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Chapter 13: General E. V. Sumner and my first reconnoissance

The first time that General E. V. Sumner's name made any considerable impression upon me was in connection with our new President's quick and secret journey from Harrisburg to Washington just before his first inauguration. There was for the time great excitement on the subject. Mr. Lincoln had left his home in Illinois on February 11, 1861. He experienced nothing harmful-only an ovation all the way. The people at halting places thronged to see him and insisted on speeches from him. He passed from Philadelphia to Harrisburg on February 23d, and addressed the Legislature there assembled. Being weary after his continued receptions, speeches, and excitement, he went to the Jones house and retired to his apartments for needed rest. It was given out publicly that he would not leave Harrisburg till the next morning, but Mr. W. F. Seward, son of William H. Seward, suddenly arrived from Washington and promptly conveyed to Mr. Lincoln the startling information from Senator Seward and General Scott, that he was to be assassinated in Baltimore while en route to Washington. The story, which from subsequent testimony, positive and direct, was fully substantiated, was at the time hardly credited by Mr. Lincoln himself, yet there appeared to most of his advisers who were present [181] such imminent danger and such vast interests at stake that his friends became importunate, urging him to start at once so as to pass through Baltimore many hours before the advertised time. He took this course, but with evident reluctance.

At that time Colonel E. V. Sumner and Major David Hunter were among Mr. Lincoln's many reliable friends — a sort of voluntary escort. Sumner protested. He was vehement.. “What the President elect of the United States make a secret and strategic approach to his own capital? Shall he skulk in such a manner as that proposed? No Let an army, with artillery to sound his salvos, escort him publicly through the rebel throng” This incident indicates the indomitable spirit of Sumner, always exhibited from the time of his entry into the United States service as a lieutenant at twenty-three years of age in 1819, till his death at Syracuse, N. Y., in 1863. The old army was replete with anecdotes illustrating his individuality. He was remarkable for two military virtues: an exact obedience to orders and a rigid enforcement of discipline. If two methods were presented, one direct and the other indirect, he always chose the direct; if two courses opened, the one doubtful and leading to safety, the other dangerous and heroic, he was sure to choose the heroic at whatever cost. Joseph E. Johnston when a subordinate was once under Sumner's command. Johnston, with other officers, was required to attend reveille every morning. On one occasion he had some slight indisposition which the early rising aggravated, so he asked Surgeon Cuyler to excuse him from that exercise. Sumner interposed at once: “Ie must then go wholly on the sick report.” Once again, at a frontier garrison which Sumner commanded, [182] he himself had a severe attack of indigestion, caused from drinking some alkaline water that he could not avoid. He was much weakened, and the officers, sure of what students would call “an absence” at the next reveille, congratulated each other upon the anticipated rest to be had without discovery and punishment. But lo I Sumner next morning was in his place, the first man on the ground!

At the time of Colonel Sumner's early intimacy with President Lincoln, he was colonel of the First regular cavalry. He had gained distinction in the Mexican War and had obtained therefore the reward of two brevets. He had, however, been obliged before the war for the Union to play a part in Kansas not to his liking: for his orders had required him to disperse the free-state legislature. Still, whatever were his private sympathies or political sentiments, he did not hesitate to obey. It was then a compensative satisfaction to be sent under the new administration with which he was in accord to command the Department of California. General Twiggs's defection and dismissal gave Sumner a brigadiership. His California work was made remarkable by his rallying the Union element and frightening disunionists. Prominent secessionists he caused to be arrested; and some to be apprehended outside of California while they were en route via Panama toward the Gulf States. Such was. the war-worn, loyal Sumner who arrived in Washington the last of November, 1861. McClellan immediately assigned him to duty, expecting just then some active campaigning. Sumner was to choose his division from the provisional forces. He naturally advised with Casey, the commander of all the provisional organizations. It was my good fortune to have won General [183] Casey's favorable opinion. He commended me for industry and energy. Those were the qualities for Sumner: he selected my brigade, French's, and later that of Thomas Francis Meagher.

I was delighted at the change, for I did not like the rear, however important the work might be, and none probably was more important than the preparing of regiment after regiment for service. One cannot always fathom or reveal his motives, but I know that I was eager for the advance and greatly enjoyed the prospect of serving under the redoubtable Sumner. I was ordered to report in writing to my new division commander. This I did. Sumner's first order to me was characteristic. He looked over the large map which embodied the position of the Army of the Potomac from Harper's Ferry to Aquia Creek, and stretched forward to take in the supposed position of the entire Confederate army in our front. He saw a place called Springfield out a few miles in front of Alexandria, on the Orange and Alexandria railroad. That being on the portion of the front he was to occupy, he at once sent my brigade there. This was too bold an order for our then defensive methods. It might stir up a hornet's nest. But feeling the exhilaration of a new enterprise, I pushed out promptly to comply with my instructions. I had reached the place --a mere railway station with no houses near-with two regiments and was quietly waiting for the other two of the brigade and for the baggage train, when Lieutenant Sam S. Sumner, a son and aid of the general, rode up in apparent haste and said: “The general made a mistake; it is not intended by his orders that we should push out so far.” Empty cars quickly appeared to take us back to Alexandria. Sumner had [184] halted my wagon train there and caused it to wait while the remainder of my brigade encamped on the Leesburg Turnpike. On our arrival I housed for the night the men with me in the sheds and engine houses of the Alexandria railway depot. Sumner was in some house outside of the city. It was already evening. Taking two colonels with me, I made my way to the old city hotel. After supper I set out with one of them in the darkness and rainstorm to find General Sumner. We had hired a single team, but the horse was so broken down that he could scarcely walk. He soon ran into a post and fell, breaking his harness and rolling the carriage, the colonel, and myself into the mud!

Our search after several trials being unsuccessful, we postponed further effort till daylight, then we found the general at a farmhouse far out on the Leesburg Pike. This was my first meeting with the veteran commander. He had on a dark-blue blouse and lightblue uniform trousers and wore a rough flannel shirt. Shoulder straps with the star on each shoulder marked his rank of brigadier general, while a bright cravat beneath his rolling shirt collar relieved the monotony of his dress.

As he stood there before me, a tall, spare, muscular frame, I beheld a firm, dignified man; but his eye was so kindly and his smile so attractive that all embarrassment between us was banished at the first interview. After breakfast the general took me with him to select a proper position for his division. My brigade, the First, as I was the ranking brigade commander, was placed on the right north of the Pike, French's on the south, and Meagher's back toward the city. My camp was on Mr. Richards's farm. A charming grove of trees was behind the brigade, to the south of which [185] were established my headquarters. The land had a light soil, was rolling, and easily drained. Back of us, farther off in plain sight, on a height was the wellknown Fairfax Seminary.

Sumner, in honor of the Pacific Department which he had so recently left, called his new field home and environment “Camp California.” More than ten thousand souls there formed a city and spent three months encamped in military order. French's was slightly in echelon with my brigade and arranged back and south of a house of Mr. Watkins, while Sumner himself occupied a Sibley tent near the house. Meagher's men were held some distance to the rear and opposite the center. Sumner had also near at hand the Eighth Illinois Cavalry and a six-gun battery of light artillery. We habitually kept one infantry regiment and a small detachment of cavalry on picket duty as far forward as Edsall's Hill, and kept the remainder at drill. Who of my brigade does not recall those lively trials over the sand knolls, too often through snow and mud, those skirmishes and passing the defiles so remorselessly repeated!

Mr. Richards, the householder, lived about two hundred yards in front of our right. He was afflicted with asthma — a trouble that usually increased under provocation. He would wheeze, laugh, cry, and stammer, as he good-naturedly tried to describe to me the work of the New Iampshire axmen while cutting down his beautiful and extensive grove. It was not long before his entire wood had been felled and carried off to block up and underpin the canvas tents or to be stored up somewhere for fuel.

“ Why, general, ha ha!” he wheezed, “the trees just lie down, ha ha ha as Colonel Cross's folks look [186] at 'em ” And, indeed, those New Hampshire men were expert woodmen.

Notwithstanding the burden of war there was much that was pleasant in our camp that winter. Friends visited friends; the Germans had their holidays and rifle shootings; the Irish brigade their hurdle races and their lively hospitalities. An enormous mail went out and came in daily. But there was a sad side. At times our hospitals were crowded with patients, because measles followed by typhoid fever, in virulence like the plagues of Egypt, ran through all McClellan's army and decimated our regiments.

Off and on for information we probed the spaces between our own and the enemy's lines, sometimes to catch spies and those who harbored them, and sometimes daringly to gather forage and provisions, but, indeed, we wished to be doing something in the line of enterprise as a preparation for the active work to which we all looked forward expectantly for the spring. Our bold, strict, straightforward, hospitable division general and his son and aid, Lieutenant S. S. Sumner, who combined his father's frankness, bravery, and impulse, and his mother's social amenities, with the gifted and genial adjutant general, Major J. H. Taylor, and Lieutenant Lawrence Kip, an aid well practiced in the ways of polite society, always welcomed us to headquarters, pleasant to visit and worthy to imitate.

General W. H. French, who commanded the next brigade, the Second, was a man advanced in years, who had graduated at West Point seventeen years before me. He had a mind of unusual quickness, well replenished by a long experience in his profession. French somehow was able to take more men into action and [187] have less stragglers than any of his parallel commanders.

Among our colonels were Zook, who was killed at Gettysburg; Brooke, who, steadily advancing, attained the rank of major general in the regular army; Barlow, of the Sixty-first New York, who, by wounds received in several engagements went again and again to death's door but lived through a most distinguished career of work and promotion to exercise eminent civil functions after the war, and Miller, who fell in our first great battle.

My brother, Lieutenant C. H. Howard, and Lieutenant Nelson A. Miles were then my aids. Sumner, noticing his conduct in action, used to say of Miles: “That officer will get promoted or get killed.” F. D. Sewall, for many months my industrious adjutant general, took the colonelcy of the Nineteenth Maine, and my able judge advocate, E. Whittlesey, at last accepted the colonelcy of another regiment. The acting brigade commissary, George W. Balloch, then a lieutenant in the Fifth New Hampshire, adhered to his staff department and was a colonel and chief commissary of a corps before the conflict ended.

To comprehend McClellan's responsibility and action after he came to Washington, we must call to mind the fact that he did not simply command the Army of the Potomac, which he had succeeded in organizing out of the chaos and confusion of the Bull Run panic, but till March 11, 1862, he had his eye upon the whole field of operations and was endeavoring to direct all our armies which were face to face with the insurgents. It never appeared fair to McClellan to bind him by stringent orders and then at last demand that he follow a changing public sentiment. It is like removing [188] by fire process the temper from steel and then expecting from it the old elasticity.

In a letter dated November 7, 1861, McClellan indicates the will of the Executive at that time: “I know that I express the feelings and opinions of the President when I say that we are fighting only to preserve the integrity of the Union and the constitutional authority of the general Government.”

We perceive at once from the following note to Buell the inference which came to McClellan from the President's known attitude — an inference doubtless strengthened by his own conservative feelings and convictions: “The military problem would be a simple one if it could be separated from political influences. Such is not the case. Were the population among which you are to operate wholly or generally hostile, it is probable that Nashville would be your first and principal objective point. It so happens that a large majority of the people of Eastern Tennessee are in favor of the Union.” For this reason Buell was made to stand on the defensive all along the line toward Nashville, and directed to throw the mass of his forces into Eastern Tennessee by way of Walker's and Cumberland gaps, if possible reaching Knoxville. This was to enable the loyal to rise, a thing Mr. Lincoln greatly desired, and to break up all rail communications between Eastern Virginia and the Mississippi.

Another letter of November 12th reveals McClellan's purpose more clearly. “As far as military necessity will permit, religiously respect the constitutional rights of all. ... Be careful so to treat the unarmed inhabitants as to contract, not widen, the breach existing between us and the rebels. It should be our constant aim to make it apparent to all that their property, [189] their comfort, and their personal safety will be best preserved by adhering to the cause of the Union.” Remember that that word “property” in McClellan's mind was meant to include the slaves.

Similar instructions went from him to Halleck~ in Missouri, who was further ordered to mass his troops on or near the Mississippi, “prepared for such ulterior operations” as the public interests might demand.

General T. W. Sherman with a detachment was at the same time dispatched against Savannah and the coast below. The original plan was: to gain Fort Sumter and hold Charleston. But for a time that plan was postponed.

After New Orleans and its approaches had been secured by Butler, McClellan contemplated a combined army and navy attack on Mobile. His idea of “essential approaches” to New Orleans embraced Baton Rouge, La., and Jackson, Miss.

Burnside received his instructions to first attack Roanoke Island, its defenses and adjacent coast points.

These positive instructions given by McClellan and to a reasonable extent carried out, during the spring of 1862, show his activity of mind and good broad planning. The protection of the possessions of the disloyal, especially of the slave property, was doubtless an unwise insistence, but it originated in the great heart of Mr. Lincoln, who hoped almost against hope to win the secessionists back without going to dire extremities, and earnestly desired to please all Union slaveholders. McClellan was simply the soldier front of this view, a conscientious exponent of the policy.

I had reason to remember Burnside's going forth, for he was permitted to take with his other troops to North Carolina my Fourth Rhode Island Regiment. [190] On January 3d Colonel Isaac P. Rodman came to my tent at one o'clock in the morning, showing a dispatch which directed him to report immediately at Annapolis. He was an excellent officer and a great gain to Burnside. He died from wounds received in the battle of Antietam. The Fourth Rhode Island had as chaplain an Episcopal clergyman, Rev. E. B. Flanders, much esteemed in our brigade. He was as efficient in the field as he had been in his home parish. I find an old letter in which my aid writes that I scarcely slept the night after I received that order. This was foolish, indeed, but it indicates how much I was attached to that regiment. One good soldier, Private McDonald, being on detail as my orderly, remained with me till his death in Georgia during the campaign of 1864. When the news of Burnside's attack reached us from Roanoke and thirty-five men were reported killed, I was as anxious as a father to hear of the safety of those who had gone out from my command.

On January 4th, taking an aid with me, I hastened, as was then the custom when things went wrong, to Washington for redress. I found the venerable General Casey sitting in full uniform at the head of a court-martial. His uniform looked very bright and clean to me coming from camp.

Moving a chair close to General Casey I appealed to him to get me another regiment and one as well drilled as possible. After listening to my whispered argument he said: “Oh, I will give you a good selection. You had better take the Sixty-fourth New York --Colonel Parker.” So very soon the Sixty-fourth New York came to fill the vacancy left by the Fourth Rhode Island.

At that time General Sumner was in Washington. [191] Just before this visit he had met with a serious accident and had gone to Washington, where he could receive better nursing than was possible in camp. Sumner was riding one day and crossing some fields not far from headquarters, when his horse stepped into a blind post hole and fell, throwing the general forward to the ground. Injury was done to his shoulder and lungs. He remounted his horse and rode back to camp with difficulty; lame and suffering as he was he sat up in his saddle, as was his custom. When he neared the camp he crossed the sentinel's post and the sentinel saluted. He not only became erect in his posture regardless of the pain, but carefully and politely returned the soldier's courtesy. God preserve to our people the remembrance of such a man I

I found the general in Washington convalescing, and he welcomed the messages of sympathy from his division. I was anxious for his return and coveted the anticipated advantages to be derived from his long and varied experience, always remembering his pronounced loyalty, ardent patriotism, and prompt action.

We have seen that military operations were influenced very much in the interest of slavery by purely political considerations. Plans were modified by the endeavor not so much to conquer an enemy under arms, as to restore the Union or preserve the Union wherever slaveholders existed and showed themselves loyal to the United States. Conquer the insurgents, of course, but hurt those behind them as little as possible I Save them from themselves and save the country!

Certainly the problem presented could not be thus solved, because the Confederates themselves were otherwise determined. Neither in the political nor [192] military arena did they so show themselves to us. They were too heated to consider or comprehend such high principles of action. They said everywhere where the echo of their voices could reach: “Come on, we defy you! We are in earnest. We mean war! We have struck for independence!”

Their leaders were too ardent, too determined, too well prepared in plan and purpose to accept any sort of compromise. They had no patience whatever with the Unionists and half Unionists among themselves. And, indeed, we ought from every military conception to have accepted this gage of combat as much as possible, as did Grant, Sherman, Thomas, and Sheridan at later dates. But we must remember that in January, 1862, the country had not yet so decided, and our Eastern forces were far behind the Western in the wish to free the slaves. It is for this reason that so many veteran soldiers, and among them those who were even then loyal to humanity, maintained that McClellan was doing his simple duty and could not be censured for the politico-military course which he at that time was obliged to pursue.

In order to prevent the ever-present hostile espionage from probing and revealing his plan, McClellan carefully guarded his lips. None of us could guess just what our army would attempt. But Johnston, our enemy at Centreville, Va., was shrewder than those who came in daily contact with our young chief. The sudden movement of Hooker's division down the east bank of the Potomac to a point opposite Dumfries, ostensibly to prevent hostile agents from passing back and forth with news and goods, was by him correctly interpreted.

He justly reasoned: once behind the Rappahannock [193] the Confederate army will be in place to meet either of the five possible moves of McClellan: 1st, the direct by the Orange and Alexandria Railway; 2d, the one via Aquia Creek and Fredericksburg; 3d, that via Urbana, McClellan's favorite project; 4th, via the Virginia Peninsula, and 5th, to ascend the south bank of the James. At Centreville he was only in position to meet the first or second. That move of a division to a point opposite Dumfries meant the Urbana route for McClellan and so no time was to be lost, because Johnston knew that our preparations in the way of transports were already far advanced. Johnston commenced his rearward movement the day before the publication, not of McClellan's Urbana design, but of the orders for more preliminary work which for the safety of Washington was insisted on by the Administration. To satisfy, if possible, the impatience of the people and doubtless excited himself by so many delays, Abraham Lincoln ordered on March 8th: “That the Army and Navy cooperate in an immediate effort to capture the enemy's batteries on the Potomac between Washington and the Chesapeake Bay.” This, too, Jolmston seems to have anticipated. His abandonment of Centreville was completed by the close of the 9th and his action in this was known on my front that same day. Disagreements now began to set in between the President, a large party faction urging him, and McClellan, in which several general officers took sides and bore a part. As a result of many councils, not McClellan's favorite Urbana project, but his second choice, the peninsular plan, was after a time chosen for the Army of the Potomac and very soon thereafter McClellan's command was reduced to that army. Probably the President thought that to be quite [194] enough now that McClellan was to take the field and be constantly away from the capital.

General Sumner had sufficiently recovered from his hurt to admit of his riding, and he had come back to his division, but he left his Sibley tent to sleep for a time in Mr. Watkins's house. The evening of March 3d I was writing a home letter when I received a note from Sumner asking me as soon as convenient to come over to his quarters. I hastened to the interview, which resulted in my taking three regiments the next day to protect the bridge builders at Accotink Run, six miles ahead, on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. I went as far as Fairfax Station, driving the Confederate pickets before me. That movement on March 4th and the bridge building, which did not deceive Johnston nor arrest his preparations for leaving Centreville, but rather quickened them, set the ball in motion. A brigade, E. Kirby Smith's, stationed at Fairfax and vicinity, retired as I advanced and soon after joined the main Confederate army at Manassas Junction.

The news, a few days later, came: “Centreville is evacuated.” It startled and disappointed everybody at Washington. The peninsular plan now quickly came to the front. Quartermasters, commissaries, naval officers, commanders of steamers and army sutlers were stimulated and warmed into busy life. Everybody, great and small, had some mysterious and unusual thing to do. At last for a brief time fretting ceased, for there was a definiteness of purpose; there was activity; there was motion. The army so long “quiet on the Potomac” was going somewhere and was promising to do something, and, indeed, all parties except the grumblers, the faint-hearted, and a few secession [195] wives and mothers who never could see why their husbands and sons should fight for the “Federal” Government, were far happier than they had been for six months because they were now full of hope for a victory and then a speedy return in joy. It is good for us that we cannot trump up all the consequences to the atoms we jostle and displace. Sorrow, sickness, wounds, and a harvest of death were ahead, but nobody but our farseeing President had then caught the glimpse of a fatal symptom spot. On April 9th he wrote to McClellan:

I always insisted that going down to the bay in search of a field instead of fighting at or near Manassas, was only shifting and not surmounting a difficulty; that we should find the same enemy and the same or equal intrenchments at either place.

Mr. Lincoln instinctively felt that the true objective all the time was not Richmond but Johnston's army.

After we had finished the bridge building across the Accotink we had returned to Camp California and settled back into our old ways of living, so that the news of the actual evacuation of Centreville stirred us up as it did the rest of the army. The night of March 9th, after the news came, I had lain down and slept a while, when, Sumner being again in Washington on some temporary duty, a dispatch came to me to move the whole division at six o'clock the next morning. It was already near midnight. I went at once to Sumner's headquarters at Mr. Watkins's house, called together the brigade commanders and handed them the order of march. We worked all night and set out in good trim at the appointed hour, but had hardly gained the road when Sumner returned and assumed command of his moving column. [196]

That day, March 10th, Sumner gave his men, unaccustomed to marching, a hard trial of seventeen miles. “What's seventeen miles,” he asked at evening, “for a soldier?” It had rained-poured-most of the time. I had commanded my brigade and also the advance guard. The mud was first slippery and then deep; the weather was chilly and damp, making the rests uncomfortable and the night worse, as we were without canvas shelter, yet owing to previous discipline there was none of the Bull Run straggling. Sumner's division, made up of the three brigades, and the Eighth Illinoiso Cavalry, with Clarke's and Frank's six-gun batteries of artillery, continued its march the 11th, and kept on to Manassas Junction and beyond. The Confederate cavalry leader, J. E. B. Stuart, watched our advancing forces, retiring from knoll to knoll, from grove to grove, as we pressed on. That cavalry was Johnston's rear guard, when his army was in motion southward, and became his outpost and picketing force as soon as Johnston halted. Sumner stopped his general movement at Warrenton Junction, thirteen miles south of Manassas. Now he had two divisions, because Blenker's, made up mostly of Germans, had joined him at Manassas.

In spite of McClellan's objection, Mr. Lincoln had caused him to organize his Potomac force into army corps. McClellan complied on March 13th, so that Sumner, during his first march, came into command of the Second Corps. I. B. Richardson was appointed commander of our division, John Sedgwick and Louis Blenker of the other two. The actual change of commanders was effected while we were tramping the Virginia mud, and by small fires drying sundry spots large enough to sleep on. [197]

The main body of McClellan's army, which had started up like a suddenly awakened dreamer and pushed out in pursuit of Johnston with more than twenty-five miles the start, ceased advancing and moved back to the vicinity of Alexandria, March 15th. Sumner with two of his divisions was left at Warrenton Junction till other Union troops not of the Army of the Potomac should be sent forward to relieve him. McClellan desired Sumner to make a strong reconnoissance forward as far as the Rappahannock River, and the latter gave me a detachment for that purpose made up of my brigade, some regiments from French's brigade, Hazzard's battery, and the Eighth Illinois Cavalry. I was greatly pleased that I had been selected for this expedition, and I worked a whole night to make the needed preparations.

In the morning General French told Sumner that he ran too great a risk, that my detachment by going so far from support would be captured, and surely that it was not wise to let one like me, with so little experience, go with raw troops so far away from the corps as the Rappahannock. Sumner called me in and said that he feared to let me make the reconnoissance. Instantly I begged him to try me. I showed my night work, my preparation, and my safe plan, and said: “General, you will never regret having trusted me.”

Suddenly, with that fierce determination which we always saw him have in battle, he said: “Gol go l” And I am sure I let no moments waste in setting off. All day, March 29th, covered with a good infantry skirmish line, and scouting broadly with our cavalry, I marched my regiment steadily forward by these means and by the occasional use of the battery from [198] hill to hill driving my old friend's (Stuart's) forces beyond the Rappahannock.

My personal friend, Captain George W. Hazzard, commanding the battery, greatly aided in accomplishing the purposes of the expedition. For a while Hazzard had been the colonel of an Indiana regiment, but he left it alleging that the tender-hearted Indiana mothers had banished him because of the hardness of his discipline. It inspired our men greatly to see with what lightning rapidity his six guns flew into action and fired under his quick, confident commands.

After the work of the day had been done and we saw the smoking Rappahannock Bridge, I went into camp with great care, facing different ways upon the top of a thickly wooded height. I was told that the venturesome Stuart during the night came over the river and made a personal examination, and that he afterwards said Howard had taken such a position and so posted his troops that he decided not to attack him. On my return Sumner met me with the gladness of a father.

As the Maryland “political campaign” had gained me General Casey's confidence, so this reconnoissance and successful skirmishing for nine miles, small affair though it was, had gained for me the hearty good will of General Sumner.

By trying to do thoroughly the lesser things intrusted to me, I find they have proved stepping-stones to something more important.

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