London barrister Richard Wilmot-Smith has tra veled far to pursue his interest in Ulysses S. Grant. He is beginning the long-term goal of writing a biography that will focus on Grant's post-Civil War years.
Wilmot-Smith arrived in Starkville May 20 and will spend the next month at the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library researching material on the latter part of Grant's life, beginning with his presidency. This biography will be unique in that it will be written as a memoir, narrated in the voice of President Grant, and it will pick up where Grant's personal memoirs, which detail his war years, conclude.
By writing in Grant's voice, Wilmot-Smith hopes to present a narrative that is insightful, complex and personal.
"I wondered what he would have said and thought it might be educative to understand what he was like and then convey his story in a manner which people will want to read," Wilmot-Smith said.
As historians know, there are always new questions waiting to be asked. What would later become Wilmot-Smith's research question came about unexpectedly. On a trip to the Catskills in 2003, he visited a local private lending library and randomly pulled a book from one of the shelves. It was a biography of Grant. The page showed a photograph of Grant's funeral, which was and remains today the largest funeral of any U.S. president.
Wilmot-Smith asked himself, "Why so many people? This was not just a big funeral for a national hero, but something exceptional and unsurpassed. So I thought I'd get to know him."
After reading on his own and joining the Ulysses S. Grant Association, Wilmot-Smith discovered the large body of work devoted to Grant. However, much of this scholarship casts the general and president in a decidedly negative light.
"I could not understand how a man who pulled the country together after the disaster of Andrew Johnson, pushed through the 15th amendment, spoke passionately about civil rights, entertained Frederick Douglass at the White House, put together a proper peace policy with regard to American Indians and suppressed the KKK could be regarded in the same paragraph as people like Warren Harding," he said.
Having spent over a week at the Grant Presidential Library, Wilmot-Smith said he is only "scratching the surface of the surface" of available material.
"The Grant Library has to be the starting point for any Grant scholar," he said. "I hope to begin to understand what other documents I need to see in the Grant Library...as well as where I have to look outside the Grant Library."
Wilmot-Smith appreciates the help he has received from the Grant Library staff, especially Archivist Ryan Semmes, who has worked with him extensively to locate documents.
"I have been assisting Mr. Wilmot-Smith's research by providing both primary and secondary source materials from our vast subject files, unpublished documents, and published documents files. I have also answered questions regarding nineteenth century historical figures and topics that are reflected in the holdings of the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library," said Semmes.
Dr. John Marszalek, Executive Director of the Grant Presidential Library, added, "We are pleased to have a scholar of Mr. Wilmot-Smith's caliber researching in our holdings, and we are looking forward to the publication of his innovative book."
As an attorney, Wilmot-Smith has publishing experience; he is working on the third edition of a textbook on construction contracts, published by Oxford University Press. However, this biography will be a completely different venture for him.
He added, "This is a long project. I am not giving myself a deadline, but it is years away."
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