Subject of the Next Post

In the next post tentatively titled “The March that Never Happened”, we will look at the prospects for the Second Corps moving away from Spotsylvania during the night of May 11/12/

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Withdrawing the Guns – Creatures of Habit?

Much has been made over the last one hundred and fifty years about the withdrawal of the artillery from the “Mule Shoe” on May 11, 1864. Or more accurately, the artillery which could have been at the point that Hancock’s Federal Corp struck the next morning. The generally accepted reason given is that Gen. Lee anticipated the Federals moving away from Spotsylvania Courthouse during the night. If they did so he  did not want the guns to hinder the movement of the infantry away from the lines around the Courthouse.  In fact the Federals did not move but instead attacked the apex of the “Mule Shoe”. It was this miscalculation which, according to most people, certainly most Confederates, led directly  to the initial disaster on May 12.

Disposition of Second Corps Artillery Battalions at sunset May 11, 1864

Disposition of Second Corps Artillery Battalions at sunset May 11, 1864

So lets take a look at that event and see if we can perhaps dig a little deeper as to why it may have happened.

First to be clear while guns were certainly withdrawn it is incorrect to say “the” guns were withdrawn from the “Mule Shoe”. On the afternoon of the 11th there were 46 Confederate cannon within the boundaries of the “Mule Shoe” Salient. (1) Of these guns only 26, from Nelson’s and Page’s battalions would be withdrawn later that afternoon. Therefore 20 cannon, from Cutshaw’s and Hardaway’s battalions, still remained in the Salient when Hancock struck the  next morning. While still a formidable force unfortunately for the Confederates none of them were able to take Hancock’s assault force under fire before they broke through the line. The repositioning of forces following Upton’s charge, combined with the preperations for a march away from Spotsylvania had seen to that.

The manner in which the  withdrawal of guns was executed however is quite interesting. The premise for this is generally given that  “those guns which were difficult to access” were to be withdrawn. An additional justification is that it was predicted to be “a dark rainy night”. Both reasons appear, at least on the surface to be quite reasonable. Yet Brig. Gen. Armistead Long, commander of the artillery of the Second Corp is singled out for criticism, albeit in a left-handed way, for withdrawing  guns prior to the order to march. Of course this is because of the disaster on the morning of the 12th. It is seldom mentioned that the sector the guns were withdrawn from had been relatively inactive. Nor is it mentioned that as a result of Upton’s charge the same sector had been devoid of guns at the same time the previous day. But the comparison is always made to Brig. Gen. Porter Alexander, Gen. Longs counterpart in the First Corps. Alexander, although making preparations to move choose not to withdraw any of his guns prior to the movement of the troops. Interestingly enough Col. Lindsey Walker of the Third Corps is not mentioned in the matter. Preliminary research indicates that he, like Alexander, chose not to withdraw guns from the line.

So why did Gen. Long chose to withdraw those particular guns? Was it simply that they were “difficult to access”?, or perhaps the luck of the draw? Before we address that question I must say that in succeeding posts we will look at the subject of a proposed march in much more detail.  However first to understand what happened we need to go back a few days to the Battle of the Wilderness.

May, 7, 1864. The day before the Second Corps marched from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania Courthouse. By now both armies had decided that this battle was over. The Confederates were trying to anticipate Grant’s next move so that they could preempt it. As a result preparations were made to move the army.

While it is certainly true that the battle of the Wilderness was primarily an infantry fight it was not exclusively so. On the front of the Second Corps all five artillery battalions were ultimately involved. Casualties, while not heavy did include Col. J. Thompson Brown, who was killed by a Federal sharpshooter on the 6th. Col. Brown, along with Col. Thomas Carter had been given command of a division of the artillery, reporting directly to Gen. Long.

On the afternoon of the 7th, Gen. Long ordered the battalions of Cutshaw , Hardaway and Nelson to withdraw their battalions to the vicinity of Verdiersville. The last of these units would arrive and go into camp at around 2 am the morning of the 8th. From there these battalions would march at 1 P.M. that same day by a separate route from the infantry. Their route would take them by way of Antioch Church on Terry’s Creek, to the North Anna and finally they would camp on the Po River near Shady Grove the evening of the 8th. They would not arrive at Spotsylvania Courthouse until sometime on the 9th.

Meanwhile the remaining battalions of Carter Braxton and R.C.M. Page marched with the infantry on the more direct route toward Spotsylvania Courthouse. Note that only two battalions marched with the three divisions of infantry, not the customary one per division of infantry. These batteries arrived near the Courthouse along with the infantry late on the afternoon of the 8th.

Now lets move back forward to the afternoon of the 11th. The artillery of the Corps is distributed as follows. Braxton’s Battalion is in reserve near the Courthouse as are the heaviest guns in the Corps, the 20 lbers of the Rockbridge Artillery from Hardaways battalion. Smith’s battery from Hardaways Battalion is in camp refitting and recovering from the hammering it had taken on the 10th.  The Salem Artillery, also of Hardaway’s Battalion,  had yet to join the army, being delayed because of a lack of horses.

The remaining two batteries of Hardaway’s battalion, along with Garber’s battery of Cutshaw’s Battalion were in the line in front of the Harrison House. They were in direct support of Rodes Division. Cutshaw’s remaining two batteries along with the entirety of Nelson and Page’s Battalions were in support of Johnson’s Division in the toe of the “Mule Shoe”.

Gen. Long was evidently instructed to remove those guns difficult to access late in the afternoon of the 11th. (2) He then went to Col. Carter and instructed him to withdraw Nelson and Page’s battalions to their camps for grazing and water. (3) He also met with Maj. Wilfred Cutshaw and ordered him to have his horses brought up from behind the second line. (4) While preparations were to be made for a move he was not to move before the infantry did. (5) Similar instructions would later be given to Maj. Hardaway.

With the withdrawal of Col. Carter along with the battalions of Neslon and Page the infantry were, like in the Wilderness, left with two battalions to march with them. Neither of these battalions had accompanied them on the march to Spotsylvania. Which would fit the  standard procedure of rotating the order of march. Units were rotated if at all possible to share the hardship of bringing up the rear.

As darkness fell on May 11th the artillery dispositions of the Second Corps, as it anticipated moving away from Spotsylvania,  were thus roughly the same as they had been before leaving the Wilderness. Was this coincidence or by design? Of course we will never know because they did not march that day. When they did move later the battalion organization was totally different.  So again was Gen. Long a “creature of Habit?”

The next post tentatively titled “The March that Never Happened” will look at the prospects for the Second Corps moving away from Spotsylvania on the night of May 11/12.



(1) Hardaway had 8, Cutshaw 12, Nelson 12, Page 14.

(2) The term “evidently” is chosen deliberately as there is a great deal of confusion on this point. Whether it was in the form of an order or a suggestion is not clear. Plus as will be addressed in a later post it was not at all clear that the army would be moving that night, in fact probable it would not.

(3) Carter was in charge of the guns within the “Mule Shoe”. Perhaps this why he told Maj. Hardaway that his guns were to be withdrawn. Hardaway, evidently doubting those instructions, went to Gen. Long himself and found that Carter was wrong. He was, like Cutshaw, to only move when the infantry did.

(4) This would be what we today call Gordon’s Line, not the reserve line running about a hundred or so yards behind Rodes right and extended across the McCoull Lane on the 11th

(5) Gen. Long had personally supervised the placement of Carrington and Tanner’s batteries only a few hours earlier. In fact he had placed Tanner’s battery in a position he had chosen over the objections of Maj. Cutshaw and Gen. Walker commanding the Stonewall Brigade.

Posted in artillery in the Overland Campaign, Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Bloody Angle, Hancock's assault on the Muleshoe, Mule Shoe, Overland Campaign 1864, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

“A Small Offset” (updated with results of field visit 3/15/14)

Sketch of area described in post

Sketch of area described in post. Area of interest is left of McCoull Lane

“Tanner’s battery was placed into the line being in a small offset”. The words of Wilfred Cutshaw who commanded the battalion. For more time than I am willing to admit I have tried to fit those words into what I see on the ground.

Finally the answer. In an article he wrote for a Richmond newspaper Maj. Robert Hardaway answered my question. When describing the action involving the recapture of Smith’s guns on the evening of May 10 he said “Our works about thirty yards to the right had a second line run back to the rear about eighty yards long, to protect the hollow through which the Yankees broke in. When our men from Ramseur’s brigade and left advanced down our works to the right they stopped at this offset…….”.

So there we have it. While Hardaway was describing the re-entrant line at Dole’s Salient, there must have been a somewhat similar line or projection on the other end of the second line.

Now to try and find it.

Field Visit 3/15/14

Yesterday I went out and looked for evidence of gun positions in the second or reserve line in the salient. Specifically in the second line to the left or south of Carrington’s positions at and around the West Angle. The results I’m afraid were inconclusive, although interesting.

To the left, or south, of the McCoull Lane there is a section of the  reserve trench that has possibilities. Along most of its length it appears to be a typical rifle trench, although not far from the McCoull Lane it has a pair of places wide enough to accommodate the trail of a cannon. Both of theses places have intrench traverses on their right hand side. In addition there is another section of the trench slightly further to the left where for about 20 yards where the rear is opened enough to allow guns to have been there. Unfortunately my pictures aren’t good enough to shown the detail.

Note in trench traverse

Section of the second line Left of McCoull Lane, note in trench traverse

water standing in a low portion of the second line.

Another look at the second line. Standing water of course defines a low point in the trench.

Another section of the second line.

Another section of the second line.

One thing that makes this section of the line difficult to interpret is the runoff. Not only the natural runoff down the trench from the rise to the left, but also from two culverts put in by the CCC back in the thirties. Water from one of these as well as natural flow has cut through the reserve line on its way to a natural watercourse which flows toward the McCoull Spring.

There is another very interesting feature found along this section of the second line. There are four wide baulks found in the trench. Separated by about 15-20 yards they appear to be  wide enough to pass a vehicle across the trench.  Certainly men could have walked over. While it is entirely possible that they were done during postwar logging another explanation seems more likely. In addition similar baulks are not found right or north of the McCoull Lane.

When the second line was completed up to the McCoull Lane the troops in the main line were cut off from a direct route to the rear. Regardless they still  needed supplies of water, food, and ammunition to be brought up and wounded men evacuated. So how would it have been done? Once the line was completed to the McCoull Lane either they had to go around and cross the Lane or cross the works.  These wide baulks would conceivably enable men, animals, and vehicles to walk or roll over the line as easily as along the lane. Or if Cutshaw really meant “in a small offset” to mean between the lines, the guns could  have been brought into that area over these baulks. Admittedly this thought did not occur to me until I had left for the day. Would they have required a ramp on the front side? Or was the parapet low enough men and animals carrying a load could step up or down? Some thing for next trip.

Note wide balk to the left of the picture.

Note wide balk to the left of the picture.

There are several  features in that area which could be possibly been a location of ammo chests, or officers locations. Two medium-sized crescent-shaped positions exist, one of them shown below is near the field behind Dole’s line. However there are none of the large positions we find behind the West Angle.

Crescent shaped feature between the lines. Note how close to the field.

Crescent shaped feature between the lines. Note how close to the field.

It is surprising that the feature pictured above has survived at all. There is ample evidence of postwar work, either agricultural or logging , encroaching toward the lane almost to the wet area between the two lines. Any wartime features would have most likely been eradicated by such work.

Second Line: I walked the entire length of the second line yesterday looking for traces of artillery. With the exception of the features described above there is little to distinguish it. On the slight rise immediately to the left of the section discussed above there are some fairly typical in trench traverses. However nowhere near the wide baulks I have already described. There may be one of those still further to the left however.

Also it appears that perhaps that this line could have been built-in stages, or perhaps by different units. Beginning at its intersection with the re-entrant line (btw there is a shallow scrape that appears to be evidence that this reserve line actually began to the south of this intersection point by at least some 30 yards or so) the line curls around the back side of the small ridge. Along this section there are a series of 5 holes, each around three feet behind the rear wall of the ditch. Perhaps for officers, or ammunition is difficult to tell. However the spacing and closeness to the trench almost certainly means that they were built by the occupants of the line.These holes are reminiscent  however of what we see at Cold Harbor, although not as large or well defined.

Midway across the field the line makes an abrupt turn to run almost directly to the McCoull Lane. From that turning point the line runs almost straight northward finally crossing the McCoull lane. Nowhere along that entire stretch do we see  more of the pits or holes just a typical rifle trench. There are however several traverses along the relatively flat section behind the new pine woods. This would have been behind area where the right of Rodes and the left of the Stonewall Brigade connected.

Conclusion: Tanner’s battery was most likely in the main line just south of the McCoull Lane. Ammunition was staged between the two lines while the caissons were behind the second line in the direction of the McCoull spring. Although it must be said that there is no surviving construction behind the second line south of the McCoull Lane. But they definitely had a way to cross the works when they wished.

An interesting area to explore, one that has seen little research to date.

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What did Thomas Carter and Maj. Page do and why? – The order of march (Revised)

One of the things that makes history so fascinating is trying to not only understand WHAT happened, but WHY it happened.  Sometimes its the little things that have major consequences. And because they seemed little things at the time we don’t know much about them.

The incident I am going to describe, should have been just a simple administrative decision. Yet, that simple process profoundly affected the lives of hundreds of men and certainly the results of a battle.  Of course it goes without saying that these decisions were made by men doing the best they could with the information and resources they had at the time.

When Lt. S. H. Pendelton (1) awoke Col. Thomas Carter in the early morning of May 12th, 1864 he was delivering orders from the Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, and endorsed by the Corps artillery commander Brig. Gen. Armistead Long. The order was for  Col. Carter to return the artillery to the salient where it could support Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson’s division. Carter endorsed the note  saying that it was then twenty minutes to dawn but the guns would be returned as soon as possible. He then  sent Lt. Pendelton on to Maj. R. C. M. Page to relay the order to return the guns of his battalion to the Salient.

The receipt of this order triggered a burst of activity in the artillery camp on the Trigg Farm. From Page the order had to be passed down to each of the four batteries. Of course to carry out the order both the men and horses, had to be awakened. Then the horses harnessed, attached to guns and vehicles, and brought into line to assemble the march column. All of this in the middle of a dark rainy night with little lighting to ease the process.

While this was being done Col. Carter met with Maj. Page and they discussed the positions that the guns were to take up when they arrived back at the Salient. (2) Both Col. Carter and Maj. Page were familiar with the positions with the Confederate positions within the Mule Shoe. Col. Carter, commanded not only a division of the Second Corps artillery, but  had been placed in direct command of the artillery within the Mule Shoe itself by Gen. Long. Maj. Page’s battalion had occupied a position around the apex of the Mule Shoe for the last several days. His men were being sent back to positions in the line that they had left not twelve hours previously.

It is important to note that at this point there was no definite information beyond Gen. Johnson’s fear that the Federals were massing in his front for an attack. Therefore the  two commanders decided that the batteries would take up positions from roughly a hundred yards to the left of the apex to the salient where the line turned to run down to Meadow Run.  Therefore the batteries would go into position in the same formation they had held the previous day. From left to right the batteries would be in this order, Montgomery, Carter, Fry and Reese. (see attached sketch)  So far everything is apparently straightforward.

Proposed positin Pages batteries.

Proposed positions of Page’s batteries morning of May 12, 1864 AM.

But it is in the execution of the order that we can begin to ask ourselves “why did they do that”? In describing the march one of the participants described the route to be traveled once the column reached the part of the  route that  ran behind the Confederate works. In his words it was  “the narrow space between the works and the trees”. And of course this would have been further complicated by tree stumps, tents, ammo boxes, etc. In short all of the things that litter a battlefield. So we know that there wasn’t a great deal of room for the vehicles and teams to maneuver. Therefore we would expect Montgomery’s battery, which being supposed to go to the left of the apex, had the furthest distance to travel to lead the way. Then Carter, Fry and finally Reese would bring up the rear of the column.

Actual order of march Page's Battalion

Actual order of march Page’s Battalion

However Montgomery’s battery did not lead the column as we would suppose. Instead, according to Thomas Carter himself “my brother Willie’s battery leading by turn”.  So Carter’s battery was in the lead, Montgomery’s battery followed in the second position. Because there was not enough room to pass Carter’s vehicles,  (3) Montgomery’s men would have to wait in column while Carter put his guns in the works. As it turned out only two of Carter’s guns were able to get  into position, the remaining two, as well as Montgomery’s entire  battery were caught in column and overrun while waiting for the route to be cleared.

We do know that there was at least a brief amount of time after its arrival before the Federals overwhelmed the defenders. Maj. Page pointed out to Capt. Carter the position he was to take. He then moved back down the column and  showed the Lieutenants of Fry’s battery as well as Capt. Reese of the Jeff Davis artillery the positions they were to take. He left Reese’s battery and was returning to the apex when he was almost killed or captured by the Federals that had broken thru.

But again the position assigned to the one section of Fry’s battery on the field that morning was not what we would have expected. Certainly the position pointed out by Maj. Page, was not the position they had occupied the day before. Rather as Lt. Hawes stated later they (the two 3 inch rifles)were ” put in position in the “open” before reaching the works made for our guns the day before”. (4) They were placed in a position to fire over the works in front rather than from the prepared gun pits.

Were these changes made by Page, or Carter? Why, given the supposed urgency of the need to return to the Salient was the order of march what it  was?  Was the habit of rotating the units in a march column so ingrained that they didn’t think about it? (5) Why did they chose a different position for Fry’s guns then the one they had prepared the day before? If they had no definite knowledge of a Federal attack, why did they decide to change positions? We will probably never know the answer unless some document comes to light shedding more light on it. And did it make any difference in the result? We will never know, however Lieutenant S. H. Hawes who commanded one of Fry’s guns had this to say “I believe we could have driven them back had we been in position of day before, provided Jones’ Brigade had protected our flank.” (6) We do know that three of the four batteries fired on the Federals that morning. Only Montgomeries  battery evidently did not.

But it is interesting to wonder what drove the decisions those men made that dark rainy morning in Spotsylvania County back in 1864.

(1) Its not clear whether Lt. Pendelton was attached to Gen. Ewell’s staff, or that of Gen. Long. Accounts state it either way, as Pendelton evidently had been involved in some controversy at his previous command.

(2) S. H. Hawes to Wilfred Cutshaw Oct. 7, 1905. How long did the two men have to make their decisions? While we don’t really know, Lt. Hawes said “we lay waiting for marching orders for about one hour” In the dark with the excitement and activity that figure seems open to question.

(3) Horse drawn artillery is difficult to put into earthworks. First the vehicle has to come up parallel to the works and make a turn to get perpendicular to the works. Then, because of the difficulty in having multiple horses back up, the gun is unhooked from the limber and run by hand into the position. The ammo chest is typically removed from the limber and placed on the ground. Then the limber is driven away. Time consuming business.

(4) S. H. Hawes to Wilfred Cutshaw Oct. 7, 1905. In his letter Hawes described the position before they left it on the 11th. Saying that Carters battery had been to their left, and that earthworks with traverses for the infantry had been thrown up.

(5) It was standard procedure in the Army of Northern Virginia to rotate the units that led a march. For example the unit that was at the rear of a column today, would be in the lead tomorrow.

(6) S. H. Hawes to Wilfred Cutshaw, Oct. 7, 1905. In this letter the former Lt. who had commanded one of the two 3 inch rifles of Fry’s battery that morning, gives an account of the events of the morning. From the time orders were given to have the horses hitched up until he was captured at his gun.

Posted in Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Bloody Angle, Earthworks and trenchs, Hancock's assault on the Muleshoe, Mule Shoe, Overland Campaign 1864, Page's Battalion, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Can we identify the location of this unit?

Perhaps its just me, but one of the things I enjoy the most is trying to nail down the location of a unit at any particular time. Of course we generally only have the testimony of a few people to go on. But some times its pretty easy.

I was rereading the manuscript for “Contributions to a history of the Richmond Howitzers”, in particular the chapter “A Diary of the War”.  In it the author was describing the events of May 12 at Spotsylvania and he left some pretty good clues as to where they occurred. So perhaps we can decipher the location.

After being mauled during Upton’s charge on the 10th the battery was withdrawn to refit. Because of the losses, both of men and horses, they were only able to field two detachments.  These would man the two-three inch rifles. Lieutenant Henry Carter was in command, Corporal Flournoy commanded the 1st detachment, and Sergeant White the 2nd.

Early on the morning of the 12th the battery was ordered forward from the camps and halting in a wood near the lines, reported to Captain Graham of the Rockbridge Artillery. This battery you may remember was not in the salient but back in front of the Courthouse. There they could take advantage of the longer range of their rifles.

While awaiting further orders a passing Major of artillery took it upon himself to order that the guns be left where they were and only the cannoneers go forward. By doing so they would be available to man the guns captured by the Federals that morning when they were recaptured. Captain Graham giving his approval the men from the gun crews went forward.

The position they arrived at being exposed to the fire sweeping across the Salient the men had to seek shelter. And it is in describing that shelter that we have our clues.

- some men took shelter behind log houses

- others took shelter in trenches nearly filled with water.

- Sergeant White took shelter behind a little house not much larger than a chicken coop. However it had a chimney “tall enough for a shot tower”

- they were behind the position they had held on the 10th.

So where were they? Certainly near but not at the Harrison House. Amongst its outbuildings? Or were there other buildings?

- They could see the artillery massed near them at the Harrison House and watch thirty horses shot down by Federal minie balls.

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Even during the midst of a battle human nature exists _ completed.

When we look back at historical events we do so with selective vision. We focus on those things that stand out and interest us. Generally these are some type of action or perhaps the exercise of initiative in some fashion. Perhaps its the hero giving the order for the grand charge, or maybe the charge itself.
But it wasn’t that way for the participants was it? These people existed in the current vernacular 24/7/365. The days weren’t spent doing nothing but fighting, they still had to live. Eating, personal hygiene and all the mundane tasks that are required to make an army function have to be performed as well. And the battlefield wasn’t a neat place, everyone in their proper place, shoulder to shoulder, at attention with a heroic look on the face. Rather it was a constantly shifting kaleidoscope, of troop movements large and small, officers and orderlies dashing too and fro, malingerers and skulkers, details, etc.

One episode I have found interesting occurred behind Doles Salient on the night of May 10. Smith’s Battery of the Richmond Howitzers had been overrun by the Federals during Upton’s charge that afternoon. Shortly thereafter the guns had been recaptured and put back into action by the Confederates. Since the men of Smith’s battery had either become casualties or dispersed, the guns had been manned by an ad hoc group for much of the fight. However, General Lee personally ordered Captain Asher Garber to take his gunners and man the guns. This he did and along with the men he found there fought the battle to its conclusion.

It was obvious that Smith’s battery was unfit because of its losses to maintain the position the following day, particularly if the Federals resumed the attack. Therefore Captain Garber was ordered to place his battery in the position. Of course, this meant that his own guns would take the position. So to make room the guns from the Howitzers were pulled by hand from the pits and taken to a position of safety a short distance behind the line (1). The  survivors along with the remaining horses were then ordered to the rear for rest.

However, even in a position of “safety”, behind the Confederate lines, at night, the guns could not be left unguarded. A detail of men, under a sergeant, was left to protect the battery. These men stayed with the guns all night and accompanied them to the rear when Garber’s men moved them toward the artillery camps. (2)

So was the guard detail just because that’s how things were done? Or, was it to prevent wandering Confederates from helping themselves to any and everything useful? While guns are what is mentioned we can probably assume the caissons, and all other line equipment was there as well. My guess is that they knew things would walk away during the night if not guarded.

An interesting little note about soldiering even in the midst of a battle.

(1) In the article “A Diary of the War” Found in “Contributions to a History of the Richmond Howitzers” the author says they were removed and taken back 75-100 yards.

(2) General Long visited the area and after telling the guard detail that they would be reequipped immediately ordered Garber to move the guns.   En route they met a detail under the ranking Lieutenant of the battery, Henry Carter, coming with battalion horses to remove the guns. The transfer was made and the guns taken to camp by their rightful owners.

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Even during the midst of a battle human nature exists

When we look back at historical events we do so with selective vision. We focus on those things that stand out and nterest us. Generally these are some type of action or perhaps the exercise of inititive in some fashion. Perhaps its the hero giving the order for the grand charge, or maybe the charge itself.
But it wasn’t that wayfor the participants was it? These people existed in the current vernacular 24/7/365.

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