Longstreet goes West, part one: Machiavellian or Misunderstood?

Part One in a Series
Longstreet Portrait

Confederate General James Longstreet remains one of the war’s most controversial figures. Detractors see him as a scheming subordinate whose ambition overreached his talents; supporters hail him as a clear-sighted realist who understood the changes in warfare better than most of his contemporaries, and who tried to change with the times.

Short of Gettysburg, no aspect of Longstreet’s Civil War career stirs more controversy than his trip west to reinforce the Army of Tennessee in September, 1863. Was this venture a duplicitous effort to get out from Robert E. Lee’s thumb, undermine Braxton Bragg’s command of that army, and at last let Longstreet take his rightful place in the sun? Or was it a trip motivated by the increasingly disastrous course of the war in the West, a feeling that no matter how well the South did in Virginia, the war was not being won in the Old Dominion State?

On one level, that question is easily answered. By the fall of 1863, it was apparent to virtually every Southerner that something had to be done to reverse the course of western defeat. Vicksburg was gone, leaving the Mississippi River in Union hands and rendering 30,000 Rebels prisoners of war at a stroke. Tennessee was all but lost. At the end of August, when the Union Army of the Cumberland crossed the Tennessee River, opening a new drive to capture Chattanooga, a new crisis seemed at hand.

The response was to send a corps – James Longstreet’s, two divisions strong (George Pickett’s division was still recovering from their ordeal in Pennsylvania) – to help Bragg. By the time Longstreet reached the scene, however, Bragg had already been forced out of Chattanooga, and was preparing to give battle in North Georgia.

That battle, of course, was Chickamauga. Only half of Longstreet’s troops participated, with Longstreet himself not arriving until the night of September 19, after two days of fighting had already concluded. Still, after a brief midnight conference, Bragg granted Longstreet command of half the army; Longstreet’s subsequent attack the next day proved devastating. The Federals were badly defeated, and fell back into Chattanooga.

That moment of discussion in the late hours of September 19-20 proved to be the high point of Bragg’s and Longstreet’s wartime relationship. Henceforth, almost every moment of interaction between the two men would by characterized by misunderstanding, recrimination, and acrimony. It would be one of the more fateful – doomed, one might say – command relationships of the war, with enormous negative repercussions for the cause of Confederate independence.

This relationship fascinates me, and not just because I believe it to be one of those “turning point” moments.

Longstreet’s long history of controversy, tainted by fellow Confederates’ efforts to scapegoat him for any number of blunders real and imagined (Gettysburg springs to mind) complicates modern efforts to untangle fact from speculation, let alone outright fiction. It probably didn’t help matters that James Longstreet experienced a boom of popularity beginning in the 1970s, when Michael Shaara cast him as a highly sympathetic character in his seminal, Pulitzer-prize winning Civil War Novel, Killer Angels (1974).

A sudden spate of Longstreet fans, naturally enough, produced the inevitable backlash, as the opposition pushed back on Shaara’s portrayal.

The pro-Longstreet crowd managed to get a statue of him erected at Gettysburg, the only Confederate general (to my knowledge, anyway) so honored there besides Lee. Even that statue, naturally enough, became controversial. Here it is. Judge for yourself.

Longstreet statue

I find that Longstreet’s detractors come in several flavors: Fans of Stonewall Jackson tend to dislike Longstreet, for example; and those who favor the Western Theater sometimes seem to resent Longstreet as an interloper, all the more so for his role at Chickamauga.

But what of the ‘real’ James Longstreet? Where should he fit into the war’s cast of characters?

Over the next series of posts, I intend to explore Longstreet’s western experience, and where it fits in Civil War historiography.

30 Responses to Longstreet goes West, part one: Machiavellian or Misunderstood?

  1. Looking forward to this series of articles. Your writing on Chickamauga has taught me deal about this battle. Three years ago, I facilitated three consecutive monthly meetings of our Tennessee Valley Civil War “Little Round Table” (breakout discussion group of military history enthusiasts) in order to cover the experiences of Old Pete in the West: Chickamauga, the blockade of Chattanooga, the Eastern Tennessee Campaign. Now, to learn from you again.

      1. Mr. Siprelle,
        Please come to the Longstreet Society seminar next month at Gettysburg. As it so happens our theme this year is Longstreet and His Lieutenants.
        Friday evening we have Mr. Wayne Motts from the Civil War History Museum, Harrisburg, PA doing a talk on Lewis Armistead, and Saturday, after the battlefield tour we have Carol Reardon giving the keynote talk on George Pickett.


        Please see the above link, and click on the seminar logo square. It is one one with a small picture of the 1913 reunion scene of then very old Confederate veterans making the charge one more time.
        Kind regards,
        Harold Knudsen

  2. Dave:
    I look forward to your future posts on Longstreet. You’re absolutely right. He is a fascinating character.

    As I’m sure you’re aware, Longstreet was not alone in his criticism of Bragg. Bragg had the unfortunate ability to anger many of his subordinates, many of whom were quite vocal in their criticism.

    Like all major CW generals, Longstreet made mistakes. (His Knoxville campaign was a disaster.) But he also had great successes. Lee considered Longstreet his most reliable lieutenant.

    Unfortunately for his legacy, after the CW Longstreet became a Republican who urged his fellow Southerners to treat African-Americans with respect . (Imagine the temerity of the man!) Longstreet’s politics, plus the effort by Lost Causers to explain away some of Lee’s battlefield blunders, resulted in much of the post-war demonization of Longstreet.

  3. I’m looking forward to this as well. I’ve long felt that Longstreet was unfairly scapegoated because no one can bear to say a negative word about Lee. I admire Lee greatly, but I don’t think we do a disservice to history when we deify him. And as Bob here indicates, Longstreet’s post-war politics didn’t help his cause in the eyes of many. Glad you’re taking a new look at him, Dave.

  4. as a neutral party on my feelings about Gen. Longstreet. I look forward to your opinions.
    Perhaps you will be the first to have Bob stay on the historical subject instead of his own present day agenda of hate the southerns because they are all racist.

  5. Somewhere I have read Longstreet made three mistakes: he criticized Lee, he was right and he turned Republican after the war.

    1. I’ve heard the same things but he made two further errors. First he survived into old age unlike the ‘Great’ Stonewall et. al. and secondly he converted to Catholicism in later life after he was constantly spurned at the Episcopalian church in Gainesville GA. His second wife was a young Catholic girl so it is not surprising that he changed denomination to find friendship. its said that in the basement of his home was a small chapel. Whatever the exact truth it was not a move aimed at making him any more acceptable to ‘The South’.

    2. I would add that he lived to publish a memoir, one in which he repaid decades of attacks with some vitriol of his own. Bad idea.

      1. And I would add that there are few if any memoirs that are not CYA-inspired. Joe Johnston’s? Grant’s (as recent writers are now demonstrating), Jeff Davis’s? The list is legion.

        Longstreet’s Lieutenants could cure some of that.

      2. A good point Dave. In his defence its worth pointing out that after his wounding at The Wilderness he had effectively lost the use of his right arm. After the war he learnt to write with his left but it was a great inconvenience. His memoir was in fact written by a journalist (I can’t remember his name) but uncredited so far as I recall. It may well have been that the many inaccuracies in the book are partly because of his memory failure but mostly I suspect because the journalist was (as most of them are) determined to make the book sensational. Longstreet’s own records and correspondence had ben lost in the fire at his home some years before the book was written. Its my suspicion that his real fault was to be a dreadful proof reader.

  6. I rank as one of Longstreet’s fans but not because I think he was some kind of super hero but because his strengths and weaknesses are evident to anybody with an interest in the history of the Civil War and it’s aftermath. Old Pete had been lobbying to go west for some time and arrived in time to play a decisive role in the victory at Chicamauga however this was his high water mark and he made mistakes. In my opinion the most important of all was to join the ‘rebellion’ ,against Bragg. I think that had he stayed above the fight he might have found himself in charge of an army.

    There are a number of great books about him notably ‘James Longstreet – The Soldier, The Politician’ by Sanger & May, ‘General James Longstreet’ by Jeffrey Wert, ‘Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant’ by William Piston and ‘General James Longstreet – The Confederacy’s most modern General’ by Harold Knudsen as well as two dreadful books ‘James Longstreet Lee’s Warhorse’ by Eckenrode and Conrad and ‘General James Longstreet in the West – a monumental failure’ by Judith Hallock.

    But perhaps the book we should all read to understand why he became and remains such a controversial figure is ‘God and General Longstreet’ by Connelly and Bellows

  7. Give the amount of time that had lapsed between the events and the time Longstreet was writing (dictating) his momoir, the lack of his papers, and the venom of the intervening 40 years, it is not surprising that “From Manassas to Appomattox” is filled with controversial, unsupportable claims. If anything, I think authors rely too much on it, if only to cherry-pick juicy quotes they can use to undermine him.

  8. Looking forward to the series. Longstreet was on my “bad general” list when I was a very foolish nine-year-old who thought she was a good judge of historical characters. Time went on and I now I think he’s one of the unfortunately over-looked generals of the conflict; I’m afraid he became a scapegoat to preserve some of Lee’s “marble” image and hasn’t got a lot of the credit he really deserves. Yes, Yes, Yes – please write Longstreet’s Lieutenants. That would be a fascinating book!

    1. Longstreet in my view was one of best generals of the Civil War. Particularly as a wing/Corps commander, and also in the realm of Operational Art. He was a most “modern” general, in that what he knew to work and what would not work, –and this held true as the 20th Century wars would prove. He knew better than others of his time that the tactical defense was dominant in this war. A well-prepared defense behind works of some kind, with disciplined lines of musket fire and supported by artillery into a Kill-Zone would stop cold any sized attacker. This Longstreet proved at Fredricksburg in 1862. He knew attacking as per what Robert E. Lee was asking on the 3rd day at Gettysburg would fail, because they were attacking across one mile of open ground, against an enemy that had a prepared defensive position as he had at Fredericksburg, well supported by artillery. Lee ordered an attack into a modern Kill-Zone on day 3 at Gettysburg.
      He showed at Chickamauga that the typical 18th & 19th Century manner of attacking could no longer overcome the defense unless a narrow attack column was used as would also be proven by the new tactics of the era of the tank in the 1930s. The Germans and their armor tactics of punching through a narrow spot of an enemy’s line, and then driving a column through was how they found success against the prepared defensive line. This, Longstreet also does in 1863 at Chickamauga. He builds an assault column similar to what was common in World War II with 8 brigades in 5 echelon’s and ruptures the Union line, collapses the Union right wing as thousands flee toward the gaps in Missionary Ridge. Union General Thomas was able to mount a defense on Snodgrass Hill and hold up Longstreet until dark when he extricated the Union Army away from Chickamauga and eventually get the army in defensive works anchored to the Tennessee river in Chattanooga. But Longstreet won Chickamauga for the Confederates. He moved and entire corps on rail from Virginia to Georgia, and it went straight into the fight. He himself arrived at 11pm the night before and put together this formation in the dark in a place unfamiliar to him, without a rehearsal, and with more than half the units and generals he never worked with before and executed a stunning “Schwerpunkt” like assault (German military term for this sort of column used in WWII) into the enemy. Not many general officers in the Civil War were at the level of professional development to pull that off.

      1. I could not agree more. This is why Longstreet is still taught at West Point.

  9. To continue: Longstreet excelled tactically, and the fact he advocated a western concentration to shore up the failing west, proves he was a strategic thinker. Probably better than Lee was in this aspect, but he was also one of the few that also understood what is called by military professionals – Operational Art. The level of war that interrelates tactics and strategy. Truly the business of the corps commander. It was an emerging realm in the mid-19th Century. Napoleon created the modern corps-level organization; robust organization of 2 or more infantry divisions with their own artillery, logistics, and some cavalry, and a lieutenant general or Marshall with lots of experience as the commander. The later advent of the train, and telegraph allowed for quicker movement of the corps where this infrastructure existed, so that they could be projected decisively, come together at a key point and achieve numerical superiority or surprise. This combination has made the corps the premier warfighting organization, which has remained so through to today.
    His example of such a modern corps movement was to get his corps to Georgia and for a time, tip the scales of force ratio(s) advantage in favor of Braxton Bragg. Many historians say other flanking movements done on foot made certain leaders great, such as Jackson going around the Union right at Chancellorsville, but he only went about 15 miles following a specific route Lee told him to go. Longstreet had to go 1,500 miles and figure out on the move, how to get all the pieces across the Confederate nation, on a rail system of different gauges, get them feed and so on, so they were able to add their full combat power to the mission in Georgia. He did it pretty well close to perfect. It makes the movement at Chancellorsville pale in comparison. Unfortunately, after Longstreet’s breakthrough, Bragg would not flex the 2 divisions of the right wing (Polk) that were not engaged over to Longstreet to better exploit the collapse of the Union right wing, force the position on Snodgrass Hill, and close the gaps in Missionary Ridge so the whole Union army could have been bagged. He would not use his 2 Cavalry wings to assist Longstreet (ask Dave Powell about all Confederate Cavalry basically sitting still day 2 of Chickamauga). Bragg let the Union army escape. But had he listened to Longstreet, he might have presided of the greatest Confederate victory ever – the capture of an entire Union army. A Saratoga sized event in the realm of gaining prestige overseas.
    Once Bragg hesitantly starts this partial siege around Chattanooga and wastes time on recriminations and reorganizations, the Union starts to flow troops and supplies into the area and put in charge a man who was an expert at Operational Art – Ulysses S. Grant. Longstreet knows what if going on. The Union is staying on the defense to fix Bragg in place long enough to build up and take the initiative. Longstreet realized early on they have to make a corps size stroke against the Union place where all the reinforcements and logistics flow into, which is Bridgeport, Alabama. He advises such an attack to shut the place down. Jefferson Davis even likes it, but Brag refuses to do it under faulty and untrue reasons. But had this move been done, Chattanooga probably would have been abandoned with the loss of all the artillery in the Army of the Cumberland. At a minimum, and the Confederates would have wrested the strategic initiative in that theater for the foreseeable future. They could have undertaken more offensive operations, push away Sherman, and seize Nashville, etc. This would have been hugely embarrassing to the Lincoln Administration going into the election year of 1864. It may have set the Democratic Party on a peace platform to terminate the war effort, and if they beat Lincoln, the Confederacy would have won its independence that way. Entirely possible. But for sure, Atlanta would have been put out of the reach of the Union for a year at least if they got the situation contained in the case of Confederate twin victories at Chickamauga and Chattanooga. Anyway, Longstreet was largely the strategic and operational architect of the western concentration that occurred after Gettysburg, and should have been done earlier –instead of Gettysburg –to try to prevent the fall of Vicksburg. He was also the tactician that gave the Confederates their largest victory of the war in the western theater at Chickamauga. As these large-scale victories go, I attribute Fredericksburg, 2nd Manassas, Chickamauga, and Wilderness to the work and tactical/operational expertise of Longstreet. I can only think of 1 for Jackson on this scale, and 1 for R. H. Anderson at Cold Harbor, who was in command of Longstreet’s Corps during his convalescence, and 1 for A. P. Hill at Antietam who saves the day there with his arrival of a division plus worth of infantry in last hour. As far as Wing/Corps level goes, Longstreet was far and above the best, most modern thinker on the Confederate side.

  10. On the question Dave Powell presents on the Bragg – Longstreet relationship, I believe there are two primary issues with Bragg that hobbled his ability to foster a command climate of harmony in his army. And believe me, after 25 years of active military service in the Army of working for, with, and observing many different commanders successful and unsuccessful, –harmony in planning is the coin of the realm. In my research, I found an account by a Confederate doctor who said Bragg suffered from “severe mental labors.” What that means in a time before the emergence of psychiatry is anyone’s guess, but it is significant that an educated medical professional of the time said that. Grant mentions some odd behavior he witnessed by Bragg in the Mexican-American War as well, and other accounts abound of thigs he allegedly did that were strange. I have also heard he took mercury pills like Lincoln did for a while, which was a common prescription for melancholy then. Mercury will cause irrational outbursts of anger. Whether Bragg had a mental disorder of some type we can only speculate, but there is no doubt from a variety of mentions of odd behaviors, Bragg did not have the ability to coach, teach, and mentor his subordinate commanders and staff. The fact that Bragg was a career soldier, meant his ability to coach, teach, and mentor should have been better, but clearly it was not. Lee, on the other hand, excelled at this, and had the right touch as an Army level commander with his corps and division commanders, and below. Did Bragg miss important career postings and to work for excellent superiors before the war? I do not know enough of those years of his career to say, but this brings me to his second deficiency, –a seeming undeveloped level of professional knowledge in tactical and operational maneuver, and how to bring select officers with potential, develop them, and place them correctly. Bragg apparently did well in battery level operations as a young officer and was good at knowing how to do things in accordance with regulations. Important things, but the science side of serving in the army is only half it. Imagination and intuition are aspects required by the art of it. One must evolve in those as well, and it seems Bragg did not at the level an Army command required. Longstreet excelled in a lot of these areas and was a more sociable and warm type of personality. In 1863, he had become less sociable after the loss of several of his children and the stress of the overall military situation, he was not his old self personality-wise when he met Bragg. I think Bragg wanted him to coach, teach, and mentor him the day after Chickamauga, and Longstreet apparently scolded him for not having the army moving, and this hurt Bragg. I think Bragg was a very sensitive person who was struggling with 2nd string subordinates he was not himself developed to help out. Hence his army was barely functioning with underdeveloped talent and leadership. Polk, who was a career clergyman, should not have commanded a corps, for example. Lee would have never allowed that in the ANV. The morning the 20th of September Polk’s wing was supposed to commence and attack en echelon first thing in the morning, and Polk’s dysfunctional HQ never sent the order down to the commanders the evening before. There was no staff on duty through the night. Unbelievable. But Polk was not a real soldier and had no conception on how to run a command post. There was a lot of this sort of dysfunction in Bragg’s Army. I think if Longstreet tried to kindly guide Bragg for a few days, nudge him to maneuver, he might have brought Bragg to act more decisively in the crucial 2-3 days they had a great advantage. Imagine the history of the Civil War if Braxton Bragg had presided over the greatest Confederate victory in the war, –demolishing an entire Union Army and sending it into captivity. His name would be alongside Washington, Lee, Pershing, Eisenhower, and so on.

  11. Harold:

    The discussion between you and Basil is most interesting, one of the best I’ve read in ECW. I have a question for either/or both of you.

    As you noted, Bragg’s prickliness and other personality problems led to backbiting and chaos among his general-officer corps and was a major reason for the Army of Tennessee’s disfunction.

    From what I’ve read, Grant was the opposite. He believed it was extremely important for an army’s general officers to respect each other, especially to respect the army commander. With a few exceptions, this is one of the reasons Grant had so much success in the western theater and less success in the East. (Of course, in the East Grant also faced the South’s best army and its best general.)

    While mutual respect among an army’s general officers makes sense, such an attitude can have a down side, too.

    Grant favored Sherman and McPherson so much because they admired Grant so much, at times appearing almost to be sycophants. On the other hand, Thomas’ relationship with Grant was not nearly as close. The result was that Grant chose Sherman, not Thomas, to lead the Atlanta campaign although Thomas, many historians now believe, would have been a far better choice.

    My question is two-fold:

    1) Is my assessment correct?
    2) Is there another army commander in the Civil War (or any other American war) who did a better job than Grant of balancing the need for mutual respect with the need to promote the most competent generals?

    1. Bob
      Harold is the expert. My contributions are really just margin notes but thanks for the praise. I have a high opinion of Grant. He did pick and choose amongst his subordinates and as his reputation was being made ‘out west’ he had the advantage of being less visible to Washington than his colleagues in the East. Throughout the conflict he showed determination to stick at a task and never give up. Even after The Wilderness and Cold Harbour he did not change his strategy although he did alter his tactics.
      Looking back on my working days I was always content when a boss set out a clear objective adopted a sensible way of going about the tasks but left me to to get on with operational matters. Grant did so with Sherman and Meade. He clearly created a good team spirit amongst his lieutenants and remained popular during his Presidency and beyond even though many of those about him were ‘pork barrel’ enthusiasts. As you know he almost became the Republican candidate again in 1880. He must have attracted great loyalty. When he died his Mausoleum became the most visited place in North America.
      All of this indicates to me that he was seen as a great not just competent leader. We can debate whether some of his choices were the best available but its surely the case that they were for the most part successful and as we all know people follow winners, especially lucky ones!
      Longstreet was of course related to Grant through marriage and Grant appointed him to various posts in his administration. More proof that Grant picked good people?

    2. Bob,
      1) Are your assessments correct? Yes, I think your assessment of Grant’s personality toward others is correct. He was an easy going individual who showed little emotion when things were not going well; at least not in front of people. This was important because of not looking worried, stressed, etc., shows your subordinates you are in control of the situation and can think and make decisions. His ability to select good people was very good. The proof is once those working for him were comfortable in a position, they understood his ways, and could anticipate what he wanted. I think his subordinated served him very well at Vicksburg in this way. Sherman was one who was particularly well tuned to Grant, and they developed an intuition between them that became one of the best relationships of trust and confidence between two commanders. I was not aware there are historians who believe Thomas would have been a better commander to take over in the West for Grant over Thomas. No doubt Thomas performed well. If he was not at Chickamauga, the Union defeat might have been catastrophic. It might have been the complete loss of the entire Army of the Cumberland if Longstreet got completely behind them and closed the gaps in Missionary Ridge on the 20th of SEP. I do know Grant was pleased with Thomas initially in the Chattanooga Campaign and did not trust Rosecrans, so he ordered him to take command when he though Rosecrans was going to pull out at one point. Later, however, there was some friction, and I think Thomas’s stock lost in value with Grant. Regardless, I am certain the trust and confidence he had in Shermans were the key reason he would leave Sherman in charge in the West.
      2) Other Commander? I don’t see Grant’s level of putting the fitting people around him done very well in the AoP; at least not by the people who rotated through the Army commander level. Of course, Lincoln went through a lot of Generals in the East, while Grant had his confidence because he demonstrated he knew what he was doing and won his campaigns. Maybe Meade was the best of the crop who were in the east. He certainly stayed the Commander of the AoP the longest; Gettysburg to Appomattox. But Grant and Meade did not get along. They had periods they did not even speak to each other. Nevertheless, they managed to operate. There were probably numerous Union Corps and Division commanders good at coaching, teaching, and mentoring, but I do not know enough about a lot of the generals at those levels on the Union side to give and example. I do think that George Washington was pretty effective at selecting good people to advance; once the war was further along, and those who were acting more as competitors were out of the picture. The general I think he worked with best was French General Rochambeau. He was brilliant at operational concepts and coerced, perhaps cleverly manipulated Washington, to not attack New York, but head south and try to catch the British southern Army at Yorktown in coordination with the French Navy. It worked perfectly. He also was good at picking key staff people like Alexander Hamilton and Baron von Steuben, who did tremendous work over the years of war that without them the Continental Army would not have been successful. I hope I could answer your questions to your satisfaction.

  12. Basil:

    I agree completely with your assessment of Grant. I too am a huge fan. His iron will and aggressiveness, arguably, surpassed even Lee’s. Without Grant, our nation would have been dismembered, I believe.

    And you’re also correct about Grant ‘s ability to attract loyalty. If you were a friend, Grant stuck by you, almost to a fault. And his loyalty was returned in spades.

    By the way, I also believe Grant’s presidency has been unfairly criticized for too long. For the last few decades, historians rightly have taken a much more favorable view of his eight years in the White House.

    But like all CW figures (except Lee whom Lost Causers try to anoint with sainthood), Grant was an imperfect human being. He held grudges, for sometimes for the slightest reasons, for too long. And one of those grudges was directed toward Thomas. My guess is that it began when Hallack, who covertly always envied Grant’s ability, temporarily replacing Grant with Thomas after Shiloh.

    Maybe it’s because I’m also such a fan of Thomas’ that I believe both Grant and Sherman unfairly slighted the Virginia unionist.

    One of the many things that’s so interesting about the CW is its many fascinating and complex characters. Grant, Sherman and Thomas are just three of them. For me, reading about their personalities – their foibles as well as their strengths – is almost better than reading about their battlefield exploits.

    Again, thanks for your and Harold’s fine discussion earlier.

    1. Regarding the outlook of war by Grant and then Lee. I think the underlying difference was Lee, and most people from the South since the founding the nation saw their states as little countries within a loose alliance of states under the central government with limited powers. The state was supreme. The vision of people in New England was more in favor of Union, and they believed the states were in many ways to support the federal government. This had always been the rub between New England and Virginia in the 1790s, and this carried through for decades into 1860. In the beginning of the war, Lee did not see his role as managing military affairs outside of Virginia. Grant, one the other hand, was much more of a Federal minded person and thought Union as necessary in government and in war. So, in total war, Grant had an advantage in his attitude about it.

  13. Basil and Harold:
    Thanks to both of you for your insights.
    This is one of the many reasons I love ECW.

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