Interview: Diane Monroe Smith, “Command Conflicts in Grant’s Overland Campaign”

11 09 2013

Diane Monroe SmithThis year Diane Monroe Smith, of Holden, ME, published Command Conflicts in Grant’s Overland Campaign: Ambition and Animosity in the Army of the Potomac. I have to admit that I really had not heard much about this one, but a reader brought it to my attention and one thing led to another, so here’s Ms. Smith to fill us in.

BR: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

DMS: My first book, Fanny and Joshua: The Enigmatic Lives of Frances Caroline Adams and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, was published in 1999 by Thomas Publications of Gettysburg. It is a dual, whole-life biography of the Chamberlains. I know it puzzled some people why I would bother with Chamberlain’s whole life and/or his near 50 relationship with his wife, when his Civil War service is what most readers want to hear about. I confess to my own partiality to considering that part of his life, but I strongly suspect that, if one wants to know what makes a person like Chamberlain tick, one must look at the other 80 years of his life and the influence of his family and friends as well. The research I did on Fanny and Joshua led to my second book, Chamberlain at Petersburg: The Charge at Fort Hell, which is a previously unpublished, first person account of the Battle of Petersburg written by Chamberlain. My role in preparing it for publication was to set the stage by considering the 5th Corps’ and the Army of the Potomac’s role in Grant’s Overland Campaign in the weeks and months that culminated in the Battle of Petersburg. I also provided extensive annotation of Chamberlain’s account, considering other participants’ reports and testimony, and I began to find more and more seeming discrepancies in the way the 5th Corps and AoP role was interpreted by a number of commanders and historians, as opposed to what the OR (reports, correspondence & statistics) and the testimony of individuals and unit histories described. While finding Chamberlain’s account reliable, I experienced uneasiness with seemingly conflicting versions of what happened during the Overland Campaign, coupled with a emerging pattern of behavior when I considered Grant’s and “Grant’s Men’s” careers in the West and their rise to power. This led to my most recent book, Command Conflicts in Grant’s Overland Campaign: Ambition and Animosity in the Army of the Potomac. In it, I found it was essential to consider Grant’s early service in the Civil War and those of the officers he carried with him on his climb to the top of the military establishment and beyond. While I considered a sizable portion of the copious amount written by Grant biographers and authors of the Western battles, I found myself often reluctant to depend on the analysis and interpretation of others, especially those who relied almost entirely on Grant’s reports, memoirs and correspondence, or the accounts given by Grant’s inner circle to the exclusion of all others. Other warning flags go up for me about the reliability of a witness’s testimony when it varies in important details depending on who is he talking to, such as Halleck’s falsely laying blame on others, essentially lying to Grant regarding why he was removed from command after the taking of Ft. Donelson. Another flag waves when an account changes substantially over the years. In that department, I’m hard pressed to come up with a better (or perhaps I should say worse) example than Ellis Spear and his vindictive campaign to discredit Joshua Chamberlain, much of it carried on after Chamberlain’s death. Although Spear himself wrote an enthusiastic letter to the newspapers right after Gettysburg describing how Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge at Little Round Top, that didn’t stop Spear decades later from telling anyone who would listen that his colonel hadn’t ordered a charge at all– it was someone else’s idea. Nor did it seem to bother Spear that the person he credited with initiating the charge endorsed Chamberlain’s account of how it all happened. Other easily verifiable facts didn’t stop Spear from declaring that Chamberlain’s Petersburg wound wasn’t a big deal– a suggestion which a Gettysburg Discussion Group member facetiously stated had earned Spear the “Most vindictive letter award.” Scoffing at Chamberlain’s penis wound, Spear implied that Chamberlain had made much of what was after all a trifling wound. Spear himself had previously written about how terrible Chamberlain’s wound was in his endorsement in 1899 of Chamberlain’s appointment to a Customs position. But beyond Spear’s changeable laymen’s assessment, we have the medical records that record descriptions of the wound and the unsuccessful attempts to repair it. At a field hospital at Petersburg, when the surgeons couldn’t find the ball in the wide wound that went almost clear through Chamberlain’s pelvis, they decided they would probe with a ramrod to find the offending piece of lead. The gunshot wound caused permanent injury that left Chamberlain incontinent and plagued with reoccurring infections for the rest of his life, and I believe that the many surgeons over the years who tried unsuccessfully to repair the damage would beg to differ with the malicious Spear. Yet mind you, you still hear Spear much quoted as offering positive proof that Chamberlain wasn’t an honest historian!!! As it has just been announced in the news that Chamberlain’s original Medal of Honor has just been found stuck in the back of a book his granddaughter donated to a church, I’m also reminded that Ellis Spear was one of the three witnesses whose testimony to Chamberlain’s actions at Little Round Top led to him being award that MoH, but that happened in the 1890s, before Spear began his campaign to discredit his old commander. Talk about stories that change over time… But to return to Command Conflicts, I wrote it because of my own uneasiness concerning too much of Grant’s and his comrades’ reports and/or memoirs that didn’t stand up very well to scrutiny. I find it unforgivable for a writer to use one and only one source to the exclusion of all others that could have and should have been considered. Nor do I find it possible to consider the fate of any commander while remaining oblivious to what political machinations were taking place within the Army or in Washington. I believe my own research journey to be somewhat similar to that of Frank Varney as he prepared his new work, General Grant and the Rewriting of History. While Frank’s work is, of course, focused on the destruction of Rosecrans’s reputation and career, and my work focuses on the Army of the Potomac, Frank and I seemingly agree that relying on one source, or the testimony of only those who have a vested interest in the war being remembered in a certain way, is, it should seem obvious, a mistake. Grant and his men would control the American military for decades after the war, and with their control over the army and American politics, it is not difficult to find examples of their insuring that their and only their version of the war was perpetuated. They have been, I feel, all too successful in allowing one, and only one version of history to be told.

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War?

DMS: When I was kid, it was the 100th Anniversary of the Civil War, and I couldn’t get enough of the accounts of the battles and the participants. I remember my Mom gave me a dollar (back when a dollar was a dollar) to purchase one square foot of the Gettysburg battlefield during a fund raising campaign. I was thrilled, and, of course, believed that I really owned that square foot. So Gettysburg… I want to know where my square foot is!

BR: Why the interest in the Army of the Potomac’s, and specifically its 5th Corps’, command issues under Grant?

DMS: As I mentioned above, having spent quite a few years looking at Chamberlain’s service with the 5th Corps, I spent a lot of time pursuing the 5th Corps’ experiences and record, and as with my previous books, I felt compelled to share with others what I was finding and considering. There was an awful lot that didn’t seem to be adding up… The accounts of Grant and “Grant’s Men” seemed too often to disagree with other reports and accounts, sometimes radically. Consider, for instance, Chattanooga, and the accounts of Grant, Sheridan and Sherman, and those of participants and witnesses such as Thomas and Hazen (and the delightfully sarcastic Ambrose Beirce).

BR: What makes your study stand out – what does it contribute to the literature that has not already been contributed?

DMS: I think that looking at the Overland Campaign from the perspective of the 5th Corps, provides a very different view, one which had not been previous explored to the degree it deserved. The 5th Corps’ records and accounts provide a challenge to a number of histories as they have been previously written, and allow a new window to open on that tumultuous campaign. Also, considering the alliances among Grant and Grant’s Men and their supporters in Washington sheds light on why some military careers were seemingly indestructible, regardless of performance, while other commanders had their reputations and careers destroyed. While it seems silly to have to point out that the war was not won either in the West or in the East, there are still many who refuse to consider the contribution of the “band box soldiers” of the Army of the Potomac. James McPherson in This Mighty Scourge, did an admirable and startling assessment and comparison of the casualties incurred in the major battles in the West and the East, and shall we say, figures don’t lie? To quote McPherson, “The war was won by hard fighting, and the Army of the Potomac did most of that fighting.  Of the ten largest battles in the war (each with combined Union and Confederate casualties of 23,000 or more), seven were fought between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia.  Of the fifty Union regiments with the largest percentage of battle casualties, forty-one [were] fought in the Eastern theater.”  And regarding casualties inflicted on the enemy, McPherson states, “Of the fifty Confederate regiments with the highest percentage of combat casualties, forty were in the Army of Northern Virginia.” Or as Chamberlain once said, many criticized the Army of the Potomac for not fighting enough, but never for not dying enough. Enough said.  While I wanted to look at the Army of the Potomac during the Overland Campaign, I felt it was also time for someone to offer up a closer look at the 5th Corps’ performance.

BR: What’s your last word on Warren, Sheridan, Meade, Grant, and all that mess?

DMS: It is inexplicable to me why Grant not only allowed Sheridan to publicly defy Meade, but rewarded Sheridan’s insubordination with an independent command. While Grant had no problem with that, he also apparently had no qualms about leaving the Army of the Potomac to move blindly without cavalry through poorly mapped enemy territory. While Sheridan did draw some of Lee’s cavalry away, Lee was not so foolish as to send all of his cavalry after Sheridan, retaining roughly half of his troopers to continue to scout and screen for the ANV. Between these horsemen and the local lads who knew every road and river ford in the area, Lee had quite an advantage. Lest I place all the blame on the Western commanders, I also came to realize that the relationship between Meade and Warren, formerly one of a trusted subordinate and advisor to the AoP commander, foundered on the bitterness that Meade harbored regarding Warren’s decision not to attack at Mine Run, and the embarrassment and anger Meade experienced because of it. While Meade declared that he agreed that Warren did the right thing in calling off a senseless attack that would achieve nothing but casualties, he was still bitterly resentful toward Warren. I believe that the situation was also aggravated by Meade’s consciousness of his enemies in Washington, and his own precarious position as AoP commander. To retain it, I believe he felt he must agree with whatever Grant said and do whatever Grant ordered, regardless of his own opinion of the wisdom of those demands. Meade’s personal correspondence gives some indication of his real opinion of Grant’s conduct of the Overland Campaign, and his anger at having Grant watching over his shoulder. But to return to the culpability of Grant and his men, there’s an unmistakable pattern, beginning in the West, and coming with them to the East, of Grant, Sheridan and Sherman making short work of anyone who got in their way on their climb up the command ladder. While Warren is an obvious case in point, you can also point to Rosecrans, George Thomas, and ultimately, George Meade himself, as commanders who got pushed aside to make way for Grant’s Men. I hope I haven’t had my last word on Warren, Sheridan, Grant and all that mess, because I want to follow Command Conflicts with a book that considers the 5th Corps’ service from the siege of Petersburg to the last days of the war.

BR: Can you describe how long it took to write the book and what you learned along the way? When did you know you were “done”?

DMS: You might say I’ve been looking at the 5th Corps and the Army of the Potomac since the early 90s, when I began writing the Chamberlain biography. Then my work on Chamberlain at Petersburg led me to focus on Grant’s Overland Campaign, which inspired a decided uneasiness on my part regarding what Grant was reporting at the time, as well as what he would say and write later, with all its contradictions to many other reports and accounts. A major stumbling block for me when starting this project was my notion that Grant was a well-meaning sort of fellow, though perhaps not the greatest of all possible commanders. I considered his major flaw his seeming inability to judge a person’s real character and motives. He did not, I was convinced, choose his friends wisely. But the more I read about Grant’s military career in the West, the more I began to realize a real pattern of behavior that was less than admirable. My distress increased at noticing an awful tendency for a number of historians to take Grant’s version of history as the one and only infallible record, to the exclusion of all other witnesses’ accounts and reports. I came to realize that Grant possessed a willingness to disobey orders if it suited him (Belmont), to habitually report victory no matter how dismal the real results of an action were (The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and Petersburg), and to attribute the credit for successes to himself or his favorites regardless of who was really responsible for the strategy and implementation (Chattanooga and the Cracker Line). Likewise, if things did not go well, he would blame those he wanted to remove from competition with himself or his cronies (Shiloh). It was a pattern that would continue on into the Overland Campaign. If you read Grant’s reports from the Wilderness, you would think that the Army of the Potomac had experienced a considerable victory, and that the Army of Northern Virginia was on its last legs. That was far from the real case, was it not? As for knowing when I was done, I knew I had finished when the Army of the Potomac reached Petersburg, and the battle became the siege. The months that follow I feel deserve their own book, following the 5th Corps through the remainder of 1864, and through the last months and weeks of the war in 1865.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process? What online and brick and mortar sources did you rely on most?

DMS: The Official Records were by far my most frequently utilized source. I’m also grateful for the many works done by the historians of the Western war, which allowed me to begin my consideration of Grant’s and his men’s rise to power. Regarding the Overland Campaign, I’m particularly grateful to William Steere for his wonderful work, The Wilderness Campaign, with its great detail, many citations and well-constructed considerations. I also was very impressed by Bill Matter’s book on Spotsylvania, If It Takes All Summer. I was told by Bill, who was kind enough to discuss my research on the Overland Campaign with me, that he so admired Steere’s work (as do I), that he hoped to make his book on Spotsylvania a continuation of where Steere’s book left off. I can testify that I think, as I told Bill, that he accomplished that very well. Would that every battle I encountered had such comprehensive and even-handed treatments as Steere and Matter gave their work. Beyond that, I considered dozens and dozens of memoirs and accounts of both Federals and Rebels… anyone who would help me to put the puzzle pieces together for as accurate a picture of what happened as possible..

BR: How has the book been received so far?

DMS: While I was aware that fans of U.S. Grant would probably not be pleased with what I wrote, I am happy to say that reviewers, while taking issue with some of my conclusions, have nonetheless stated that serious students of Grant and the Overland Campaign should read my book– that it gave one plenty to think about. That’s most gratifying. Am I happy with how much promotion the book has gotten, or how many people have read the book? No, I am not. I mean to continue pursuing opportunities such as this one you’ve kindly provided for me in order to let people know that this work has something to offer by way of a different look at a period of the war which has suffered from too many works which have relied on limited, weak and unreliable sources.

BR: What’s next for you?

DMS: I’m raring to go on the book that will follow Command Conflicts, but I’m taking time to do a work on Col. Washington Roebling’s military service. Roebling, best known as chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, served as Gen. Warren’s aide and scout from Gettysburg through the last month of December, 1864. A top notch topographical engineer, he was a daring and intelligent soldier, and was delightfully outspoken. Laconic, except when he had something to say, he seemed to be not at all in awe of his commanders. For instance, when accosted by Meade on a battlefield, who was demanding to know who had put a battery in a spot Meade considered too “hot,” Roebling replied, “I don’t know. I didn’t put it there.” One can easily imagine Meade’s eyes bugging out at this flippant reply. I will definitely enjoy spending time with Washington Roebling in the coming months.

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16 responses

11 09 2013
Bob Huddleston

I read this interview with interest since I just finished Alfred young’s _ Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study_. So I went to Amazon to take a look at her book. She thinks Steer’s 20 year old book is the one to read on the Overland Campaign? Her bibliography does not include any of Gordon Rhea’s books, nor Young’s N&S article on the causalities (I assume _Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study_ was not available in time for her.) – how can one write on the Overland Campaign without taking a look at these? She consulted few MSS resources, a must in this age. These lead me to suspect that her thesis in seriously flawed and not worth adding the book to my Civil War must read list.

11 09 2013
Harry Smeltzer

Hi Bob,

I can’t speak to your concerns but will make a couple of comments. Steere’s book is older than 20 years (it was written in 1960, and Stackpole added some new material in 1994.) And it does not cover the entire Overland Campaign, only The Wilderness. That being said and keeping in mind my Wilderness reading was done about 8 years ago, I was pretty well caught up at that time and still considered Steere’s the best of the lot. Also keep in mind that Smith’s study focuses on command specifically and is not a campaign study like Steere, Trudeau, or Rhea. These points don’t invalidate you’re concerns.

12 09 2013
Chris Evans

I agree.

Interesting comments. I think that Steere’s book is still one of the best accounts of the battle.

She mentions Bierce’s comments on Grant at Chattanooga. I like Bierce but his comments have to be taken with a grain of salt. He really disliked Grant.

Brooks Simpson talked about this in a excellent article on Bierce: http://www.ambrosebierce.org/journal3simpson.html

Chris

12 09 2013
Harry Smeltzer

Hi Chris,

Yes, I was surprised that Steere’s book holds up so well. I still find it superior to Rhea, though Rhea’s assessment that the forces of Meade and Burnside lacked the “firm, guiding hand” to deal with Lee in the Wilderness is intriguing – just wish he had explored it further.

As for Bierce, I think the motivations behind the opinions expressed by anyone – maybe particularly contemporaries – need to be taken into consideration and evaluated. The natural tendency is to “take with a grain of salt” the thoughts of those with whom we disagree, and to accept at face value those of anyone with whom we agree. I’m reading a book now in which the author takes both attitudes with the same commentator! That takes the cake.

12 09 2013
Diane Smith

Hi Bob, l used Steere’s work because I found it to be the most reliable, unbiased and well-documented. I became disenchanted with Rhea’s work on the campaign because of what I perceived as his too frequent use of Grant and Grant alone (or his “Men”) as a source… I object to that for all the reasons I stated in my interview. But your right… I did not see Young’s N&S article, nor have I seen the Numerical Study. Diane

12 09 2013
John Foskett

My initial reaction includes a dose of skepticism. I find it ironic that she seems to be on a mission to discredit the accounts of several participants and yet appears to be a zealous proponent of the over-hyped professor from Bowdoin who was hardly a stranger to embellishment and self-promotion himself. I never judge a book in advance based on such skeletal information but she’s already erected a hurdle IMHO. We’ll see, of course.

12 09 2013
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks John.

12 09 2013
Chris Evans

I disagree with some of what Smith said especially about Grant (if he was so vindictive why did he offer Buell a command in 1864 as Simpson notes) but I don’t want to put Chamberlain down on the way.

I know Spear came to hate him but I think Chamberlain was a extremely brave man. I know at Little Round Top it was a group effort- O’Rourke, Vincent, Weed, Hazlett, the men doing the fighting, etc but Chamberlain was brave there and he nearly died at the initial fighting at Petersburg.

One of the last things Grant noted in the margins of his memoirs when he was dying was to mention about Chamberlain at Petersburg.

Reading about Chamberlain’s injuries in Welsh’s ‘Medical Histories of Union Generals’ is pretty horrifying and what he had to go through the rest of his life with them. I recommend that to critics of his.

So I don’t want to get mad at Chamberlain because he wrote of himself so well, Pullen wrote a wonderful book about his regiment, and Shaara did a excellent fictional depiction of him in ‘The Killer Angels’, and Daniels was at his best playing him in ‘Gettysburg’.

He was despite all of these things a very brave man that pretty much gave his life for the United States.

Chris

13 09 2013
John Foskett

Plenty of the people that Smith is apparently going after could also fit within that category. I think it’s irrelevant to the point. Not many would question Ellis Spear’s courage or patriotism, either. I’m simply struck by the fact that an author who seems (key word) to be a bit of a Chamberlain zealot would be criticizing other figures for hyperbole. And not having seen the book that she is putting together, this may or may not turn out to be a fair criticism.

13 09 2013
Chris Evans

It seems to me that there has started to be on the fringe sniping at Grant the last 10-15 years.

I don’t know exactly why this is so but I just hope we don’t see a book like ‘Lee Considered’ come out on Grant. That led to Ad nauseum similar books on Lee for years after.

Chris

14 09 2013
John Foskett

Chris: I think some of that is the inevitable attempt to take a revisionist approach to any view of history which has become accepted and established. As for Lee, there was a dire need in the 20th century for a realistic look at someone who had (wrongly) become almost a venerated saint. Nolan’s book may have gone a bit too far in the other direction, but his and Connolly’s Marble Man were essential. After all, Lee’s prominent biographer admitted to bowing before the bloody statue on his way to work. I’m not sure Grant will ever ascend to the silly pinnacle Lee was mounted on but there’s nothing wrong with a serious second take if the objective is getting at truth rather than just pushing an agenda.

13 09 2013
Diane Smith

Golly John, So far you’ve called me a Chamberlain zealot, accused me of “going after” people, declared that any author who has written about Chamberlain has no right to criticize other people for hyperbole, and stated that I was an historian whose mission was to discredit some people’s accounts– and you make all these comments (with your several disclaimers) without having seen or read any of my works. I assure you, the only thing I’m a zealot (you use that word a lot) about is trying to find and consider all the facts. You say you never judge books in advance, but your comments sure sound kind of judgmental to me. Get back to me after you’ve read my books. Diane

14 09 2013
John Foskett

Diane:
The reason my “disclaimers” are in my posts is that i haven’t seen the book (obviously) and want to be clear that i’m reaching no juidgment in advance. In fact, it may well be that I end up purchasing it and that it is well done. My posts are simply raising what for me are red flags. in answer to one of Harry’s questions you head off on what struck me as a paritcularly vitriolic discussion of Ellis Spear – a bit “over the top” given the subject of Harry’s question. On the topic of Chamberlain ordering the charge at LRT, if I recall correctly Chamberlain never mentioned that in his July 4 and July 14 letters to his wife. And Chamberlain himself was prone to embellishment. Solid scholarship undermines his romantic account of the April, 1865 surrender. Yet your answer to Harry’s question looks like a bit of a one-way street on this issue. As a writer i’m sure you noticed that in both references to “zealous”/”zealot”, I emphasized the words “appears” and “seems”. That is based solely on the interview and, as noted, in particular on the discussion of Spear. And I don’t doubt that Spear may have gone overboard in reaction to the hype which has always seemed to surround Chamberlain. Shaara, Burns, and Maxwell have done him no favors.

15 09 2013
Diane Smith

Hello, John, Thanks for your reply. I assure you I don’t have any agenda, and no intentions to “go after” anyone. I could have used James Wilson as an example of a quick change artist, with his admission that the story he told about capturing Jefferson Davis in a dress was untrue, but then he’d go right on telling the story, again and again. But I honestly thought of Ellis Spear as the best example I know for someone whose story changes and changes to the point where he can’t even agree with himself. A case in point is the book The Civil War Recollections of General Ellis Spear by Ellis Spear (University of Maine, Aug 1997). An editor was handed the thankless job of trying to reconcile Spear’s three separate versions of his service (one done during the war, one about 1896, and the other post 1900) and he finally threw up his hands and printed all three versions . It was the only thing an honest editor could do– allow the reader to see and compare all three accounts and judge for themselves. So if a witness’s testimony changes radically over the years, does that call in to question their reliability? It does for me. So when Spear does not do very well on my “changing-story-o-meter,” and Chamberlain does better (not perfect, but better), I’m puzzled why my mentioning Spear’s fluctuations and flashes of nastiness earns the description of setting out to “get someone,” being “particularly vitriolic,” or showing signs of being a Chamberlain “zealot.” Those are kind of loaded words. So, while it could well turn out that you won’t agree with evidence I’ve offered or conclusions I’ve drawn, I’m hoping that parties on all sides of the question will look at what I’ve put on the table. The irony of this all, is, if anything, as I mentioned in the interview, I started my work on Grant with a slight bias in his favor. I may have picked up some of that bias from Chamberlain’s words of admiration for Grant, despite what I would think would be Chamberlain’s own personal reasons for questioning Grant’s judgment (Petersburg, Warren’s dismissal, etc.). How much weight one’s gives a witness’s accounts and testimony is something I discussed at length with the late John Pullen. Much of what I said in the original interview coincides with what John and I considered possible warning signs of shaky accounts. I do, by the way, agree with what you wrote about the “inevitable attempt to take a revisionist approach to any view of history which has become accepted and established.” While I know you were referring, for the most part, to Lee, one can’t be a Chamberlain historian without running into quite a bit of that! I’m also all too familiar with the “hype” you mention. One of the reasons I wrote Fanny and Joshua, was my distaste for what I thought of as creeping hero worship in previous Chamberlain biographies. I consider the Chamberlain I wrote about, with all his strengths, weaknesses and warts a much more interesting character than the one who was portrayed as one who could do no wrong. I am curious, by the way, whose “solid scholarship” you are referring to that “undermines his romantic account of the April, 1865 surrender.” Again, thanks for your response. Diane

16 09 2013
Chris Evans

The contention about Chamberlain and Gordon’s accounts of the surrender at Appomattox is discussed in two books by William Marvel- ‘A Place Called Appomattox’ (UNC Press 2000) and ‘Lee’s Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox’ (UNC Press 2002).

Chris

16 09 2013
Diane Smith

Hi Chris, How about Pat Schroeder’s work? Diane

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