What was the Biggest "Missed Opportunity" of the War?

JeffBrooks

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There are several occasions over the course of the war when, if a commander had made a different decision or had simply had better luck, they might have inflicted a decisive defeat on the opposing forces and, perhaps, changed the course of American history. Sometimes this is due to a lack of boldness, or not having enough information, or sheer exhaustion, or (as Shakespeare would have put it) simply the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

What are the biggest missed opportunities of the war?

McClellan at Yorktown or the afternoon of Antietam?
Lee at Glendale?
Meade at Gettysburg on July 4?
Hindman at McLemore's Cove?
Johnston/Hood at Cassville?
Lee at the North Anna River?
Hood at Spring Hill?
Something else?
 

JeffBrooks

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I'll throw out a question for everyone. Is there a general tendency to judge (maybe subconsciously) Johnston in comparison to Lee? Or in comparison to the generals he squared off against?

This is something I have thought about quite a bit. In fact, it was this very question that prompted the idea of my novel Shattered Nation.

Indeed, Johnston himself threw out the comparison in the telegram he sent to Seddon upon learning of his relief: "Your dispatch of today received and obeyed. Command of the Army and Department of Tennessee has been transferred to General Hood. As to the alleged cause of my removal, I assert that Sherman's army is much stronger compared with that of Tennessee than Grant's compared with that of Northern Virginia. Yet the enemy has been compelled to advance much more slowly to vicinity of Atlanta than to that of Richmond and Petersburg, and has penetrated much deeper into Virginia than into Georgia. Confident language by a military commander is not usually regarded as evidence of competency."

It's obviously a bit of hyperbole on Johnston's part to complain that he faced greater odds than Lee did, but it is true that it took Sherman a lot longer to reach the outskirts of Atlanta than it took for Grant to reach the outskirts of Atlanta. But it's not nearly that simple. Johnston lost far fewer men in May-July than Lee did during the same time, but this is negated by the fact that Lee inflicted far heavier losses on Grant than Johnston did on Sherman during the same period. Grant had the logistical advantage of water transportation for reinforcements and supplies, while Sherman had to rely on railroads. Despite their superficial similarities and the fact that they took place simultaneously, the two campaigns can't really be compared.

Lee and Johnston have a lot in common. They were the same age, both Virginians, both regarded by those around them as men of great dignity and decorum. They were personal friends and, in fact, their fathers had served together in the Revolutionary War. They were both West Pointers with a great deal of experience in the prewar army. Neither was a fire-eater and neither was a strong supporter of slavery. They were both physically brave, as Johnston in particular showed by repeatedly getting shot over the course of his career. They were both inspirational leaders whose men were devoted to them.

As far as their approaches to warfare, Lee favored boldness over caution, while Johnston favored caution over boldness. Lee's focus on defeating the enemy, while Johnston's focus was on avoiding defeat. Johnston certainly has no great victory such as Second Manassas or Chancellorsville on his record. On the other hand, he has no Malvern Hill or Pickett's Charge on his record, either. A typical Confederate soldier under Lee's command was much more likely to get killed than one under Johnston's command. Johnston was a better logistician than Lee was, but Lee was infinitely better at maintaining a good relationship with the civilian leadership in Richmond. In was due to his failures in the latter category that Johnston was sacked.

A truly great general - the Duke of Wellington, say - knows how to properly balance boldness and caution and knows there is a time and place for each. There were times in the war where Lee was bold when he should have been cautious and where Johnston was cautious when he should have been bold. Both understood that the South could only prevail if it succeeded in wearing down the Northern will to continue the war. The difference was in their approach. Lee wanted to achieve this goal by inflicting humiliating defeats on the main enemy field army. Johnston wanted to achieve the goal by conserving the manpower of the Confederate army and prolong the war until the North grew disgusted by the whole thing. Neither succeeded. One wonders what might have happened if either of them had adopted the approach of the other.
 
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Saphroneth

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A truly great general - the Duke of Wellington, say - knows how to properly balance boldness and caution and knows there is a time and place for each. There were times in the war where Lee was bold when he should have been cautious and where Johnston was cautious when he should have been bold.
I think it's interesting to ask when those points actually are. The obvious one for Lee is Pickett's Charge (though I tend to think of that one as a case of a reasonable risk given the circumstances which happened to fail - sometimes when something isn't a sure thing you roll the dice and they come up poorly) but is there a good one to point at for Johnston?


Something that I'm sure must have been done - I should probably do it at some point - is to track the size of the force which joined Sherman after the May 31 cutoff date I used for my analysis.
I see for example that JE Smith's division of 15th Corps joined, an that the 23rd Corps appears to have had a significant injection of strength between May 31 and June 30.

It looks like JEJ and Lee may have been facing a pretty similar overall problem in terms of their total respective campaign strengths - in both cases counting all reinforcements they were outnumbered about 2:1.
 

trice

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I think with JEJ the tricky thing to do is to be able to say "Yes, here is where he could have achieved something big".

For example with Atlanta his efforts meant that it took Sherman four months to take the city, and that's after the Union offensive had had six months to prepare. We could call his efforts there insufficient if we think that he should have been able to keep Sherman out of Atlanta until, say, the end of September or later, or we could call them insufficient if we think Johnston should have been able to actually defeat Sherman and force him away from the city entirely.
...
Here's one: Joe Johnston could have defended Snake Creek Gap before McPherson marched through it unopposed. Instead, no historian can tell you for sure if Johnston even knew Snake Creek Gap even existed or if he had given any thought to defending it.

Johnston had been in that area, commanding the AoT, preparing for Sherman's attack since January. He knew his left flank was very weak. He expected that Sherman might move on Rome, GA (further left). If the Yankees take Rome, Johnston's entire position in North GA collapses and he will have to run fast to get below the Etowah before he is cut off. (Johnston wanted Polk over in AL-MS to take responsibility for defending Rome.)

Johnston is defending forward at Dalton, hoping Sherman will attack Rocky Face Ridge (strongly fortified, an impressive natural obstacle). He thinks Sherman will move to the East to get around it (Johnston's right). All his preparations are based on fighting Sherman there.

Sherman (finding he will be short four infantry divisions) drops his plan to advance to Rome. He goes with Thomas' plan to attack through Snake Creek Gap. Being Sherman, he sees it as a raid to break the RR and pull back instead of Thomas' plan to attack in force, seize and block Johnston's LOC completely. He sends McPherson without enough force and follow-up to ensure success.

There are only three ways to cross Rocky Face. Two are up near Dalton, and Johnston has both of those defended. Nothing is at Snake Creek Gap (which goes around the southern end of Rocky Face). McPherson marches through, and his advance clears the southern end of the Gap just as some Confederate cavalry belatedly arrives and gets shoved back.

So here we have a nice, easy way for Joe Johnston to "achieve something big". All he has to do is to recognize sometime in January-February-March-April that Snake Creek Gap was important and put somebody there to hold it. He had infantry at Resaca in late April (2 brigades?). He had cavalry there at various times. All he has to do is put some small cavalry units up at Villanow to give advance warning and fortify Snake Creek Gap a bit, put some troops in position to fight there.

Once McPherson is through Snake Creek Gap, Johnston's entire position (which he has spent four months preparing) is compromised. Johnston has to retreat in a hurry to avoid being cut off. If McPherson had actually broken the RR at Resacca, it would have been worse. If Sherman had sent enough force to take and hold Resaca, Johnston's army might have been totally destroyed (or forced to retreat East across northern GA -- which would have been a lot like being destroyed -- leaving Atlanta essentially undefended).

So why didn't Johnston defend Snake Creek Gap?
 

JeffBrooks

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but is there a good one to point at for Johnston?

As the song says, "Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee."

In early July, Johnston holds a virtually impregnable bridgehead on the north side of the Chattahoochee, courtesy of the brilliant system of fortifications prepared there by General Francis Shoup. Both flanks are anchored on the river itself. But when Sherman's forces crossed the river northeast of Johnston's position, Johnston abandoned the north bank and pulled the entire Army of Tennessee over to the south bank.

General Shoup believed this was a mistake and that Johnston should have maintained a force on the north bank of the river. This would have forced Sherman to maintain a considerably force on the north bank as well, for otherwise the Union line of supply and retreat would have been at Johnston's mercy.

Using interior lines, and the fact that it was much easier for the Confederates to cross the river than the Yankees (who had to move many miles over bad roads to reach their crossing point), Johnston could have detailed one or two divisions to hold the northern bridgehead and detached the rest of his army to confront whatever Union forces had already crossed the south bank. The Union forces would have faced more or less equal numbers, been limited as far as their artillery support was concerned, and been forced to fight with the river at their back. Such a situation would have presented Johnston with many possibilities.

Alternatively, as Shoup himself suggested, Johnston could have waited until most of the Union forces were crossed to the south bank and then taken the offensive on the north bank, to seize the railhead that supplied Sherman's army. I'm a bit more skeptical about this, since Sherman would obviously have fortified his own positions opposite the bridgehead to prevent any such attempt. But it's worth thinking about.
 

Saphroneth

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Here's one: Joe Johnston could have defended Snake Creek Gap before McPherson marched through it unopposed. Instead, no historian can tell you for sure if Johnston even knew Snake Creek Gap even existed or if he had given any thought to defending it.


That would certainly qualify as a missed opportunity, and an example of where Johnston could have prevented Sherman turning his position given hindsight.

What I have to wonder, though, is whether preventing an enemy advance would be counted as "something big"; it's a stalemate, which is good (assuming that Sherman doesn't instead turn the position to the right) but historically people don't always seem to consider stalemates as a positive.


As to the question of why Johnston didn't defend the Gap, I've been checking in the ORs and I have found no mention of the Gap (by either side) in correspondence before the Atlanta campaign starts. I have, however, found this:

1626782123324.png



Now, according to the information I have on positions at the start of the campaign, Wheeler had left Grigsby in that valley (west of Baylor Mill Gap, near Chattagatta Church). Hooker's 20th Corps would have had a clear but long run to Snake Creek Gap, but 20th Corps wasn't the one that went there so perhaps there was a logistical reason (a reason which would explain why the gap from The Pocket over Horn Mountain wasn't practical).

My suspicion is thus that Johnston ascribed "watch out for the enemy" to Wheeler - in his mind, if not in actual orders - and possibly considered Snake Creek Gap not within Union logistics capabilities for a significant force.

Note though that this is his possible reasoning; it is not saying he was right to do so.



Tracking what happened to Grigsby, Cleburne mentions him fighting at one of the more northerly gaps on the 8th, but says he was not there by 1AM on the 10th (and that he had been sent to Snake Creek Gap), probably in response to a report mentioned as coming in on the 9th.

Wheeler's report says he was picketing from Ship's Gap to the Connesauga before the campaign opened (which includes the viable approach routes to Snake Creek Gap, though he doesn't mention it); after that he focuses in pretty heavily on the "fun stuff" his command was doing.

A brigade at Resaca was Cantey, who arrived there on the 7th. No report from him, and probably a bit late anyway to block the gap; before then it seems to have been just a few regiments.


So it looks like a possible explanation is that:

- JEJ thought he'd have a warning if the enemy was feeling for his left, or did not know about Snake Creek Gap.
- He, Wheeler, or both missed the loss in scouting information that came in when they pulled back to the Rocky Face.
- Johnston also didn't adequately garrison Resaca if it was in any sense considered to be vulnerable beyond a cavalry raid.



The possible end result of doing this would have been a brigade or so dug in at Snake Creek Gap, and Sherman having to commit to either head-on fighting in the Rocky Face-Coahulla space or a movement turning the Confederate right.
 

JeffBrooks

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The possible end result of doing this would have been a brigade or so dug in at Snake Creek Gap, and Sherman having to commit to either head-on fighting in the Rocky Face-Coahulla space or a movement turning the Confederate right.

I seem to recall (from what source I don't remember) that Sherman's plan in the event of McPherson finding Snake Creek Gap blocked was simply for him to continue moving southwest towards Rome.
 

Saphroneth

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I seem to recall (from what source I don't remember) that Sherman's plan in the event of McPherson finding Snake Creek Gap blocked was simply for him to continue moving southwest towards Rome.
Which - if logistically feasible - simply presents Johnston with further problems. I would suspect that it was not logistically feasible though, as my understanding is that Sherman was having trouble supplying sufficient horses via the rail line to operate well away from the rail line.
 

Saphroneth

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As the song says, "Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee."
Looking at the geography, I think the issue isn't so much the difficulty of crossing the river as the difficulty of getting from the Shoupade area to the bridgehead area.

Say the situation starts with Sherman having a large force (equal in size to, say, 2/3 of Johnston's army or 1/3 of Sherman's, assuming the two of them are at a 2:1 ratio) advanced to a few miles short of the fortified area (say, at Smyrna Station), and most of the rest at Marietta.
Does Johnston pull most of his troops away from the fortified area yet? If so he's vulnerable there (as Sherman can close up from Marietta within a day or so and the Shoupades are not necessarily invulnerable enough to allow only a couple of divisions to cover a 7-8 mile front), but if not then:

Sherman begins marching to the bridgehead area with the other forces in his unit. From Marietta to the mouth of Soap Creek is about 7 miles; from Marietta to Power's Ford is about 10 miles; from Marietta to over the bridge at Roswell is about 15 miles.

For Johnston to begin maching at the same time, assuming his force is concentrated at Vining's Station (which is at the right hand end of the fortified line):
To Soap Creek 9 miles
To Roswell or Power's Ford about 15 miles

So it's about as far (probably slightly further for the Confederates if their centre of gravity is more realistic); if Sherman moves before Johnston does, then Sherman can get his troops over the river first.

Once Sherman is established over the river (with, in this case, 2/3 of his force), then there is scope for interior lines. But it's shuffling troops between two "will probably lose" fights.


Now, those are the arguments against the idea of staying. There's also arguments in favour, but I think it's worth really examining what the engagement you want to generate is going to look like before trying to generate one.

Really I think there's an argument instead that Johnston should have better covered his flanks. Wrecking the bridges and ferries up- and down-river of the fortified area and garrisoning them and the fords might have taken a couple of divisions' worth of infantry out of the main fighting area, but it'd prevent the easy turning movement.
 

Saphroneth

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Now, those are the arguments against the idea of staying. There's also arguments in favour, but I think it's worth really examining what the engagement you want to generate is going to look like before trying to generate one.
(to clarify this - Johnston would look like a complete idiot if he courted a field battle that turned out to involve his force out of fortifications and fighting at odds of 3:2 against or so.)
 

Saphroneth

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It looks like (based on some Newton articles):


- Johnston's later justification for not fortifying Snake Creek Gap was that Resaca was closer to his main body, in a road sense
- Wheeler was told to put cavalry into the valley but misinterpreted his orders, which were unclear (owing to Mackall's phrasing)
- Kelly left pickets in the Gap, which reported Union infantry at Villanow to Cantey on the 8th
- Cantey replaced a previous brigade there, and would be replaced by the next one there (Johnston was managing a "pipeline" of reinforcements)
- the intent of Johnston's movements was to protect the rail line
- Johnston intended to fight around Dalton if possible, but was more worried about a move between Rome and Calhoun than one on Resaca
- the Confederate commander who happened to be passing through Resaca at the time was not capable; Johnston would have done better to put a permanent commander in the post
 

NedBaldwin

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... All he has to do is put some small cavalry units up at Villanow to give advance warning and fortify Snake Creek Gap a bit, put some troops in position to fight there.
Confederate Cavalry

Prior to May 7th, Johnston's forward line was further west along Taylor's ridge. Wheeler had a cavalry units watching Taylor's ridge as far south as Ships Gap, which is west of Villanow to give advance warning. In early May Martin's cavalry division, which had been refitting further south, was ordered to cover Rome, making him responsible for giving warning of moves south of Ships gap.

Then on May 7th, Hooker comes over Taylor's ridge at Nickjack and Gordons gaps, pushing Wheeler's cavalry pulls back. The cavalry retreats northeast toward Dalton, giving up Ships Gap and exposing Villanow.

Johnston frantically tells Wheeler he has to keep a force in the valley to the south, but Wheeler's men already pulled all the way back and are now blocked from getting to Villanow by Hooker. Johnston then tells Martin to move from Rome to Calhoun because of the potential for the enemy to come from Snake Creek Gap, but the 8th is lost with Martin moving from Rome to Calhoun and the men sent by Wheeler (Grigsby) fighting Hooker at Dug Gap. As a result, during the 8th the road from Ships Gap through Villanow to Snake Creek Gap is like a hole in Johnston's perimeter through which McPherson moves.

On the 9th Martin approached from the south and Grigsby comes around from the north, but McPherson is already through the gap.

Confederate Infantry

Seems to me that Johnston kept all his infantry as close to the rail line as he could. This makes sense to me since he relied on it for logistical support, communication and movement. Putting a detached infantry force far off the line would make it difficult to supply, keep in touch with and reinforce. He only really prepared defensive positions along the railine -- he had a fortified Mill Creek Gap where the railine goes through Rocky Face, but the defense of Dug Gap was an ad hoc response to Hooker's movement. As a result, Resaca made sense for a prepared position but Snake Creek Gap did not. He kept a detachment at Resaca throughout March and April and into May, being in close contact and shuffling the forces posted there as needed and if threatened, he had the ability to reinforce quickly.

Additionally, a small force in Snake Creek Gap could still be picked off by a larger attaching column. Snake Creek Gap is a long defile that could be turned by either a road through the Pocket valley that went over Horn mountain into Sugar Valley or a road through Redwine Cove from the north -- when they returned to the area in October, some US forces used the road through Redwine Cove to "turn" the Gap. So Johnston would have had to commit a more sizeable force to the gap to make it work, which would just exacerbate the logistical problem.
 

Saphroneth

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Prior to May 7th, Johnston's forward line was further west along Taylor's ridge. Wheeler had a cavalry units watching Taylor's ridge as far south as Ships Gap, which is west of Villanow to give advance warning. In early May Martin's cavalry division, which had been refitting further south, was ordered to cover Rome, making him responsible for giving warning of moves south of Ships gap.
To confirm this point that the area was meant to be watched:

1626804402161.png



1626804353557.png


I think that pretty much means the area is meant to be kept under observation. They don't use the name of Snake Creek Gap, but Johnston postwar said his basic plan was to make it so that if the enemy went after Resaca then he'd be able to get to Resaca himself and fight it out there with a significant chunk of his army.

It's not a crazy plan, especially if your main concern is a strategic thrust well south of there.
 

NedBaldwin

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To confirm this point that the area was meant to be watched:
....
I think that pretty much means the area is meant to be kept under observation. They don't use the name of Snake Creek Gap, but Johnston postwar said his basic plan was to make it so that if the enemy went after Resaca then he'd be able to get to Resaca himself and fight it out there with a significant chunk of his army.

It's not a crazy plan, especially if your main concern is a strategic thrust well south of there.
When Hooker came over Taylors Ridge on the 7th he found about 500 cavalry around Gordon's spring and reported other cavalry pickets along the ridge and when McPherson's men came through Ship Gap the next day they reported finding an abandoned picket post. So up until that point Wheeler did have men watching the area.
 

Saphroneth

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When Hooker came over Taylors Ridge on the 7th he found about 500 cavalry around Gordon's spring and reported other cavalry pickets along the ridge and when McPherson's men came through Ship Gap the next day they reported finding an abandoned picket post. So up until that point Wheeler did have men watching the area.
The article by Newton mentions that there were a few pickets in the Snake Creek Gap area left by Kelly:

1626805894159.png
 

trice

Lt. Colonel
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Confederate Cavalry

Prior to May 7th, Johnston's forward line was further west along Taylor's ridge. Wheeler had a cavalry units watching Taylor's ridge as far south as Ships Gap, which is west of Villanow to give advance warning. In early May Martin's cavalry division, which had been refitting further south, was ordered to cover Rome, making him responsible for giving warning of moves south of Ships gap.

Then on May 7th, Hooker comes over Taylor's ridge at Nickjack and Gordons gaps, pushing Wheeler's cavalry pulls back. The cavalry retreats northeast toward Dalton, giving up Ships Gap and exposing Villanow.

Johnston frantically tells Wheeler he has to keep a force in the valley to the south, but Wheeler's men already pulled all the way back and are now blocked from getting to Villanow by Hooker. Johnston then tells Martin to move from Rome to Calhoun because of the potential for the enemy to come from Snake Creek Gap, but the 8th is lost with Martin moving from Rome to Calhoun and the men sent by Wheeler (Grigsby) fighting Hooker at Dug Gap. As a result, during the 8th the road from Ships Gap through Villanow to Snake Creek Gap is like a hole in Johnston's perimeter through which McPherson moves.

On the 9th Martin approached from the south and Grigsby comes around from the north, but McPherson is already through the gap.
Yes, this is essentially what happened. It is a disaster for the Confederacy, something Sherman accomplished just by moving there at the opening of the campaign.

The point is to keep exactly this from happening -- because if it ever does happen Joe Johnston's position at Dalton must be abandoned. The AoT will need to pull back to Resaca for a start and probably below the Etowah immediately thereafter. This becomes essentially inevitable when McPherson comes out the end of Snake Creek Gap on the morning of the 9th, when the Rebel cavalry is approaching it.

If you want to throw some blame Wheeler's way, well, that fine. Wheeler was a bad man to have commanding the AoT cavalry. He often fails at tasks like this, his troops tend to wear away and breakdown from use, and his performance when more than about a one-day ride from higher HQ goes down badly. Later in 1864, both Beauregard and Hood want him replaced; in 1865 the Confederates promote Hampton over Wheeler's head and send him south to take command of Wheeler. But during his first four months in command Joe Johnston seems to have completely missed the significance of Snake Creek Gap. He is the commander here, he left his flank completely unguarded, he is responsible for it.

Confederate Infantry

Seems to me that Johnston kept all his infantry as close to the rail line as he could. This makes sense to me since he relied on it for logistical support, communication and movement. Putting a detached infantry force far off the line would make it difficult to supply, keep in touch with and reinforce. He only really prepared defensive positions along the railine -- he had a fortified Mill Creek Gap where the railine goes through Rocky Face, but the defense of Dug Gap was an ad hoc response to Hooker's movement. As a result, Resaca made sense for a prepared position but Snake Creek Gap did not. He kept a detachment at Resaca throughout March and April and into May, being in close contact and shuffling the forces posted there as needed and if threatened, he had the ability to reinforce quickly.

Additionally, a small force in Snake Creek Gap could still be picked off by a larger attaching column. Snake Creek Gap is a long defile that could be turned by either a road through the Pocket valley that went over Horn mountain into Sugar Valley or a road through Redwine Cove from the north -- when they returned to the area in October, some US forces used the road through Redwine Cove to "turn" the Gap. So Johnston would have had to commit a more sizeable force to the gap to make it work, which would just exacerbate the logistical problem.
If he needs more troops, he needs more troops. He saw that Sherman might move to Rome at the start, which also flanks his position and forces him to withdraw. Johnston did little about that. He did write to Polk, wondering if Polk would cover Rome for him.

A move to Rome, of course, is just a longer, slower-acting version of the move through Snake Creek Gap. It will make defense of the Etowah impossible, and Johnston will have to retreat at least that far immediately.

So what was Johnston's plan to deal with these open threats?
 

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