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Fall of the South: “With Malice Toward None”

For the next few months, we'll be covering the final days of the Civil War exactly 150 years later. This is the third installment of the series. 

March 2-4, 1865: “With Malice Toward None” 

As March 1865 began the final outcome of the Civil War was all but certain, as the South faced overwhelming Northern numbers and firepower, supported by a much larger population and industrial base. And yet the war dragged on, with the main Confederate Army of Northern Virginia putting up a fierce last-ditch defense at the siege of Petersburg, protecting the Confederate capital at Richmond, while a smaller rebel force attempted to distract and delay the Union army in the Carolinas.

Seeing the writing on the wall, in early March Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee extended a tentative peace feeler to Union commander Ulysses S. Grant, but was firmly rebuffed, as President Lincoln continued to demand unconditional surrender. Meanwhile Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau to grapple with the enormous problems facing millions of freed slaves, and Lincoln looked ahead to an era of national reconciliation in his stirring Second Inaugural Address. 

Lee Proposes Ceasefire 

With spring approaching the military situation was looking increasingly hopeless for the Confederacy. In the main theater the Army of Northern Virginia, numbering around 50,000 men, was pinned down by the much larger Union Army of the Potomac, 125,000 strong, at the Siege of Petersburg around 20 miles south of Richmond. In North Carolina Joe Johnston’s new Army of the South, a composite force of around 25,000 men scraped together from various sources, was preparing to confront William Tecumseh Sherman’s swiftly advancing Union force, soon boosted to 90,000 men by reinforcements from the coast under John Schofield.

The news from peripheral theaters was hardly any better: on March 2 Philip Sheridan’s Union cavalry destroyed what was left of Jubal Early’s small Army of the Valley in the Battle of Waynesboro, effectively ending rebel resistance in the Shenandoah Valley and freeing Sheridan to add his forces to Grant’s at Petersburg. In the second half of the month Union cavalry under George Stoneman would begin a raid into western North Carolina, basically unopposed, while another Union force under James Wilson raided Alabama, brushing aside a much smaller force under Nathan Bedford Forrest and destroying Confederate arsenals and industry. 

Robert E. Lee was keenly aware of the effect physical privations and collapsing morale were having on his troops, as around 6,000 soldiers deserted from January to March 1865, further weakening the already outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia. Lee tried to reverse the manpower decline by offering an amnesty to deserters, but there was little hope of luring exhausted, hungry men back to a losing cause. Following the Battle of Hatcher’s Run in February, he wrote to Confederate Secretary of War John Breckinridge: “Some of my men had been without meat for three days, and all were suffering from reduced rations and scant clothing, exposed to battle, cold, hail, and sleet… Taking these facts in connection with the paucity of our numbers, you must not be surprised if calamity befalls us.” 

Pinning his hopes on the Northern public’s desire for peace, with typical Southern grandiloquence on March 2, 1865 Lee wrote a letter to Grant suggesting a ceasefire to be followed by peace negotiations: 

Sincerely desiring to leave nothing untried which may put an end to the calamities of war, I propose to meet you at such convenient time and place as you may designate, with the hope that upon an interchange of views it may be found practicable to submit the subjects of controversy between the belligerents to a convention of the kind mentioned. 

Grant immediately conveyed Lee’s message to Washington via telegraph, asking for guidance. But Lincoln had already made his stance clear in his meeting with the Confederate peace commissioners: the only way to end the war was unconditional surrender. The next day Grant received an emphatic telegram from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton conveying his unambiguous orders: 

The President directs me to say to you that he wishes you to have no conference with Gen. Lee unless it be for the capitulation of Gen. Lee’s army or on some minor and purely military matter. He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds in his own hands, and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. Meantime you are to press to the utmost your military advantages. 

Grant in turn responded: “I can assure you that no act of the enemy will prevent me pressing all advantages gained to the utmost of my ability.” Another month of death and destruction lay ahead, largely needless judging by Lee’s own judgment. On March 9 the Confederate commander again wrote Breckinridge, warning that it was now “almost impossible to maintain our present position.”  

Congress Establishes Freedmen’s Bureau 

Following Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, the arrival of Union troops meant freedom for millions of slaves across the Confederacy, extending to the entire country with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment on January 31, 1865. In February and March 1865 Sherman’s march north spread emancipation to two of the last remaining bastions of slavery, in North and South Carolina.

As might be expected the process was often chaotic, and unsurprisingly many Southern whites were scared and angry. Charlotte St. Julien Ravenel, a white female diarist in North Carolina, wrote in March 1865: “The field negroes are in a dreadful state; they will not work, but either roam the country, or sit in their houses…. I do not see how we are to live in this country without any rule or regulation. We are afraid now to walk outside of the gate.” As always the social upheaval was even harder for older people: Ravenel noted that her grandfather “seems completely broken down,” adding it “must be hard for one of his age to have everything so changed from what he has been accustomed to all of his life.” 

As Union troops approached some masters clung to the old ways to the bitter end, using threats of violence to keep slaves subservient, as later recalled by W.L. Bost, freed during this period: “Most of the people get everything jes ready to run when the Yankee sojers come through the town. This was toward the las’ of the war. Cose the niggers knew what all the fightin’ was about, but they didn’t dare say anything. The man who owned the slaves was too mad as it was, and if the niggers say anything they get shot right then and thar.” However other whites resigned themselves to the end of their old way of life and tried to part with their former slaves on good terms. Mary Anderson, who was freed as a young girl in North Carolina, remembered the arrival of Union troops:

In a day or two everybody on the plantation seemed to be disturbed and marster and missus were crying. Marster ordered all the slaves to come to the great house at nine o’clock… marster and missus came out on the porch and stood side by side. You could hear a pin drop everything was so quiet… They were both crying. Then marster said, “Men, women and children, you are free. You are no longer my slaves. The Yankees will soon be here.” Marster and missus then went into the house, got two large arm chairs, put them on the porch facing the avenue, and sat down side by side and remained there watching. In about an hour there was one of the blackest clouds coming up the avenue from the main road. It was the Yankee soldiers… They called the slaves, saying “You are free.” Slaves were whooping and laughing and acting like they were crazy. Yankee soldiers were shaking hands with the Negroes and… asking them questions. They busted the door to the smoke house and got all the hams. They went to the icehouse and got several barrels of brandy, and such a time. The Negroes and Yankees were cooking and eating together… Marster and missus sat on the porch and they were so humble no Yankee bothered anything in the great house. 

After the initial euphoria of freedom, however, freed slaves faced daunting challenges, including finding work, food, and shelter in the midst of general chaos and economic paralysis. Thousands of displaced and dispossessed slaves trailed behind Sherman’s army, forming a growing column of refugees that hindered its mobility, or simply wandered the countryside more or less aimlessly. 

To help provide for these people and manage the transition to a post-slavery society, on March 3, 1865 Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Freedmen’s Bureau was given wide responsibilities but limited resources to carry them out, including providing former slaves health care, education, job training, work placement, and physical and legal protection. 

Of these its greatest successes were probably in education, as it helped independent charities and aid organizations establish hundreds of schools across the South, where hundreds of thousands of freed slaves learned how to read and write. By contrast the legal and physical protections extended to freedmen depended in the short term on the continuing presence of Federal troops, and in the long term on Congress demanding recognition of African-American rights as a condition for restoring sovereignty to conquered Confederate states. Unfortunately congressional commitment to enforcing the rights of freedmen, technically guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, proved lacking next to the demands of political expediency and reconciliation with Southern whites. 

In the immediate postwar years, records of the legal activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau provide a unique window into the daily lives of freedmen, and the problems they faced in their dealings with white neighbors and employers, as well as with each other. Complaints about unpaid wages were common, as whites tried to exploit freedmen by relying on intimidation and the lack of alternative employment to extract free labor; freedmen also often complained about neighbors, both white and black, “borrowing” livestock or tools without returning it. 

Family disputes also crop up, as in this record from Augusta County, Virginia, dated November 16, 1865: “Eliza Jackson complains that her Brother Samuel turned her out of Doors and drove her from his House under circumstances perticularly trying to her and refused to pay her her wages which he collected from her Employer.” Another dramatic slice of life dated March 5, 1866, reads: “Maria Miller… complains that Robert Coleman… deceived her by promise of marriage and now refuses to have anything to do with her.” In an entry from April 1866, “Allan Lewis… complains that his two daughters… aged 22, the other 16, have been seduced; and the oldest by a white man the youngest by a colored man who has a wife and two children; both the girls have children, he asked that some action may be taken to compel these men to contribute to support of the children.” 

Lincoln Looks Ahead and Above

On March 4, 1865, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase first administered the oath of office to the new Vice President, Andrew Johnson – a Democrat from Tennessee, who was chosen to demonstrate the new administration’s desire for reconciliation. Before the oath was administered in the Senate chamber, Johnson, apparently totally inebriated, delivered a rambling speech that prompted Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells to whisper to Stanton, “Johnson is either drunk or crazy.” Johnson’s relations with Stanton and Congress would deteriorate even more after he ascended to the presidency. 

The inauguration party next moved on to the steps of the Capitol, where Chase administered the oath of office to Lincoln in front of large, enthusiastic crowd. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (top) was another tour de force from the master orator, melding practical matters with philosophical and even mystic concerns. After reviewing the causes and course of the war over the four eventful years since his first inauguration, Lincoln reminded his listeners that God’s will is mysterious, seeming to imply that the war was a punishment as much for the North as the South, and urged them to prepare for reconciliation with their erstwhile enemies:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. 

After the speech Frederick Douglass congratulated the president, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.” The actor John Wilkes Booth, who was also probably present, doubtless felt differently.

See the previous entry here. See all entries here.

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Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
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John W. Jones: The Runaway Slave Who Buried Nearly 3000 Confederate Soldiers
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

John W. Jones was as close to a sinless man as you could find—with the exception of the time he lied to his mother.

It was a late June evening in 1844 and the 26-year-old enslaved man, who lived on a plantation near Leesburg, Virginia, told his mother that he was leaving to attend a party. His real plans were much riskier. Jones slipped outside, grabbed a pistol, and rendezvoused with four other enslaved men. With starlight as their guide, they crept through the Virginia woods. Their destination: North.

The men hiked approximately 20 miles every day, dodging slave catchers in Maryland and crossing the Mason-Dixon Line into the free state of Pennsylvania. Following a major route along the Underground Railroad, they needled through Harrisburg and Williamsport and traced a path along what is now State Route 14. When the exhausted men snuck into a barn near the New York border to sleep, Jones kept guard as the others rested: He sat down, laid a shotgun on his lap, and kept his eyes peeled.

“He was serious about getting his freedom,” says Talima Aaron, President of the John W. Jones Museum Board of Trustees. “He understood the danger, and he constantly took responsibility for others. You’ll notice that was a thread for him—responsibility for others.”

Jones never had to use the gun. When the barn’s owner, Nathaniel Smith, discovered the five men on his property, he invited them into his home. His wife Sarah served the group hot biscuits and butter and cared for them until their strength returned. It was the first time many of them had ever been inside a white person’s home. According to an 1885 profile in The Elmira Telegram, the gesture brought the men to tears.

On July 5, 1844, Jones crossed a toll bridge into Elmira, New York, with less than $2 in his pocket. Unlike most runaways bound for Canada, Jones decided to stay in Elmira. It’s here that Jones would become one of the country's most successful Underground Railroad conductors, one of the richest black men in the state of New York, and the last earthly link for nearly 3000 dead Confederate soldiers.

 
 

Living in the north did not mean Jones had it easy. He could not vote. He still shared sidewalks with former slave-owners. When he asked to receive an education at the local schools, he was denied.

But Jones had a knack for cracking ceilings. After earning the admiration of a local judge, he was allowed to study at an all-women’s seminary, exchanging janitorial work for reading and writing lessons. He joined a church with abolitionist leanings and become its sexton, maintaining its cemetery. Then he became the sexton of a second cemetery, and then a third. The community quickly grew to respect his work ethic and, eventually, Jones had earned enough money to buy a small house—a house that he transformed into a vital hub for the Underground Railroad.

At the time, the Underground Railroad—an informal network of trails, hiding places, and guides that helped slaves escape northward—was under intense scrutiny. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had created financial incentives to report runaways living in free states. “Slave catchers from the south could come up to a place like Elmira and claim that a person of color was a runaway slave, and they could haul them back into slavery—even if that person had been born free,” says Bruce Whitmarsh, Director of the Chemung County Historical Society. There were steep penalties for aiding a person’s escape.

Jones didn’t care. Not only did he join the Underground Railroad, he was openly vocal about it, loudly pledging his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in a message that was published in abolitionist newspapers across the region: “Resolved, that we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons, (slave-catchers) prowling through different parts of this and other States.” Jones committed to resisting the law, even at the risk that “everyone of us be assassinated.”

The Underground Railroad in Elmira was unique: Since the town included the only train stop between Philadelphia and Ontario, it actually involved locomotives. Jones communicated regularly with William Still, the chief "conductor" of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, and built a cozy network of abolitionists who worked on trains passing through town. He provided runaways with housing, food, and even part-time jobs. “Runaways usually came in groups of four, six, or 10,” Aaron says. “But he had up to 30 at once in his little house.” Jones arranged hiding space for all of the escapees on the 4 a.m. “Freedom Baggage Car” to Canada, as it was unofficially known.

Over the course of nine years, Jones aided the escape of around 800 runaway slaves. Not one was captured.

During the last years of the Civil War, the same railroad tracks that had delivered hundreds of runaways to freedom began to carry thousands of captive Confederate soldiers to Elmira’s new prisoner of war camp. Once again, Jones would be there.

 
 

Of the 620,000 Civil War deaths, approximately 10 percent occurred at prison camps. The most notorious P.O.W. camp—in Andersonville, Georgia—saw 13,000 Union troops, or approximately 29 percent of the prison population, perish. After the war, Andersonville's commander was tried for war crimes. The camp is now a National Historic Site.

Meanwhile, the prison camp in Elmira has been largely forgotten. Today, the riverside site is little more than an unremarkable patch of dandelion-speckled grass; a small, easy-to-miss monument is the only marker. It belies the fact that while Elmira's camp was noticeably smaller than Andersonville's—only one-quarter its size—it was just as deadly: If you were a prisoner at “Hellmira,” there was a one-in-four chance you would die.

Elmira Prison Camp
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

Elmira was never supposed to have a prison camp; it was a training depot for Union soldiers. But when the Confederacy began refusing to exchange African-American soldiers—who it considered captive slaves, not prisoners of war—the Union stopped participating in prisoner exchanges. “Both sides started scrambling for places to expand, and that’s how Elmira got caught up in the web,” says Terri Olszowy, a Board Member for the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.

The rollout was ill-planned, Olszowy explains. When it opened in July 1864, the camp had no hospital or medical staff. The first prisoners were already in rough shape and deteriorated quickly. Latrines were placed uphill from a small body of water called Foster’s Pond, which quickly became a cesspool. A shelter shortage meant that hundreds of soldiers were still living in tents by Christmas. During spring, the Chemung River flooded the grounds. Rats crawled everywhere. When authorities released a dog to catch them, the prisoners ate the dog.

The camp grew overcrowded. Designed to hold only 5000 prisoners, it saw approximately 7000 to 10,000 men confined there at its peak. Across the street, an observation tower allowed locals the opportunity to gawk at these prisoners through a pair of binoculars. It cost 10 cents.

It must have been a depressing sight, a scene of men stricken with dysentery, scurvy, typhoid, pneumonia, and smallpox. Many prisoners attempted to escape. One group successfully dug a 66-foot tunnel with spoons and knives. One man fled by hiding in a barrel of swill. Another hid inside a coffin, leaping out as he was being hauled to Woodlawn Cemetery.

It’s said that 2973 Confederate prisoners left the Elmira prison camp in coffins for real. The job to bury them belonged to the town’s sexton: John W. Jones.

 
 

The P.O.W. cemetery in Elmira is unique. The dead at many prison camps were buried in mass graves; Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, for example, contains a plot filled with the remains of prisoners detained at Camp Douglas that is believed to be largest mass grave in the western hemisphere. All 2973 of the dead at Elmira, however, received an individual, marked grave in a special section of Woodlawn Cemetery. Only seven are unknown. Jones's effort to give each soldier an individual grave, as well as his meticulous record-keeping, were a big part of why the federal government designated the P.O.W. portion of Woodlawn a "National Cemetery" in 1877—a status awarded to veterans' cemeteries deemed to be of national importance, and which has only been awarded to 135 cemeteries nationwide.

Jones treated each dead soldier with superhuman levels of grace. Overseeing a crew of 12, he managed the burial of about six soldiers every day, treating each body as if that person had been a member of his own church. He kept detailed records of each soldier’s identity by creating improvised dog tags: Around each person's neck or under their arm, Jones tucked a jar containing a paper detailing their name, rank, and regiment. That same information was neatly scrawled on each coffin. When the dirt settled, Jones marked each plot with a wooden headstone.

“No one told him how to do that job, he did it in the way that he thought was right—even though the people he buried were fighting a war to keep people like him enslaved,” Aaron says. “He even knew one of the young men who had died, and he reached back to the South and told the parents so they knew where their child was buried. That speaks to his compassion.”

According to Clayton W. Holmes’s 1912 book Elmira Prison Camp, “History does not record anything to challenge the assertion that at no prison, North or South, were the dead so reverently cared for, or a more perfect record kept.” In fact, when representatives of the Daughters of the Confederacy came to Elmira at the turn of the century to consider repatriating the remains, Jones’s handiwork convinced them to touch not a blade of grass. Instead, a monument in the cemetery commemorates the “honorable way in which they were laid to rest by a caring man.”

Aaron sees a second moral in the story. “People always talk about the tension between him being an escaped slave and burying with respect and dignity these Confederate soldiers fighting to keep people like him as slaves,” she says. “But to me there’s a subtext: Here is a grown man who escaped slavery, and the first thing he wanted to do when he reached freedom was get an education. Because of that, he was able to keep these meticulous records that later led to this national designation: It became a historical moment because this man, who was denied an education, got one.”

John W. Jones
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

It also made a mark on Jones’s bank account. Jones earned $2.50 for each soldier he buried. It wasn’t much, but by the time he had finished burying nearly 3000 Confederate dead, he had become one of the 10 richest African-Americans in the state of New York. With that money, he bought a handsome farm of at least 12 acres.

It was a bittersweet purchase. Not only is it believed that parts of his home were built from wooden scraps of the disassembled Elmira prison camp, Jones had purchased the home when New York state law stipulated that black men must own $250 worth of property in order to vote. His home—today listed on the National Register of Historic Places [PDF]—earned Jones that right to vote.

For the remainder of his life, Jones continued working as a sexton and church usher. In 1900, he died and was buried in one of the cemeteries that had become his life’s work.

Incidentally, his death also marked the end of a local mystery: For nearly two decades, fresh flowers kept appearing on the freshly manicured grave of a woman named Sarah Smith. Nobody knew why the flowers appeared there or where they originated—until the decorations stopped appearing immediately after Jones’s death. Residents later realized that the grave belonged to the same Sarah Smith who, 56 years earlier, had invited John W. Jones and his friends into her home for butter, biscuits, and a good night’s rest.

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Library of Congress // Public Domain
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The Key to Robert E. Lee's Puzzling Death Might Be Hidden in a Photo of His Earlobe
Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

When Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee died five years after the Civil War ended, the cause of his death had doctors stumped. He had been in poor health, but his specific illness was a mystery; there weren't many clues beyond symptoms Lee had described in letters. “The troops are not encamped near me and I have felt so unwell since my return as not to be able to go anywhere,” he wrote to his wife in 1863.

This was before electrocardiograms and x-rays existed. There were no obvious physical findings to support a formal diagnosis, either. Lee’s doctors made some educated guesses based on his gripes and treated him with everything but the kitchen sink: hot mustard plasters and footbaths, doses of turpentine or ammonia, and enemas, all of which were standard medical treatments in the Civil War era. Without a robust medical history to guide them, the doctors diagnosed stroke, rheumatism, and pneumonia in the months leading up to Lee's death.

Now, new research from East Carolina University sheds light on the age-old question of what actually caused Lee's demise, thanks to the discovery in a photograph of a crease running diagonally across Lee’s right earlobe. According to the case study, recently published in the American Journal of Cardiology, the crease is a physical sign that Lee likely died from heart disease.

Richard Reinhart, an emeritus professor of medicine at East Carolina University and author of the paper, says earlobe creases can help detect heart disease. Some previous reports have pointed to heart disease as the cause of Lee’s death based on written evidence, but “until now there hadn’t been an actual physical finding supporting this diagnosis,” Reinhart tells Mental Floss. “His earlobe crease is the only piece of objective physical evidence that helps back it up.”

Photo of Robert E. Lee showing a crease in his right earlobe
Virginia Historical Society

The possible connection between earlobe creases and heart disease was first made in 1973, and there have since been more than 120 studies investigating the link. Scientists aren’t sure why creases appear in the earlobes of some heart disease patients, but researchers have suggested that a heart condition may affect the blood vessels and elasticity of the earlobe in a way that forms a crease over time.

Reinhart, a history buff who has a particular interest in the life of Lee, saw a close-up photo of the general at the Virginia Historical Society one day and noticed the wrinkle on his ear. Aware of the possible link between earlobe creases and heart disease, he began poring through Lee’s personal letters and attending physicians’ notes, as well as previous reports of Lee’s illness, to see if his symptoms jibed with a failing heart.

It turned out the symptoms correlated well: Lee initially had an episode of chest pain in 1863, which progressively worsened when he exerted himself and eventually took on characteristics that would be recognized today as heart disease. And in the months before his death in 1870, he began to have chest pain even at rest, which suggests a heart attack was imminent.

“The constellation of symptoms, I believe, are readily explained by heart failure due to progressive coronary artery disease,” Reinhart says.

In an age where advanced medical diagnostic tools weren’t yet in play, a physical feature like an earlobe crease would have been a useful visual cue had doctors known it might signal heart trouble. But even if they had known, could they have done anything to help Lee? One option—a nitroglycerin-based substance called amyl nitrite, which dilates the coronary artery for better blood flow to the heart—had been documented in the British medical journal Lancet in 1867 but wasn’t used much clinically. Salicylate, the precursor to aspirin, which today's physicians recommend for preventing heart attacks, had been around since before the Civil War. But the idea of using it as an anti-platelet drug wouldn't occur for decades.

“Understanding heart disease back then was in its relative infancy, and I don’t think there’s anything that would have turned Lee’s condition around,” Reinhart says. “Even today, I believe the outcome from his final illness—end-stage heart failure—may not have been much better, given that the mortality rates for it are still significant.”

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