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Chapter 2: early army-life.

Little of general interest remains, either in documentary form or in the memories of men, respecting the early years of Albert Sidney Johnston's army-life. He passed the furlough granted after graduation in Kentucky with his father. The following incident of this visit is related in a letter from a friend, some five years General Johnston's junior, and still living in Kentucky, highly respected:

Our intercourse was always pleasant, and to me instructive and highly valued and sought after. At that time the social life of young men in Kentucky, more I think than at present, was stained with the vice of gaming, which threw them into associations at other times unwillingly acknowledged. I did not escape. Your father on one occasion, as I was quitting one of the dens, at that day open at all hours, joined me, and, proposing a walk, introduced the subject of games and gaming, not as a mentor or moral lecturer — for against such a one I might have rebelled-but with many anecdotes of his early friends, [15] whose lives had been marred, and in some instances disgraced, by the habit. He turned to me: “Come, my friend, I wish to teach you a game more intellectual than whist or any game of cards. It needs no betting to make it interesting; and, indeed, the interest would be spoiled by a bet.” With that, we went to his room at your grandfather's, and, for the first time, he introduced me to the chess-board, and taught me the game. I shall never forget the patience with which he, an accomplished player, instructed me in the moves and principles of the game; and frequently in after-life I have felt that nothing but a desire to save and reform me, which to a great extent was effectual, could have prompted his action.

This kind of personal effort for the good of others is commonly given more grudgingly than advice, or even than money; but it does more good than either, because it evinces sympathy, and not merely benevolence.

In explaining to the writer that he had divested himself of all claim to some land in which he was supposed to be interested, General Johnston wrote, December 20, 1858:

My grandfather, Edward Harris, gave to my brother, J. H. Johnston, my sisters, and myself, 640 acres of land in Ohio. When I came of age I gave to Mr. Byers my interest in this land, and whatever else I inherited from my father, being a share in a small farm, a few negroes, and a homestead of small value. It was not much, but, whatever it was, I gave it all for the benefit of my sisters.

My recollection is, that my father told me that his brothers united in this action.

During the fall of 1826 Lieutenant Johnston accepted an invitation from his brother, then in the United States Senate, to visit him at Washington City. Senator Johnston at that time occupied an enviable position, socially and politically, at the seat of government. As the trusted friend of Mr. Clay, then Secretary of State, he gave an independent support to President Adams's Administration; while he enjoyed, nevertheless, very cordial relations with the best people of all parties. Mrs. Johnston was a person of great vivacity and amiability, and her grace of manner and social tact made their house one of the most attractive at the capital. In a letter written to Lieutenant Johnston that winter she says:

Our street is filled with members and their families, and we are all gay. Our house has already the name of “The neutral ground,” where all parties meet, and must, of course, be polite to each other. Parties innumerable, weddings, and grand dinners, fill up all the evening; visits and visitors, all the morning.

In this brilliant and polished society, in which moved Clay and Calhoun, Webster, Benton, Everett, and Scott, Lieutenant Johnston had his first experience of the great world; but it made slight impression on a soul bent upon martial enterprise, and impatient for strenuous [16] action. Mrs. Johnston exerted herself to make his stay agreeable, and he shared in all the pleasures of the cultivated society in which she was an acknowledged leader.

The following popular piece of verse, written in her honor by the Hon. Warren R. Davis, of South Carolina, a wit and a poet, as well as a politician, is here correctly reproduced, because it has been the subject of considerable literary controversy:

A famous old song: air-
Roy's wife of Aldivalloch.

Johnston's wife of Louisiana!
Johnston's wife of Louisiana!
The fairest flower that ever bloomed
In Southern sun or gay savanna;
The Inca's blood flows in her veins,
The Inca's soul her bright eyes lighten;
Child of the Sun, like him she reigns
To cheer our hopes, and sorrows brighten.
Johnston's wife of Louisiana!
Johnston's wife of Louisiana!
The fairest flower that ever bloomed
In Southern sun or gay savanna.

Johnston's wife of Louisiana!
Johnston's wife of Louisiana!
She hath a way to win all hearts,
And bow them to the shrine of Anna;
Her mind is radiant with the lore
Of ancient and of modern story;
And native wit in richer store
Bedecks her with its rainbow glory.
Johnston's wife of Louisiana!
Johnston's wife of Louisiana!
She hath a way to charm all hearts,
And bow them to the shrine of Anna.

Johnston's wife of Louisiana!
Johnston's wife of Louisiana!
The hapless bard who sings her praise
Now worships at the shrine of Anna!
'Twas such a vision, bright but brief,
In early youth his true heart rended;
Then left it, like a fallen leaf,
On life's most rugged thorn suspended.
Johnston's wife of Louisiana!
Johnston's wife of Louisiana!
The hapless bard who sings her praise
Wept tears of blood for such as Anna!


Lieutenant Johnston was a guest at the White House and at Mr. Clay's, and a favorite in the gayer circle of fashionable life, where his handsome person and winning address made him always acceptable. Mr.Johnston and Mrs. Johnston's indulgent partiality sought to make their house his permanent home, confident that, at the centre of political favor, their influence and his own merits would rapidly advance his fortunes. A way was unexpectedly opened by an offer from General Scott to make him his aide-de-camp, a proposal very flattering in itself, and opening as brilliant a career as could be desired had he possessed the temper of the courtier. The temptation of rapid promotion and graceful pleasures would have proved irresistible to many minds, and perhaps most men would have acted judiciously in accepting the friendly offer. Senator Johnston and his wife anxiously wished him to accept; the latter wrote in 1870 as follows:

I well remember my disappointment when, as a very young and handsome man, he was offered the position of aide to General Scott, and, from his own judgment, refused it, saying that, “although much gratified to have been mentioned by General Scott, he felt that the life of inactivity in a large city did not accord with his views, and that he preferred to go off to the far West, and enter at once upon the duties of his profession.” His brother did not think it right to oppose his inclination, although General Scott was our particular friend. As for myself, I fairly scolded and wept at this determination.

But nothing could deter him from his resolution to enter at once on the rugged duties of his chosen career, and to owe his advancement to meritorious service, not patronage. General Johnston always believed and regretted that his seeming indifference to an overture that was intended as a kindness, and certainly was a compliment, had prejudiced him in the good opinion of General Scott. That eminent soldier regarded him for more than a generation with a certain coolness, and opposed to his advancement the most fatal check to rising merit-official reluctance and the discountenance of the great. There was no intentional injustice, however, only this distrust and neglect; and it is creditable to General Johnston's soundness of judgment and sobriety of mind that he felt no resentment at conduct so natural, and was always able to do full justice to the military abilities of General Scott. When, in his later years, he had, through other agencies, attained an exalted position, and had, by his services, compelled the entire respect of the commander-in-chief, that respect was exhibited in a cordial and unreserved manner, and with the largest measure of official approbation, evincing that it was want of confidence, not of magnanimity, that moved General Scott. The question of Lieutenant Johnston's wisdom in declining General Scott's tender may be left to the verdict of others; but the incident illustrates both his theory of life at that time and a certain independence of spirit and unwillingness to [18] owe aught to favor, which characterized him throughout life. He certainly chose the more rugged path, in which, however, he was sustained by his self-reliance and by a contempt for mere rank and place, except as the evidences of achievement.

Lieutenant Johnston did not leave without regret the hospitable house where he had been treated with such fraternal affection. His sister-in-law kept up a correspondence with him for several years; and, although they did not meet often in after-life, he always gratefully remembered the sisterly interest she had shown toward him as a youth. He left the capital, not to visit it again for thirty years, except in passing through it rapidly on two or three journeys. In an era when office-seeking was a national vice, extending even to the army, he felt a pardonable pride in holding aloof from the source of preferment.

His formal orders to proceed to Sackett's Harbor, on Lake Ontario, are dated December 22d; but he had probably preceded them a month or more, as Mrs. Johnston, writing to him at that point on the 26th, says:

We are pleased to hear that you like your situation, and are determined to spend your time usefully and agreeably. “And adds:” I heard General Brown speak of you in high terms to a young military gentleman last night.

From a letter of his friend Polk's it appears that his chief employment at the little frontier post was “in books ;” but what he read and what he did there are things forgotten.

But a single incident is preserved of General Johnston's winter at Sackett's Harbor. This he sometimes cited as an illustration of the recklessness of youth. He was engaged with some fellow-officers in artillery-practice on the ice of Lake Ontario, when a wild party of sleighers kept dashing across the line of fire, near the target. Meaning to rebuke this bravado with a good scare, he waited for the rush of their Canadian ponies near his target, and then fired. He succeeded so well that, for an instant, the whole party was enveloped in snow and splintered ice, and seemed to be blotted out. A moment after they emerged from the frosty spray with wild yells and affrighted gestures, and returned no more. He felt during the instant of suspense that murder had been done, and the relief of the revelers at their escape was not greater than his own. He accepted the adventure, however, as a lesson in something more than artillery-practice.

The President, John Quincy Adams, signed his commission April 4, 1827, as second-lieutenant of the Sixth Regiment of Infantry, to take date from July 1, 1826. “The Sixth,” commanded by brevet Brigadier-General Henry Atkinson, was then esteemed the “crack” regiment; so that at once he proceeded rejoicing to its headquarters at Jefferson Barracks, where he arrived on the 1st of June. [19]

This post, famous in the traditions and cherished in the affections of the old Army, was his home for the next six or seven years. It was situated on the bank of the Mississippi, nine miles from St. Louis, then an inconsiderable but promising, town of 5,000 inhabitants. Lieutenant Johnston says, in a letter to his friend Bickley:

The position is a good one, and particularly excellent in a military point of view, because of the facility of transporting troops to any other position in the West. The celerity of the recent movement of the First and Sixth Regiments up the Mississippi and Wisconsin sufficiently attests that. . . . The site of the barracks rises gradually from the river and swells to a beautiful bluff, covered with oak and hickory trees, almost far enough apart to permit military maneuvers, and with no undergrowth to interrupt a ride on horseback in any direction.

The most notable event with which Lieutenant Johnston was connected in the year 1827 was the expedition to compel the Winnebago Indians to atone for outrages upon the white settlers. This tribe occupied the country about Lake Winnebago and along the banks of the Wisconsin River, with the Menomonees for their neighbors on the north; the Pottawattamies dwelt about the head-waters of Lake Michigan, and the Sacs and Foxes on both banks of the Mississippi in Northern Illinois, Southern Wisconsin, and Iowa. On the 24th of June the Winnebagoes had suddenly put to death some white people; and seemed disposed to break out into open war, in which also they endeavored to enlist the Pottawattamies. As the Winnebagoes numbered some 600 or 700 warriors, were physically large, well formed, and strong, and were the most indomitable and irreclaimable savages on that frontier, great apprehensions were felt of a cruel warfare. They refused to negotiate with General Cass, who thereupon turned the matter over to General Atkinson. The expedition left Prairie du Chien on the 29th of August, and returned to Jefferson Barracks September 27th. The letter to Bickley, already quoted, describing the movement of troops to preserve peace on the Northwestern frontier, continues as follows:

The detachment of the Sixth Regiment which left this place was accompanied by two companies of the Fifth Regiment from St. Peter's, up the Wisconsin River as far as the portage, where it was met by a detachment of the Second Regiment from Green Bay, under the command of Major Whistler. The Winnebagoes, in council, agreed to deliver up the leading men in the several outrages committed against the whites. Accordingly, Red Bird, Le Soleil, and two others, the son and brother-in-law of Red Bird, were given up, there; and two more, afterward, at Prairie du Ohien, belonging to the Prairie La Crosse band. They bound themselves to hold a council in the spring for the determination of the boundary-line; and to permit the miners of Fever River to proceed peaceably in their “diggings,” till the true boundary was determined.

Although, after seeing the Sacs and Foxes, Menomonees, Sioux, etc., my romantic ideas of the Indian character had vanished, I must confess that I consider [20] Red Bird one of the noblest and most dignified men I ever saw. When he gave himself up, he was dressed, after the manner of the Sioux of the Missouri, in a perfectly white hunting-shirt of deer-skin, and leggins and moccasins of the same, with an elegant head-dress of birds' feathers; he held a white flag in his right hand, and a beautifully-ornamented pipe in the other. He said: “I have offended. I sacrifice myself to save my country,” etc. He displayed that stoic indifference which is wrongfully attributed to the Indian character alone. I'll stop. I am not going to write a whole letter about a rascally Indian.

We have been encamped here since June, but expect to get into quarters before winter sets in. I could say a great deal more, but I am almost converted into bacon, already, by the smoke from a big log-fire before my tent. I am on guard. Yours truly,

Six companies of the First, six of the Third, and the Sixth Regiment, to which I belong, are stationed here. Plenty of sport. I am in excellent health and fine spirits. Present my respects to Marshall, Taliaferro, R. and J. Taylor, Hannegan, Green, and Beattie. Yours truly,


Brown, in his “History of Illinois” (New York, 1844), says:

Red Bird died in prison. A part of those arrested were convicted, and a part acquitted. Those convicted were executed on the 26th of December, in the following year (1828). Black Hawk and Kanonekan, or the Youngest of the Thunders, and a son of Red Bird, all of whom had been charged with attacking the boats, were acquitted. Black Hawk was confined for more than a year before he could be brought to trial; and imprisonment to him was more intolererable than any punishment which could have been inflicted. . . . Black Hawk was discharged merely for want of proof, not for want of guilt. Although doubts on the subject were once entertained, there was none afterward. His confessions, which he had sense enough to withhold till after his acquittal, were conclusive.

From this time, probably, dated Black Hawk's effort to organize a league that should unite all the Western tribes from the lakes to Mexico in war against the encroaching whites.

The remains of Lieutenant Johnston's correspondence, belonging to this period, are meagre. This is due, in part, to his destruction of his papers after the death of his wife in 1835, and in part to his repugnance to mere friendly letter-writing. His relations and friends reproached him with a neglect which he deprecated, but did not amend. He shrank from the platitudes of ordinary correspondence, and professions and protestations of every kind were distasteful to him. He was a man of powerful affections; yet he believed in, and exercised, self-restraint in their expression. He had a very exalted ideal of friendship, and a great contempt for mere lip-service; and, although he was aware that there was another side to the question, yet he could never fully overcome his aversion to writing, without a special object, and unless he had something important to say. But this aversion did not extend to official or business correspondence, in which he was prompt, exact, [21] and full; and, indeed, it is doubtful whether an instance can be pointed out where he was in default in a duty of this sort.

To those who knew the grand composure, resulting from long years of self-control, which characterized the latter years of General Johnston, a little anecdote, that he used humorously to relate of the impetuosity of his hot youth, may serve to illustrate the power of will that wrought the change. During his sojourn as a bachelor at Jefferson Barracks, being fond of music, he tried to learn to play the flute. A wide difference of opinion existed between himself and his friends as to his musical aptitudes. He persevered in spite of their jests; until these, and the resulting doubts in his own mind, rendered him somewhat irritable on the score of his skill. One day, as he was practising in his room, he heard a tapping on the floor above, occupied by a fellow-officer. Instantly referring this to his music, and regarding it as an indecorum, he nevertheless continued the air; but, when it occurred again, he stopped-and the tapping stopped. Waiting a moment to restrain his rising anger, he resumed the tune, and the tapping began again. This was too much for the outraged patience of the angry musician, who, dashing down his flute, sprang up the stairs, determined to exact satisfaction. To a thundering knock at the door, a friendly voice replied, inviting him to come in; and, when he strode in, he found his neighbor, with a look of mild inquiry at his evident excitement, unsuspiciously cracking walnuts on the hearth. With a brief apology for his intrusion, he rushed down-stairs again, mortified at his own hastiness and loss of temper. He at once gave up the flute; for, said he, “I did not think that a man so sensitive about his skill was fit for a flute-player.”

In 1828 Lieutenant Johnston was selected as adjutant of the regiment by Brevet-General Henry Atkinson, the colonel commanding. Atkinson was an officer of fair military capacity and experience, of a bright and social temper, and of popular manners. General Scott, in his autobiography, calls him “an excellent man and fine soldier;” and this opinion expresses fairly the army estimate of him. His wife was a daughter of Alexander Bullitt, one of the original settlers of Louisville, Kentucky, and the eldest of a family celebrated for beauty, wit, and charm of manner. Mrs. Atkinson, aided, after the lapse of some years, by her brilliant and beautiful sisters, made Jefferson Barracks something more than a mere military post; it was a delightful and elegant home for the gay and gallant young soldiers serving here their apprenticeship in arms. There was at this period of his life no officer more highly regarded in the regiment than the adjutant. Captain Eaton says of him that, “while no man was more approachable, no one could remain unimpressed by his dignity;” and Colonel Thomas L. Alexander, who joined the regiment in 1830, says that, “possessing in [22] an extraordinary degree the confidence, esteem, and admiration of the whole regiment, he was the very beau-ideal of a soldier and an officer.” How early he began to exercise that forbearance in judging his fellowmen which afterward became so characteristic, may be seen in a letter to Eaton, written in this period:

Our friend and fellow-soldier has destroyed himself. Being entirely unprepared for such an event, you may well judge that we were greatly shocked and grieved on hearing it. Notwithstanding the manner of his death, let us mourn the loss of a chivalric companion. Let us not, in the vigor of health and intellect, reproach his memory for committing an act which the paramount control of reason alone can prevent.

Every humane and fearless nature which clearly perceives the ills of others — the afflictions of feebleness, sin, and pain — must feel tenderly toward the frailty which gives way before the temptation of a great agony. General Johnston, for himself, however, seems early to have adopted the theory that, while we are irresistibly swayed by an overruling destiny, yet it is the duty of a man manfully to oppose to adverse circumstances or fate all the resources he can command — a somewhat Promethean philosophy, but not unfruitful of mental steadfastness and, sometimes, of large results. He quoted, with approbation, the argument against suicide, attributed to Napoleon, that “suicide is never justifiable while hope remains; but that, while there is life, there is always hope.” His beliefs ripened in after-years into a profound faith in the Supreme God, his providence and his mercy.

Jefferson Barracks was near enough to St. Louis to allow the young officers to mingle freely in its gay and hospitable society, in which the influence of the old French element was still predominant. The descendants of the first settlers had preserved in their colonial isolation some of the best features of the old regime,. lost even in France itself through the Revolution. To innocent sprightliness was joined decorum, and the inherent grace and polish of the French race were united to the cordiality and generous freedom of intercourse which mark a young and prosperous community. The benefits and enjoyment of such a society were very great to the young officers, whose commissions, in that happy day of the republic, accredited them to the best society everywhere. Lieutenant Johnston, without allowing himself to fall into fashionable dissipation for which he had no taste, did not withdraw himself from the pleasures and amusements of the city, and found in St. Louis attachments which lasted all his life. The Gratiots, the Chouteaus, the Mullanphys, the O'Fallons, the Clarks, the Bentons, and other noted and estimable families, were among his chosen and remembered friends.

At a ball at Mr. Chouteau's, Lieutenant Johnston met for the first time Miss Henrietta Preston. She was the eldest child of Major William [23] Preston, a member of the Virginia family of that name, and an officer of Wayne's army, who had resigned, and settled at Louisville, Kentucky. He was remarkable for his extraordinary size and strength, and likewise for his wit. He is yet remembered by old people for these traits. He died, leaving a large family and an embarrassed estate to the care of his widow. Mrs. Caroline Hancock Preston was the daughter of Colonel George Hancock, of Fincastle, Virginia (an aide to Pulaski, a colonel in the Revolutionary War, and a member of the Fourth Congress), and belonged to a family distinguished for beauty and talents. By her ability in business and indomitable courage, she relieved the estate from its incumbrances, and successfully defended it from all the legal assaults so common in the early history of Kentucky. At the same time she gave her children the best education then to be had. Her best monument is the grateful remembrance of the poor of Louisville.

Mrs. Preston's youngest sister had married Governor William Clark, of Missouri, and her husband's niece was the wife of Thomas H. Benton. Governor William Clark was one of the foremost men of the West; a younger brother of the great George Rogers Clark, he shared his boldness and sagacity without his infirmities, and reaped the legitimate rewards of energy and intellect from which unthrift debarred the hero. He had early in life obtained great celebrity by his explorations, in conjunction with Lewis, of the sources of the Columbia River and in the Far West. He was Governor of Missouri for many years, and, as Indian agent, enjoyed justly the confidence of his Government and of the Indian tribes. With wealth, intelligence, virtue, and popular manners, he was well fitted for his place as a leader in a young republic. His first wife, Miss Julia Hancock, was a woman of eminent graces and singular beauty: after her death he married her cousin, Mrs. Radford. His descendants and collaterals are prominent citizens of St. Louis and Louisville. Thomas H. Benton belongs to history. Counted among the first, when Jackson, Webster, Calhoun, and Clay were his competitors, his name reopens a page illustrious in American annals. His wife was a daughter of Colonel James McDowell, of Rockbridge County, Virginia, and sister of the eloquent Governor of Virginia, of the same name. She was the niece and favorite kinswoman of Major Preston and spent four or five years in his house, devoting herself for the most part, as a matter of choice, to the education of his daughter Henrietta, then a little girl. As she was a woman of fine accomplishments and uncommon literary culture, as well as of a sprightly temper and vigorous intellect, she not only taught her pupil the rudiments, but advanced her well in French and other studies, and imbued her especially with a love of the best literature. Henrietta, and her sisters also, received instruction from a private tutor, Mr. [24] Quinan, a scholar versed in the classics and devoted to his occupation. After this, in the hospitable house of her aunt's husband, Colonel Nathaniel Hart, at Spring Hill, in Woodford County, Kentucky, she was well taught by Mr. Ruggles, afterward a United States Senator. As years passed, the kinswomen exchanged the relation of preceptor and pupil for that of dear friends, which was severed only by death.

In the customary interchange of hospitalities, Miss Preston was on a visit to these relations when she met Lieutenant Johnston, and the interest that she at once inspired was reciprocated. This mutual attachment was thorough and unbroken; and Lieutenant Johnston, being sent for a great part of the year 1828 on recruiting service to Louisville, Kentucky, Miss Preston's home, became engaged to her. They were married January 20, 1829. There were many points of resemblance between Albert Sidney Johnston and his wife; and a friend, who knew them both well, has told me that he never knew two people more alike in character. Another, a relation, says they were often mistaken for brother and sister. But this was true rather as to the outcome of character in similar sentiments, and the same philosophy of life, than in their original traits or acquired habits of mind. The affinity was one of sympathy in feelings and aspiration; and the usual law of attraction, based upon contrast of character and community of tastes, was reversed. As they were both persons of most loyal natures, these coincidences increased. Mrs. Johnston was above middle size-five feet six inches in height-and of agreeable person, with a full form, a brilliant color, hazel eyes, dark hair, and somewhat irregular but pleasing features. Her voice had wonderful harmony in its modulations. Her manner was full of dignity and ease, but vivacious and engaging, and her conversation has been variously characterized as piquant, graceful, and eloquent. Mrs. Johnston was a woman of firm yet gentle temper, and, as the eldest daughter of a struggling family, the confidante and counselor of her mother, had been trained to a severe self-discipline. She was eminently benevolent and forbearing. Gifted with a poetic temperament, and very fond of verse, she wrote it with facility and feeling; while her husband, rigorously schooled in a training almost exclusively mathematical, and loving unrefracted truth, jocularly called it good prose spoiled. With these traits, with high literary culture, and with strong religious impulses, she had formed a lofty ideal of the aims and duties of life; and this ideal, she thoroughly believed, was realized by her husband. She was much beloved by her family and friends, and the feeling she awoke in her husband was one of chivalric devotion. He told me that “it was impossible to have felt her influence, and afterward to cherish low views; that to her he owed the wish to be truly great.” This portraiture will show that she was a worthy helpmate for the man of whom I write. [25]

The married life of this happy couple was the simple and uneventful one of an officer's family. Their home was at Jefferson Barracks, where their plain quarters, furniture, and mode of life, are evidenced by their household accounts as well as by tradition. Some cut glass seems to have represented the splendor of their little establishment. They made occasional visits to Mrs. Johnston's mother, at Louisville, and Lieutenant Johnston, writing from that city, October 3, 1830, says, “The last two months I have spent pleasantly and quietly in the country, reading, shooting the rifle,” etc.

On January 5, 1831, his eldest son was born at Louisville, and, immediately afterward, Lieutenant Johnston was obliged to return to Jefferson Barracks. His family rejoined him in May, and remained there until the fall of 1832. In the tranquil flow of these years, he enjoyed the easy routine of a peace establishment, agreeable social intercourse, and the happiness of perfect domestic concord, unbroken except by the two dire episodes of the Black-Hawk War and the cholera plague. Suffice it to say, that these were halcyon days, when youth and hope, as well as peace, abode with them. But they were soon to be disturbed by the rude note of war, whose expectation keeps the professional soldier ever on the alert even in the profoundest calm.

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