Orville E. Babcock
|Orville Elias Babcock|
Orville E. Babcock
December 25, 1835|
|Died||June 2, 1884
Mosquito Inlet, Florida
|Place of burial||Arlington National Cemetery|
|Allegiance||United States of America
|Service/branch||United States Army
|Years of service||1861–1884|
Brevet Brigadier General
|Unit||United States Army Corps of Engineers|
|Other work||Private Secretary for President Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877)|
Orville Elias Babcock (December 25, 1835 – June 2, 1884) was an American Civil War General in the Union Army. He graduated third in his class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1861, and served in the United States Army Corps of Engineers throughout the Civil War. As Assistant Engineer and aide-de-camp for district commander Nathaniel P. Banks, in 1862 Babock worked on fortifications to aid in defending the nation's capitol from Confederate attack. Babcock later served as aide-de-camp for Ulysses S. Grant and participated in the Overland Campaign. He was promoted to Brevet Brigadier General in 1865 and continued on Grant's staff during Reconstruction. After Grant became President in 1869, Babcock was appointed Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds for Washington, DC and Secretary to the President of the United States—in modern terms, the chief of staff—and he served in both posts until 1876. Upon his appointment Babcock was young and ambitious, and considered the Iago of the Grant administration. In 1869, Grant sent Babcock on a mission to explore the possibility of annexing the island nation of Santo Domingo to the United States.
Babcock's tenure under President Grant was filled with controversy concerning involvement with the manipulation of both cabinet departments and appointments. Grant supported Babcock when Babcock was accused of corruption; Grant's shielding of Babcock from political attack stemmed primarily from their shared experiences on the battlefield during the American Civil War. When Babcock was indicted as a member of the Whiskey Ring in 1875, Grant intended to travel to St. Louis and testify on his behalf. Dissuaded by his cabinet on the grounds that taking part in person at a trial would demean the presidency, Grant still insisted on providing a written deposition on Babcock's behalf—a first for a sitting president—which was admitted at Babcock's 1876 trial and resulted in his acquittal. The news coverage of the Whiskey Ring and other Grant administration scandals caused public opinion to turn against Babcock. Having gone so far as to provide what was almost certainly false testimony in order to save Babcock from disgrace, Grant lost trust in him. This loss of faith, combined with the negative public attention, led Grant to dismiss Babcock from the White House. Even though Grant fired Babcock as his private secretary, he did not desert his wartime comrade; he appointed Babcock Inspector of Lighthouses for the Federal Lighthouse Board's 5th and 6th Districts, a low-profile post that did not attract undue public attention. Babcock continued in this position under Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and Chester A. Arthur without controversy. During his tenure, Babcock was the chief engineer overseeing plans for the construction of Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse. He died in 1884 when he drowned off Mosquito Inlet in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Babcock's historical reputation is mixed; his technical engineering expertise, efficiency, and loyalty were offset by his involvement in corruption and scandal, which caused Grant to sacrifice part of the presidency's prestige in his effort to save Babcock from prison. Uncommon for his times, Babcock showed no racism in relations with African Americans or mixed race peoples, which was a key factor in Grant's decision to send Babcock on the Santo Domingo mission; the population of Santo Domingo was predominantly mixed race, and consisted of individuals with American Indian, African, and Hispanic ancestry.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Civil War (1861–1865)
- 3 Reconstruction
- 3.1 Final promotions, marriage, and family
- 3.2 President Grant's private secretary (1869–1876)
- 3.3 Superintendent of public buildings and grounds (1869–1877)
- 4 Inspector of lighthouses (1877–1884)
- 5 Lampooned by Democratic Puck magazine (1880)
- 6 Mosquito Inlet lighthouse and drowning (1883–1884)
- 7 Historical reputation
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Sources
- 11 External links
Orville E. Babcock was born on December 25, 1835 in Franklin, Vermont, a small town located near the Canada–US border close to Lake Champlain. Babcock's father was Elias Babcock Jr. and his mother was Clara Olmstead. While growing up in Vermont he received a common education. At the age of 16, Babcock was appointed to the West Point Military Academy (USMA), where he graduated third in a class of 45 on May 6, 1861. His high class ranking enabled Babcock to select his branch, and he chose the Engineers, as did most top graduates of his era.
Civil War (1861–1865)
Constructed Washington D.C. defense works
The American Civil War was beginning as Babcock was graduating; he was immediately promoted Brevet Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, and assigned to duty as an Assistant Engineer for the military district that included Washington. His first mission was the undertaking of efforts to improve the defensive works of Washington, D.C. and protect the city from attack. On July 13, 1861, Babcock was assigned to the Department of Pennsylvania. In August, he was assigned to the Department of the Shenandoah, and constructed military fortifications on the Potomac River and in the Shenandoah Valley while also serving as aide-de-camp under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks. From August through November, Babcock worked again on improving the fortifications surrounding Washington, responding to increased apprehension the Union capital was vulnerable to attack and capture by the Confederate Army.
On November 17, 1861, Babcock was promoted to First Lieutenant, Corps of Engineers, and a week later was assigned to the Army of the Potomac. During the months of February and March, 1862, while General Banks moved to Winchester, Virginia, Babcock set up military fortifications at Harper's Ferry and guarded pontoon bridges crossing the Potomac River. During the Peninsular Campaign, Babcock served bravely at the Siege of Yorktown with the Army of the Potomac's Engineer Battalion and was breveted as a captain to rank from May 4, 1862. For the next seven months, Babcock built bridges, roads, and field works. For his service, in November, 1862, Babcock was promoted to Chief Engineer Left Grand Division of the Army of the Potomac.
Vicksburg, Blue Springs, Campbell's Station
On January 1, 1863, Br. Cap. Babcock was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and was named the Assistant Inspector General of the VI Corps until February 6, when he was named the Assistant Inspector General and Chief Engineer of the IX Corps. As Chief Engineer of the IX Corps Lieut. Col. Babcock surveyed and projected the defensive fortifications at Louisville and Central Kentucky. Moving westward to help secure the Mississippi River from Confederate control and divide the Confederacy in two, Lieut. Col. Babcock fought with the IX Corps at the Battle of Vicksburg and the Battle of Blue Springs, and the Battle of Campbell's Station.
On March 29, 1864 Babcock was promoted to lieutenant colonel and became the aide-de-camp to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant where he participated in the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House and Battle of Cold Harbor. These battles were part of the Union armies Overland Campaign against General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia
For his gallant service at the Battle of the Wilderness, Babcock was later brevetted as a colonel. On August 9, 1864, Babcock, while stationed at Union headquarters in City Point, was wounded in the hand after Confederate spies had blown up an ammunition barge moored below the city's bluffs. As Grant's aide-de-camp, Babcock ran dispatches between Grant and Major General William T. Sherman during Sherman's March to the Sea campaign.
Babcock delivered Grant's surrender demand to General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Virginia, and escorted Lee to his meeting with Grant at the Appomattox Court House. Babcock chose the place at Appomattox where Lee and Grant would meet for the surrender of the Army of Virginia.
For his meritorious contributions in the Civil War, Babcock received two brevets in the U.S. Regular Army to rank from March 13, 1865 - first to Brevet Colonel, and then to Brevet Brigadier General. On July 17, 1866, President Andrew Johnson nominated Babcock for the grade of brevet brigadier general in the regular army, to rank from March 13, 1865, and the United States Senate confirmed the appointment on July 23, 1866.
Appomattox: Lee surrenders to Grant
On April 9, 1865 after being defeated at the Battle of Appomattox, Commanding Confederate General Robert E. Lee formerly surrendered to Commanding Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Babcock personally chose the site of surrender at the Mclean House and personally escorted Robert E. Lee to make surrender terms to Grant at the Mclean House. Babcock witnessed Grant and Lee discussing and signing the surrender terms at the McClean House.
Final promotions, marriage, and family
After the War, Babcock remained on Grant's staff throughout America's turbulent Reconstruction Period. On July 25, 1866, Brig. Gen. Babcock was commissioned Colonel of Staff and aide-de-camp for General-in-Chief of the Army, Ulysses S. Grant. On March 21, 1867 Babcock received a Regular Army commission as a major in the Corps of Engineers.
On November 6, 1866, Babcock married Anne Eliza Cambell in Galena, Illinois. Their marriage produced four children: Campbell E. Babcock, Orville E. Babcock, Jr., Adolph B. Babcock, and Benjamin Babcock. Benjamin died during infancy. Babcock moved to Washington D.C. to serve under Grant while Grant was Commanding General and President of the United States.
President Grant's private secretary (1869–1876)
In 1868, Ulysses S. Grant was elected the 18th President of the United States. In 1869, Babcock was appointed Grant's private secretary. Babcock worked directly for President Grant. Babcock, one of a few men who had daily access to President Grant at the White House, had unprecedented influence over President Grant and planted suspicions in Grant that enemies were out to politically destroy his administration. His influence even extended indirectly into many cabinet departments and he was at odds with reformers, that included Secretary Fish and Secretary Bristow, who both had desired to save Grant's reputation from scandal. When cabinet appointments came available, Grant listened to Babcock's recommendations. Babcock, who was admired by Grant for his Civil War service, was young and ambitious and considered the Iago of the Grant administration.
Gatekeeper to Grant
Babcock's office was in an anteroom on the second floor of the White House that led to President Grant's private office.  In order to see Grant persons had to go through Babcock serving as a role of gatekeeper to the president.  This insider role created resentment towards Babcock for persons who wanted to see Grant overriding Babcock's positive personal qualities  Babcock opened and answered most of Grant's personal letters.  According to historian Allan Nevins Babcock's office was just as important and more powerful then most Cabinet positions. 
Santo Domingo (1869)
After his appointment, in 1869, Babcock was involved as a special agent of President Ulysses S. Grant in the attempt to annex the mostly black Caribbean island country of the Dominican Republic, then commonly called Santo Domingo. Like his predecessor, Andrew Johnson, Grant received inducements for Caribbean expansion particularly for Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Speculators William L. Cazneau and Joseph W. Fabens formed the Santo Domingo Company in New York to gain investment backers for the annexation of the Dominican Republic. Grant's Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, was doubtful concerning Haitian annexation, believing the country to unstable, but he was initially more favorable to annexing the Dominican Republic after realizing investors were highly enthusiastic towards investing in the country. Fish, however, became suspicious of annexation when Fabens, representing promoters, approached Fish and asked him to support a plan of American annexation of the Dominican Republic. Grant, who was more favorable to wealthy business leaders and investors, supported annexation. Fish, supporting Grant out of loyalty, agreed to send Babcock on a reconnaissance mission, Grant's appointed special agent to the Dominican Republic.  Babcock was accompanied by Fabens and annexation supporter California Republican Senator Cornelius Cole. Cazneau, who was on the island, formerly introduced the young and ambitious Babcock to the Dominican Republic President Buenaventura Báez, and the two unknown to Fish, made a draft of annexation.  According to the annexation draft made in September 1869, Samaná Bay would be sold to the United States for $2 million or the country would be annexed to the United States after paying of the Dominican Republic's national debt of $1.5 million.  Babcock was a supporter of Congressional Reconstruction, and he saw Santo Domingo, not as a nation of blacks, but as a source of new opportunities in a post war world. 
When Babcock returned to the White House having a treaty, Fish and Secretary of Interior Jacob D. Cox were alarmed, since Babcock had no official standing. . Fish told Cox, "Babcock is back...I pledge you my word he had no more diplomatic authority than any other casual visitor to the island." At the next cabinet meeting Babcock was there in person and Grant told his silenced cabinet that Babcock was back and that he approved of the treaty, while it only needed a signature from the U.S. consular in Santo Domingo.  Cox spoke up and said, " But Mr. President, has it been settled, then, that we want to annex Santo Domingo ?" Grant was embarrassed and began puffing on his cigar, while the other cabinet members said nothing, Cox's question remained unanswered.  Fish threatened to resign over the matter, but Grant convinced him to stay on the administration telling Fish he would not go around him again and he needed Fish's guidance and support.  Fish agreed to remain on the cabinet, although he hoped Grant would drop the Santo Domingo annexation treaty. 
Grant, however, did not drop the treaty, having believed annexation would help alleviate violent suppression of African Americans in the Southern states, as blacks would have a safe environment to work and live, in the Dominican Republic. Fish sent Babcock back to the Dominican Republic on November 18, accompanied by Quartermaster Rufus Ingalls, this time having official State Department status and instructions to draw up two formal treaties, signed on November 29, 1869.  Grant, however, kept the treaties secret from Congress and the public, until mid-January 1870.  After earnest public discussion, the treaties was formerly submitted to Congress in March, whereupon Senators joined in the debate. Senator Charles Sumner strongly opposed the annexation treaties objecting to Babcock's secret negotiations, his use of naval power, and desiring to keep Santo Domingo an autonomous African American nation rather than annexation and potential statehood as Grant had proposed. The people of Santo Domingo overwhelmingly desired annexation voting 15,169 to 11 in its favor, according to a plebiscite held by Báez.  Senate Republicans led by Sumner split the party over the treaty while Senators loyal to Grant supported the treaty and admonished Babcock. The treaties however failed to pass the Senate causing continued bitterness and hostility between Grant and Sumner, both stubbornly trying to control the Republican Party. Although Babcock was suspected of being given investment land on Samaná Bay, a Congressional investigation found no conclusive evidence that Babcock would financially gain from the country's annexation.  Babcock in the minority report was criticized for acquiescing in the imprisonment of Davis Hatch, an American abroad, who was an open critic of Báez. 
Gold Ring (1869)
In 1869, Babcock invested money in what was known as the Gold Ring through the Jay Cooke & Company Bank. The Gold Ring was a scam created by Jay Gould and James Fisk to corner the gold market and artificially drive up the cost of gold. Gould had convinced President Grant not to release gold in the gold market from the U.S. Treasury. In September 1869, to defeat the Gold Ring, Grant released $4,500,000 in gold from the Treasury Department. The price of gold collapsed, Gould and Fisk were thwarted. This resulted in a collapse of stock prices on Wall Street that lasted a few months. Babcock and other investors lost $40,000 in their gold investments. To recoup his losses Babcock put up a trust deed on his property. This information was not revealed to Grant until 1876.
Corruption: Whiskey Ring (1875–1876)
Dating back to the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln it was common for distillers and corrupt Internal Revenue agents to make false whiskey production reports and pocket unpaid tax revenue. However, during the early 1870s, the corruption became more organized by distillers, using the profit money for bribery and illegal election financing, to the point where every agent in St. Louis was involved in corruption. This organized network of tax fraud and bribery, known as the Whiskey Ring, extended nationally and involved "the printing, selling, and approving of forged federal revenue stamps on bottled whiskey." In June 1874, President Grant appointed Kentuckian and Union War veteran, Benjamin Bristow, Secretary of Treasury, known for his honesty and integrity, and whom had served as the nation's first Solicitor General also appointed by Grant. Bristow supported Grant's gold standard economy and he was put in charge to clean up corruption in Grant's cabinet.  Bristow immediately discovered whiskey tax evasion among distillers, and corrupt officials in the Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Bureau. In May 10, Bristow and Treasury Solicitor Blueford Wilson, having Grant's permission, using secret agents appointed outside the Treasury Department, raided and shut down corrupt distilleries in St. Louis, Chicago, and Milwaukee, seizing company books and files. Partnering with Grant's newly appointed Attorney General Edwards Pierrepont, a popular New York reformer who was involved in shutting down the Tweed Ring, both were intent on prosecuting members of the ring. Information was soon discovered that Babcock was informing ring leader John McDonald in St. Louis of inspections by Bristow's agents.  Bristow believed Babcock received thousand dollar bills hidden inside cigar boxes as bribery payments for insider information.  McDonald was indicted in June, while Bristow ordered indictments on 350 distillers and government officials. 
In July 1875, Bristow and Pierrepont met Grant, who was vacationing at Long Branch, and gave him evidence that Babcock was a member of the ring.  Grant told Pierrepont "Let no guilty man escape..." and said if Babcock was guilty then it was the "greatest piece of traitorism to me that a man could possibly practice." In October, Babcock was summoned in front of Grant, Bristow, and Pierrepont at the White House to explain two ambiguously signed "Sylph" telegrams hand written by Babcock.  The first message said, "I have succeeded. They will not go. I will write you." (December 10, 1874) and the second one said, "We have official information that the enemy weakens. Push things." (February 3, 1875) Bristow had shown these messages to Grant at a cabinet meeting the same day. Babcock said something to Grant, unintelligible to Bristow and Pierrepont, while Grant appeared satisfied by Babcock's interpretation of the messages.  Pierrepont and Bristow, believing the matter to be crucial, demanded a written explanation sent to his telegraphic correspondent, and that he go east to give his version of the messages. After Babcock took his time, Pierrepont walked over to Babcock in his office room, and found him writing to revenue agent John A. Joyce, to be on his guard in St. Louis.  Infuriated, Pierrepont grabbed Babcock's pen and dashed through his message yelling at Babcock, "You don't want to send your argument; send the fact, and go there and make your explanation. I don't understand this." Grant, on the other hand, was divided between the loyalty he had for Babcock, and his desire for Bristow and Pierrepont, trustworthy members of his cabinet, to prosecute the Whiskey Ring. Since Babcock had no acceptable explanation for his messages, he was soon indicted November 4, 1875 for tax fraud. 
As a former military officer, Babcock requested Grant on December 2, 1875 a military court martial that would be favorable to his defense. On December 8, 1875, under Bristow's instruction, Babcock's request for a military trial was denied by U.S. Attorney David Dyer, setting his St. Louis jury trial for February, 1876.  When Babcock's trial in St. Louis came up in February, Grant decided to testify in Babcock's defense.  By this time Grant had come to believe that his critics were using Babcock to go after his own presidency.  After cabinet members objected to Grant testifying in St. Louis as unseemly for a President, it was settled that Grant would give a deposition at the White House in Babcock's defense. The deposition took place on February 12 notarized by Chief Justice Morrison Waite and witnessed by both Bristow and Pierrepont.  At the deposition Grant fully supported the Whiskey Ring prosecutions, but he said that he had "great confidence" in Babcock's integrity, and that his confidence in Babcock was "unshaken".  The influence of Grant's deposition supporting Babcock, and lack of direct evidence against Babcock, led to his acquittal by the St. Louis jury.  A rumor spread that Pierrepont had leaked information to Babcock that aided in his acquittal, but Pierrepont denied this and suggested that Babcock himself had started the rumor. When Babcock returned to Washington, Grant had lost faith in his subordinate, and dismissed him as his personal secretary, appointing his son Ulysses Jr. in Babcock's place.  Grant had been informed by Solicitor Wilson that Babcock was involved with a plot to corner the gold market in September, 1869. Additionally, Babcock may have laundered Whiskey Ring kickbacks from distillers by purchasing a place and grove land in Crystal Lake, Florida on Christmas Day 1874.
Safe burglary conspiracy (1876)
In September 1876, Babcock was named in the Safe Burglary Conspiracy case when a critic of the Grant Administration was framed by bogus secret service officers and thieves. Babcock was acquitted during the trial. President Grant, at public urging, removed Babcock from the White House.
Superintendent of public buildings and grounds (1869–1877)
In addition to being Grant's private secretary Grant had appointed Babcock, a trained and experienced engineer, Superintendent of public buildings and grounds, that included public works in Washington D.C. Babcock's supervision included the chain bridge over the Potomac River and the Anacosta bridge. Babcock also supervised the construction of the east wing of the new state war and navy departments. Babcock retained this position until 1877, after he was dismissed by Grant as his personal secretary at the White House in 1876.
Inspector of lighthouses (1877–1884)
On March 12, 1877 after retirement from the White House serving under President Grant, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Babcock Inspector of Lighthouses of the Fifth District.  Babcock was additionally appointed Inspector of Lighthouses for the 6th District.  In addition to serving under President Hayes, Babcock was Inspector of Lighthouses under Presidents James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur.
Lampooned by Democratic Puck magazine (1880)
In June 1880 the Republicans held their national convention. Former President Ulysses S. Grant had returned to the United States in September 1879 from a popular world tour and was considered a strong candidate for a third term presidency. Grant's main competitor was James G. Blaine. The final nomination went to Senator James A. Garfield for President and Chester A. Arthur for Vice President. On February 4, 1880, prior to the Republican convention, in a color illustration by artist Joseph Keppler in the Democratic Puck magazine, Keppler ridiculed Grant and his associates while Grant was President, including Orville E. Babcock, for alleged involvement in corrupt rings. Babcock and Grant however had an estranged friendship after Babcock was dismissed as Grant's personal White House secretary in 1876. Babcock was then serving as Inspector of Lighthouses under President Hayes, who had refused to run for a second term.
Mosquito Inlet lighthouse and drowning (1883–1884)
The Mosquito Inlet Lighthouse project started in 1883, and Babcock was the supervising engineer. On June 2, 1884, Babcock and his associates were on board the government schooner Pharos delivering construction supplies, and were anxious to get to land because a sudden storm created hazardous ocean conditions. The captain decided not to cross over the inlet bar during the storm because the construction supplies weighed down the ship. As the storm worsened, Captain Newins of another ship, the Bonito led seven men in a row boat to the Pharos in order to retrieve the passengers. In debating whether to wait out the storm on the Pharos or try to make land, Babcock told his associates that since Newins and his crew had rowed safely to the Pharos, then they should be able to row to shore on tidal floods created by the storm. After eating their lunch on the Pharos, Babcock and his associates boarded a rowboat and started for the shore. As they approached the inlet bar, the swells capsized the boat several times, and it took on water. Babcock was thrown clear, but another person on the boat attached him to it by a lifeline. The boat and crew were battered by waves, oars, and other debris, and Babcock's lifeline was torn loose from the boat, which resulted in his drowning death. Upon reaching the shore, others who had been in the boat recovered Babcock's body and unsuccessfully tried to resuscitate him. Three others, including two of Babcock's associates, were also killed; the bodies of Babcock's associates, Levi P. Luckey and Benjamin F. Sutter, were recovered several days later, but the body of the fourth victim, a member of the boat's crew, was not found. The lighthouse construction project continued after Babcock's death, and was completed in 1887.
Scholars note Babcock's high class standing at West Point, engineering skills, and bravery during the American Civil War. Babcock also has been noted positively for his association with the antislavery views of the Radical Republicans, and for his dealings with African Americans from a position of equality, a trait which was uncommon for the white people of his era, even those who opposed slavery. Historians also make positive mention of Babcock's post-White House career, noting that he served for eight years as a government lighthouse inspector and engineer, and did so capably and honestly.
However, historians are critical of Babcock's attempt to make an unauthorized agreement to annex Santo Domingo, as well as his involvement in the Gold and Whiskey Rings. Most historians agree that Babcock betrayed Grant while President, and remain perplexed at Grant's loyalty to his wartime comrade, including providing a deposition that was likely untrue in a successful effort to keep Babcock from being convicted at trial and imprisoned, and to protect Grant's own presidency and family.
With Babcock's reputation largely narrowed to observations about his corruption, loyalty to Grant, and wartime bravery, historians are generally not able to consider him in a wider context because he did not author an autobiography, nor has he been the subject of an extended biography. Historian William McFeely criticized Babcock of ignoring ethical values in the spirit of opportunism and personal gain. 
On November 22, 2016 Mississippi State University Libraries announced the digitalization of Babcock's private diaries. Babcock's diaries are part of Mississippi State University Libraries Ulysses S. Grant's digital collection.  Babcock's diaries began in 1863 during the height of the American Civil War, including his perspective on the siege of Vicksburg and his wartime experiences in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia.  The diary collections also includes his famous post-war visit to Santo Domingo in 1869 serving as President Grant's special agent and personal secretary.  The collection includes Babcock's supplementary materials of speeches, correspondence, and newspaper clippings.  The Mississippi State University Libraries said that Babcock's brokerage of the annexation of Santo Domingo, "began what became a string of controversies and scandals surrounding Babcock and his position as aide to the President."  The scandals culminated in Babcock's involvement in the Whiskey Ring having been indicted for tax fraud in 1875 and put on trial in St. Louis 1876.  Throughout these scandals President Grant gave Babcock his confidence. 
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