The Wit and Wisdom Of U.S. Grant

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On foraging during the Vicksburg campaign:

After sending cavalry to drive Van Dorn away, my next order was to dispatch all the wagons we had, under proper escort, to collect and bring in all supplies of forage and food from a region of fifteen miles east and west of the road from our front back to Grand Junction, leaving two months' supplies for the families of those whose stores were taken. I was amazed at the quantity of supplies the country afforded. It showed that we could have subsisted off the country for two months instead of two weeks without going beyond the limits designated. 

This taught me a lesson which was taken advantage of later in the campaign when our army lived twenty days with the issue of only five days' rations by the commissary. Our loss of supplies was great at Holly Springs, but it was more than compensated for by those taken from the country and by the lesson taught. 

The news of the capture of Holly Springs and the destruction of our supplies caused much rejoicing among the people remaining in Oxford. They came with broad smiles on their faces, indicating intense joy, to ask what I was going to do now without anything for my soldiers to eat. I told them that I was not disturbed; that I had already sent troops and wagons to collect all the food and forage they could find for fifteen miles on each side of the road. 

Countenances soon changed, and so did the inquiry. The next was, "What are WE to do?" My response was that we had endeavored to feed ourselves from our own northern resources while visiting them; but their friends in gray had been uncivil enough to destroy what we had brought along, and it could not be expected that men, with arms in their hands, would starve in the midst of plenty. I advised them to emigrate east, or west, fifteen miles and assist in eating up what we left.

Grant is the master of the quiet dis. In this age, a lot of us are big on lambasting our opponents with a slew of derogatory adjectives and heated invective. What we don't have is the ability to convey contempt at a low volume. We know how to carpet bomb, but we are not much for the knife fight.

I include myself in that critique. My writing extends out of my love of hip-hop, and from a language perspective hip-hop is mostly interested in hyperbole. It does use understatement from time to time (Nas--"I wear chains that excite the feds.") but it's mostly about loud language. There's a lot to be learned about writing from Grant's prose. The memoir often falls into a this happened, this happened, this happened pattern which feels monotonous. But then out of nowhere he'll just unveil a dagger and let his adversaries have it.

There's some incredible writing in this book. I'm taking notes.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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