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Chapter 23: campaign of Gettysburg

Probably there was no gloomier period during our great war than the month which followed the disasters of Chancellorsville. Then I entered with fuller understanding into the meaning of “the valley of the shadow of death.” On May 26, 1863, an officer, high in rank and claiming to be a warm personal friend, wrote me with great apparent frankness and urged me to leave the Eleventh Corps. I have his letter before me, in which occur these remarkable words: “The first thing they [the men, Germans and Americans] will do when placed in position will be to look behind them, and the accidental discharge of a musket in the rear will produce another panic, another disaster, another disgrace to yourself, to the troops, to all of us,” etc.

I would not believe it; I courted another trial for the command other than that of the terrible Wilderness. I was then obliged to raise my eyes above the criticisms and well-meant advice of my companions in arms; I looked to the Great Shepherd for his care and guidance. As a result, in the end, nay, in the very campaign so soon to begin, my judgment was justified.

The feeling of the country at that time, North and South, was far from satisfactory to those patriots who had struggled the hardest and suffered the most. [379]

The three months and two years men at the end of May were going home to be mustered out, making the army of Hooker some 25,000 less than that of Lee. The raid of Stoneman had been severe upon the cavalry horses; the terms of enlistment of many cavalrymen had expired; so that, when General Pleasonton, succeeding Stoneman, assumed command, our cavalry had been depleted at least one-third.

As to the outlook for the cause itself, when was it ever worse? I remember well the feelings displayed and the opinions entertained by our military men at General Hooker's council of war just before we returned from Chancellorsville. General Sickles, then the able commander of the Third Corps, was very frank. Though our army was still so strong, much of it as yet unhurt, and though the other general officers thought it wise to give the foe another trial before retiring, he said, substantially: “No! the last election went against the administration; the copperheads are gaining in strength; the enemies of the Republic everywhere are jubilant. It will not do to risk here the loss of this army. We have gone far enough. I do not speak as a military man from a military standpointyou, gentlemen, are better fitted for that-but from my view of the political arena.” We returned, as everybody knows, to the old camps. Then came the fever to go home, the terrible newspaper abuse of us allsometimes of the officers and sometimes of the conduct of the soldiers. With it were the old animosities, envies, and jealousies, and the newly awakened ambitions. There was a constant rushing to Washington for the purpose of interviewing Halleck, Stanton, and Lincoln. The committee of Congress, sitting to look after the conduct of the war, had hosts of voluntary witnesses [380] from the army, and the foundations were then laid for unusual fame, for extraordinary reputations. It is refreshing to-day to review the batch of wise plans and critical statements which were evolved, having been made after the events which they deplore.

We could gather little hope from the splendid condition of Lee's army. It had been reorganized. Its numerous brigades were grouped into divisions and the divisions into three army corps, and cavalry. Stonewall Jackson, it is true, was no more, but the three lieutenant generals-Longstreet, A. P. Hill, and Ewell — were not wanting in ability or experience. They were trusted by Lee and believed in by the troops and people.

J. E. B. Stuart was cut out for a cavalry leader. In perfect health, but thirty-two years of age, full of vigor and enterprise, with the usual ideas imbibed in Virginia concerning State Supremacy, Christian in thought and temperate by habit, no man could ride faster, endure more hardships, make a livelier charge, or be more hearty and cheerful while so engaged. A touch of vanity, which invited the smiles and applause of the fair maidens of Virginia, but added to the zest and ardor of Stuart's parades and achievements. He commanded Lee's cavalry corps--a well-organized body, of which he was justly proud.

It took each army some time to get its artillery into practical shape. It was sometimes attached to divisions and distributed here and there as might be required, but finally, General Lee gave to his artillery a form of organization; putting together, for one battery, four guns instead of six, the usual number, he constituted a battalion of sixteen pieces. He placed fifteen such battalions under the command of Pendleton, [381] who, in his own arm, rivaled Stuart in energy and experience. Habitually, as I understand it, one artillery battalion was assigned to a division of infantry, making three to each corps. This placed six battalions in the reserve. Besides these guns there were thirty of light artillery or horse artillery attached to the cavalry. The total number of guns for Lee's service with his army in the field was then 270 pieces.

I am inclined to believe that Lee's aggregate in the outset reached the number which General Hooker gave it, by comparing several counts, viz., 80,000 men of all arms.

In the midst of our depression it was not deemed possible to cut out and cut down our reduced brigades and regiments. It might have destroyed our existing morale. And I think General Hooker, like McClellan, enjoyed maneuvering several independent bodies. At any rate, he had the awkward number of eight small corps, besides his artillery. John F. Reynolds commanded the First, Hancock the Second, Sickles the Third, Meade the Fifth, Sedgwick the Sixth, Howard the Eleventh, Slocum the Twelfth, and Pleasonton the cavalry; while Hunt had general charge of the artillery. We had then, in May, 1863, an average of about 11,000 in each infantry corps, in the neighborhood of 10,000 cavalry ready for the field and 4,000 artillery with 387 guns-making an effective force of about 102,000 of all arms. The armies thus organized stood on opposite sides of the Rappahannock.

Rumors had reached us soon after our defeat that the Confederate authorities proposed another effort to turn our flank, similar to that of the year before which ended in the battle of Antietam. General Hooker, however, seems to have had no valid evidence from his [382] scouts till about May 28th, that Lee contemplated a movement. Even then, opposite our pickets everything appeared to be in statu quo. On June 5th I rode from my headquarters, then near Brooks's Station on the Aquia Creek Railway, to Hooker's headquarters, and, returning, made a note that the day before there was cannonading near Fredericksburg — a sort of a reconnoissance in force on our part, with an attempt to lay a bridge; that some brigades of the enemy were reported moving off, but that as soon as our troops began to show signs of making a crossing their brigades reappeared. It was the very afternoon of my ride to headquarters (June 5th) that the bridges were thrown over the Rappahannock, near Franklin's crossing. There was some resistance, but only by skirmishers. The same method was pursued as at the Fredericksburg battle, and the sending over soldiers in boats served to dislodge the enemy's pickets and secure the crossing.

Early June 6th, General Howe, of the Sixth Corps, moved his division to the enemy's side and made ready to advance, but orders from Halleck were so positive not to move over to attack in that quarter that it was impossible by a simple demonstration long to deceive Lee. At first, Lee did bring back some troops, put them in readiness to withstand Howe, and sent checking orders to other of his forces which were already en route toward the west. But very soon Howe's movement was plainly seen to be but a demonstration, and, so believing, General Lee went on to carry out his purpose.

Lee's forces had for some days been in motion. Stuart with his cavalry was watching the Rappahannock, with his headquarters not far from Culpeper; [383] Longstreet's corps was concentrated there, and Ewell en route. Lee himself started, after Howe's demonstration, for the same point. Culpeper was to be to him the point of a new departure. Besides Howe's reconnoissance, General Hooker determined to make another by cavalry supported by infantry. A scouting party had been organized. General Adelbert Ames, commanding an infantry brigade, departed to proceed up the Rappahannock and attack Stuart or intercept one of his raids. Underwood's regiment (Thirty-third Massachusetts) formed part of Ames's command. His wife and little daughter had just arrived in camp. But I was obliged to choose his regiment, deeming it the best fitted for the work to be done. I wrote June 10th: “An engagement is now in progress between our cavalry and that of General Stuart,not far from Culpeper. General Ames with his brigade must be there. I do hope this affair will be a success worth the mention. I understand that Stuart was completely surprised just as he was getting ready to go on some expedition to the north of us. Particulars of the engagement have not yet come to hand. One brigade of General Sedgwick's corps (Russell's) is also with Pleasonton, who now commands our cavalry. A division of the same corps is still across the river below Fredericksburg. Our own guns cover these troops, and they can stay there in safety as long as they please. Harry Stinson, my aid-de-camp, went with General Ames.”

Stuart, having spent much time in putting his cavalry into excellent condition, had written General Lee entreating him to come and give it a review. On June 7th Lee joined him near Culpeper, when with a smile he said, as he pointed to Longstreet's corps, “Here I am with my friends, according to your invitations.” [384] The next day, in the open country, not far from Brandy Station, upon ground well fitted for the purpose, Stuart caused his whole cavalry force to pass in review before his general-in-chief. It is said that Stuart, in such presence, was not content with a simple review, but drilled his brigades and exercised them in a sham fight, freely using his light artillery.

After these exercises, Stuart placed his headquarters upon a knoll called Fleetwood Hill, situated to the north of Brandy Station, and here followed the battle of Brandy Station between Stuart and Pleasonton, where the latter developed the fact that not only was Stuart's command in the neighborhood of Culpeper, but also an entire corps, and probably more of infantry; and, further, he had the captured plan of Lee's campaign in his possession. Therefore, Pleasonton now slowly withdrew across the Rappahannock, reaching the other side before dark and sending his important report to Hooker. He had lost, in killed, wounded, and missing, about 600 men, and also two pieces of artillery. Stuart's loss was fully equal to ours. This conflict, mainly a cavalry engagement, at the beginning of the campaign, hard as it seems to have been, was of decided advantage to our cavalry, for, under good leadership, it had been able to take the offensive and hold its own against equal if not superior numbers of the well-handled and enterprising Confederates. Ever after, during the campaign, the brigades of cavalry rivaled each other in desperate charges, and in often meeting and withstanding bodies of infantry that were undertaking to turn our flanks.

It now appears that General Hooker, after obtaining the information which he had desired from Pleasonton's reconnoissance, urged upon General Halleck [385] and the President the wisdom of crossing the Rappahannock at Falmouth and striking Hill's corps with his whole force. He believed that this course would give him a successful battle, if Hill should wait for him on the Marye Heights; or, otherwise, at the worst, would force a return of Hill and a recall of all the Confederate forces intended for the invasion of Pennsylvania.

In my judgment there was at that time no possible success for our Republic except in a great victory to be gained by the Army of the Potomac; not in fighting for position, not for Richmond, but in encountering and defeating the confident Army of Northern Virginia.

What Mr. Lincoln evidently desired was that General Hooker should consider Lee's army as the objective; strike it in its weakest point; divide it and fight it in detail, if possible; but not ignore it.

Lee's movements in his northward march are not very plain to us, but just what they would be could not then be predicted. He used his lively cavalry as a curtain, supporting it by one corps; appearing here and there with it, as if moving on Washington or Baltimore, and thus drawing our whole attention to this work; while the remainder of the Confederates steadily kept on their way through Chester Gap, across the Shenandoah, down the valley of that river, and picked up our small armies which we always kept carefully separated and ready for Confederate consumption!

It was some time, and after reiteration, before I came to comprehend at West Point what our old Professor Mahan meant by “common sense.” At last I defined it, “a state of mind the result of careful observation.” There was certainly a want of this kind of common sense at the War Office in June, 1863. [386] There had already been given us several lessons in sight of the Shenandoah. Hooker was to cover Washington and Harper's Ferry, yet the troops at and beyond Harper's Ferry were not under his command.

On June 10th (the very next day after the bloody combat of Brandy Station) Stonewall Jackson's old corps, now under General Ewell, began its march from Culpeper into the Shenandoah Valley, and there defeated Milroy at Winchester.

The evening of June 17, 1863, I made this pencil note: “Goose Creek, near Leesburg.-The weather has been very hot and dry. We have marched as follows: twelve miles, nineteen, eighteen; rested two days, and then marched seventeen. I was a little feverish at Centreville, but am now quite recovered. This corps (the Eleventh) has marched in very orderly style and all my orders are obeyed with great alacrity. June 18, 1863.-Almost too hot for campaigning. I am waiting for orders. General headquarters (Hooker's) are thirty miles away just now, at Fairfax Court House. Charlie (Major C. It. Howard) is quite well, and so is Captain Stinson, aid-de-camp. Charlie has just at this time gone to General Reynolds's camp, and Captain Stinson to that of General Meade. I have a new officer on my staff-Captain Daniel Hall, additional aiddecamp, formerly John P. Hale's private secretary-a very fine young man. He has been sick and I am afraid he will not stand the fatigue.”

When in permanent camps our notes and letters were kept up with much regularity, but when the long marches began they became few and short. We first, setting out the next day after Ames's return from Brandy Station, came to Catlett's Station. General J. F. Reynolds was given a wing of the army, just then [387] the right; it consisted of the First (his own corps), the Third (Sickles's), and the Eleventh (mine). When I was at Catlett's, the First was a little west of south of me at Bealton Station, and the Third Corps, which had begun its march on June 11th, was above the Rappahannock Station and near the famous Beverly Ford. These three bodies were facing Culpeper and in echelon. Should Lee attempt a close turn of our position, we could quietly form line facing southwest, or even to the north, and become at once the nucleus for the whole army.

Hooker obtained information that Ewell's entire corps had passed Sperryville. This news came during June 12th. He then hesitated not a moment, but issued the necessary orders to place his army farther north. We marched on the 14th to occupy Manassas Junction and Centreville, while three other corps-the Second, Sixth, and Twelfth-had set out the 13th, aiming for the neighborhood of Fairfax Court House; the Fifth (Meade's), which had been nearly opposite the United States Ford, on the Rappahannock, followed us toward Manassas, to reinforce Reynolds if the occasion should arise. It was there at Centreville that he remained two days, the 15th and 16th.

On June 17th Reynolds's wing, including the Fifth Corps, was pressed still farther northward and grouped substantially about Leesburg, while General Hooker's headquarters remained near Fairfax Court House. In this way it will be noticed that our wingabout one-fifth of the army — was first grouped in echelon facing south. The next move brought it in the same order facing west. The third move carried it to the northwest and uncovered the other corps, which were looking westward from positions nearer Washington. [388] A division of cavalry under General Stahl, who had been scouting this region from Leesburg to Manassas, was released by the presence of an army and enabled to unite with Pleasonton and increase his force. Pleasonton with his cavalry had carefully watched the Rappahannock to its sources and then followed up the movements of Stuart and Longstreet, whose forces he usually kept in view at least by his scouting parties and outposts. Lee's rear corps, under A. P. Hill, left Fredericlsburg as soon as Hooker's troops disappeared from his front, June 14th, and pushed on with great rapidity across the Rapidan, through Culpeper, Chester Gap, and Front Royal into the Shenandoah Valley, keeping upon Ewell's track. His peril was over. He had quickly placed two ranges of mountains, a river, Longstreet's infantry, and Stuart's cavalry between his command and our army. Longstreet, with his large and effective army corps, was designated to march down the eastern bank of the Shenandoah River as a cover to the other troops and materiel of Lee's army, while Stuart acted as a body of flankers to Longstreet, keeping upon the ridges or in the valleys nearer still to our command. Pleasonton and Stuart often came into contact.

The two armies were then (on June 17th) pretty well concentrated and much alike-Lee, in the Shenandoah Valley, with one corps (Longstreet's), and Stuart's cavalry near the crest of the Blue Ridge; Hooker, in the valley of the Potomac, between Lee and Washington, with one corps (the Fifth), and his cavalry (Pleasonton's) on the crest of the Blue Ridge Range. Stuart and Pleasonton were crossing the east and west road, and but few miles apart.

During that day (June 18, 1863), while the greater [389] part of the army was waiting to see just what Lee would attempt next, and when the weather was so warm in the Goose Creek Valley that I considered it too hot for campaigning; while aids and orderlies were skipping from corps to corps, with great difficulty and danger to life, through a country infested by Mosby's guerrillas, in order to keep us mutually informed and properly instructed, Pleasonton and Stuart were acting like two combatants playing and fencing with small swords. Neither wished to hasten a battle. Stuart took a stand at Middleburg. Pleasonton cautiously approached, skirmished, and moved as if to turn Stuart by the left. Stuart declined the close quarters, and fell back southward. But, as if a little ashamed of backing off, the early morning of the 19th found Stuart in a good defensive attitude west of Middleburg.

Pleasonton made a vigorous attack. For eight miles there was a running fight till Stuart had concentrated his forces on the last ridge at Ashby's Gap-the pass of the Blue Ridge. Here he saw the columns of Lee slowly in motion toward the north.

My pencil note dated June 22, 1863, indicated the position of the Army of the Potomac to be: the Eleventh Corps at Goose Creek, not far from Leesburg, Va.; the Fifth, still under General Meade, somewhere near Adlie. The Second Corps had been pushed out from Centreville to Thoroughfare Gap. The remainder of the army was not far from the Eleventh Corps. General Hooker was endeavoring to get from Halleck and Stanton another fair-sized corps. It was to be a cooperating force, to move up rapidly on the eastern side of the Potomac. It could check cavalry raids like those of Jenkins, who, having preceded [390] Ewell in Pennsylvania, had gathered horses, cattle, and other supplies from Chambersburg and its neighborhood, securing them from the fleeing and terrified inhabitants. This corps should be strong enough to meet and hold back any small or sizable body of the enemy's infantry, should Lee decide to send Early, Rodes, or even Ewell across the Potomac into Cumberland Valley with a view of scattering the troops, so as to live on the country and bring together and send to him much-coveted and much-needed contributions of food for his large command. But for some reason there was at Washington a want of confidence in General Hooker. Troops which were promised for this purpose were never sent; some which had been ordered and had set out for the rendezvous were stopped by Heintzelman's or Halleck's subordinates. Schenck furnished a few — a single brigade — under Colonel Lockwood; but these were insufficient for the avowed purpose, and what was worse to Hooker than the withholding was the manner in which it was done. Hooker was, at that time, suffered to be overridden by subordinate commanders, whom, to his chagrin, his seniors in authority sustained.

On June 24th we were still at Goose Creek. The day before, my brother, the Rev. R. B. Howard, a member of the celebrated Christian Comimission. reached our camp after a ride of forty-five miles and some little exposure to “bushwhackers.” The word “bushwhackers” comprehended scouts, spies, and all partisan insurgents who were never really made part of the Confederate army. They penetrated our lines in spite of every precaution, picked off our aids and messengers on their swift journeyings from corps to corps, and circulated every sort of false story that might be made [391] use of to mislead us. In this Goose Creek region we were much annoyed by them. It was near here that Mosby with his peculiar force of guerrillas came near capturing me. In a small thicket which had grown up not far from the road a part of Mosby's men were concealed. They saw horsemen approaching, at first at a slow pace, but we outnumbered them, so their leader decided not to attack. I was glad of that decision, for I had then simply orderlies, servants, and spare horses, with but few armed soldiers.

The Confederate Corps Commander Ewell, as early as June 20th, withdrew from Winchester and marched on above Harper's Ferry. Edward Johnson's division crossed the Potomac at Sharpsburg and encamped on our old battlefield of Antietam; Rodes's division went on to Hagerstown; but Jubal Early's division was detained on the western bank of the river. This disposition of the enemy's leading corps when reported to Hooker puzzled him, as it did the War Department. What was Lee, after all, intending to do? This occasioned the singular multiplicity and sudden changes of orders. For example, on the 24th, the Eleventh Corps was first ordered to proceed to Sandy Hook, just below Harper's Ferry; next, before setting out, it was to cross the Potomac instead, at Edwards' Ferry, and report from that place to the headquarters of the army; next, to cross over there and push at once for Harper's Ferry. Soon after General Hooker directed me to go into camp on the right bank of the Potomac, and before that was fulfilled the orders were again changed to pass to the left bank of the river and guard the bridges. Surely somebody was nervous!

At last, on this same day, General Tyler, who was still the commander at Maryland Heights, gave General [392] Hooker some definite information: that Longstreet was crossing the Potomac at Shepherdstown. In a letter, which must have been sent before Tyler's dispatch came, General Hooker explains to General Halleck briefly his thoughts and plans. He says that Ewell is already over the Potomac; that he shall endeavor, without being observed by Lee, to send a corps or two to Harper's Ferry, with a view to sever Ewell from the remainder of Lee's army. This he would attempt in case Ewell should make a protracted sojourn with his Pennsylvania neighbors.

Of course, Tyler's report about Longstreet changed all this. It was now too late to cut off Ewell-too late to think of dividing Lee's army by way of Harper's Ferry. It was evident also that Lee proposed to put his whole force east of the Potomac. Washington and Baltimore would be passed, and Harrisburg menaced.

My instructions the morning of June 25th became clear and positive: “Send a staff officer to General Reynolds to report to him; move your command in the direction of Middletown instead of Sandy Hook.” Reynolds still commanded the wing, viz., the First, Third, and Eleventh Corps, and was ordered to seize the passes of South Mountain, and thus confine the Confederate general “to one line of invasion.” I do not suppose this reason thus given amounted to much. If Lee had taken several lines of invasion he would have divided his forces and enabled us the better to strike him in detail; but, indeed, it was a wise move of Hooker to thus threaten Lee's line of communication, while he completely covered and protected his own. Of course, had he pressed on hard and close in that quarter, Lee would have been forced to stop all invasion and turn his attention constantly and completely [393] to his adversary. Middletown was quickly reached; Harper's Ferry (or rather the Maryland Heights) was held, and the lower passes of the South Mountain were within our grasp.

In one day the army could at last be concentrated in that vicinity, because our wing under Reynolds had been followed up by the other corps. Slocum, with the Twelfth Corps, having crossed at Edwards' Ferry the 26th, had moved rapidly toward Harper's Ferry. The other three, with the artillery reserve, hastening over the Potomac the same day — for there were two good pontoon bridges for their use-moved up to Frederick and vicinity. Thus the Army of the Potomac was the morning of June 27th well in hand, in good condition, and rather better located for the offensive or the offensive-defensive operations than the year before under McClellan, when it approached the field of Antietam in about the same locality. Hooker had gone off to Harper's Ferry to see if it was feasible to begin a movement from his left. He had asked for Tyler's command near there. He now proposed the abandonment of Harper's Ferry as a garrison or station after the stores should be withdrawn. He could not afford to hold the works in that neighborhood at the expense of losing the services of 11,000 men, just then changed to General French. Halleck rejoined, in substance, that Harper's Ferry had always been deemed of great importance, and that he could not consent to its abandonment.

Hooker then sent this famous dispatch: “My original instructions were to cover Harper's Ferry and Washington. I have now imposed upon me in addition an enemy in my front of more than my numbers. I beg to be understood, respectfully, but firmly, that I [394] am unable to comply with these conditions with the means at my disposal, and I earnestly request that I may be relieved at once from the position I occupy.”

As if at once abandoning his own plan, General Hooker, after sending this dispatch, sent the Twelfth Corps to Frederick and went there himself. The next day, June 28th, General Hardie, a staff officer from the War Department, arrived at Frederick with the formal orders which relieved General Hooker of his command, and appointed in his place the commander of the Fifth Corps, General George G. Meade.

A comrade feels less and less inclined to criticise with any severity Hooker's intended work. There were jealousies; there were ambitions; there was discontent, and often insubordination in our army. General Hooker had formerly severely criticised McClellan. He had accounted for his own want of success at his own first attempt at supreme command by blaming others. Reactions would come. McClellan's friends and many others somehow impressed our large-hearted and frank-spoken President with the feeling that Hooker was not fully trusted in the army; so he wrote him at the outset of this campaign, June 14th: “I have some painful intimations that some of your corps and division commanders are not giving you their entire confidence.”

From facts in my possession I am sure that this was a mild statement of the case, and I think it more of a reflection upon those who manifested the distrust than upon Hooker. But now, taking everything into account, I believe that, ill-timed as it seemed, the change of commanders was a good thing-especially good for that unexplainable something called the “morale of the army.” [395]

Lee and his officers did not rejoice when they learned that the able, upright, and well-reputed Meade had succeeded Hooker.

As soon as Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac he exhibited a mind of his own, and immediately changed the plan of our march. My corps (the Eleventh) turned at once from Middletown, Md., to Frederick, arriving there on the evening of June 28th. The army was at this time concentrated around this pretty little city. As soon as I reached the town I went at once to headquarters full of excitement and interest, awakened by the sudden changes that were taking place.

I had known Meade before the war, having met him and traveled with him on our northern lakes when he was on engineering duty in that region, and I had seen him frequently after the outbreak of hostilities. But he seemed different at Frederick. He was excited. His coat was off, for those June days were very warm. As I entered his tent, he extended his hand, and said:

How are you, Howard!

He demurred at any congratulation. He looked tall and spare, weary, and a little flushed, but I knew him to be a good, honest soldier, and gathered confidence and hope from his thoughtful face. To him I appeared but a lad, for he had graduated in 1835 at the Military Academy, nineteen years before me. He had served in the artillery among the Indians; in the Topographical Engineers on our rivers and lakes; in Mexico, where he was brevetted for his gallantry, and had become favorably known at Washington for good work in the lighthouse service. Then, finally, in the rebellion all our eyes had been turned to him for the completeness of every work that he had thus far undertaken [396] with his Pennsylvania reserves. He won me more by his thoroughness and fidelity than by any show of sympathy or companionship. To me, of course, he stood in the light of an esteemed, experienced regular officer, old enough to be my father, but like a father that one can trust without his showing him any special regard. So we respected and trusted Meade from the beginning.

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