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The burning of Columbia, South Carolina-report of the Committee of citizens appointed to collect testimony.

By J. P. Carrol, Chairman.
[We have already published most conclusive proofs that General Sherman was responsible for the burning of Columbia; but the following report of the committee of citizens who thoroughly investigated the question, soon after the cruel destruction of their beautiful city, should go on the record as conclusively fixing the. responsibility for that act of vandalism.]

The committee who were charged with the duty of collecting the evidence in relation to the destruction of Columbia by fire, on the 17th of February, 1865, submit the following report: By the terms of the resolution appointing them the committee do not feel authorized to deduce any conclusion or pronounce any judgment, however warranted by the proof, as to the person responsible for the crime. Their task will be accomplished by presenting the evidence that has been obtained with an abstract of the facts established by it. More than sixty depositions and statements in writing, from as many individuals, have been placed in the hands of the committee. The array of witnesses is impressive, not merely because of their number, but for the high tone and elevated character of some of them, the unpretending and sterling probity of others, and the general intelligence and worth of all. The plain and unvarnished narrative subjoined is taken from the testimony referred to solely and exclusively, except so much as refers to certain declarations of General Sherman himself, widely circulated through the public press, and to the ravages of his army in this State after their departure from Columbia; matters of such notoriety as, in the judgment of the committee, to dispense with the necessity of formal proof. The forces of General Sherman's command while in [203] Georgia seem to have anticipated that their next march would be through South Carolina. Their temper and feeling toward our people, a witness, Mrs. L. Catherine Joyner, thus describes: “The soldiers were universal in their threats. They seemed to gloat over the distress that would result from their march through the State. I conversed with numbers of all grades belonging to the Fourteenth and Twentieth corps. Such expressions as the following were of hourly occurrence: ‘Carolina may well fear us; she brought this war on, and shall pay the penalty. You think Georgia has suffered; just wait until we get into Carolina; every man, woman and child may dread us there.’ ” Of General Sherman himself the same witness informs us that, addressing himself to a lady of his acquaintance, he said to her: “Go off the line of railroad, for I will not answer for the consequences where the army passes.”

The threats uttered in Georgia were sternly executed by the troops of General Sherman upon their entrance into this State. For eighty miles along the route of his army, through the most highly improved and cultivated region of the State, according to the testimony of intelligent and respectable witnesses, the habitations of but two white persons remained. As he advanced, the villages of Hardeeville, Grahamville, Gillisonville, McPhersonville, Barnwell, Blackville, Midway, Orangeburg and Lexington were successively devoted to the flames; indignities and outrages were perpetrated upon the persons of the inhabitants; the implements of agriculture were broken; dwellings, barns, mills and ginhouses were consumed; provisions of every description appropriated or destroyed; horses and mules carried away, and sheep, cattle and hogs were either taken for actual use or shot down and left behind. The like devastation marked the progress of the invading army from Columbia through this State to its northern frontier, and the towns of Winnsboroa, Camden and Cheraw suffered from like visitation by fire. If a single town or village or hamlet within their line of march escaped altogether the torch of the invaders, the committee have not been informed of the exception. The line of General Sherman's march, from his entering the territory of the State up to Columbia, and from Columbia to the North Carolina border, was one continuous track of fire. The devastation and ruin thus inflicted were but the execution of the policy and plan of General Sherman for the subjugation of the Confederate States. Extracts from his address at Salem, Illinois, have appeared in the public prints and thus he announces and vindicates the policy and plan [204] referred to: “We were strung out from Nashville clear down to Atlanta. Had I then gone on, stringing out our forces, what danger would there not have been of their attacking the little head of the column and crushing it? Therefore, I resolved in a moment to stop the game of guarding their cities, and to destroy their cities. We were determined to produce results, and now what were those results? To make every man, woman and child in the South feel that if they dared to rebel against the flag of their country they must die or submit.” The plan of subjugation adopted by General Sherman was fully comprehended and approved of by his army. His officers and men universally justified their acts by declaring that it was “the way to put down the rebellion by burning and destroying everything.” Before the surrender of our town the soldiers of General Sherman, officers and privates, declared that it was to be destroyed. “It was,” deposes a witness (Mrs. Rosa J. Meetze), “the common talk among them (at the village of Lexington) that Columbia was to be burned by General Sherman.” At the same place, on the 16th of February, 1865, as deposed to by another witness, Mrs. Frances T. Caughman, the general officer in command of his cavalry forces, General Kilpatrick, said, in reference to Columbia: “Sherman will lay it in ashes for them.” “It was the general impression among all the prisoners we captured,” says a Confederate officer, Colonel J. P. Austin, of the Ninth Kentucky cavalry, “that Columbia was to be destroyed.”

On the morning of the same day (February 16, 1865) some of the forces of General Sherman appeared on the western side of the Congaree river, and without a demand of surrender, or any previous notice of their purpose, began to shell the town, then filled. with women, children and aged persons, and continued to do so, at intervals, throughout the day. The Confederate forces were withdrawn and the town restored to the control of the municipal authorities on the morning of the 17th of February. Accompanied by three of the aldermen, the Mayor, between 8 and 9 o'clock A. M., proceeded in the direction of Broad river, for the purpose of surrendering the city to General Sherman. Acting in concert with the Mayor, the officer in command of the rear guard of the Confederate cavalry, General M. C. Butler, forbore from further resistance to the advance of the opposing army, and took effectual precautions against anything being done which might provoke General Sherman or his troops to acts of violence or severity toward the town or its citizens. The surrender of Columbia was made by the [205] Mayor and aldermen to the first general officer of the hostile army whom they met, and that officer promised protection to the town and its inhabitants until communication could be had with General Sherman and the terms of surrender arranged. By 11 o'clock A. M. the town was in possession of the Federal forces, the first detachment entering being the command of the officers who had received the surrender. They had scarcely marched into the town, however, before they began to break into the stores of the merchants, appropriating the contents or throwing them into the streets and destroying them. As other bodies of troops came in, the pillage grew more general, and soon the sack of the town was universal. Guards were in general sent to those of the citizens who applied for them, but in numerous instances they proved to be unable or unwilling to perform the duty assigned them. Scarcely a single household or family escaped altogether from being plundered. The streets of the town were densely filled with thousands of Federal soldiers drinking, shouting, carousing and robbing the defenceless inhabitants without reprimand or check from their officers, and this state of things continued until night. In some instances guards were refused. Papers and property of great value were in the vaults of the city banks, while the apartments above and in the rear were occupied by women and children, with their food and clothing. For a guard to protect them application was made by one of our worthiest and most respectable citizens, Edwin J. Scott, Esq., first to the general officer who had received the surrender of the town, Colonel Stone, and then to the Provost-Marshal, Major Jenkins. The response made to the applicant by the former officer, though standing idly in the crowd, was that he “had no time to attend to him,” and the answer of the latter was, “I cannot undertake to protect private property.” Between 2 and 3 o'clock P. M. General Sherman in person rode into Columbia, informed the Mayor that his letter had been received and promised protection to the town. Extraordinary license was allowed to the soldiers by General Sherman.

On the afternoon of the 17th of February, and shortly after his arrival in Columbia, the Mayor of the town, at the request of General Sherman, accompanied him on a visit to a lady of his acquaintance. While proceeding to her residence, General Sherman began to express his opinion very freely upon the subject of our institution of slavery. In the midst of his remarks he was interrupted by the sudden and near report of a musket; immediately before them, in [206] the direction they were going, they observed a group of Federal soldiers seeming to be excited, and upon approaching they saw a negro lying dead directly in their path, being shot through the heart. “General Sherman,” the Mayor, Dr. T. J. Goodwyn, narrates, “asked of the soldiers ‘how came the negro shot,’ ” and was answered that he had been guilty of great insolence to them, and that thereupon General Sherman remarked: “Stop this, boys, this is all wrong; take away the body and bury it.” “General Sherman,” continues the Mayor, “then stepped over the body of the negro and observed to this deponent that ‘in quiet times such a thing ought to be noticed, but in times like this it cannot be done.’ ” General Sherman resumed his conversation in relation to slavery and no arrest was ordered or any censure or reprimand uttered by him except as above stated. About sundown, as the Mayor deposes, General Sherman said to him: “Go home, and rest assured that your city will be as safe in my hands as if you had control of it.” He added that he was compelled to burn some of the public buildings, and in so doing did not wish to destroy one particle of private property. “This evening,” he said, “was too windy to do anything.” An esteemed clergyman, Rev. J. Toomer Porter, testifies that the same afternoon, between six and seven o'clock, General Sherman said to him: “You must know a great many ladies. Go around and tell them to go to bed quietly; they will not be disturbed any more than if my army was one hundred miles off.” He seemed oblivious of the fact that we had been pillaged and insulted the whole day. In one hour's time the city was in flames. Meanwhile the soldiers had burned that afternoon many houses in the environs of the town, including the dwelling of General Hampton and that of his sisters, formerly the residence of their father, and once the seat of genial and princely hospitality. Throughout the day, after they had marched into the town, the soldiers of General Sherman gave distinct and frequent notice to the citizens of their impending calamity, usually in the form of fierce and direct threats, but, occasionally, as if in kindly forewarning. A lady of rare worth and intelligence, and of high social position, Mrs. L. S. McCord, relates the following incident: “One of my maids brought me a paper, left, she told me, by a Yankee soldier; it was an ill-spelled but kindly warning of the horrors to come, written upon a torn sheet of my dead son's note-book, which, with private papers of every kind, now strewed my yard; it was signed by a lieutenant, but of what company and regiment I did not take note. The writer said he [207] had relatives and friends at the South, and that he felt for us; that his heart bled to think of what was threatening. ‘Ladies,’ he wrote, ‘I pity you; leave this town; go anywhere to be safer than here.’ This was written in the morning; the fires were in the evening and night.”

One of our citizens of great intelligence and respectability, William H. Orchard, was visited about 7 P. M. by a squad of some six or seven soldiers, to whose depredations he submitted with a composure which seemed to impress their leader. Of his conversation with this person the gentleman referred to testifies as follows: “On leaving the yard he called to me and said he wished to speak to me alone. He then said to me, in an undertone: ‘You seem to be a clever sort of a man, and have a large family, so I will give you some advice; if you have anything you wish to save, take care of it at once, for before morning this d — d town will be in ashes — every house in it.’ My only reply was, ‘can that be true?’ He said ‘yes, and if you do not believe me you will be the sufferer; and if you watch you will see three rockets go up soon, and if you do not take my advice you will see h — ll.’ ” Within an hour afterward three rockets were seen to ascend from a point in front of the Mayor's dwelling. But a few minutes elapsed before fires in swift succession broke out and at points so far apart that they could not have been communicated from the one to the other. At various parts of the town the soldiers, at the appearance of the rockets, declared that they were the appointed signals for a general conflagration. The fire companies, with their engines, promptly repaired to the scene of the fires and endeavored to arrest them, but in vain. The soldiers of General Sherman, with bayonets and axes, pierced and cut the hose, disabled the engines, and prevented the citizens from extinguishing the flames. The wind was high and blew from the west. The fires spread and advanced with fearful rapidity and soon enveloped the very heart of the town. The pillage, which had begun upon the entrance of the hostile forces, continued without cessation or abatement, and now the town was delivered over to the accumulated horrors of sack and conflagration. The inhabitants were subjected to personal indignities and outrages. A witness, Captain W. B. Stanley, testified that several times during the night he “saw the soldiers of General Sherman take from females bundles of clothing and provisions, open them, appropriate what they wanted, and throw the remainder into the flames.” Men were violently seized and threatened with the halter or pistol to compel [208] them to disclose where their gold or silver was concealed. The revered and beloved pastor of one of our churches, Rev. P. J. Shand, states that “in the midst and during the progress of the appalling calamity, above all other noises might be heard the demoniac and gladsome shouts of the soldiery.” Driven from his home by the flames, with the aid of a servant he was bearing off a trunk containing the communion plate of his church (his wife walking by his side), when he was surrounded by five of the soldiers, who requested him to put down the trunk and inform them of its contents, which was done. The sequel he thus narrates: “They then demanded the key, but I not having it, they proceeded in efforts to break the lock. While four of them were thus engaged the fifth seized me with his left hand by the collar and presenting a pistol to my breast with his right, he demanded of me my watch. I had it not about me, but he searched my pocket thoroughly, and then joined his comrades, who, finding it impracticable to force open the lock, took up the trunk and carried it away. These men (he added) were all perfectly sober.”

By 3 o'clock on the morning of the 18th of February, 1865, more than two-thirds of the town lay in ashes, composing the most highly improved and the entire business portion of it. Thousands of the inhabitants, including women delicately reared, young children, the aged and the sick, passed that winter night in the open air, without shelter from the bitter and piercing blast. About the hour mentioned (3 o'clock A. M.) another highly esteemed clergyman, Rev. J. Toomer Porter, personally known to General Sherman, was at the corner of a street conversing with one of his officers on horseback, when General Sherman, in citizen's attire, walked up and accosted him. The interview is thus descibed: “In the bright light of the burning city, General Sherman recognized me and remarked, ‘This is a horrible sight.’ ‘ Yes,’ I replied, ‘when you reflect that women and children are the victims.’ He said: ‘Your Governor is responsible for this.’ ‘How so?’ I replied. ‘ Who ever heard,’ he said, ‘ of an evacuated city being left a depot of liquor for an army to occupy. I found one hundred and twenty casks of whiskey in one cellar. Your Governor, being a lawyer or a judge, refused to have it destroyed, as it was private property, and now my men have got drunk and have got beyond my control and this is the result.’ Perceiving the officer on horseback, he said: ‘Captain Andrews, did I not order that this thing should be stopped?’ ‘Yes, General,’ said the Captain, ‘but the [209] first division that came in soon got as drunk as the first regiment that occupied the town.’ ‘Then sir,’ said General Sherman, ‘go and bring in the second division; I hold you personally responsible for its immediate cessation.’ The officer darted off and Sherman bade me good evening. I am sure it was not more than an hour and a half from the time that General Sherman gave his order before the city was cleared of the destroyers.” From that time until the departure of General Sherman from Columbia (with perhaps one or two exceptions) not another dwelling in it was burned by his soldiers, and during the succeeding days and nights of his occupation perfect tranquility prevailed throughout the town. The discipline of his troops was perfect, the soldiers standing in great awe of their officers.

That Columbia was burned by the soldiers of General Sherman, that the vast majority of the incendiaries were sober, that for hours they were seen with combustibles firing house after house, without any affectation of concealment, and without the slightest check from their officers, is established by proof full to repletion and wearisome from its very superfluity. After the destruction of the town, his officers and men openly approved of its burning and exulted in it. “I saw,” deposes the Mayor, “very few drunken soldiers that night; many who appeared to sympathise with our people told me that the fate and doom of Columbia had been common talk around their camp-fires ever since they left Savannah.” It was said by numbers of the soldiers that the order had been given to burn down the city. There is strong evidence that such an order was actually issued in relation to the house of General John S. Preston. The Ursuline Convent was destroyed by the fire and the proof referred to comes from a revered and honored member of that holy sisterhood (the Mother Superior) and is subjoined in her own words: “Our convent was consumed in the general conflagration of Columbia, ourselves and pupils were forced to fly, leaving provision, clothing and almost everything. We spent the night in the open air in the church-yard. On the following morning General Sherman made us a visit, expressed his regret at the burning of our convent, disclaimed the act, attributing it to the intoxication of his soldiers, and told me to choose any house in town for a convent and it should be ours. He deputed his Adjutant-General, Colonel Ewing, to act in his stead. Colonel Ewing reminded us of General Sherman's offer to give us any house in Columbia we might choose for a convent. ‘We have thought of [210] it,’ said we, ‘and of asking for General Preston's house, which is large.’ ‘That is where General Logan holds his headquarters,’ said he, ‘and orders have already been given, I know, to burn it on tomorrow morning; but if you say you will take it for a convent, I will speak to the General and the order will be countermanded.’ On the following morning, after many inquiries, we learned from the officer in charge (General Perry, I think) that his orders were to fire it unless the Sisters were in actual possession of it, but if even ‘a detachment of Sisters’ were in it, it should be spared on their account. Accordingly we took possession of it, although fires were already kindled near and the servants were carrying off the bedding and furniture, in view of the house being consigned to the flames.”

Although actual orders for the burning of the town may not have been given, the soldiers of General Sherman certainly believed that its destruction would not be displeasing to him. That such was their impression we have the authority of a personage not less distinguished than the officer of highest rank in the army of the invaders next after the Commander-in-Chief himself. The proof is beyond impeachment. It comes from the honored pastor of one of our city churches, Rev. P. J. Shand, to whom reference has already been made, and it is thus expressed in his written statement in the possession of the committee: “As well as I recollect, in November, 1865, I went in company with a friend to see General Howard at his headquarters, in Charleston, on matters of business. Before we left, the conversation turned on the destruction of Columbia. General Howard expressed his regret at the occurrence, and added the following words: ‘Though General Sherman did not order the burning of the town, yet somehow or other the men had taken up the idea that if they destroyed the capital of South Carolina it would be peculiarly gratifying to General Sherman.’ These were his words in the order in which I have set them forth. I noted them down as having great significancy, and they are as fresh in my remembrance as they were immediately after they were spoken. My friend (whose recollection accords fully with my own) and myself on our way home talked the mater over, and could not but be struck by the two following facts: First, that although General Howard said that General Sherman did not order the burning, he did not state that General Sherman gave orders that the city should not be burned. Second, that it was surprising if General Sherman was opposed to the burning that his opposition [211] should have been so disguised as to lead to the conviction on the part of his soldiery that the act, so far from incurring his disapprobation or censure, would be a source, to him, of peculiar gratification.” The cotton bales in the town had been placed in the centre of the wide streets in order to be burned to prevent their falling into the possession of the invaders. But upon General Hampton suggesting that this might endanger the town, and that as the South Carolina railroad had been destroyed, the cotton could not be removed, General Beauregard, upon this representation, directed General Hampton to issue an order that the cotton should not be burned. The proof of this fact is to be found in the written statement of General Beauregard himself. Accordingly, and in due time, the order forbidding the burning of the cotton was issued by General Hampton and communicated to the Confederate troops. The officer then acting as General Hampton's adjutant (Captain Rawlins Lowndes) speaks as follows: “Soon after General Hampton assumed command of the cavalry, which he did on the evening of the 16th of February, he told me that General Beauregard had determined not to burn the cotton, as the Yankees had destroyed the railroad, and directed me to issue an order that no cotton should be fired. This I did at once, and the same order was extended to the cavalry throughout their march through South and North Carolina.” The general officer commanding the division forming the rear guard of the Confederate cavalry (General M. C. Butler) deposes: “That he was personally present with the rear squadron of his division; that Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton withdrew simultaneously with him, with a part of this deponent's command, and that General Hampton, on the morning of the evacuation and the day previous, directed him that the cotton must not be set on fire, and this order, he adds, was communicated to the entire division and strictly observed.” A clergyman, highly esteemed at the North, as well as at the South (Rev. J. Toomer Porter),.thus testifies: “General Hampton had told me at daylight, in answer to the question whether he was going to burn the cotton: ‘No, the wind is high; it might catch something and give Sherman an excuse to burn the town.’ ” “Between 8 and 9 o'clock on the morning of the 17th of February,” deposes the Mayor, “General Hampton, while sitting on his horse, observed some cotton piled not far off, in the middle of the street. He advised me to put a guard over it, saying: ‘Some careless ones, by smoking, might set it on fire, and in doing [212] so might endanger the city.’ From that hour I saw nothing more of General Hampton until the war was over.” “Not one bale of the cotton had been fired by the Confederate troops when they withdrew from Columbia. The only thing on fire at the time of the evacuation was the depot building of the South Carolina railroad, which caught fire accidentally from the explosion of some ammunition.” This is the statement of General Beauregard himself. It is sustained by the testimony of the officer, high in rank, but higher still in character, who commanded the rear guard of the Confederate cavalry (General M. C. Butler), and is concurred in by other witnesses, comprising officers, clergymen and citizens — witnesses of such repute and in such numbers as to render the proof overwhelming.

The fire at the South Carolina railroad depot burned out without extending to any other buildings. Shortly after the first detachment of General Sherman's troops had entered the town, and while the men were seated or reclining on the cotton bales in Main street, and passing to and fro along them with lighted cigars and pipes, the row of cotton bales between Washington and Lady streets caught fire, the bales being badly packed, with the cotton protruding from them. The flames extended swiftly over the cotton, and the fire companies with their engines were called out, and by 1 o'clock P. M. the fire was effectually extinguished. While the fire companies were engaged about the cotton, an alarm was given of fire in the jail, and one of the engines being sent there the flames were soon subdued, with slight injury only to one of the cells. About five o'clock in the afternoon, as deposed to by a witness (Mrs. E. Squire), the cotton bales in Sumter street, between Washington and Lady streets, were set on fire by General Sherman's wagon train, then passing along the cotton. But the fire was soon extinguished by the efforts of the witness referred to and her family. “I saw,” says a witness (John McKenzie, Esq.), “fire-balls thrown out of the wagons against Hon. W. F. Desaussures' house, but without doing any damage.” No other fires in the town occurred until after night, when the general conflagration began. As already stated, the wind blew from the west, but the fires after night broke out first on the west of Main and Sumter streets, and to windward of where the cotton bales were placed. “The cotton,” it is testified and proved (Ed. J. Scott, Esq.), “instead of burning the houses, was burned by them.”

General Sherman, as has been shown, on the night of the 17th [213] of February, and while the town was in flames, ascribed the burning of Columbia to the intoxication of his soldiers and to no other cause. On the following day, the 18th of February, the lady to whom reference was previously made (Mrs. L. S. McCord), at the request of a friend having undertaken to present a paper to General Howard, sought an interview with that officer--second in command of the invading army — and found General Sherman with him. The narrative of a part of the interview is as follows: “I handed him the paper, which he glanced at, and then, in a somewhat subdued voice, but standing so near General Sherman that I think it impossible that the latter could help hearing him, he said: ‘You may rest satisfied, Mrs.-----, that there will be nothing of the kind happening to-night. The truth is, our men last night got beyond our control; many of them were shot; many of them were killed; there will be no repetition of these things to-night. I assure you there will be nothing of the kind; to-night will be perfectly quiet.’ And it was quiet — peaceful as the grave — the ghost of its predecessor.” “The same day (18th of February) General Sherman,” deposes the Mayor, “sent for me. I went to see him about one o'clock. He met me very cordially, and said he regretted very much that our city was burned, and that it was my fault. I asked him how? He said in suffering ardent spirits to be left in the city after it was evacuated, saying: ‘Who could command drunken soldiers?’ There was no allusion made to General Hampton, to accident, or to cotton.”

On the succeeding day--Sunday, February 19, 1865--the Mayor and six of the citizens visited General Sherman in order to obtain food for the subsistence of the women and children until communication could be had with the country. General Sherman, upon this occasion, talked much. “In the course of his discourse,” deposes one of the gentlemen (Edwin J. Scott, Esq.), “he referred to the burning of the city, admitting that it was done by his troops, but excusing them because, as he alleged, they had been made drunk by our citizens, one of whom, a druggist, he said, had brought a pailful of spirits to them on their arrival. Again, on our leaving the room, he expressed regret that the liquor had not been destroyed before his men entered the place; but he never mentioned or allued in any way to General Hampton or the cotton, nor gave the slightest intimation that they were instrumental in the destruction of the city, At that time,” deposes the same witness, “the universal testimony of our people was that Sherman's [214] troops burned the town. Since then I have been in the habit of daily intercourse with all classes in and about Columbia, high and low, rich and poor, male and female, whites and blacks, yet I have not met with a single person who attributed the calamity to any other cause.” “If,” he adds, “a transaction that occurred in the presence of forty or fifty thousand people can be successfully falsified, then all human testimony is worthless.” As evidence of the general distress and suffering which resulted from the sack and burning of our city, and the desolation of the adjacent country, the committee refer to the fact, established by unimpeachable testimony, that for about three months daily rations, consisting generally of a pint of meal and a small allowance of poor beef for each person, were dealt out at Columbia to upwards of eight thousand destitute people.

The committee have designed by the preceding summary of the more prominent events and incidents connected with the destruction of Columbia to present only an absract of the numerous depositions and proofs in their possession. The proprieties imposed upon them by the very nature of the duties to which they have been assigned have precluded their doing more. In the evidence thus collected may be read in all its pathetic and heart-rending details the story of the tragic fate that has befallen our once beautiful city. Impressed with the historic value of the proof referred to, and their importance to the cause of truth, and with a view to their preservation, the committee respectfully recommend that they be committed to the guardianship of the municipal authorities and be deposited with the archives of the town, trusting that, in after and better times, they will yet be found effectual as well to vindicate the innocent as to confound the guilty.

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