part of its continued support of the USGA. MSU also pays the salaries of library staff, services our technology platforms, and offers a variety of other measures of support.”
I’m sure MSU will do an effective job putting up a new building for their Grant offerings.
Location Does Matter
In the meantime, there’s not much MSU can do about their location. Placed in the middle of farm fields right in the center of the state, Starkville is still pretty far from anywhere, even by Mississippi standards, which is saying a lot.
As to a new Grant library and museum, no matter how attractive the facility, many tourists will find any location on a college campus to be less welcoming than a museum on its own.
I say, let scholars continue to go to MSU, where it seems that the Grant Library is well qualified to serve researchers needing to consult Grant’s papers and view historical artifacts from across Grant’s life and his careers in the army and in the White House.
But Ulysses S. Grant, long considered one of the top three leaders in American history along with Washington and Lincoln, deserves a better location for a museum.
To succeed, a Grant museum must not just be open to the general public, in a passive way. An attractive Grant museum must be actively dedicated above all to welcoming a non-academic audience and serving them with content that’s not only educational but also entertaining.
To attract more visitors, a Grant museum should be built on its own site, not part of any college or university campus. After the success of Ron Chernow’s biography, families, school groups, history buffs and international travelers want to know about Grant now more than ever. But these non-academic audiences can feel excluded by the insular feel of college campus where, unless you’re a student or a professor, it’s easy to feel out of place. “Is that security guard looking at us?” And let’s not start on the topic of parking.
To reach the public effectively, a Grant museum must resist the temptation of easy funding that academe offers, and insist on a location in a city or a suburb or a rural area — really, anywhere but a college campus.
That non-campus location must offer easy access by road, air and rail, and be located near major population centers.
And a museum dedicated to the architect of Union victory should be located in the North, while of course extending a kind welcome to Southerners (who visit Civil War attractions in large numbers), Americans from other regions and international visitors alike. Finally, it would be most meaningful to put a Grant museum in a place where Ulysses S. Grant lived.
Cincinnati: Connected with Grant’s Life and Much More
Grant lived longer in Washington, DC., than anywhere else in his adult life, and there’s no more obvious location for a presidential tourist attraction than the nation’s capital. Grant is already established in Washington with a famous equestrian monument.
But while Julia Grant loved serving as First Lady and living in the White House, Ulysses preferred New York City, where he and Julia moved after returning from their world tour in 1879, and where today, Grant is also established with a monument, an even more famous one — Grant’s Tomb.
Both cities are world-leading tourist destinations. But needless to say, both New York and Washington are also unworldly expensive. So they are probably impractical as hosts for a Grant museum.
A couple of Midwestern cities also connected to Grant’s life are much more affordable. St. Louis is home to White Haven, the Dent family farm where Ulysses and Julia lived with her family from 1854 to 1859. And Cincinnati is close to the homes of Grant’s rural Ohio childhood, his birthplace at Point Pleasant and his boyhood home in Georgetown.
Between the two, my pick would be Cincinnati. First, for its connection to Grant’s early life and its location in his home state of Ohio, which was a major stalwart of the Union cause in the Civil War too.
Then, for its more easterly location, within 500 miles of 60% of the US population — about half way between St. Louis and Washington, DC.
Finally, Cincinnati stands out for its tourist appeal.
Numerous arts, culture and history attractions in the area include the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, sure to attract a lot of the same visitors who would go to a Grant museum. Cincinnati is also a lively, growing city with a dynamic restaurant and shopping scene, attractively hosted in several walkable historic neighborhoods. And don’t forget riverfront views and river sports like kayaking and rafting.
The Best of North and South
Its location in the southwestern tip of the state of Ohio on the river allows the Cincinnati area to include Kentucky towns Covington and Newport on the south side of the Ohio River. “Midwest friendliness meets Southern charm,” as Visit Cincy puts it.
What better location, not only for connection to Grant’s birth and childhood, but also to express the theme of sectional reconciliation after the Civil War, so important to the life story of Ulysses S. Grant? Just as Grant was a northern leader who extended the laurel of peace to the South, so Cincinnati is a northern city that clearly welcomes Southerners. And since international visitors come to the North more than to the South, a museum here will attract more folks from abroad too.
In a human-scale footprint, Cincinnati has got everything you’d find in a larger metro area, even white-collar jobs with major employers in automotive, finance, energy, healthcare, technology and, led by hometown giant Procter & Gamble, consumer products. I’m tempted to move there myself!
If the Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau or the Ohio Department of Tourism is interested, I’d be happy to help them raise money and generate interest in a modern, fun and interactive museum about the life of one of America’s greatest figures — and one of Ohio’s most famous native sons — that could enhance the offerings that Cincinnati already boasts.