A page containing quotes from the late Shelby Foote, American writer and historian, focused on his epic "The Civil War: A Narrative."
"The last romantic
and first modern war."
- Shelby Foote's description of the American Civil War
"History and literature
are rarely so thoroughly combined as here."
- Peter S. Prescott, Newsweek on "The Civil War: A Narrative"
"The lucidity of the
battle narratives, the vigor of the prose, the strong feeling for the men
from generals to privates who did the fighting, are all controlled by a
constant sense of how it happened and what it was all about. Foote has
the novelist's feeling for character and situation, without losing the
historian's scrupulous regard for recorded fact. The Civil War is likely
to stand unequalled."
- Walter Millis
"It has... the realism
which only art can impart on reality."
- from a review of "Shiloh" in The Atlantic Monthly
~ Volume One: Fort
Sumter to Perryville
~ Volume Two: Fredericksburg to Meridian
~ Volume Three: Red River to Appomattox
~ Essay: Men At War
~ Other History Quotes
~ Other Quotes
# VOLUME ONE: Fort Sumter to Perryville
I am a Mississippian.
Though the veterans I knew are all dead now, down to the final home guard
drummer boy of my childhood, the remembrance of them is still with me.
However, being nearly as far removed from them in time as most of them
were removed from combat when they died. I hope I have recovered the respect
they had for their opponents until Reconstruction lessened and finally
killed it. Biased is the last thing I would be; I yield to no one in my
admiration for heroism and ability, no matter which side of the line a
man was born or fought on when the war broke out, fourscore and seventeen
years ago. If pride in the resistance of my forebears made against the
odds has leaned me to any degree in their direction, I hope it will be
seen to amount to no more, in the end, than the average American's normal
sympathy for the underdog in a fight.
- Shelby Foote, writing in 1958
The novelist and the historian are seeking the same thing: the truth — not a different truth, the same truth - only they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes. Whether the event took place in world now gone to dust, preserved by documents and evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved in memory and distilled by the creative process, they both want to tell us how it was: to re-create it, by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around them. This has been my aim, as well, only I have combined the two. Accepting the historian's standard without his paraphernalia, I have employed the novelist's methods without his license.
#1 Prologue: The Opponents
#2 First Blood, New Conceptions
#3 The Thing Gets Under Way
#4 War Means Fighting
#5 Fighting Means Killing
#6 The Sun Shines South
#7 Two Advances, Two Retreats
#8 Last Best Hope of Earth
[#1 Prologue: The
"I glory in Mississippi's star! But before I would see it dishonored I would tear it from its place, to be set on the perilous ridge of battle as a sign around which her bravest and best shall meet the harvest home of death."
- Jefferson Davis, speaking in November 1860
When a Virginian or a Carolinian spoke of his 'country', he meant Virginia or Carolina. It was not so with Davis. Tennessee and Kentucky were as familiar to him as Mississippi; the whole south, as a region, formed his background; he was 30 before he knew a real home in any real sense of the word.
Davis was winning a position as a leader in the Senate, he had become the spokesman for southern nationalism, which in those days meant not independence but domination from within the Union. This movement had been given impetus by the Mexican War. Up till then the future of the country pointed north and west, but now the needle trembled and suddenly swung south. The treaty signed as Guadelupe Hidalgo brought into the Union a new southwestern domain, seemingly ripe for slavery and the southern way of life... here was room for expansion indeed, with more to follow; for the nationalists looked forward to taking what was left of Mexico... yet the North, so recently having learned the comfort of the saddle, had no intention of yielding the reins. The South would have to fight for this; and this the South was prepared to do, using States Rights for a spear and the Constitution for a shield... the North opposed this dream of southern expansion by opposing the extension of slavery, without which the new southwestern territory would be anything but southern.
"The man and the hour
- William Lowndes Yancey, toasting Davis as new President of the CSA
"When the white man
governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and
also governs another man, that is more than self-government, that is despotism."
- Abraham Lincoln, speaking in October 1854
The Whigs had foundered, the Democrats had split on all those rocks. Like many men just know, Lincoln hardly knew where he stood along party lines... he was waiting and looking. And then he found the answer. It was 1856, a presidential election year. Out of the Nebraska crisis, two years before, the Republican Party had been born, a coalition of foundered Whigs and disaffected northern Democrats, largely abolitionist at the core.
"You people of the
South don't know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood,
and God only knows how it will end. It is follu, madness, a crime against
civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don't know what you're
talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake too, the people of
the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they
will fight too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without
a mightly effort to save it... Besides, where are your man and appliances
of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive
or railway car, hardly a yard of cloth or a pair of shoes can you make.
You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical
people on earth - right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your
spirit and your determination are you prepared for war. In all else you
are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will
make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from
the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If
your people will but stop and think, they must see that in the end you
will surely fail."
- William Tecumseh Sherman, speaking in December 1860
*Strategically the South would fight a defensive war, and to her accordingly would proceed all the advantages of the defensive: advantages which had been increasing in ratio to the improvements in modern weapons. A study of the map would show additional difficulties for the North, particularly in the theater lying between the two capitals, where the rivers ran east and west across the line of march, presenting a series of obstacles to the invader. In the West it would be otherwise; there the rivers ran north and south for the most part, broad highways for invasion; but few were looking westward in those days. The northern objective, announced early in the war by the man who would be her leading general, was 'unconditional surrender'. Against this stern demand, southern soldiers would fight in defense of their homes, with all the fervour and desperation accompanying such a position. The contrast, of course, would be as true on the home front as in the armies, together with additional knowledge on both sides that the North could stop fighting at any time, with no loss of independence or personal liberty: whereas the South would lose not only her national existence, but would have to submit, in the course of peace, to any terms the victor might exact under a government that would interpret, and even rewrite, the Constitution in whatever manner seemed most to its advantage. Under such conditions, given the American pride and the American love of liberty and self-government, it seemed certain that the South would fight would all her strength. Whether the North, driven by no such necessities, would exert herself to a similar extent in a war of conquest remained to be seen.
In Richmond, Jefferson Davis repeated, "All we ask is to be let alone," a remark which a Virginia private was to translate into combat terms when he told his captors, "I'm fighting because you're down here." Davis knew as well as Lincoln that after the balance sheet was struck, after the advantages of the preponderance of manpower and materiel had been weighed against the advantages of the strategical defensive, what would decide the contest was the people's will to resist, on the home front as well as on the field of battle.
Congress bowed its
head and agreed (with Lincoln). Though Americans grew pale in prison cells
without knowing the charges under which they had been snatched from their
homes or places of employment, there were guilty men among the innocent,
and a dungeon was as good a place as any for a patriot to serve his country
through a time of strain.
- Commenting on Lincoln's suspension of Habeas Corpus
"Mary had a little
lamb, its fleece was white as snow,
Shouting the Battle Cry of Freedom!
And everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go,
Shouting the Battle Cry of Freedom!"
- An alternate version sung by Northern troops
[#2 First Blood, New Conceptions]
"So short lived has
been the American Union that men who saw its rise may live to see its fall."
- The London Times, after the first Union defeat
"War consists not only
in battles, but in well-considered movements which bring the same results."
- John C. Fremont
In the '40s, commanding in Mexico, General Winfield Scott had conducted, on a live-ammunition training ground, a postgraduate course in the art of war for officers who, having fought against Mexicans, would find a broader scope for their talents when they fought against each other in the '60s. Landing at Vera Cruz, outflanking Cerro Gordo, cutting loose from his base in hostile country to reduce Chapultepec and occupy Mexico City, he had established models for operations that would be repeated, time and again, on a larger scale, so that to list the men who received their baptism of fire under his direction was practically to call the roll of army commanders and generals-in-chief, both North and South, in the war that was building towatds a climax at the time of his retirement. All this was much, but he had done still more. He had provided a plan for total war: Scott's Anaconda.
What was called an anaconda might better have been described as a water serpent. All down the eastern seaboard he would establish a deep-water naval blockade to wall the Confederacy off from Europe and whatever aid might come from that direction. Meanwhile, down the length of the Mississippi, from Cairo past New Orleans, he would send an army of 60000 'rough-vigor fellows' backed by gunboats, thus cutting the Southerners off from the cattle and cereals of Texas, as well as from such foreign help as might be forwarded through the neutral ports of Mexico. Having seized all this he would hold on tight, neither advancing nor yielding ground, and within these constricting coils the South would become in very fact a political and economic wilderness, the awful hug of the serpent producing results which bursting shells and prodding bayonets could never bring about. The flame of rebellion, so difficult to stamp out would die from a lack of fuel or be smothered by sheer boredom. Unionist sentiment, unprovoked, would reassert itself... Such as Scott's Anaconda... McDowell's march on Manassas, which Scott opposed, applied the goad which the plan would have avoided.
The first year of the conflict reached a close. Politically and militarily speaking, its laurels belonged to those who had established a nation within its span and defended that establishment successfully in battle, meeting and turning back attacks against both flanks of their thousand-mile frontier and staving off an advance against the center... there was a distinct public impression, North and South, at home and abraod, of failure by the Unionist government to deal with the Confederate bid for independence. One side called this bid a revolution. The other insisted it was a rebellion. Whichever it was, it was plainly a fact, and both sides saw clearly now that the contest between northern power and southern elan was not going to be the 90-day affair they had predicted at the outset.
*In Richmond and in Washington, one hundred miles apart, Davis and Lincoln toiled their long hours, kept their vigils, and sought solutions to problems that were mostly the same but seemed quite different because they saw them in reverse, from opposite directions. All men were to be weighed in this time, and especially these two. At the far ends of the north-south road connecting the two capitals they strained to see and understand each other, peering as if across a darkling plain. Soon now, that hundred miles of Virginia with its glittering rivers and dusty turnpikes, its fields of grain and rolling pastures, the peace of generations soft upon it like the softness in the voices of its people, would be obscured by the swirl and bank of cannon smoke, stitched by fitful stabs of muzzle flashes, until as last, lurid as the floor of hell itself, it would seem to have been made for war as deliberately as a chessboard was designed for chess. Even the place-names on the map, which now were merely quaint, would take on the sound of crackling flame and distant thunder, the Biblical, Indian and Anglo-Saxon names of hamlets and creeks and crossroads, for the most part unimportant in themselves until the day when the armies came together, as often by accident as on purpose, to give the scattered names a permanence and settle what manner of life future generations were to lead. The road ran straight, a glory road with split-rail fences like forewood ready stacked for the two armies, and many men would travel it wearing Union blue or Confederate gray. Blood had been shed along it once, and would be shed again; how many times? Neither Lincoln nor Davis knew, but they intended to find out, and soon. The year just past had been in the nature of a prelude, whose close marked only the end of the beginning.
[#3 The Thing Gets Under Way]
The Army of Central Kentucky had two cavalrymen who had already contributed exploits to its legend: Captain John Hunt Morgan of Kentucky and Lt Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest of Tennessee. Though the former had fought in the Mexican War as a youth and later commanded his hometown militia company, neither man had had a military education. The latter, in fact, a Memphis slave dealer and a Mississippi planter, had had little formal schooling of any kind. By the end of the year, however, both had shown an aptitude for war. Morgan, who was 26, took 13 of his troopers on a reconnaissance completely around Buell's army and returned with 33 prisoners. In his first fight, northeast of Bowling Green, the 40-year-old Forrest improvised a double envelopment, combined it with a frontal assault - classic maneuvers which he could not identify by name and of which he had mostly likely never heard - and scattered the survivors of a larger enemy force... soldiers of all arms predicted brilliant futures for them both - if they lived, which seemed unlikely.
To confuse his enemies (Confederate General Albert Sidney) Johnston had first to mislead his friends and this he did. Statements doubling and tripling his actual strength and hinting at an imminent offensive were printed in all southern papers, in hapes that rival editors north of the defensive line would pick them up and spread them, which they did. Yet psychological warfare was a weapon that could boomerang, returning with a force in direct to the success of its outward flight. While Halleck and Buell were counting themselves fortunate that Confederates did not storm their lines, readers south of the border were also thoroughly taken in by Johnston, who thus compromised hsis reputation and risked his countrymen's morale by promising citories he knew he could never deliver with the present force at his command.
"Army and Navy were
like blades of shears — united, invincible; separated, almost useless."
- Commodore Andrew H. Foote (US Navy)
As a southern gentleman Lloyd Tilghman believed there were only three events in a man's life which warranted the printing of his name without permission: his birth, his marriage, and his death.
'Uncle Sam' had been Grant's Academy nickname, derived from his initials, which in turn were accidental. The congressional appointment had identified him as Ulysses Simpson Grant, when in fact his given name was Hiram Ulysses, but rather than try to untangle the yards of red tape that stood in the war of correction - besides the risk of being nicknamed 'Hug' - he let his true name go and took the new one: U.S. Grant.
"A million men, it
is estimated, are now standing in hostile array and waging war along a
frontier of thousands of miles. Battles have been fought, sieges have been
conducted, and although the contest is not ended and the tide for the moment
is against us, the final result in our favor is not doubtful. We have had
our trials and difficulties. That we are to escape them in the future is
not to be hoped. It was to be expected when we entered this war that it
would expose our people to sacrifices and cost them much, both of money
and blood. But the picture has its lights as well as its shadows. This
great strife has awakened in the people the highest emotions and qualities
of the human soul."
- Jefferson Davis (1862 address)
Napoleon would only repeat what he had said before (to the Confederate envoys): France could not act without England. That was the crux of the matter. The Crimean War had been a struggle between West and East, which the West had won, and now in the normal course of events, as demonstrated by history, the victors should have turned upon each other for the domination of the whole. Yet it had not worked out that way. There was no such tenuous balance as had obtained at the time of the American Revolution, bringing France to the assistance of the Colonies. On the contrary, the 'entente' remained strong, drawing its strength from the weakness of Napoleon, whose shaky finances and doubtful popularity would not allow him to risk bringing all of Europe down on his unprotected back. Slidell could only inform his government of these conditions. It began to seem that, economically and politically - so far at least as Europe was concerned - the South had chosen the wrong decade in which to make her bid for independence.
Edwin McMasters Stanton had done devious things in his time. A corporation lawyer, he delighted also in taking criminal cases when these were challenging and profitable enough, His fees were large... for a murder defense he once took as his fee the accused man's only possession, the house he lived in. When he won the case and was about to convert the mortgage into cash, the man tried to persuade him to hold off, saying that he would be ruined by the foreclosure. "You deserve to be ruined," Stanton had told him, "for you were guilty."
Whatever truth there might once have been in the Confederate claim that Southerners made better soldiers, or anyhow started from a better scratch because they came directly from life in the open and were familiar with the use of firearms, applied no longer. After six months of army drill, a factory hand was indistinguishable from a farmer. Individually, the Northerners knew, they were at least as tough as any men the South could bring against them, and probably as a whole they were better drilled - except of course the cavalry, since admittedly it took longer to learn to fork a horse in style. McClellan's men were aware of the changes he had wrought and they were proud of them.
Lincoln had in his army, in Sumner's corps, a division commanded by Louis Blenker, a man of considerable flamboyance. Blenker was a soldier of fortune, a German, and his men were known as Germans too, this being the current generic term for immigrants of all origins except Ireland. But the fact was, they were almost everything: Algerians, Cossacks, Sepoys, Turks, Croats, Swiss, French Foreign Legionnaires, and a Garibaldi regiment with a Hungarian colonel.
[#4 War Means Fighting]
"War means fighting.
And fighting means killing."
- Nathan Bedford Forrest
In the Battle of Shiloh, Union losses were 1754 killed, 8408 wounded, 2885 captured: total, 13047. Confederate losses were 1723 killed, 8012 wounded, 959 missing: total, 10694. Of the 100,000 soldiers engaged in this first great bloody conflict of the war, approximately one out of every four who had gone in battle had been killed, wounded or captured. Casualties were 24%, the same as Waterloo's. Yet Waterlook had settled something whule this one apparently had settled nothing. When it was over the two armies were back where they stared, with other Waterloos ahead. In another sense, however, it settled a great deal. The American volunteer, whichever side he was on in the war, and however green, would fight as fiercely and stand as firmly as the vaunted veterans of Europe... Total American casualties in all three of the nation's previous wars - the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War: 10623+6765+5885 - were 23,273. Shiloh's totaled 23,741.
They huddled there,
white-faced with alarm, while the world outside seemed turned to flame
- Describing the defenders under bombardment inside Fort Jackson
"We must defeat the
enemy *somewhere*, to give confidence to our friends... We must give up
on some minor points, and concentrate our forces, to save the most important
ones, or we will lose all of them in succession."
- Confederate General Pierre Beauregard (1862)
After a full year of war, afloat and ashore, a contradictory pattern was emerging. In naval actions — with the exception of Fort Donelson — whoever attacked was the winner; while in land actions of any size — again with the same notable exception — it was the other way round.
[#5 Fighting Means Killing]
Disaster (for the Confederacy) came in various forms this spring, and it moved to various tempos. In the West it came like fireworks, looming after a noisy rush and casting a lurid glow. Whole states, whole armies fell at once or had large segments broken off by the treat of the invader. Kentucky and Missouri, most of Tennessee, much of Arkansas, North Alabama and North Mississippi were lost in rapid succession, along with 30,000 fighting men, dead or in northern prison camps, and finally New Orleans, Memphis, and the fleets that had been built to hold the river that ran between them. That was how it reached the West.
Nowhere, east or west, had there been a victory to celebrate since Ball's Bluff in October seven months ago. Foreign intervention, the cure-all formerly assured by early spring because that was when England's cotton reserves were supposed to be exhuasted, now seemed further away than ever.
Although the near-exhaustion of the nation's war supplies, especially powder, was kept secret, other effects of the naval blockade were all too well known. After a disastrous attempt at price control was abandoned, the regulated items having simply disappeared from grocery shelves, prices went up with a leap. Meat was 50c a pound, butter 75c, coffe $1.50, and tea $10; all in contrast to cotton, which had fallen to 5c.
In a late-March message to Congress Lee recommended outright conscription, within the age bracket 18-45, throughout the Confederacy - to make sure, he said, that the burden of fighting did not fall "exclusively on the most ardent and patriotic." Congress debated hotly, then on April 16, after lowering the upper age limit to 25, passed the first national conscription law in American history. They passed it because they knew it was necessary, but they blamed Davis for having made it necessary by adopting the "dispersed defensive" tactic which they said had dampened national enthusiasm... States Righters saw in conscription a repudiation of the principles for which the war was being fought. Georgia's governor Joseph E. Brown flatly declared that no "act of the Government of the United States prior to the secession of Georgia struck a blow at constitutional liberty so fell as has been struck by the conscription act".
Numerically, then in Northern Virginia - with 68,000 Federals distributed along a perimeter guarded by just under 20,000 Confederates - the outlook was a gloomy as elsewhere, even gloomier. But Lee saw possibilities through the gloom. If the two largest southern commands, under Jackson and Ewell, could be combined, they might be able to hit one of the three opposing forces hard enough to alarm the Union high command into delaying the advance of all the rest: including McDowell. That is, Lee would stop McDowell, not by striking him - he was too strong - but by striking Banks or Fremont, who would call on him for help.
Lee had Davis to sustain him. Unlike Lincoln, who did not count a soldier as part of the Wahsington defenses unless he could ride out and touch him in the course of an afternoon's round-trip carriage drive from the White House, Davis could see that a man a hundred miles away might do more to relieve the pressure, or stave off a threat, than if he stood on the capital ramparts.
Embraced by the twin forks of the Shenandoah, which combined at Front Royal and flowed northwards into the Potomac, the ridge of Massanutton Mountain could be crossed at only one point, about midway, by a road connecting New Market and Luray. Here was where Jackson fixed his eye, and the harder he looked the more he saw in the way of opportunities. The road net this inclosing Massanutton resembled an elongated italicized capital H. The crossbar (of the H) was the key. Whoever held it could move up or down either shank of the H, not only with his own flank protected, but also with an excellent chance of striking the flank of an enemy in motion on the opposite side.
The most remarkable thing about the ensuing action was that a plan as sound as Johnston's appeared at the outset - so simple as to be practically fool proof, even for green troops under green commanders - could produce such an utter brouhaha, such a Donnybrook of a battle. Seven Pines, or Fair Oaks as some called it, was unquestionably the worst-conducted large-scale conflict in a war that afforded many rivals for that distinction. What it came to, finally, was a military nightmare.
"Always mystify, mislead
and surprise the enemy, if possible. And when you strike and overcome him,
never let up in the pursuit so long as your men have strength to follow.
The other rule is, never fight against heavy odds if by any possible maneuvering
you can hurl your own force on only a part, and that the weakest part,
of your enemy and crush it. Such tactics will win every time, and a small
army may thus destroy a large one in detail, and repeated victory will
make it invincible."
- Confederate General Stonewall Jackson
Application of these strategic principles, plus of course the blessings of Providence had enabled Stonewall, with 17,000 troops, to frustrate the plans of 60,000 Federals whose generals were assigned the exclusive task of accomplishing his destruction. Four pitched battles he had fought, six formal skirmishes, and any number of minor actions. All had been victories, and in all bu one of the battles he had outnumbered the enemy in the field, anywhere from two- to seventeen-to-one.
Watching the week-long
twenty-mile-wide conflict had been something like watching a small man
beat a large one, not by nimble footwork or artful dodging or even boxing
skill, but rather by brute force, driving headlong , never relinquishing
the offensive, and taking a good deal more punishment than he inflicted.
- Describing the Seven Days' Battle
[#6 The Sun Shines South]
In chess terms, Lee's immediate problem was whether to keep his pieces where they were, concentrated to checkmate the king - McClellan - or to disperse them in order to meet an advance bu the knights and bishops, off to another quarter of the board.
Unable on the one hand
to stand still, or on the other to retire, Lee perceived that the only
way to deal qith an opponent he did not feel strong enough to fight was
to maneuver him into retreat, and to do that he would have to divide his
- On Lee's dilemma before confronting Pope
[#7 Two Advances, Two Retreats]
"The time has come
for offering mediation to the United States Government, with a view to
recognition of the independence of the Confederates. I agree further that,
in case of failure, we ought ourselves to recognize the Southern States
as an independent State."
- Earl Russell, English foreign secretary, in a letter to his prime minister
"It is evident that
a great conflict is taking place to the northwest of Washington, and its
issue may have a great effect on the state of affairs. If the Federals
sustain a grave defeat, they may be at once ready for mediation, and iron
should be struck while it is hot. If, on the other hand, they should have
the best of it, we may wait a while and see what may follow."
- Lord Palmerston, English prime minister, writing before Battle of Antietam
It never occured to McClellan, apparently, to look at the reverse of the coin: to consider that Lee's army, like his own, was the only organized force that blocked the path to its capital. But it did occur to Sykes, who appealed to him, late in the day to be allowed to strike at the rebel center with his regulars.
I command the last reserve of the last army of the republic."
- General George B. McClellan, refusing General Sykes' request
Abroad, as at home,
a bedrock impact had been felt... In London, Earl Russell himself might
point out to his colleagues that that it was "of a very strange nature",
and contained "no declaration of a principle adverse to slavery." Yet behind
these organs of opinion, below these men of influence, stood the people.
In their minds, now that Lincoln had spoken out - regardless of what he
actually said or left unsaid - support for the South was support for slavery,
and they would not have it so. From this point on, editors might favor
and the heads of state might ponder ways and means of extending recognition
to the Confederacy, but to do this would have to run counter to the feelings
and demands of their subscribers and electors. Not even the nearly half-million
textile workers already idle as a result of the first pinch of the cotton
famine were willing to have the blockade broken on such terms. And the
same was true in France. With this one blow - though few could see it yet:
least of all the leader most concerned - Lincoln had shattered the main
pillar of what had been the southern President's chief hope from the start.
Europe would not be coming into this war.
- On the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation
[#8 Last Best Hope of Earth]
"We always understood
each other so well. I fear they may continue to make these changes till
they find someone whom I don't understand."
- General Robert E. Lee, on the replacement of General George B. McClellan
As a professional soldier, in touch with every department of the army he commanded, Davis not only recognized the odds his country faced in its struggle for independence; he saw that they were lengthening with every passing month as the North's tremendous potential was converted into actuality. In that sense, not only was time against him; even success was against him, for each northern reverse brought on a quickening of the tempo of conversion. And yet, paradoxically, it was time for which he was fighting. Time alone could bring into being, in the North, the disouragement which was the South's chief hope for victory if foreign intervention failed to materialize, as now seemed likely.
"We cannot change the
hearts of the people of the South, but we can make war so terrible that
they will realize the fact that however brave and gallant and devoted to
their country still they are mortal and should exhaust all peaceful remedies
before they fly to war."
- William Tecumseh Sherman
There would be other Shilohs, other Sharpsburgs, other terrors. Men in their thousands now alive would presently be dead; homes so far untouched by sorrow would know tears; new widows and new orphans, some as yet unmarried or unborn, would be made - all, as Lincoln saw it, that the nation might continue and that men now in bondage might have freedom. In issuing the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation he had made certain that there would be no peace except by conquest.
"Without slavery the
rebellion would never have existed; without slavery it could not continue."
- President Abraham Lincoln
"We can succeed only
in concert. It is not 'Can any of us imagine better?' but 'Can we all do
better?" Object whatsoever is possible, still the question recurs, 'Can
we do better?'"
- President Abraham Lincoln
The immediate and admitted result of a southern defeat would be that the South would go out of existence as a nation, however well it might survive in the sense that Lincoln intended to convey. The threat of national extinction was a sharper goad that any the northern leader could apply in attempting the unification he saw was necessary; therefore he determined to try for something other than sharpness. As he had done against Douglas in the old days, so now in his long-range contest with Davis he shifted the argument onto a higher plane... Lincoln managed to redefine the Davis concept of self-government as destructive of world democracy, which was shown to depend on survival of the Untion with the South as part of the whole. In thus discounting the claims of his opponent, he rallied not only his own people behind him, but also those of other lands where freedom was cherished as a possession or a goal, and thus assured nonintervention.
"The dogmas of the
quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled
high with difficulty, and we must rise - with the occasion. As our case
is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves,
and then we shall save our country. Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.
We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite
of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one
or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us
down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for
the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save
the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We - even we here
- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the
slave, we assure freedom to the free - honorable alike in what we give,
and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best
hope of earth."
- Abraham Lincoln's message to Congress, (December 1862)
>> Continue to Volume Two: Fredericksburg to Meridian
# MEN AT WAR
This essay appears in the companion book to the PBS series The Civil War, produced by Ken Burns.
The Civil War defined
us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad
things... It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads...
We think we are a wholly superior people. If we'd been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war. But since we did fight it, we have to make it the greatest war of all times. And our generals were the greatest generals of all time. It's very American to do that.
- on why Americans are drawn to the Civil War
Of course, they say wars never settle anything — but that business about secession was settled by the war.
Perhaps the one thing that the Civil War really contributed to the art of warfare was field fortifications. That was primarily due to James Longstreet, whose men invented it, and Stonewall Jackson saw it and emulated it. Lee used it too. Finally, that army got so they could flow into a position the way water seeks its own level. They could get into a position and have overlapping fields of fire that a master might have designed.
It was tough. There
were little things. They made regular 25-mile marches. I made two or three
25-mile marches in the army and I was broken down for days after it. They
made them frequently, and when you were issued a pair of shoes in the norther
army, they weren't left foot and right foot, they were the same foot. You
*wore* them into being a left-foot shoe or a right-foot shoe. And when
you imagine making 25-mile marches with inferior footwear, let alone barefoot,
the way many Confederates were, it's unbelievable the way they could function.
- On the hardships of Civil War soldiering
In the Confederate army, all officers below the rank of brigadier were selected by the troops. You would think that would be a poor system, because men would select officers who would be easy on them rather than men who would be skillfull. You couldn't be wronger. They knew they were electing men whom they were willing to trust with their lives, so you better believe they selected the best men.
It's my belief that the war in the West is at least as important as the one in the East... The Union victory at Fort Donelson, for example, lost all of Kentucky for the Confederacy, and most of Tennessee. It saw the emergence of Grant and Bedford Forrest. It was when the northern juggernaut began to roll, and the battle of Shiloh was an attempt to stop it, a desperate attempt to stop it that failed. Shiloh was the first big battle — the first great bloody battle... The generals didn't know their jobs, the soldiers didn't know their jobs. It was just pure determination to stand and fight and not retreat.
Sharpsburg\Antietam is an unusual battle in that there was no need for fighting it at all. Lee didn't have to fight it, but he was determined not to be run out of Maryland without a fight. A lot of people think he was wrong to stop there and fight, but from then on, when Lee was on a retreat, anybody closing in on him was very cautious, probably because they remembered Sharpsburg, It was a bloody one... It was three battles, one after another, left, center and right.
More credit is given to Confederate soldiers: they're supposed to have had more elan and dash. Actually I know of no braver men in either army than the Union troops at Fredericksburg, which was a serious Union defeat. But to keep charging that wall at the foot of Marye's Heights after all the failures there'd been is a singular instance of valor. It was different from southern elan. It was a steadiness under fire, a continuing to press the point.
Chancellorsville in many ways in Lee's masterpiece. It's where the odds were longest. It's where he took the greatest risk in dividing his army in the presence of a superior enemy and kept the pressure on. The only fault at Chancellorsville was that the attack was staged so late in the day that they were not able to push it to the extent that Stonewall Jackson had intended to and he was even attempting to make a night attack, a very rare thing in the Civil War, because he knew he hadn't finished up what he'd begun. And that's where he received the wound that eventually killed him.
Gettysburg was the
price the South paid for having Lee. The first day's fighting was so encouraging,
and on the second day's fighting he came within an inch of doing it. And
by that time Longstreet said Lee's blood was up, and Longstreet said when
Lee's blood was up there was no stopping him... And that was that mistake
he made, the mistake of all mistakes. Pickett's charge was an incredible
mistake, and there was scarcely a trained soldier who didn't know it was
a mistake at the time, except possibly Pickett himself, who was very happy
he had a chance for glory.
...William Faulkner, in "Intruder in the Dust", said that for every southern boy, it's always within his reach to imagine it being one o'clock on an early July day in 1863, the guns are laid, the troops are lined up, the flags are out of their cases and ready to be unfurled, but it hasn't happened yet. And he can go back in his mind to the time before the war was going to be lost and he can always have that moment for himself.
Lee is a very great
general. And he's superb on both the offensive and the defensive. He took
long chances but he took them because he had to. If Grant had not had superior
numbers, he might have taken chances as long as Lee took. The only way
to win for Lee was with long chances, and it made him brilliant.
Lee read northern papers assidiously... He knew how to put himself in another man's mind. He knew that Grant was going to do because he could make himself Grant long enough to figure out what Grant would do in that situation. The Union fired five or six generals before they got to Grant. By the time they let McClellan go, Lee said, "I'm afraid they're going to keep making these changes until they get someone I don't understand." They never got anyone he didn't understand. But they finally got Grant, who knew how to whip him and did.
Grant the general had many qualities but he had a thing that's very necessary for a great general. He had what they call "four-o'clock-in-the-morning courage". You could wake him up at four o'clock in the morning and tell him they had just turned his right flank and he would be as cool as a cucumber.
These men seem larger than life in what they could endure, especially if you know anything about the medical attention they got. It was so crude, the lack of anaesthetics, all those things. It's almost unbelievable that men could perform over a period of four years. Anybody could go out and perform some afternoon. These men kept it up year after year.
My favourite story
that Lincoln told was he described a Union general out in front of his
troops on horseback. And they were having a review and the horse got to
kicking and prancing and jerking around, and somehow or another, the horse
got his rear foot hooked in the stirrup and the general looked down at
this ridiculous situation and said to the horse, "If you're going to get
on, I'll get off."
Lincoln's a very great writer. He's knocking on the door of Mark Twain... It was the English who recognized him as a stylist first. Many Americans were ashamed of his style, which someone said "had the bark on". He wrote American and people thought American was a language all right. It could be used for vaudeville skits or jokes, but they didn't think it belonged in state papers. And what Lincoln wrote was American, same kind of American that Mark Twain was to write later.
Nathan Bedford Forrest had 30 horses shot from under him during the course of the war. And he killed 31 men in hand-to-hand combat. And he said, "I was a horse ahead at the end."
Lee said, "I don't
think anyone could name anyone who could have done a better job than Jefferson
Davis did, and I personally don't know of anyone who could have done as
good as job." That's from Robert E. Lee, which is pretty good authority.
Misconceptions about Davis are so strange that it's as if a gigantic conspriacy was launched. It was partly launched by southerners, who, having lost the war, did not want to blame it on the generals, so they blamed it on the politicians, and, of course, Davis was the chief politician. So it was the southerners more than the northerners who villified Jefferson Davis. The northerners wanted to hang him from a sour apple tree, but the southerners really tore him down after the war.
Sherman was not much on a field of fight, but he was a superb strategist. He would set things up so that he would win no matter what happened on the field. Sherman was maybe the first truly modern general. He was the first one to understand that civilians were the backers-up of things and that if you went against civilians, you'd deprive the army of what kept it going... He had the real notion. He saw from the very beginning how hard a war it was going to be. And when he said how hard a war it was going to be, he was temporarily under suspicion of insanity and then brought back when they decided that maybe he wasn't so crazy after all.
I think that the North fought that war with one hand behind its back. At the same time the war was going on, the Homestead act was being passed, all these marvelous inventions were going on... If there had been more Southern victories, and a lot more, the North simply would have brought that other hand out from behind its back. I don't think the South ever had a chance to win that War.
Things began to close in on the South more and more. There was scarcely a family that hadn't lost someone. There was disruption of society. The blockade was working. They couldn't get very simple things like needles to sew, very simple things. And the discouragement began to settle in more and more with the realization that they were not going to win that war... The political leaders did everything they could, especially Jefferson Davis, to assure them that this was a second American revolution.... But the realization came more and more that victory was not going to come. And especially that they were not going to get foreign recognition, without which we wouldn't have won the first revolution... A realization came that defeat was foreordained. Mary Chestnut, for instance, said, "It's like a Greek tragedy, where you know what the outcome was going to be. We're living a Greek tragedy."
The Lost Cause is the Confederacy. It is referred to as the Lost Cause... Lost things are always prized very highly. The South conducted itself bravely in an extremely difficult situation. Many of the things we're proudest of in the American character were exemplified in the southern soldier, for instance. We take a justifiable pride in the bravery of those men, North and South.
I can tell you who lost it — the South lost the war. But I'm not sure anybody won that war. It's a tragedy... On the face of it, the North won the war. But the bill for winning it was huge in human values, not to mention human lives.
I think that when the South was defeated to the extent that it was that the whole nation lost something when they lost that civilization, despite the enormous stain and sin of slavery.
The Civil War was really one of those watershed things. There was a huge chasm between the beginning and the end of the war. The nation had come face-to-face with a dreadful tragedy... And yet that's what made us a nation. Before the war, people had a theoretical notion of having a country, but when the war was over, on both sides they knew they had a country. They'd been there. They had walked its hills and tramped its roads... They knew the effort that they had expended and their dead friends had expended to preserve it. It did that. The war made their country an actuality.
Before the war it was always the United States *are*, after the war it was the United States *is*... it made us an is.
# OTHER HISTORY QUOTES
"People make a grievous
error thinking that a list of facts is the truth. Facts are just the bare
out of which truth is made."
"Narrative history is the kind that comes closest to telling the truth. You can never get to the truth, but that's your goal."
"I've never known, at least a modern historical instance, where the truth wasn't superior to distortion in every way."
- Shelby Foote's view of history
"If Americans were
anything as superior as we claim to be, we would be paragons of virtue,
and of course, we're not that. But we are superior in another sense. And
our superiority comes from this diversity of the way we're made up. We
can see a subject in a different way from the way a Frenchman or an Englishman
or a German would see things because so many different points of view are
combined in the one American mind. It gives us a view of things that's
extremely valuable to the world as well as to ourselves."
- Shelby Foote
"People want to know
why the South is so interested in the Civil War. I had maybe, it's a rough
guess, about fifty fistfights in my life. Out of those fifty fistfights,
the ones that I had the most vivid memory of were the ones I lost. I think
that's one reason why the South remembers the war more than the North does."
- Shelby Foote
"The Civil War brings
everything into a sharper focus with heightened color. Anytime you want
to study human behavior, it is well to study the Civil War, because in
that you study human behavior under terrific pressure and heat. So that
men show what they are for good or bad more readily than in ordinary times."
- Shelby Foote
"The American Civil
War — April to April, Sumter to Appomattox, 1861 to 1865 — pervades the
national conscience... It makes a great story. I know of none since the
Iliad that rivals it either in drama or in pathos."
- Shelby Foote, from his foreword to "The Blue and the Gray"
"John Keats said a
good thing in one of his letters. He said, 'There's no man who can't be
carved up on his wrong side.' And that is certainly true. You can take
any one of us apart if you find what angle to approach him from that'll
do him the most damage. You can always do it."
- Shelby Foote
sound awful primitive. They didn't seem primitive to them. They were a
new kind of infantry rifle that is deadly at 200 yards. That was a tremendous
step forward. And the tactics were based on the old musket, which was accurate
at about 60 feet. And they lined up shoulder to shoulder and moved against
a position, and got blown down because they were using tactics with these
very modern weapons. They were using the old-style tactics with very modern
weapons. A few of the men realized that, Bedford Forrest for instance.
He would never make a frontal attack on anything with this new weapon in
their hands. But too many of them, including Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant,
followed the old tactics against these modern weapons. That's why the casualties.
There were 1,095,000 casualties in the Civil War. If today you had that
same ratio, you'd have something like 10 million casualties, to give you
some idea of what happened."
- Shelby Foote, interviewed by the Academy of Achievement
Excerpts from an interview with American Enterprise Magazine:
"Fanatics we couldn’t do without, but God knows they make a lot of trouble. I can no longer engage in any conversation about the Confederate flag, because you’ve got the black fanatics on one end and redneck yahoos on the other. We people in between-who, I suspect probably are a minority-can’t be heard for the racket. So I stay out of that fuss, except to say that I’m for the Confederate flag flying anywhere anybody wants to fly it at any time. If they have a referendum in a state that says “Take the flag down off the state capitol,” I think they ought to take the flag down. But the flag to me represents many noble things. It is strange to me how they can single out the Confederate flag and not have any objections to, say, the Japanese flag and the march on Bataan. There seems to be no understanding that the Civil War was really an argument between one form of society and another form of society. There’s no way I can get people to see that the soldiers were not much concerned about slavery on either side. I really do understand the pain that an intelligent black feels when he sees the Confederate flag, because the Confederate flag, back in the ’60s and ’70s, was carried by yahoos who represented everything that had held them down and abused them.
"In 1970 you wrote
of Klansmen who had appropriated the flag: 'I tell them to their faces
that they are the scum who have degraded the Confederate flag, converted
it from a symbol of honor into a banner of shame, covered it with obscenities
like a roadhouse men’s room wall'. Is the Confederate flag today still
degraded, or have the recent assaults on it given it a new dignity? "
"It’s still mainly abused and absurdly defended. And I understand blacks’ feelings when they see the Confederate flag. The real villains are Southerners who knew what that flag truly stood for and allowed yahoos to carry it. We should have stood up and said that those people ought not be allowed within 100 yards of the Confederate flag, let alone use it as a symbol for all they were doing. But we didn’t."
"This country has two profound sins on its soul. One is slavery-that’s a sin that we will probably never be able to cleanse ourselves of-and the other was emancipation. They told four and a half million people, “You are free, hit the road,” and made no provision for education. Just told them to go out, and of course they drifted back into sharecropping, which is a form of peonage, and it was just a disaster. If the South had not lost the war, I’m sure that slavery wouldn’t have survived into the twentieth century, and it’s possible that it might have been brought to an end in a more gradual, less disastrous way. Many of the troubles we’ve got today with black communities are from their being released into the world without being prepared to deal with it."
"Some highly intelligent
men — the agrarians, for instance — still regret enormously that the South
didn’t succeed in secession. The poet Allen Tate described the Civil War
as an attempt by the North to put the South into Arrow collars. Some of
that has happened. But I don’t know that it wouldn’t have happened to the
Confederacy, too. What’s more, the Confederacy probably would have exploded
into pieces: [Georgia Governor] Joe Brown and some of those other governors
were fixing to fly apart again.
Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, believed that the erring sisters would return to the fold. He especially had an idea that a war with Mexico would reunite the North and South. But Lincoln made the thing-Lincoln is a true genius. It is absolutely incredible that he was able to define the war in a way to hold the Union together, being careful not to alienate the border state people while he’s placating the New Englanders. He said at some point, 'I hope God is on our side, but I must have Kentucky'."
Q: "Was it for the
best that Lincoln won in 1860?"
A: "Yes. I think that it’s best that the country didn’t split in two; I do believe that firmly. And Lincoln was the one who kept it from splitting in two. I’m not saying that some other man couldn’t have done it, too, because the occasion does make the man. Lincoln was made great by the war."
Excerpted from a Booknotes interview for Stars In Their Courses:
Any Deep South boy, anyhow, and probably all Southern boys have been familiar with the Civil War as a sort of thing in their conscience going back. I honestly believe that it's in all our subconscious. This country was into its adolescence at the time of the Civil War. It really was; it hadn't formulated itself really as an adult nation, and the Civil War did that. Like all traumatic experiences that you might have had in your adolescence, it stays with you the rest of your life, certainly in your subconscious, most likely in your conscience, too. I think that the Civil War had the nature of that kind of experience for the country. Anybody who's looked into it at all realizes that it truly is the outstanding event in American history insofar as making us what we are. The kind of country we are emerged from the Civil War, not from the Revolution. The Revolution provided us with a constitution; it broke us loose from England; it made us free. But the Civil War really defined us. It said what we were going to be, and it said what we're not going to be. It drifted away from the Southern, mostly Virginia, influence up into the New England and Middle Western influence, and we became that kind of nation instead of the other kind of nation.
I can't help but think -- I usually don't like "what ifs," but I think that if Douglas had been elected President in 1860, it simply would have postponed the problem. I think the problem was there. Seward called it an "irrepressible conflict" and I think it was there and I think it would have been there while Douglas was there or certainly after Douglas left All these splits were going on. The Whigs were dissolving or had dissolved. There were issues that were so bitter between the abolitionists in New England and the fire-eaters in South Carolina and various other places in the South that I'm almost willing to believe that with all our genius for compromise, there still wasn't anyway to settle this thing except by fighting. The most regretful thing is that the thing went on for four years with an incredible savagery. That's the great shame. There was bound to be a fight, but for it to be the fight that it was with literally more than a million American casualties, that need not have been. Something should have stopped it before that.
During the Douglas debate, Lincoln posed a question to Douglas where if Douglas answered yes, he would win the election; if he answered no, he would lose the Presidential election two or so years later or however many years it was. He had him hoist on his petard there. Douglas gave the answer that won the senatorial election but would lose him the presidential election.
There was a general admiration for Lee. It's curious in the Civil War, the men who were most hated were not very dangerous men. They were men like [Benjamin Franklin] Butler. God knows who you'd name on the Southern side that they hated so much. They were not much killers. The real killers like Grant and Lee were enormously admired by the opposite side. There's something very strange about that.
I'll tell you something interesting stylistically. There's a strong belief -- I think it's utterly true -- that [Edward] Gibbon, in writing "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" was strongly influenced by [Henry] Fielding's "Tom Jones." There's also a strong belief that Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War" is strongly influenced by his reading Chylus and Sophocles. I believe that the artists are out front and have a great deal to teach historians about good writing and dramatic composition, which I consider the best history to be. Aristotle said, in criticizing great drama, that first you learn how to write well — a good sophomore in high school can do a surprisingly good description of a sunset — then you learn to draw characters that can stand up and cast a shadow, and the last thing you learn to do is plot. That's the skill that comes last, if it comes at all. That is where I think historians neglect a huge advantage. I think history has a plot. You don't make it up; you discover it. It's there.
The biggest change
I've seen is in the racial problem with the blacks, and some of it I regret
very much. Quite the opposite of the Jews in the case of the Holocaust,
the blacks seem not to want to be reminded of history, seem not to want
to — in this Disney project it was announced, "We will show you what it
was like to be a slave," but what a great outcry went up. "We don't want
to see that kind of thing," almost the opposite of the Jews having Holocaust
museums and all kinds of things. I regret that I think they ought to celebrate
their past the same way the Jews did about bondage in Egypt. They're not
ashamed of it They say, "We came out of it. We conquered it." I wish there
were more of that.
The Civil War, there's a great compromise, as it's called. It consists of Southerners admitting freely that it's probably best that the Union wasn't divided, and the North admits rather freely that the South fought bravely for a cause in which it believed. That is a great compromise and we live with that and that works for us. We are now able to look at the war with some coolness, which we couldn't do before now, and, incidentally, I very much doubt whether a history such as mine could have been written much before 100 years had elapsed. It took all that time for things to cool down.
When I was a grade school boy in Mississippi, I knew obscene doggerel about Abraham Lincoln, left over from my parents and grandparents. Yankees were despised. When one of them was so unfortunate as to move to Greenville, Mississippi, he was despised. All that stopped. All that's over now, and the great compromise obtains. I wish my black friends could do the same thing. The Illinois senator [Carol Moseley-Braun] who didn't want the Daughters of the Confederacy at Richmond to have a Confederate symbol — not the battle flag; just a Confederate symbol -- on their stationery, got her fellow senators to disallow it. I do not understand that. That's a violation of the compromise, for example, and it's an arousal of bitterness. But she, along with a great many others, do not want to be reminded. She has every right to want to hide from history if she wants to, but it seems to me she's trying to hide history from us, and that's a mistake.
# OTHER QUOTES
"How do you feel about
"I'm very fond of Jesus. My whole trouble is with his father."
- Shelby Foote, recalling a fraternity interview
"The great lesson in
sports is supposed to be that you not only learn the elation of winning,
you also learn how to lose. There's a lot of emphasis on that in the British
attitude towards sports, and Americans have it too. But there's something
very American about being a poor loser, refusing to shake the other feller's
hand. He says he's a scoundrel, he always was a scoundrel, and he's even
more of a scoundrel now that he's beat me. There's something likeable about
that in people. It's bad sportsmanship though."
- interviewed on Ken Burns's "Baseball"
I do not know what’s going to happen as a result of being able to get all the information you want with your index finger on a computer. I can’t begin to say how many things I discovered while I was looking through books for something else.
Small town America in 1910 is still my notion of the happiest time on earth.
I prize the Depression, for instance, because I learned the value of things in the Depression that a way people who don't have to worry about such things never learned to prize it really, I believe.
When television first came on in the early ’50s during the Eisenhower campaign, I said, "Now we can look the creature in the face while he’s lying to us, and we’re going to be able to tell." And I was wrong as I could be. The man is packaged on television for you to look at, and you can be fooled very badly. The result is, in an election, I no longer vote for the man, I vote the party.
People have a hard time reading my writing, and I don't see why, because no two letters are alike. You don't mistaken an "N" for "U" or an "E" for an "I." I claim it's easy to read, but they have to learn a new alphabet to read it. That's all right with me.
When you read, you get the great pleasure of discovering what happened. When you reread, you get the great pleasure of knowing where the author's going and seeing how he goes about getting there: and that's learning creative writing. I would tell a young writer that.
Loneliness is one of the best things in the world for you. You do something about it: read, for instance, all kind of things, make friends. I noticed a strange thing about only children. They're supposed to be self-centered and stingy and standoffish. I find it to be the exact opposite. When I was at the fraternity house, if somebody dropped by and said, "I've got a big date tonight. Can I borrow that sports jacket of yours?" I would say, "Sure." If I had had a brother that I had been protecting that sports jacket from, I'd say, "Keep your hands off my sports jacket." But only children don't have that built-in thing. It's the exact opposite of what they say about only children. I suppose they are self-centered. How could they not be? But they're not stingy or stand-offish in that sense.
Read on >> Continue
to Volume Two: Fredericksburg to Meridian
>> Continue to Volume Three: Red River to Appomattox
Read on >> Quotes from
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>> Quotes from "Battle Cry of Freedom".
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