The Challenge of Imagining Black Men Fighting in Confederate Ranks

Update: In 2010 the Georgia Historical Society dedicated a marker commemorating the 44th USCT and their treatment at the hands of Confederate soldiers near Dalton, Georgia.

As Confederate officials in Richmond and citizens throughout the country debated whether to recruit slaves into the army as soldiers, black Union soldiers were being massacred on battlefields throughout the South. As I discuss in my book on the battle of the Crater, upwards of 200 black Union soldiers were massacred both during and following the battle. After the battle Confederates paraded white and black prisoners together through the streets of Petersburg to highlight for all civilians just what was at stake in the war.

The sight of black men in uniform and wielding rifles constituted one of the darkest fears for white southerners, who went to great lengths to defend against slave rebellions before the war. The letters and diaries of Confederate soldiers at the Crater and elsewhere suggest that this is exactly what they saw themselves doing on these battlefields.

Yesterday, historian Andrew Bledsoe tweeted out a thread on a massacre of black soldiers committed in Georgia in the Fall of 1864, again at the same time that Confederates were debating the enlistment of slaves.

Been writing about the Army of Tennessee’s fall 1864 operations in Georgia and came across a rather chilling encounter between Confederate troops and United States Colored Troops at Dalton. In the process of attacking Sherman’s supply lines, Hood encountered the 44th United States Colored Troops garrisoning a Federal position at Dalton. Hood demanded their surrender. Refusal, he promised, would be met with no quarter.

The 44th USCT’s CO, Col. Lewis Johnson, worried about the lives of his men and, under a truce flag, asked Hood whether his African-American troops would be treated as prisoners of war or slaves if surrendered. Col. Johnson reported:

I was told by General Hood that he would return all slaves belonging to persons in the Confederacy to their masters, and when I protested against this…he said I might surrender them as whatever I pleased. Although assured by General Hood in person that the terms of the agreement should be strictly observed, my men, especially the colored soldiers, were immediately robbed and abused in a terrible manner. The treatment of the officers of my regiment exceeded anything in brutality I have ever witnessed, and a General Bate distinguished himself especially by meanness and beastly conduct. This General Bate was ordered to take charge of us, and immediately commenced heaping insults upon me and my officers. He had my colored soldiers robbed of their shoes (this was done systematically and by his order), and sent them down to the railroad and made them tear up the track for a distance of nearly two miles. One of my soldiers, who refused to injure the track, was shot on the spot, as were also five others shortly after the surrender, who, having been sick, were unable to keep up with the rest on the march. A number of my soldiers were returned to their former masters. This I know was done, because I saw it done in a number of instances myself. When about to be paroled, I tried to get the free servants and soldiers in the regiment… released, but to no avail. From the treatment I received, and what I observed after my capture, I am sure that not a man would have been spared had I not surrendered when I did, and several times on the march soldiers made a rush upon the guards to massacre the colored soldiers and their officers. Mississippians did this principally (belonging to Stewart’s corps), and were often encouraged in these outrages by officers of high rank. I saw a lieutenant colonel who endeavored to infuriate a mob, and we were only saved from massacre by our guards’ greatest efforts.

There are reasons why it took so long for Confederates to finally approve a plan to enlist slaves as soldiers in the final weeks of the war and why it was such a divisive debate. White southerners were being forced to lay aside their deepest fears about arming black men as well as a deeply rooted white supremacist ideology that was framed around the institution of slavery.

This is a salient aspect of the history that is all too often overlooked by advocates of the black Confederate myth.

About the author: Thank you for taking the time to read this post. What next? Scroll down and join the discussion in the comments section. Looking for more Civil War content? You can follow me on Twitter. Check out my forthcoming book, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is the first book-length analysis of the black Confederate myth ever published. Pre-order your copy today.

55 comments… add one
  • Suzanne Crockett Aug 10, 2019 @ 6:49

    After the Crater and the parade of captured soldiers thru Richmond (just read about this in your book “The Crater: War As Murder”), it is truly a measure of desperation that arming slaves was even considered. Would they be given their freedom if they joined the Confederate army?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2019 @ 6:59

      Thanks for taking the time to read the book. This was a major point of contention during the debate, but it was decided that only slaves voluntarily set free by their masters would recruited. The assumption being that only former slaves would be reliable, which in and of itself was a contradiction with their slaveholding ideology.

      • Andy Hall Aug 10, 2019 @ 14:22

        “It was decided that only slaves voluntarily set free by their masters would recruited.”

        My recollection — and I’m happy to be corrected on this — was that that was part of Robert E. Lee’s implementation of the March 1865 legislation. Lee had urged that enslaved soldiers be granted emancipation in return for their service, but the Confederate Congress rejected that idea, insisting that aside from military service, their relationship with their former masters would remain unchanged.

        It’s an important distinction, I think, because it shows that right to very end, the C.S. government was unwilling to go the final (and obvious) step in making these men anything other than the enslaved persons they had been all along.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2019 @ 14:42

          The War Department issued General Orders No. 14 that authorized the enlistment of slaves who had been manumitted by their masters. I should have been more specific.

  • John Hanley Aug 11, 2019 @ 3:50

    The entire country had white supremicist roots at the time. What good does it do to highlight the racism of the south? Rhode Islanders didn’t want to continue to fight when they heard slavery was made a point of the war. Racism was rampant everywhere you went in the 19th century. I feel you’re looking at history through colored glasses.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2019 @ 4:38

      Perhaps you should re-read the post. The point of referencing the massacre of USCT’s near Dalton was to help frame the broader subject of why the enlistment of slaves as soldiers in the Confederate army was so controversial. No one in their right mind would disagree that racism was prevalent throughout the country in mid-nineteenth century America.

    • David Gladson Aug 12, 2019 @ 5:03

      Absolutely the truth

  • John Angel Aug 11, 2019 @ 4:22

    I don’t think this should be discussed. Or read . Because their moving Confederate statues around in America trying to get rid of or hind the past .of our history . I’m for Confederate statues they have a story to tell us .a time to remember . . Fellow Americans fought and died for what they fought for . We learn what Hitler in world war 2 believe in . But we are not allowed to learn the truth in America.of the civil war . It’s a shame

    • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2019 @ 4:39

      First, this comment has nothing to do with this blog post. Second, my wife is from Germany and it turns out that you don’t need statues of Hitler and monuments to the Nazis to do history.

      • Rodney Jenkins Aug 11, 2019 @ 5:39

        Excellent point to an ignorant argument.

        • CliosFanBoy Aug 11, 2019 @ 15:37

          if anyone was “hiding history” it was those who put up monuments to the Confederates to make it appear that the South was united in supporting secession, ignoring both the white southern Unionists and the USCTs and the enslaved.

          • Jason Teal Aug 12, 2019 @ 3:10

            Are you operating under the delusion that the North was United? Most of the North opposed war against the South and supported their secession…until bean counters did the numbers and realized how much revenue they’d lose by letting the South go. Then, there were riots and mass defections over the toothless emancipation proclamation in the North. Northern blacks were hung in the streets of New York City. The monuments were raised in honor of Confederate dead. Period. Whatever other garbage is said about them, is just that. As to the author, there is no myth to black Confederates. Holt Collier, Rev. Mack Lee, among many others are indisputable evidence of the fact. There are pension rolls galore with black soldiers listed. And even Frederick Douglass wrote of seeing entire regiments of colored Confederate troops “with rifles on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets” with disdain toward the fact that the Union army had not employed them as yet. So someone simply isn’t doing their homework here.

            • Kevin Levin Aug 12, 2019 @ 3:36

              It’s hard to take you seriously when you say things like this: “Holt Collier, Rev. Mack Lee, among many others are indisputable evidence of the fact. There are pension rolls galore with black soldiers listed. And even Frederick Douglass wrote of seeing entire regiments of colored Confederate troops “with rifles on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets” with disdain toward the fact that the Union army had not employed them as yet.”

              Holt Collier was a camp slave. Mack Lee was considered a fraud by former Confederates and called out for lying about his relationship in the very pages of Confederate Veteran magazine. Pensions in five former Confederate states were offered to a few former camp slaves or body servants. All you have to do is read the documents themselves, which you clearly have not done. Frederick Douglass never saw anything personally. He reported what others claimed to have seen as a means to encourage the Lincoln administration to begin recruiting African Americans into the Union army.

              Yes, homework is very important. 🙂

            • DblC Aug 12, 2019 @ 5:09

              Nathan bedford forrest was not killed in battle and a monument was erected for him. This umtruth about monuments being erected for slain southern soldiers is false then and your whole statement is in question. I do notice all the monuments are for prominent members of the kkk.

          • Sean Parrett Aug 12, 2019 @ 3:35

            Throughout history, the civil war was one of the only times where a side lost the war and still “wrote the history” of the conflict! By the way the southern states who succeeded were traitors, they fought against the United states of America! Regardless of the reason they were enemies of this great country and LOST!

            • Kevin Levin Aug 12, 2019 @ 3:38

              You mean seceded.

  • Steven E Sodich Aug 11, 2019 @ 4:47

    What total BS ! Yankee lies and total untrue propaganda. If you want to know what really happened please read the South Was Right by Ronald Kennedy and Donald Kennedy, truth telling authors about the real South!

    • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2019 @ 4:49

      Ah yes, the Kennedy brothers, the Statler and Waldorf of Civil War “historians.” 🙂

      • Rodney Jenkins Aug 11, 2019 @ 5:40

        Statler and Waldorf indeed. 😂

  • William H Stokes Aug 11, 2019 @ 5:29

    What this whole business shows is that the Confederates hardly believed their own lies. If negroes really were merely animals similar to a mule, they could reasonably be expected to be able to do their owner’s bidding and return to being docile and obedient.

    This was really highlighted when the Black soldiers returned from Europe after The Great War to their southern homes! A period of lynching and disenfranchisement ensued that outdid that of the reconstruction era. Thing was, the Confederates could have simply trusted the negroes they had given much privilege to. These servants would have outdid their 20th and 21st century predecessors in oppressive savagery.

  • Eric A Jacobson Aug 11, 2019 @ 5:39

    Great post. It reminds me that when my first book was published one of the criticisms I heard from a reader was that I described the Dalton affair and specifically Bate. He told there was no reason to “stir that pot.” The various accounts of Dalton are both disturbing and a teaching opportunity. Even Sam Watkins said the black troops were terrified.

    Btw Bate’s behavior is not surprising. He was a vocal critic of Cleburne’s proposal to arm black men and after the war his time as Governor of Tennessee certainly showed him to be exactly who he always was. Bate also gave the dedication speech at a school in Franklin in 1889. He openly admitted the reason that the South went to war was to defend slavery, but said the war had decided that issue. He implored his fellow white Southerners to defend their Celtic heritage and maintain control. It a seductive brand of bigotry that was easy to sell after the war and such language led right into Jim Crow.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2019 @ 5:49

      Do you have a reference for the Bate speech? Thanks.

      Like you, I have no patience for people who choose to ignore these incidents. They help us to better understand central questions about why Confederates continued to fight to the bitter end. They understood following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and the recruitment of black soldiers into the U.S. army exactly what was at stake. Their actions at Dalton, Fort Pillow, the Crater, and elsewhere are a continuation of policies and fears extending back into the antebellum era.

      • Brandon fowler Aug 11, 2019 @ 7:23

        The emancipation proclamation only freed slaves in the south. Not the north. Lincoln had no control over the land of the south. You should listen to some speeches from the abbeville Institute

        • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2019 @ 7:33

          I am really sorry if this is what you are learning from the Abbeville Institute because it is wrong. You may want to review this map of the areas impacted by the EP.

        • Christopher Shelley Aug 12, 2019 @ 14:54

          You really need to read up on the EP and Lincoln’s use if war powers he found in the Constitution. There are many great analyses out there. But the Abbeville Institute ain’t one of them.

      • William H Stokes Aug 12, 2019 @ 20:10

        William B Bates (deceased) Library of Congress has a great summary of Senator (then General) Bate’s stance on pp76-77. It was his position that the states were not being treated equally and that Constitutionally protected property rights were the crux of this issue. Fancy way to say the negroes were not human beings but chattel fit to own as such.

  • Eric A Jacobson Aug 11, 2019 @ 6:09

    I just sent the full text via email.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2019 @ 6:19

      Got it. Thanks, Eric.

  • Tamie holmes Aug 11, 2019 @ 7:34

    WHITE MEN ARE FULLY AWARE OF THE HISTORY OF THESE HISTORICAL EVENTS .. DUE TO THEIR EFFORTS TO HIDE, AVOID , REWRITE TO ACCOMADIATE THEIR races readers, it is known fact of their AGENDA handed to from GENERATION to GENERATION … to invade, control , destroy other races from murder to hidden information, to evil language, any means necessary to stay the COURSE of THE RACE UP RISE … assuring this control in 2019 white SUPREMACIST are in GOVERNMENT and political control for their COMMUNITIES, states, control with police as always and even the potus position has been used on both parties …
    controlled by wealthy men to buying votes through lobbying ,campaigns, injustice. SUPPORTED by SUPPORTERS with FEAR TACTICS of being replaced and done the same way they have done others …

    There will be another war THE SAME WAR

    GOOD MEN FIGHTING THE OUT OF CONTROL BAD MEN AND IT WILL BE ONCE AGAIN A MUCH NEEDED BALANCE OF BLACK MEN TO DETERMINE WHICH SIDE WILL WIN THIS FOREVER BATTLE TO BRINGING JUSTICE FOR ALL IN THIS IMMIGRANT NATION that one race refuse to adapt or want control over … UNFORTUNATELY , THEY WILL POUR IN IT IS UP TO US TO TRAIN THEM TO DEFEND THE LAND IN WHICH THEY CHOOSE …

    JUSTICE FOR ALL or we will become the same countries killing on the inside destroying and restoring … WHEN THE DIVERSE POPULATION GROWS SO, SHALL THE LAWS AND BREAKING THEM FOR ONE RACE is killing the future of this GREAT NATION LONG LIVE THE IMMIGRANT NATION AND NOT JUST THE WHITE CULTURE CONTROL may we all as a race ensure this is MULTIPLE cultures NATION as FIGHT FOR EACH OTHER ..

    • Bill Reich Aug 12, 2019 @ 4:11

      A rational comment can be made without SHOUTING.

  • Wayne Dinkle Aug 11, 2019 @ 8:19

    All of you revisionists are the same, you select bullet points then build fictional story lines and then, deliberately omit “the rest of the story”, particularly relying on the revisionists who preceded you.
    Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, amongst others, would scorn your fictional synopsis, with prejudice, particularly, that the war was over slavery!
    I have read every available document of the northern politicians of the time. Not a single one declared (1860 & prior) that the war was to abolish slavery, but in fact, it was the fear of lost revenue over the departure of the Southern Colonies, 40 versus 10% tariffs, favoring the north.
    The Emancipation Proclamation only applied below the Mason Dixon line, until AFTER the war ended. (Slavery continued in the North, the pompous rich didn’t wanna give up their servants & have to pay their lawn keepers).
    The war becoming about slavery only came about to justify Lincoln’s unConstitutional slaughter & invasion of a foreign nation and if it wasn’t an invasion of a foreign country, he used the military to butcher citizens, still unconstitutional.
    Slavery was the scapegoat of the Federal Governments conscience of horror and justification and excuse to the widows, daughters and mothers, of their dead fathers, sons & husbands.
    Hundreds of thousands of blacks were free in the South and unlike the North (the Federal Government actually), blacks were not executed if they refused to fight.
    Until Gettysburg, the South never crossed the Mason Dixon, for, for the South, the war was never about invading or conquering the North, it was about protecting Constitutional States Rights, precisely the reason General Robert E. Lee declined President Lincolns invitation to lead the North against the South.
    The idea of a centralized controlling government was the underpinnings of the Civil War.
    Then, as now, blacks are still pawns in the game of politics. Games that always emit from the imperial city, Washington DC.
    You sir, are just a willing accomplice in the facade of, perpetual racism & the endless war to tarnish the Confederacy with fiction & half truths, for a moment of recognition and fame.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2019 @ 8:22

      Thanks for the comment, but this has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the post and everything to do with your insecurities and misinformation. Good day.

    • Msb Aug 12, 2019 @ 23:46

      Edgar Allan Poe died in 1849. Has he returned from the grave to share his views on the Civil War with you?

    • HankC Aug 15, 2019 @ 5:50

      The CSA fought to preserve slavery. The USA fought to preserve the nation. Everything else logically follows.

  • Bill Davis Aug 11, 2019 @ 9:00

    Mr. Levin,

    I live in the west in a pathetic state called california. I have a Ph.D in american history specializing in 19th century U.S. history. It amazes me that authors like yourself continue to push the causes for the civil ear as strictly slavery. Obviously you have some agenda that youbare pushing. As usual, some facts are unnecessary emphasized and completely biased. My one wish regarding your “factual account book” will be relegated to the dust bin of fiction.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2019 @ 9:04

      Hi Mr. Davis,

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Clearly your Ph.D program did not include anything to help you engage in serious dialogue with others. This doesn’t even have anything to do with the content of this blog post.

    • Al Mackey Aug 11, 2019 @ 14:55

      We know most confederate heritage advocates have trouble telling the truth. I think this is a textbook case. I see nothing in Mr. Davis’s post to substantiate his claim to have a Ph.D. in history, from the barely literate writing to the inability to engage with the substance of the blog post. He’s also probably never heard of Willie Pegram’s letter in which he describes and justifies the murdering of surrendered African American soldiers by confederate soldiers. I doubt he’s ever had a university level history class at all, much less a Ph.D.

    • CliosFanBoy Aug 11, 2019 @ 15:31

      as someone with an actual Ph.D. in American history I can assure you that professional historians with real graduate degrees overwhelmingly agree that the Confederate states attempted to leave the Union because they believed that slavery was threatened by Lincoln’s election. We also agree that the Earth is not flat, that the sun rises in the east, and that water between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius is indeed wet.

      I, for one, am eager to read Kevin’s latest book and plan to buy an extra copy to give to one of my students.

      • Suzanne Crockett Aug 12, 2019 @ 18:14

        Yep. They fought for the right to keep their slaves. It’s in the Confederate constitution:
        avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/c…
        “In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected.”
        Article IV Section 3(3)
        It is also referenced in several other places.

  • William Menefee Aug 11, 2019 @ 9:34

    I see 21st century PC mentality explaining a 19th century conflict. Remember & learn from history or you are doomed to repeat it. How is this different from the Spanish Priest destroying almost the entire recorded Mayan history in the 16th century? What will be next? The history of the Revolutionary War? The history of the Republic of Texas?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2019 @ 9:44

      Why not just take a few minutes and explain what you believe this report tells us or doesn’t tell us about how Confederate soldiers and officers viewed black Union soldiers.

      • Mike Aug 12, 2019 @ 7:06

        Interesting that none of these neo confederates actually address the substance of the blog post. Rather, they tilt after windmills.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 12, 2019 @ 7:32

          You are absolutely right. The post has nothing to do with Lincoln or with the Union cause, but it is a wonderful case study of how people respond when they feel that their preferred narrative of the past is under assault.

  • Jimmy Jones Aug 11, 2019 @ 10:00

    I think the Corwin Amendment tells me that slavery was not the reason. All we had to do was come back into the union and it would be slavery forever. I believe that secession was the problem.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2019 @ 10:11

      Congratulations, but this has absolutely nothing to do with this blog post.

      • CliosFanBoy Aug 11, 2019 @ 15:35

        not to mention they continue to confuse the Unionist motivation for the Confederate. The Corwin Amendment actually shows that they understood at the time why the confederate states wanted to leave the Union–it was because of slavery. Had the CSA been formed because of tariffs, the Unionists would have proposed laws to reassure them about the tariff.

  • Anthony C Aug 11, 2019 @ 13:48

    Many years and wars later. As a black soldier I to suffer with the pains and blessings of being a soldier. 16 years 8 years Army and 8 years Navy. I stood for the goals and principles of the country. After getting out only to fight for benefits that were promised. Always last higher and trying to prove qualified to other whom were privileged and nepotism and favoritism found because I was black. In reading the bible in the book of the Maccabees I’ve found it was a problem back then. Same stuff different day. But assured through the bible the wait and suffering overdue was for my my benefit. You see our punishment as Hebrews are administered as we sin. The sins of the nations are prolonged because they need time for repentance. I’m a chosen vessel of God. In which he sent his son to seek the lost tribe of Israel. Not the whole world. He came to save his chosen people and all others that will get in have to accept the fact that my people are the priest to the nations and gentiles have to join our God and love our people. Because they are strangers. So my disdain and hate is a test and barriers for the nations to accept. The only way they get to heaven. Strange God’s ways are not like man. 8/11/19

  • Marvin Fairbank Aug 11, 2019 @ 14:52

    Thank you Mr. Levin for an interesting paper on the treatment of freed slaves serving in the armies of the Civil War. I do hope that history does not repeat itself.

  • Ted Melonas Aug 12, 2019 @ 7:33

    If Fort Sumter had not been fired on, how much would history have been changed & in what way.I believe secesscion was the real reason with other contributing factors. The north needed a leagal & moral reason to stop them. Not a PhD, just an interested person.

  • Msb Aug 12, 2019 @ 23:52

    As it’s the hit dog that hollers, imagine the howling that will arise when the book is available, considering the pack hollering at a single post. Can’t wait to read the book.

  • Andersonh1 Aug 14, 2019 @ 8:09

    I have done a lot of research on this topic myself, and I am curious to see what evidence you present in the book and what your sources are, because I’m arriving at some far different conclusions than you seem to have reached. I will say this, for all the importance you seem to place on debunking the “myth”, I personally had no interest or knowledge of “black confederates” until the controversy itself caught my attention, here and elsewhere. It’s the very fact that people make such a big deal about it that made me curious enough to do some digging. I might never have paid this topic any attention at all otherwise. So your book should be very interesting.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2019 @ 8:46

      I look forward to hearing your thoughts once you have read the book. I also look forward to reading your own published work at some point in the near future.

  • Ace-of-Stars Aug 15, 2019 @ 14:05

    @Kevin – re: “This is a salient aspect of the history that is all too often overlooked by advocates of the black Confederate myth.” — I believe you’re giving them more credit than they deserve. The way I see it, they aren’t “overlooking” anything, but are BLATANTLY COVERING OVER the facts that are readily available through various resources.

    Not only were there the fearful concerns of violent retaliation if the rebellious states were to have decided to arm their “Negro” populations, but there was also the even greater concern regarding what interpretative effect doing so would have on their overbearing propaganda about both Blacks as a whole and the institution of black slavery in particular.

    Not only was the attitude of Howell Cobb of Georgia common, who was recorded as having said, “…[I]f slaves seem good soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong,” but there were also concerns about the economic backlash removing slaves from “cotton field” to “battle field” would have on the “New Nation” as a result of an unprepared-for labor shortage.

    Plus, let’s not forget to factor in just plain old greed — e.g., as another prominent Georgian, Warren Akin, lamented regarding, “the strange conduct of our people,” as their rebellion was fast approaching its desperate final moments: “They give up their sons, husbands, brothers & friends, and and often without murmuring, to the army; but let one of their negroes be taken, and what a howl you will hear.”

    And exactly why would that be the attitude, especially a time of last-gasp crisis? MAYBE it was because the War of the Rebellion was all about protecting “SLAVERY” — as stated by R.M.T. Hunter: “What did we go to war for, if not to protect our property?” (What “property” was he making reference to, I wonder?)

    This is why the “Neo-Confederates” absolutely MUST fabricate the “Black Confederate Soldiers” myth, despite the absence of battlefield corpses and “prisoners of war” throughout the four-years’-long struggle, and similarly choose to “overlook” other evidences– both tangible and implied –because to cease pushing their phony narrative would mean being forced to once again face the stone-hard face-smacking FACT that the War of Southern Treason was fought for and over the continued existence of chattel slavery in the Western Hemisphere, no ifs, ands, or buts.

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