Grady Howell is a Northside author and retired historian from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH). Howell holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond and served in the United States Air Force from 1966 to 1970. He and his wife Gail reside in Northeast Jackson. Howell recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about the area’s history and his writings.
How did you become interested in history?
“I’ve been a historian all of my life, and without a title for most of it. On July 3, 1955, at eight years old, we came up to Crystal Springs, my father’s hometown, and we went on a day trip to the Vicksburg National Military Park … When we got there and pulled into the park, and I smelled the fresh mown grass, saw the trenches, the earthen fortifications and the cannons, it triggered something in my eight-year-old mind that was akin to a religious experience. Dad began telling us about his great grandfather, who had been a Confederate soldier, and bought me a 25-cent book, which I still have, and I started reading about the Civil War. Before that day, I was a typical eight-year-old kid, a cowboy who rode with Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger. After that, I was an undocumented historian.”
Was it that same experience that made you want to be a writer?
“I was in the service when I started writing a paper on my great-great grandfather. I realized that the only time of his life that was documented was when he was in the Civil War. Before that, he was a 17-year-old who was going to war. After the war, he was a sharecropper almost to the day he died. I started amassing all the information I could on the Sixth Regiment of the Mississippi Infantry, CSA, little realizing I would publish a book.”
Since then, how many books have you written? And how long does it take to write one?
“Books and booklets, about 23. I self-publish them. I can’t really measure how long it takes to write one. Typically, I work on three or four topics at a time. If I get burned out on one, I move to another. That’s why I’ve been able to write so many over the years. ‘Chimneyville: Likenesses of Early Days in Jackson, Mississippi,’ took me five and a half years of active collecting.”
And the Civil War is your specialty?
“Yes; But I’m branching out. My next book is going to be on the Mexican-American War. I have a journal from a Mississippi doctor who tells how he treated sick and dying soldiers during the conflict. I have (written) a booklet on the history of how Mississippi came to celebrate Thanksgiving. I have a 400-page manuscript on it at home, but it will never be published.”
In the vein of the civil war, what is something people do not know about Jackson during that period?
“Jackson was occupied four times during the war: mid-May 1863, mid-July 1863, early February 1864 and mid-July 1864. The first three were under the command of William Tecumseh Sherman. Jackson was layer-burned. (Ulysses S.) Grant who was the overall commander and was moving against Vicksburg and Sherman had only a few days to neutralize Jackson from a military standpoint, which included destroying the railroad. On the second occupation, he really got into the civilian population and destroyed downtown Jackson. ”
Who was in command during the last occupation?
“Henry Warren Slocum. They did not do any destroying that time, and there were two schools of thought on why, including the fact that there was not enough left to destroy.”
What types of collections are stored at MDAH?
“They have all kinds. There are lots of unprocessed collections, state government collections, and among those are the Senate and House journals dating back to the 1800s. One of the things I learned, in the 1870s, that there were concerns about the state lunatic asylum. You didn’t have to be a ‘lunatic’ to be admitted. Hundreds of people were dropped off there who had dementia. Tuberculosis patients were housed there, as were Confederate and Union veterans.”
What are some of the most sought-after documents held by the archives?
“Genealogies and the Civil War are the two prime interests of archives and history. Civil Rights have grown more popular with the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum next door to the William Winter Building.”
How long were you with MDAH?
“I was with them from 2000 to my retirement in 2013, but I’ve been doing research at MDAH since 1967, the year I began the paper on my ancestor. I was a fixture there for many years. I would go in at lunchtime and on the weekends, and was often confused for an employee. I didn’t have to learn the collection when I did start working there.”