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Fall of the South: Breakthrough and the Burning of Richmond

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

April 1-3, 1865: Breakthrough and the Burning of Richmond

The endgame of the Civil War began on April 1, 1865, when Union forces defeated the ragged and outnumbered Confederates at the Battle of Five Forks, then shattered their defensive lines decisively at the Third Battle of Petersburg on April 2. As Robert E. Lee led the battered Army of North Virginia west in a final, desperate retreat into central Virginia, Union forces entered the Confederate capital at Richmond unopposed – only to find it engulfed in flames, a fitting epitaph for the Southern rebellion (top, the ruins of Richmond).

Five Forks

On March 24, Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant ordered a general assault on the rebel lines to begin March 29, a plan unchanged by the desperate breakout attempt on March 25. As Union forces maneuvered to the southwest of Petersburg, threatening to cut off Lee’s line of retreat, on March 31 the Confederate general-in-chief tried to disrupt the unfolding offensive with two attacks of his own, at the Battles of White Oak Road and Dinwiddie Courthouse. Rebel commander George Pickett scored a limited victory over Philip Sheridan’s cavalry at Dinwiddie Courthouse, but withdrew as Sheridan was reinforced. This preliminary encounter set the stage for the Battle of Five Forks.

 

On the morning of April 1, Sheridan led his combined force of cavalry, infantry, and artillery, 22,000 strong, northwest in search of Pickett’s smaller force of 10,600 men, now dug in facing south at Five Forks, where White Oak Road intersected three other roads (above, Five Forks today). Arriving in front of the Confederate positions around 1pm, Sheridan’s cavalry dismounted and pinned the Confederates down with rifle fire in order to gain time for the Union infantry to catch up.

Around 4:15 Sheridan ordered a general assault, with Gouverneur Warren leading an infantry attack on the Confederate left (eastern) flank, followed by two simultaneous attacks by dismounted cavalry troopers, one led by George Armstrong Custer (of “Custer’s Last Stand” fame) against the Confederate right (western) flank, and a second led by Thomas Devin against the Confederate front. Sheridan hoped the first attack would force Pickett to weaken his center and right to hold off the threat to his left flank, clearing the way for the dismounted cavalry to roll up the Confederate positions from the west.

However confusion reigned on both sides during the Battle of Five Forks. The Union troops believed the Confederate left wing was located much further east than it was, resulting in a delay as they hurried west to engage the enemy. Meanwhile the Confederate commander, Pickett, was enjoying a picnic a little over a mile to the north and didn’t know he was under attack at Five Forks at first because the landscape blocked the noises of battle; he belatedly hurried south to take charge when the battle was already well underway.

By this point the Union attack attack was faltering under heavy rifle and cannon fire from the Confederate left wing – but Sheridan himself leapt into the fray and helped rally some of the disorganized troops for a crucial charge, as recounted by his staff officer Horace Porter:

Sheridan rushed into the midst of the broken lines, and cried out: 'Where is my battle-flag?' As the sergeant who carried it rode up, Sheridan seized the crimson-and-white standard, waved it above his head, cheered on the men, and made heroic efforts to close up the ranks. Bullets were now humming like a swarm of bees about our heads, and shells were crashing through the ranks… All this time Sheridan was dashing from one point of the line to another, waving his flag, shaking his fist, encouraging, entreating, threatening, praying, swearing, the true personification of chivalry, the very incarnation of battle.

There was plenty of dramatic heroism to go around that day, as the Confederates withdrew and reestablished their defensive line on the left flank two more times, requiring renewed attacks to dislodge them. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (a college professor-turned-officer from Maine, already famous for his bravery and quick thinking at Gettysburg) described what it was like for Union infantry charging Confederate guns in the face of withering cannon fire near Ford’s Road:

Ploughed through by booming shot; torn by ragged bursts of shell; riddled by blasts of whistling canister;— straight ahead to the guns hidden in their own smoke; straight on to the red, scorching flame of the muzzles,— the giant grains of cannon-powder beating, burning, sizzling into the cheek; then in upon them!— pistol to rifle-shot; saber to bayonet; musket-butt to handspike and rammer; the brief frenzy of passion; the wild 'hurrah'; then the sudden, unearthly silence; the ghastly scene; the shadow of death…

By nightfall Sheridan’s attacking force had routed the Confederates, inflicting over 1,000 casualties and taking at least 2,000 prisoners (below, Confederate soldiers captured at Five Forks), at a cost of only 830 casualties to themselves – an especially favorable result considering Pickett’s force was just half the size and could scarcely afford these losses. On the other hand at least half the Confederate force managed to escape and Sheridan, annoyed and quick to judgment, took out his frustrations on Warren by relieving him of command, triggering a controversy that raged long after the war was over.

But for the moment jubilation reigned, as even ordinary Union soldiers understood victory was now within reach. According to Porter, “The roads in many places were corduroyed with captured muskets; ammunition-trains and ambulances were still struggling forward; teamsters, prisoners, stragglers, and wounded were choking the roadway… cheers were resounding on all sides, and everybody was riotous over the victory.”

On the other side this anticipation was matched by dread of imminent defeat. One of Lee’s favorite generals, John Brown Gordon, remembered the great captain saying, “It has happened as I told them in Richmond it would happen. The line has been stretched until it is broken.”

Breakthrough

With the Confederate right flank turned, exposing the already overstretched defenders to attack from the rear, Grant knew Lee might now try to withdraw his whole army from Petersburg, abandoning Richmond to the Yankees, then quickly destroy Sheridan’s force and head south, hoping to join forces with Johnston’s army facing Sherman in North Carolina. Of course this would be a gamble for Lee, as it meant leaving strong defensive positions and hoping the enemy didn’t catch on until it was too late.

To prevent him from doing this, after Five Forks Grant immediately ordered a general assault to begin in the early morning of April 2, intending to pin Lee’s forces in their trenches while Sheridan began to roll them up from the west. The Union Army of the James under Edward Ord would hit all along the line, with the Union VI Corps under Horatio Wright and II Corps under Andrew Humphreys attacking the Confederate center southwest of Petersburg, while the IX Corps under John Parke pressed the Confederates east of the city. At the same time Sheridan would continue pushing north to cut off the Confederate line of retreat to the west.

At 4:30 am on April 2 the IX Corps launched its attack to pin down defenders east of Petersburg, and ten minutes later the left wing of Wright’s VI Corps began moving towards Confederate positions southwest of the city, advancing 600 yards over mostly open ground in gloomy darkness. This attack would pit around 14,000 attackers against just 2,800 defenders spread out along a mile of defensive line. As they forced their way through defensive obstacles Confederate artillery and rifle fire inflicted heavy casualties, but were unable to stop the blue wave that now washed over the rebel parapet. This breakthrough cleared the way for Wright’s VI Corps to turn southwest and attack the neighboring force of 1,600 Confederate defenders from the rear. By 7 am this force was also on the run, while further west Humphreys’ II Corps was attacking the next section of Confederate defenses.

As the sun rose the Confederate line had been broken wide open, and another Union army corps, the XXIV, was pouring into the gap to support the advance and defend against counterattacks. With rebel defenses completely collapsing, around 9 am Ord and Wright decided to turn northeast and join the attack on the remaining Confederate forces at Petersburg.

Seeing the situation was now untenable, Lee advised Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War John Breckenridge that he would have to withdraw his army from Petersburg before the enemy cut off its only remaining line of retreat to the west. Of course this meant abandoning Richmond, so the Confederate government would have to flee as well. As fighting continued into the afternoon of April 2, hundreds of wagons were hurriedly filled with government property and official documents and dispatched to Lee for protection (seriously impeding his mobility).

At 8 pm on April 2, the Army of Northern Virginia began to withdraw in an orderly fashion along roads northwest of Petersburg; a few hours later the Confederate cabinet and treasury left Richmond on a train bound for Danville, Virginia. Richmond itself was left defenseless. On the other side, as soon as he found out the Confederates had abandoned Petersburg Grant ordered a hot pursuit, chasing the enemy west along the Appomattox River. John Brown Gordon later recalled the nightmarish days that followed:

Fighting all day, marching all night, with exhaustion and hunger claiming their victims at every mile of the march, with charges of infantry in rear and of cavalry on the flanks, it seemed the war god had turned loose all his furies to revel in havoc. On and on, hour after hour, from hilltop to hilltop, the lines were alternately forming, fighting, and retreating, making one almost continuous shifting battle.

After 292 days, the Siege of Petersburg was over, and the last campaign of the war had begun.

Richmond In Flames

Unfortunately for the residents of Richmond, the end of the siege didn’t mean an end to their suffering – just the opposite. Many were about to lose their homes in a huge conflagration that began on the evening of April 2 and continue into April 3, gutting the center of the city.

While there’s still controversy about which side was responsible for burning Columbia, in Richmond’s case the Confederates were definitely to blame. Confederate commanders ordered their soldiers to set fire to bridges, warehouses, and weapons caches before retreating in order to deny them to the enemy. Although they probably didn’t mean to torch the whole town, these fires quickly blazed out of control and burned the entire downtown district to the ground (below, a Currier and Ives painting).

As with the burning of Columbia, the sights that greeted occupying Union troops in the early morning hours of April 3, 1865 was both terrible and spectacular. One observer, George A. Bruce, painted a vivid picture of Richmond in flames:

The wind, increasing with the conflagration, was blowing like a hurricane, hurling cinders and pieces of burning wood with long trails of flame over the houses to distant quarters of the city. The heated air, dim with smoke and filled with the innumerable particles that float from the surface of so great a fire, rendered it almost impossible to breathe.

Few in the north probably shed many tears for the capital of the rebellion, but the human cost was very real, as ordinary people, already facing starvation, now lost their homes as well. On entering the town Bruce encountered a pathetic and also rather surreal sight:

The square was a scene of indescribable confusion. The inhabitants fleeing from their burning houses – men, women and children, white and black – had collected there for a place of safety, bringing with them whatever was saved from the flames. Bureaus, sofas, carpets, beds and bedding, in a word, every conceivable article of household furniture, from baby-toys to the most costly mirrors, were scattered promiscuously on the green…

The only rational thing left for the Confederate government to do was surrender and bring an end to the suffering – and yet as so often in history reason was no match for the momentum of war. In North Carolina, where Johnston’s beleaguered army could do nothing to stop Sherman’s much larger force, Confederate Senator W.A. Graham bitterly criticized the irrational indecision and irresponsibility that now paralyzed the Southern elite, preventing it from accepting the inevitable:

… the wisest and best men with whom I had been associated, or had conversed, were anxious for a settlement; but were so trammeled by former committals, and a false pride, or other like causes, that they were unable to move themselves… but were anxious that others should… it was now the case of a beleaguered garrison before a superior force, considering the question whether it was best to capitulate on terms, or hold out to be put to the sword on a false point of honor.

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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