Tag Archives: History

My Experience as an Undergraduate in History at James Madison University

This Saturday I will be graduating with a B.A. in History and Public History. The two years I have spent at JMU in the history department taught me crucial skills for my future academic and professional careers. Professors cared about the well being of their students and pushed them to succeed in numerous ways. When looking back I have been very successful during the last two years. I have presented papers at local and regional conferences, completed an Honors Thesis, accepted into graduate school, awarded scholarships, and excelled in my professional career. With that being said, I want to share some skills I have learned and that others may find useful.

1. Begin Research and the Writing Process Early 

In high school it was easy to write a paper the night before it was due and receive an adequate grade. Even during my time in community college I could get by leaving a term paper to the last two or three days before its due date. One thing I learned quickly at JMU is that in order to produce a well rounded and polished paper, research and writing needs to begin as soon as possible. One class, History 395 taught us history majors how to conduct proper historical research by using the vast amount of databases provided by the JMU Library. These databases proved immensely helpful in shaping an argument. Vice versa, the earlier the writing process begins the easier it is. This allows you to try out ideas, let them sit for a day or two and then reassess them. By writing early and often, the paper can be completed before the due date. This provides crucial time to edit and adjust the paper. As Ernest Hemmningway said, “the first draft of anything is shit,” Give your paper to your peers of professors and have them suggest changes.

2. Get to Know Your Adviser and Professors 

One reason I was successful during my time at JMU was because I got to know my adviser really well. First off, if you are assigned an adviser that does not mesh well with your interests, or personality, switch advisers as soon as possible. Advisers are there to help you, and if you do not feel comfortable approaching them or talking to them they will be no use. After two weeks at JMU I switched my adviser to Dr. Dillard. Dr. Dillard was amazing at guiding me through the academic process, suggesting possible graduate programs, and most importantly chaired the committee of my Honors Thesis. I know the hours of talking about my research and writing in his office will pay off in the long run. Outside of advisers, get to know the professors in your field. I got to know a number of public history professors very well at JMU. These relationships pay off huge dividends when it comes to writing recommendation letters, and forming professional networks after graduation. Having a close relationship with professors also makes you approachable to professors. This leads me to my next point.

3. Take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way 

The JMU history department has numerous opportunities outside of the classroom to excel. One way you get to know about these opportunities is by having close relationships with your professors. During my undergraduate career I presented papers locally in Virginia, and regionally at the CAA Conference of Undergraduate Research at Drexel University. I would not have known about these possibilities if it were not professors and my adviser suggesting that I submit my research. Take advantage of these opportunities. It may seem like a pain to give up a Saturday or a whole weekend to rub elbows with other academics at a conference. But these conferences provide crucial networking skills, build your resume, and help hone your public speaking skills.

Besides conferences take advantage of field work and field trips. Every semester I had to give up at least three Saturdays to travel to museums or complete archaeological field work. Again, it may seem like a pain to do so, but the ability to get hands on experience will pay off immensely in the long run. The same should be said about internships. Make the best out of them, and produce a tangible project at the end to add to your resume. Internships provide a way to form lasting relationships and this networking can help you once you graduate. Lastly, if you can join any honors society that you can, whether it is the history honors fraternity, Phi Alpha Theta or the national honors society, Phi Betta Kappa.

4. Utilize Out of Classroom Experience to Tailor your Academic Work 

I was fortunate enough that during my undergraduate career I was able to work professionally in the public history field. I continued by job with the National Park Service at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park as I attended classes. Granted it was a lot of effort to balance life, work, and school work. But I learned crucial life skills having to balance these all at once. Having this experience in the field allowed me have one foot in the professional arena and one in the academic sphere. This created a symbiotic relationship where I was applying the skills I have learned professionally in my academic work, and using my new academic knowledge in a professional setting. What this led to is numerous research papers being based of questions I came up with at work. A great example of this is my Honors Thesis. Also being able to learn ideas about public history in the classroom and apply them to my professional career often in a matter of days reinforced many of the principles of museums and public history. This solidified many of the ideas quickly as I was able to apply them. Again I realize I am out of the norm having the ability to work with the NPS while being in school. But use your skills you have learned in school in your internship, or other part-time jobs you hold during school

Some may say that the JMU history department is not a top-tier program compared to UVA or William and Mary. Sure these have big reputations with larger than life faculty. But I argue it is not the program itself, but it is what you make out of it. The opportunities I was granted at JMU to excel were there, and I took advantage of them. Too often I see students doing the bare minimum and then complaining about their situation. Undergrad is only for four years (two for me). These years are crucial to developing the professional skills needed to succeed and networking for the future.

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Historical Archaeology at the Stone House: Week One

This weekend the historical archaeology class I am enrolled began a three week dig in Stephens City. We are excavating portions of the historic Stone House, owned by the Newtown History Center. As part of an ongoing project to open the Stone House to the public, the history center is conducting archaeology and architectural research. My professor, Dr. Blanton was able to work out an agreement with the center to conduct historical archaeology. We as a class have two objectives. First is to try to locate the original stone foundation to an addition placed on the Stone House circa 1800. Secondly, the class wants attempt to understand the socio-economic makeup of the household through artifacts and material culture. Before we began digging the class has been actively analyzing a probate inventory of the Stone House. As someone with little archaeological experience, I as excited to take part in this process.

We began early Saturday morning. My partner and I were assigned a 1×1 meter unit that abutted the outside corner of the original Stone House. Before we started to dig, we had to fill out necessary paperwork. We drew a sketch of what we saw, including large and small stones in the ground. This was a measured drawing as we plotted the stones precisely inside the 1×1 meter unit. After this was drawn, we took elevation measurements at each corner and the center of the unit. We hypothesized at this point the large rocks we saw could be a portion of the original foundation to the addition.

What our 1x1 meter unit looked like when we arrived. Notice the large stones.

What our 1×1 meter unit looked like when we arrived. Notice the large stones.

The first task was for me to excavate all of the loose dirt in order to reach a lower soil strata. In doing so, I had to make notice not to undercut the large rocks. Our unit was extremely disturbed by groundhog holes. Therefore most of the top layer of soil was loose. I put the soil inside a five gallon bucket and handed this to my partner outside. She in turn screened the soil and bagged any artifacts inside the soil. We found numerous red earthenware sherds, glass, nails, and even a button with the thread still in tact! We continued this process for most of the day. We switched shift half way through the day and I headed out to do the screening. All the artifacts were placed in labeled bags to be taken back to the archaeology lab at JMU. My partner Megan reached a lower soil strata of hard clay. When this was reached we took scaled photographs. We finished the day by taking final elevations at each corner and center of the unit.

Screening

Class screening and organizing artifacts

Beginning to excavate our unit

Beginning to excavate our unit

Sunday morning was cold and snowy. To our benefit, our unit was semi-enclosed. However when it began to rain and sleet we had to call the day finished earlier than planned. But before the day was over we reached another strata. This srata was mostly clay and mixed with charcoal. The interesting part was that the other two groups in the class found the same clay esque strata sprinkled with charcoal. It was in this strata one of the groups found a whole horseshoe and large sherds of ceramics. Dr. Blanton suspects that this strata is representative of a trash pit as it is located behind the house. More evacuation and artifact analysis will help answer this question.

Our finished 1x1 meter unit. Notice the revealed stones and how deep the unit goes.

Our finished 1×1 meter unit. Notice the revealed stones.

Before the day was called because of the weather, Megan and I finished our excavating our unit. We took elevations at each corner and center, and took a final scaled photograph. We concluded that the stack of rocks we unearthed was a foundation pier. To confirm our suspicions we began to work on setting up another unit on the opposite end of the Stone House. We suspect that once we begin to excavate this area, we will uncover evidence of a similar stone foundation pier.

Preparing the paperwork for our new unit.

Preparing the paperwork for our new unit.

Whole class outside the Stone House.

Whole class outside the Stone House.

We will begin work on the new unit next weekend.

Photos by myself and Newtown History Center. 

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Reflections on Cedar Creek 150

As I sit here and write, I begin to reflect on the sesquicentennial events that took place at the park last weekend. After months of planning, weeks of stress, and days of going over logistics, the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek came and went. The three days of programing I took part in where long and exhausting. But, they were worth every minute of it. Visitors were excited, passionate, and thankful for everything the park did. The following is a reflection of this once and a life time opportunity.

It all began about this time last year, after the 149th Anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek. I and the rest of the staff at the park began the arduous journey of planning for events to commemorate the 150th Anniversary. During the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the National Park Service actively commemorates the anniversary. This includes guest speakers, special programs, events, and ceremonies. Programs were spearheaded in 2011 at Manassas National Battlefield, continued through 2013 at Gettysburg, and opened up 2014 at the Wilderness. Events have been widely attended by the public. Locals and travelers alike flock the these events in the thousands .With all the precedent up to 2014, we had our work cut out for us.

When we began our brainstorming, we all agreed that we needed to conduct “Real-Time” programs. These ranger led interpretative programs take visitors through the battlefield exactly 150 years to the hour after the battle occurred. We planned on conducting Ranger programs from 5:00 a.m. through the day, concluding at 7:00 p.m. We also stepped up and lead various 150th real time events in the Valley leading up to Cedar Creek. This included The Battle of Piedmont, Cool Springs, Rutherford’s Farm, and Third Winchester. Read about my experience at Second Kernstown.  For the commemorative weekend in October we planned: specialized battlefield tours, battlefield stations,  and new outreach programs.

Signal Knob 2

Visitors hike to Signal Knob

One new outreach program conducted interpretation at Signal Knob. Signal Knob marks the northern most point on the Massanutten Mountain range. Before the Battle of Cedar Creek this summit was controlled by Confederate signal corps. On October 17th 1864, Confederate officers hiked to the station and saw the Union army around Belle Grove, and conceived their plan of attack for the Battle of Cedar Creek. There has never been NPS interpretation at this site before. Therefore, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of this Confederate reconnaissance mission, I prepared a program for Friday, October 17th. Designed as an interpretative hike, the program was advertised to the public to join I and NPS volunteers from 10-2 p.m.  Due to safety concerns, this was not a ranger led hike because to reach the summit is nearly five miles up, and five miles down. I arrived at the summit before 10:00 a.m. and could not have asked for better weather. The view of the Valley floor was picturesque, and the colors of fall in the Valley provided a beautiful backdrop. Through out this four hour period I encountered roughly 80 visitors and conducted four interpretative programs. I oriented visitors to the Valley at large, pointed out certain landmarks, and interpreted the Confederate plan of attack as it was thought out exactly 150 years prior.

That same evening at 5:00 p.m. I met around 100 visitors at the battlefield for a tour of the Heater House. Entitled, “The Heater House: A House Divided,” I examine the story of the Heater House, its inhabitants, and its role during the Civil War.

Leading visitors the Heater House

Leading visitors the Heater House

This is one of my favorite programs to lead at the park, and was excited to see such a large group attend. Visitors asked great questions that serves as fuel for further research.. With Friday completed, I went home that night tired with a hoarse voice looking forward to the weekend.

On Saturday morning I was stationed at the 8th Vermont Monument. We greeted visitors as they drove through the battlefield, oriented them the site, and conducted informal interpretation. At 11:00 a.m. I led a formal tour of nearly 60 visitors. We talked about who the 8th Vermont was, how they fit into the Battle of Cedar Creek, walked to the monument discussing their sacrificial stand. After lunch at 2:00 p.m., I led a two hour car caravan tour through the battlefield examining the role cavalry played during the Battle of Cedar Creek. This was a highlights tour that brought visitors off the beaten path. We started out at the Visitor Contact Station, traveled to Hites Chapel to discuss the opening sounds of battle. The third stop was along Westernview Drive, where Custer’s Third Division made their famous charge. The last stop was on a farm owned by a local landowner known as Thorndale Farm.

Visitors at Thorndale Farm

Visitors at Thorndale Farm

The farm marked the center of Merritt’s First Division of cavalry, and around this spot was where Col. Charles Russell Lowell was mortally wounded. It was a pleasure to see 70 visitors attend this never before done tour. I concluded my day attending the official 150th Commemoration Ceremony at Belle Grove Plantation.

During the night of October 18th-19th, I barely got sleep. I could not stop tossing and turning through out the night thinking about the events the next morning. I arrived at the park at 5:00 a.m. for my first of four “Real-Time” programs. At 6:00 a.m., I led a group of nearly 100 visitors through the dark examining the Union 19th Corps earthworks. It was eerie to be on the same ground, in the pitch black, walking through the woods exactly 150 years after the Union catastrophe begun. Luckily no visitors tripped over roots and hurt themselves and we made it out unscathed.After seeing the sunrise around the 8th Vermont Monument and listening to Ranger Shannon’s interpretation there, I traveled to my next stop. From 8:20-8:50 a.m. cars gathered along modern day McCune Rd. in Middletown. From this position I interpreted the stand of two Union 6th Corps divisions.

Visitors gather early on the morning of October 19th at McCune Rd.

Visitors gather early on the morning of October 19th at McCune Rd.

One of the special parts of this stop was that it has never been interpreted by Cedar Creek and Belle Grove NHP before. I took great pride and honor in having this privileged. My stop ended with the reading of an account of a father from New York holding the brains of son in his lap, as he was shot clear through the head during this part of the morning. The young man is buried in Winchester and I hope to see it soon. This concluded my role during the morning portion of the tours.

The afternoon “Real-Time” programs kicked off with my tour at Hites Chapel at 2:00 p.m. We discussed the role of Union cavalry in the early part of the Union counterattack. I then had a break until my final program of the weekend. At 4:00 p.m. I led a program discussing the Union counter attack. In an attempt to incorporate my audience, I placed ropes and wooden houses on the ground to represent that part of the battlefield. I then gathered about 20 volunteers to stand in lines on the map representing Union and Confederate battle lines. This went well as visitors visualized the Union offensive. Nearly 100 visitors attended this program.

Interpretation at Hites Chapel

Interpretation at Hites Chapel

Even though this was my last program, there were two other programs that evening. The tours conclude at St. Thomas Church in Middletown, with a powerful interpretation of the Confederate rout, and impact of the battle by Ranger Jeff Dricscoll.

This experience was easily the highlight of my professional career at the park. After months of planning, researching, and stressful days, everything went as planned. We received numerous compliments from visitors on our successes. I would like to personally thank anyone reading this who came out to make this weekend something special. I am speaking for my comrades, when I say that if it was a privilege for us to experience this 150th Anniversary with you. I would also like to thank all our volunteers and the numerous NPS Rangers who traveled to the park. Rangers from Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP, Gettysburg NMP, Richmond NBP, George Washington National Birthplace, and the NPS Social Media team.

As we move past the 150th, we are left with a feeling of accomplishment and relief. But the big question is now what? Stay tuned as we gear up more interpretation, research new ideas, and attempt to shed light on the many levels of the Shenandoah Valley’s diverse history.

Images courtesy:

https://www.facebook.com/CedarCreekNPS

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ninja-Pix/542902639063759?fref=ts

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Summer 2014 in a Nutshell

Classes start in less than a week. As I gear up for the beginning of my senior year, I cannot believe how fast summer went by. With that being said, I would like to reflect on the past three and half months that was the summer 2014.

When the spring semester ended, I began my third year at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park. With the sesquicentennial rapidly approaching the park this October, I am constantly engaged in the planning process, carrying out special programs and, conducting original research at the park. I worked on the park’s website, assisted with the park’s social media and worked with visitors. Above and beyond regular in park interpretative programs, there were numerous special programs and tours I led.

Presenting my lecture on Sheridan and Custer at Cedar Creek

Presenting my lecture on Sheridan and Custer at Cedar Creek

One of these was a two day experience with the Little Bighorn History Associates in June. This group of 150 is avid George Custer aficionados. Needless to say, they hold an annual conference traveling to Custer related sites. With this year being the sesquicentennial of the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, they made their base in Winchester. During their five day conference, they traveled to battlefields from Harpers Ferry to Toms Brook and Cedar Creek. I was responsible for leading bus tours for the group at Cedar Creek. I did original research at the park examining the role of George Custer and the Third Cavalry division at Cedar Creek. When they arrived I led two three hour bus tours of Cedar Creek, taking the group Custer related sites such as Hites Chapel. The following day, I presented a lecture focusing on Custer and Sheridan’s relationship at Cedar Creek. To practice my analytical and writing skills during the summer, I took all this information and produced a scholarly essay containing a historiographical footnote and annotated bibliography.

Another special program I conducted was part of the park’s History at Sunset Series. On July 11th, I presented “A House Divided: The Heater Farm at Cedar Creek.” I led visitors through parts of the battlefield not accessible on an everyday basis. We discussed the history of the Heater Farm, the Heaters during the Civil War and how the Battle of Cedar Creek was literally brought to their front door. It was nice to see some familiar faces and receive support from local constituents. I will be presenting this program again this fall, during the anniversary weekend on October 17th.

Visitors around the Heater House

Visitors around the Heater House

One of the most rewarding experiences of my summer took place on July 24th. On this day, I lead a group through the Kernstown battlefield exactly 150 years after the Second Battle of Kernstown. Part of the parks, “On This Day” tours, it was a privilege to represent the National Park Service. To read more about this click here.

In August I presented two lectures to the Village at Orchard Ridge Lutheran Community. I first spoke briefly on the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign leading up to the Battle of Cedar Creek. The second lecture focused on the Battle of Cedar Creek proper. Folks really seemed to enjoy it, and I even got a local history group interested in traveling to the park in the future for a tour of the battlefield.

Another great experience this summer was my short stint as a guest blogger and author on Emerging Civil War. Here, I authored numerous pieces on the summer campaign here in the Valley. I was able to practice my interpretative writing, and at the same time reach a larger audience outside of our park. To read my posts visit their site, or click here.

The 150th Anniversary of the fall Shenandoah Valley Campaign is right around the corner. As we near this, I am preparing numerous programs. First, I will be participating in the events commemorating the Third Battle of Winchester on Saturday, September 20th. I will be at the Third Winchester Battlefield interpreting and orienting visitors to the battle. For more information on these events click here, or contact me directly. On September 26th, I will be presenting a special History at Sunset at the park. During this program I will use my research from earlier in the summer to lead a tour focusing on George Custer at Cedar Creek.

Looking towards the 150th of Cedar Creek, my interpretative schedule has been set. On October 17th , I will be doing two special programs. First, during the day I will be at the summit of Signal Knob. On October 17th, 1864 Confederate officers trekked to Signal Knob to observe the Union Army. Exactly 150 years later, I will be in the same spot, interpreting the landscape and discussing how the Confederates conceived their plan of attack. That evening, I will be presenting my Heater House program again at 5:00pm.

View of the Cedar Creek Battlefield from Signal Knob

View of the Cedar Creek Battlefield from Signal Knob

Moving forward to Saturday, October 18th, the park will have battlefield stations throughout the battlefield interpreting key aspects of the battle. I will present programs during the morning hours. Later that day, from 2-4pm I will lead a car caravan tour focusing on the use of Cavalry at Cedar Creek. What I am really excited for however takes place the next morning on October 19th, the actual anniversary of the battle.

Starting at 5:00am on October 19th, the park will be conducting “real-time programs.” This will take visitors through the battlefield exactly 150 years later to the hour after the battle. These tours will start in the dark, and go all the way through the evening, concluding at 6:00pm. I am fortunate enough to have the privilege and amazing opportunity to be one of three rangers presenting these programs.

Stay tuned for the hour by hour schedule for the events taking place at the park from October 17th-20th. It will be available later this month, and I will make sure to post it.

Needless to say, I have been neck deep in research for all of these programs. With school right around the corner, the next two months are going to be busy to say the least. But, with this being the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, I am privileged and excited to take part in this special time in our nation’s history.

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Reflections on the Second Battle of Kernstown Sesquicentennial

Before my actual “On This Day” tour of Second Kernstown, there were numerous events days beforehand. These included “On This Day” tours of The Battle of Cool Spring on July 18th , and The Battle of Rutherford’s Farm on July 20th. These two tours were highly successful with over 150 visitors attending the Cool Spring program! During the same weekend of July 19th and 20th, the Kernstown Battlefield Association held a commemoration event.

I traveled to Kernstown for these two days to promote the park and; the park’s special events coming up this summer and fall. I handed out numerous brochures, program calendars, special event information and fielded questions from the visitors. During this two day event, the Kernstown Battlefield Association held numerous activities for visitors. These included living history demonstrations, battlefield walks, guided house tours of the Pritchard-Grim House and artillery firings to name a few. I even ran into a friend and former professor of mine, Julie, who was interpreting Valley civilian life. On Sunday, I presented a program to visitors. This program, “The 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign in a Box” used cones, ropes, blocks and other props to create the Shenandoah Valley. It is designed to be an overview of the military actions in the Shenandoah Valley from New Market to Cedar Creek. In 30 minutes, I literally walk through the campaign using the map as a learning device for the visitors. Folks tend to really enjoy this method. Nearly 30 people were in attendance when I presented this program. As the weekend began to die down, I was encouraging visitors to come back for my “On This Day” tour later in the week.

Props used in the program to create the Valley

Props set up to represent the Shenandoah Valley

On July 24th, I once again traveled to the Kernstown Battlefield to present my “On This Day” battlefield program of the Battle of Second Kernstown. I was hoping with the success of the previous two events, (Cool Spring and Rutherford’s Farm) I would have a large crowd. I arrived around 3:15 just as the first visitors began to show up. After doing so much research and preparations leading up to this moment, I was excited to see the cars begin to roll in. When I began, I had nearly 45 people for the program. Considering this was a Thursday afternoon at 4:00 with the threat of rain, I was happy to see the turn out.

Myself with Gary Crawford at the start of the tour

Myself with Gary Crawford at the start of the tour

The tour began near the Visitor Center. I welcomed visitors, introduced myself and asked Gary Crawford, the Kernstown Battlefield Association’s President to make a few remarks. He spoke eloquently on the history of the Association and how they came to preserve the land. Following his comments, I utilized the time at this stop to discuss the Valley during the Civil War. I spoke briefly on its strategic importance and oriented visitors to the actions leading up to the battle proper. My interpretive strategy for my program was to focus on orientation, information and interpretation in this order. At the beginning of each stop, I oriented visitors to where we are in the battlefield and what direction(s) we are facing. I would then give some information and then spend most of my time interpreting the battle. I find this process immensely successful when traveling to battlefields myself.

The second stop of my tour continued as I led visitors to the crest of Pritchard’s Hill. When we all arrived to the top, I then dived into the Confederate and Union strategies at the begging of the battle. To read more about this and the development of the battle, read my post on Emerging Civil War. The tour continued with the group descending Pritchard’s Hill and moving towards the Opequon Church. One of the great things about this tour was we got to walk in the footsteps of these soldiers exactly 150 years following the battle. We were traversing the same ground in the same direction that Union soldiers would have during the battle. Visitors found this extremely powerful. We arrived near the Opequon Church and discussed the Confederate offensive and withdrawal of the Union lines. As we traveled to our next stop along a stonewall, we were once again following the same route, in the same direction Union soldiers were during the battle.

Leading visitors towards the Opequon Church

Leading visitors towards the Opequon Church

Interpreting the actions around the Stonewall

Interpreting the actions around the Stonewall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the stonewall, I discussed the death of Col. Mulligan of the 23rd IL, the Confederate flank attack the conclusion of the battle. The final stop of the tour was in the front lawn of the Prichard-Grim House. There, I concluded the tour with a discussion of the battle’s aftermath, both immediate and long term for Valley citizens and soldiers alike. After a short question and answer, volunteers from the Association guided visitors through the Pritchard-Grim House.

All in all, I came away feeling extremely satisfied. Interpretively, material flowed easily from stop to stop, visitors did not seem confused, (based on my perception) and I was able to answer questions confidently. It was also nice to see such a great turnout for these types of events. I hope as we near the 150th of Cedar Creek the excitement and interest of the Civil War will drive folks to visit the park and our events. Keep an eye out as the park finalizes our schedule for the weekend of October 17th-19th.

Conclusion of the tour at the Pritchard-Grim House

Conclusion of the tour at the Pritchard-Grim House

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