The perfect release of the great detail

by Mr. Sheehy

Great writers have a knack for recognizing something valuable. When they’ve got that detail, they can hold it until just the right moment, the moment when it makes the impact it deserves. Released at the wrong time, the detail could lose its effect and be one of a million instead of one in a million.

This may be a particularly wonderful talent for an historian, and it’s one of the best of these, David McCullough, that brings this to mind. I mentioned that I read 1776 recently, and as I return to my memories of it, this remains one of my favorite paragraphs. It is that quintessential release of the great detail, Washington’s response to the low supply of gunpowder:

It was in the first week of August, at the end of his first month as commander, when Washington learned how much worse things were than he knew. A report on the supply of gunpowder at hand revealed a total of less than 10,000 pounds, and the situation was not expected to improve soon. Very little gunpowder was produced in the colonies. What supplies there were came mainly by clandestine shipments from Europe to New York and Philadelphia by way of the Dutch island of St. Eustatius in the Caribbean. At present, there was powder enough only for about nine rounds per man. According to one account, Washington was so stunned by the report he did not utter a word for half an hour. (28)

Beautifully done.

Thanks for reading.

McCullough, David. 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.