Francis C. Barlow: From Private to General, and Beyond

The year was 1851, and it was a still, silent night on the Harvard Campus in Boston, Massachusetts. Dew beaded the spacious and lush grounds. Night birds sang and crickets chirped. Most students and faculty were sound asleep in their cozy dormitories.

Suddenly…. KABOOM. An earth-shattering roar split the air. Students rolled out of their beds. Some stray dogs barked and windows rattled. In the Cambridge arsenal on campus, smoke rose from a cannon that hadn’t been fired since the War of 1812.

And that was how a scrawny, ornery student named Francis Channing Barlow entered the national arena with a bang. Meant as a harmless prank, the cannon incident drew the ire of many a Harvard authority figure. However, Barlow was well-known for pranks. A favorite was when he arrived at a writing and debate meeting adorned with brightly-colored plumes and curtains. He caused the biggest uproar of all when he graduated first in his Harvard Class of 1855.

I’ve studied military history for a large portion of my life, and I encounter plenty of charismatic characters there. People whose exploits seem more suited to fictional novels and adventure stories. The American Civil War is littered with such people. While the top tier generals often get the most attention, the lower ranks carried ample amounts of charm, wit, and ferocity. One of these is the oft-forgotten “Boy General” (so named for both his boyish looks and his young age), Francis Channing Barlow.

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Such a boy! Wait ’til you see him fight…

From the beginning, Barlow was a steely boy who wouldn’t go down without a fight. Abandoned by his father when he was young, he spent the flower of his youth with his mother and brothers at a religious and theological commune called Brooke Farm. Comprised of 1800s Transcendentalists, the farm was created in 1841 by George Ripley, a former Unitarian minister. The commune was committed to a self-sustaining life free of government interference. Theirs was a regimented routine that not even children like Barlow were exempt from. He completed rigorous studies every morning and spent afternoons doing chores and helping his mother manage the household.

Despite the hard work and tiresome schedule, Barlow stood out as a bright youth on the commune, and he gained entrance to Harvard College at the age of seventeen. After coming first in his class (in both scholastics and wild stunts), he moved to New York and enjoyed a brief teaching stint before he joined the lawyer ranks. On the side, he dabbled in writing with a staff position on the New York Tribune.

It wasn’t quite enough though. Barlow was born restless and he spoiled for a fight, as if his spirit couldn’t be contained by his skin. Perhaps that’s why when Civil War broke out across the country, Barlow had no qualms about dropping his lawyer life and beating all hell to the nearest recruitment center. He wasn’t frightened by the prospect of no commission either. Just one day after marrying a lovely, strong woman named Arabella, who was ten years his senior, Barlow signed on as a private to the 12th Regiment of the New York State Militia. If they wouldn’t give him a commission, he would prove that he was worth one, and he would start from the bottom.

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It would be a challenge, because Barlow wasn’t seen as army material by his peers. His build didn’t exactly scream “soldier specimen” either. Only in his twenties at the outbreak of hostilities, Barlow was more scrawny than brawny, and his face was so boyish he was sometimes mistaken for his wife’s son. He also had a quick temper and a shocking arrogant streak.

However, his prowess on the training fields, his courage during the dreadful Seven Days Battles of 1862, and some fortuitous connections in New York, saw him fly up the ranks with warp speed. By the fall of 1862, Francis Barlow was already a Colonel, up for promotion to Brigadier General.

But first, he had to survive Antietam. That wouldn’t be easy for anyone, but the bloodiest single day in the war’s entire history firmly fixed Barlow on the Union map. With the 61st and 64th New York under his command, he wound up in one of the hottest areas of the fighting – the sunken road. This was an old and narrow roadway dipped into the earth, an ideal defensive position for the Confederates. The Irish Brigade tried all afternoon to roust them out, and they didn’t fail for lack of courage. The Confederates were just too well entrenched with too much protection. While wave after wave of screaming Irishman came at them, all the rebels had to do was point and shoot…

…Until Barlow entered the picture. He led the charge himself, brandishing a sword and a bold strategy to aim at the road’s shallowest point instead of its strongest. He tore ahead of the beleaguered Irish and into the Confederate right. It crammed the enemy soldiers in between vengeful Irish on one side, and snarling Barlow on the other. Barlow and his men took over three-hundred prisoners and captured two flags. It was a stunning feat, but it didn’t come for free. A chunk of rebel case shot smashed into Barlow’s groin and threw him off his horse. He was knocked out cold and carried off the field.

It was a serious wound that was often fatal in other cases. Barlow wasn’t expected to recover, but he did love surprising people, especially with a promotion to Brigadier General on the line. Under his wife’s careful supervision, Barlow made a full recovery, and his promotion came through just in time for his twenty-eighth birthday. Now deemed “the Boy General,” Barlow returned to the Army ready to brawl in April of 1863. He was put in charge of the Second Brigade in the XI Corps, and he was one of the first to meet Lee’s gray-clad Virginia troops in the little Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.

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The sizzling afternoon of July 1, 1863 was chalked with blunders for the Union Army, especially Barlow’s corps. How the disaster unfolded for the XI corps remains a little unclear, but it is safe to say that at least part of the blame rested with Barlow’s notorious arrogant streak. As the Union moved in on Gettysburg, he positioned his troops on a hill just outside of town known as Blocher’s Knoll. The rest of the army had opted to stay further back, but Barlow wanted the high ground. The forward position would also form a salient that he could thrust into the Rebels like a spearhead.

It all looked pretty good on paper, but salient positions (which is a forward bulge in front of the rest of the battle line) are a risky gamble. If the enemy sneaks behind the salient, then the forward troops (in this case Barlow’s) are cut off from the rest. This is exactly what happened on Blocher’s Knoll. Jubal Early’s Confederate troops blasted right into Barlow’s position on the far right of the Union line. Caught in a violent vortex of gunfire and confusion, Barlow’s troops broke and ran almost immediately. He tried to restore order to his panicked brigades, and he describes the harrowing details of what happened next:

“… I started to get ahead of them [his troops] to try and rally them… Before I could turn my horse I was shot in the left side about half way between the armpit and the head of the thigh bone. I dismounted and tried to walk off the field. Everybody was then running to the rear and the enemy were approaching rapidly. I then got a spent ball in my back… A ball went through my hat as I lay on the ground and another just grazed the forefinger on my right hand…. I did not expect to get out alive.”

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Barlow sustained more potentially fatal blows on Blocher’s Knoll (eventually renamed Barlow’s Knoll). Given the utter route suffered by his troops, his reputation took a big hit too. Meanwhile, the rest of the Union Army was pushed back through the town of Gettysburg, and they hurried into retreat atop Cemetery Hill. When some of Barlow’s captured boys found him saturated in blood but still alive, they fashioned a stretcher for him and carried him to a nearby home-turned-hospital.

Barlow’s situation was already precarious, since his injuries were severe and he was now in Confederate captivity. Things got worse when the doctors gave him his prognosis. His intestines had been cut, and there was nothing they could do. For the second time, Barlow was not expected to survive his injuries.

But Barlow wasn’t expected to do a lot of things, and he wasn’t the only one who was determined that he should survive. His wife Arabella, a very strong spirit in her own right, worked in the army hospitals on the Union side. She received word of her husband’s critical condition, and the fact that he was a rebel prisoner. She tried asking higher-echelon Union generals for a pass onto the battlefield to collect her husband. When they refused, she took matters into her own hands. Donning a flag of truce, she marched onto the Gettysburg No Man’s Land, in full view of both sides, and went out in search of Barlow. The Confederate generals, well aware of who General Barlow was, took Arabella to his side. While she nursed her husband during his waking moments, she also continued tending to the thousands of wounded soldiers crammed into the Gettysburg hospitals.

Under her very calm and compassionate care, Barlow shocked everyone when he began to recover from his wounds. He also wound up back on the right side of the war, once the Union army rallied and recaptured Gettysburg on July 3. There were several months of bitter and painful recovery ahead, and all the while, Barlow could only stew. Going down as a routed and wounded general was absolutely out of the question. He yearned to return to the battlefields and right some of the wrongs.

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He would get his chance in Virginia in the summer of 1864. This time, he would head a division in General Hancock’s battle-tested II Corps. They had already been through hell. They saw blood, death, and destruction in most major campaigns of the entire war, and the fires had molded the II Corps into the strongest branch of the army. With Barlow at the head of the First Division, this corps would become one of the biggest players in the summer campaigns of 1864.

It all started in the Wilderness, which didn’t go well for the Union Army (read more about that here). Barlow’s troops held the far left of the Union line, which kept them out of the brunt of the fighting. However, it was the last quiet they would know for a long while. Over the next three weeks, Barlow’s First Division of the II Corps wound up in the hottest zones of some of the worst battles in the Civil War.

One of them was the bloodbath at Spotsylvania Court House. Grant decided to sneak his troops into position by the Po River and charge the center of the Confederate line. However, he couldn’t let Lee know what he was up to. He needed a division to stay behind, by themselves, caught between two forks in a hard-to-cross river, to keep them busy and unawares. In short, Grant needed live bait.

It was left to Francis Barlow to entice and fight off the Confederate army with a single division. While fires raged in the underbrush, and while the rest of the Union Army prepared to charge down the line, Barlow’s troops held off attack after attack by the bloodthirsty rebels. Although Grant’s big charge failed, he wasn’t swayed, and he decided to try again the next day. Instead of a single division, he would throw a whole corps at the stubborn rebel defenses. He just needed someone to lead the charge. Someone who was a fighter, bullheaded, confident, and battle-tested. He needed a man who wasn’t afraid to walk onto a battlefield of flying lead. He needed Francis Channing Barlow.

Bright and early on the morning of May 12, 1864, the entire II Corps of the Union Army flew at the deeply-entrenched rebel stronghold at Spotsylvania Courthouse. At the very tip of the charge was Barlow, “the Boy General.” He and his division ran hell for leather across that field, and they dove into the rebel works in a scream of fury. While the charge did not end well (read about it here), it cemented Barlow’s reputation as one of the wildest fighters in the entire Union army.

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Yet, Barlow had some quirks that raised the eyebrows of his men and fellow officers. For instance, he was a big fan of the rod when it came to disciplining his troops. It was an interesting approach from one of the former biggest hell raisers at Harvard. For the slightest infractions, boys were strung up by the thumbs, made to march inside a heavy barrel, forced to do the worst camp chores while strapped to heavy beams, and often times drummed out of camp all together. Cowardice was the surest fire way to get on Barlow’s wrong side, and his punishments for boys who fled the battlefield didn’t gain him many friends among his troops.

Barlow also had a brashness that put the “more refined” officers off. He detested the formal wear of generals, and he was often spotted in just his Union issue pants and a tattered flannel shirt. He had a strange obsession with keeping his feet clean, and he stopped his army several times, sometimes on urgent marches, to bathe his feet in the brook. On a particularly long night march during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Barlow befuddled fellow officers with an explosive laughing fit that lasted all night long. Reportedly infuriated with the bare minimum information about rebel positions, as well as about three weeks short on sleep, the Boy General spiraled out of his mind when silence and secrecy were of paramount importance.

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Through all his bizarre traits and harsh discipline, Barlow was still one of the most respected generals in the entire II Corps. After all, he had been twice blasted half to hell, survived a stint in rebel captivity, rose from the ranks from private to general, and sent rebels scurrying from his fierce antics on battlefield. Yet, there came a blow from which even the famous Boy General could not recover, and that was the death of his wife in the summer 1864, from Typhoid fever that she caught in the hospital.

Francis Channing Barlow, who had survived so much else, was shattered by the loss of Arabella. Just after the opening skirmishes of what would be a nine-month siege at Petersburg, Barlow left the battlefields and went to Europe to recuperate. He didn’t rejoin the Army until April of 1865, just as the Confederate Army threw their guns down once and for all. He kept Arabella’s ring on his finger all through his last days in the military, and he hung up his uniform shortly after the war ended.

Although forever damaged by the death of his wife, Barlow’s fighting spirit never left him. He was imbued with a strong sense of social justice, probably from his days on the commune. During the Civil War, Barlow’s was one of the loudest voices to cry for arming a black regiment. His name was also one of the top contenders to lead the newly-created Freedman’s Bureau. After the war, Barlow took his urge to fight to the law bench and beyond. He was elected Secretary of New York City in 1865, and in 1869, Grant appointed him U.S. Marshal to New York’s Southern District. In 1871, he was appointed Attorney General of the State of New York.

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In all these public posts, Francis Barlow’s mission was rooting out and abolishing corruption. As U.S. Marshal, he got started fast and fired everyone in his office after the first week. He also tackled the rampant corruption in the New York law system by helping to create the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (later turned into the American Bar Association). It was a platform for New York attorneys to organize and take a stand against the many scandalous people in Tammany Hall, namely the infamous Boss William Marcy Tweed. While many trembled at the mere thought of taking on the Tweed Ring, Francis Barlow merely sharpened his knives. His early efforts in prosecuting the Tweed Ring led to the eventual downfall and imprisonment of one of New York’s most corrupt figures.

By 1875, after tackling corruption all over New York with the same vigor he tackled rebels on Civil War battlefields, Barlow retired back to his private law practice. He had earned a break, and he had also racked up considerable enemies who barred him from anymore appointments to public office. There was his family to think about too. He had remarried and had children of his own by then. Since he knew the sting of abandonment, he couldn’t forsake his children.

In the 1890s, Francis Barlow finally encountered an enemy he couldn’t best –time. His fights on battlefields and beyond took a lot from him, and his health began to fail from Bright’s Disease and heart problems. On January 11 of 1896, surrounded by his family, Francis Barlow answered the final roll call.

What a story he left behind! I imagine when someone like Barlow goes, a warrior who fought so many battles, a ripple of that fighting spirit remains. He had more than his fair share while he lived. Maybe when he died, it broke up and scattered about for others to pick up. Because we all need that spirit sometimes, that fierce energy that helps us never give up, no matter how many times we are knocked off the horse. When I got to know Francis Barlow through faded old Civil War books, I think a piece of that energy found me. It took hold and gave me the courage to put pen to paper, and to not stop no matter how many people don’t believe in me or how many rejection letters I get. Because people like Francis Barlow deserve to be remembered. No matter how many shells I take in the process, a spirit like his helps me keep telling the stories.

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SOURCES

“Fear Was Not in Him” – C.G. Samito

“The Boy General” – R.F. Welch

“The Battle of the Wilderness” – G.C. Rhea

“The Battles for Spotsylvania Courthouse & the Road to Yellow Tavern” – G.C. Rhea

Cannon Photos by M.B. Henry – Photo in book from the Library of Congress and “the Boy General,” by Richard F. Welch. For more Civil War Photos, please visit my photo gallery  

95 Comments on “Francis C. Barlow: From Private to General, and Beyond

  1. What a magnificent post! If I ever knew about boy general, I had forgotten him, but you brought him to life for me tonight.
    I wish he were trying to fight corruption in today’s government filled with corruption and all that goes with it. And Attorney General of New York, too – now there’s a place Barlow would love to take on today!
    Thanks for your research and energy to follow your paths to discovery.

    • Oh yes, Barlow would be a force to be reckoned with even today I think! 🙂 So glad you enjoyed the post, his was a very fun story to tell!

  2. The best thing about studying history is discovering the fascinating people who lived it. Thank you for introducing me to the boy General and his determined Arabella. Sounds like they have a wonderful story to tell. Don’t give up! Are you doing pitch madness on Thursday?

    • Oh I won’t give up. Those people like Barlow won’t let me and they yell very loudly in my head. I just may do PitMad on Thursday! I have a book that I’ve been querying for a couple years now, and another one that I hope to start querying by this fall. I also have two more but they need some work before they can go into the query trenches 🙂

  3. Got through the first few paragraphs! Awesome story. Gonna finish it with a cuppa coffee this coming weekend! Yay! Something to look forward too!!

    • 🙂 Barlow hopes you enjoy his life of kicking @$$ and taking names 🙂 Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

      • First off, Arabella was a badass. And what an interesting, crazy cat Barlow was! I love people like him, they have so much confidence, they just march on and truly fight for what they believe in – and not let a torn intestine stop him. Jeez. Most of us are too afraid to do such things. I wonder how he’d be perceived today?! As usual, a fabulous read M.B. What’s coming next???

      • Ooooh you’ll see 🙂 I have some very fun stuff that I’m working on though, I can promise you that! Also, I totally agree, some people just have so much courage and confidence. I don’t know where they get it!

      • I’ll have you know I put that on my “post ideas list” JUST FOR YOU!! 🙂 <3

  4. This was an interesting story of a very brave, tough, and interesting man! I am fascinated by the Civil War Era and especially the medical aspect. Daniel Sickles has always been a “character” of interest to me, just because of the story of his amputated leg. Another thing we learned from one of my son’s National History Day projects was that something called the ‘Leiber Code’ was put into effect by Lincoln that stated, among other things, that the Union must take care of injured Confederate soldiers during the war and I am sure Gettysburg saw quite a few from both sides in those hospitals. It was really interesting to read about it while he did his research. Come to find out, the code preceded the Geneva Convention!

    • Oh yes that thing with Sickles’ leg is crazy! I read all about that, it comes up in a lot of books plus I think they had a plaque about it at the Gettysburg Battlefield. Gettysburg definitely saw a lot of wounded on both sides in the hospitals. That’s the good thing about the medical units in all wars, they seem to put uniform aside and treat whoever needs them. That’s also interesting about the Leiber Code, I’ll have to look into that more. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

      • I think seeing something about Sickles leg at the Gettysburg museum is why I remember it. He definitely had nine lives and a VERY caring wife! I very much enjoyed your post! Thanks!

  5. Thank you for this history. I did not know about Barlow, so today has been a win-win situation!

    • Yay! Win-win is the best kind! 🙂 So glad you enjoyed it, and thanks so much for commenting.

    • Thank you so much for these kind compliments 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Barlow was a fun figure to bring back to life.

  6. As usual with your posts, this is exactly how history should be written. You open a gripping narrative with lively description of time and place; put the events into context; and cover the complex character of the man.

    • I’m so so glad you enjoyed it! 🙂 And those compliments mean very much to me, thanks so much! The history is very important to me, I’m glad to know people enjoy it.

    • Yes – brave and restless are perfect adjectives for Barlow 🙂 And you might be on to something there with the movie, his story would go well on film I think 🙂 He’s included pretty heavily in a novel I’m writing about the Civil War too.

      • I sure will do! It will be a good long while yet, as I haven’t even started querying it. I wrote too many books at once I think! 🙂

    • Well that just makes my day! 🙂 Thanks so much for saying so, I love passing on the history passion especially to younger people. So glad you enjoyed the post.

    • Ooooh Custer…. where do we even begin with that one huh? 🙂 Glad you liked the post!

  7. Another fine story. Although Barlow is not a household name, his story is as important as Sherman and Grant. Thanks for bringing him to life. Good luck on your queries.

  8. Fascinating account. His story should stand among the more well known of the war. Great post!

  9. Absolutely fascinating story, MB, and excellent, engaging writing. I have never heard of Francis C. Barlow, but you just endeared me to him with his crazy and courageous ways, those death-defying battlefield events, his tough-cookie wife who marched out onto the battlefield to save him, the crush of her death, and the world of law that he cleaned up. Wonderful!

    • Thank you so much! I’m very glad you enjoyed it, and I’m happy to bring someone like him back to life through writing! He was a very colorful character indeed.

  10. So glad to hear you love history, HB! When I was teaching, I remember the sixth grad teacher set up the architecture of Egypt in her classroom. The students found out all about Egypt by hunting treasures. You’re doing such a fantastic job with this post. It shows your enthusiasm and bring the history to live.

    • I went through a very big Ancient Egypt phase when I was in grade school. Although I’m not as read up on it as I used to be, I still really enjoy it. A couple years ago, my husband and I went to the big King Tut exhibit they had at the LA Science Center, it was amazing! I’m very glad you enjoyed the post, thanks so much for your kind words and for sharing your thoughts.

      • It was great that you went to the LA Science Center to see the exhibit. Some exhibits station at the places and some travel. I don’t know if the one in LA is permanent or not.

      • Nope, not permanent. It was there for a few months then moved onto the next city 🙂

  11. Thank you for the history lesson! Barlow must have been quite a character, but it’s Arabella I would have loved to meet. Great post!

    • I would have loved to meet her too – both of them! From what I’ve read, she was just as strong and fearless as Barlow.

  12. They both sound like remarkable people… so much so, that I felt a little sad to learn of Arabella’s death.

    Thanks for sharing the exploits of these two extraordinary people.

    • Yes, Arabella’s death was very, very sad 🙁 She got sick because she worked so much and so hard in the hospitals taking care of others! A really remarkable woman. I’m glad you enjoyed the post

  13. A fascinating story indeed. Would it be correct that he and Teddy Roosevelt would have occupied the same orbit during the “clean up New York” era?

    • I think Barlow would have just missed Teddy, since TR began in the New York State Assembly in the 1880s, and Barlow had retired back to his private practice by 1875. However, it would be really interesting to know if Teddy had at least heard of Barlow, given all his contributions in the New York legal world. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!

  14. Great history writing, MB. Both detailed and personal. It kept me reading right down to the end and wanting more. –Curt

  15. I am something of a history buff, and have more than once been to Gettysburg. But Gen. Barlow is new to me. Thank you for sharing his inspiring story.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Gettysburg is such an amazing place to visit, they’ve done a great job there preserving the history. I’ve been to visit once but would love to go back.

  16. sounds like a real character … one I’d have enjoyed to meet!
    He had a lot in common with my father, except after WWII service overseas he became very anti-war. How he loved practical jokes ..

    • He was a character for sure! I’m a big fan of practical jokes too, your dad sounds like a very fun person! I have to agree with him too – there should be better ways to handle differences than fighting!

      • he denied his service all his life … in his last few months he finally let us apply for benefits so that Mum was well taken care of!

        His jokes were outrageous but I got revenge 🙂

      • Hahaha good for you! I’ve been known to play a few good pranks in my time 🙂

  17. “Oft-forgotten” indeed. I certainly never heard of Francis Barlow. It’s good that you brought him and his wife to light in such detail.

    • Thanks so much! I’m glad you enjoyed learning about team Barlow! 🙂

  18. Wow, you’re such a great writer. Words blossom under your calm and compassionate care. 😉 I especially liked “as if his spirit couldn’t be contained by his skin.”

    • WWII is my specialty 🙂 And yes, I need to learn more about Vietnam too! Glad you liked the post.

      • Didn’t know that. Following you, I learn more about the Civil War.
        I find “Gone With The Wind” the most historic film on the Civil War. I truly love your shares! Cheers! 💕☕️☕️

      • Well, the Civil War is a pretty good specialty of mine too 🙂

  19. M.B., I just love all of the details you put in your posts. Oh my word, “strung up by their thumbs”. That is horrendous. And I have always been interested in the transcendentalists, so I especially liked these details about Barlow’s growing up years and how they influenced his sense of justice.

    • Yes, punishments for misbehaving soldiers in the Civil War days were awful 🙁 Sometimes, it’s hard for me to fuse Barlow’s viciousness with his sense of justice, but I think it serves to show the conflict within all us humans. No one gets it right all the time, but I think we all try to do our best <3 So glad you enjoyed the post, I hope you are doing well. I enjoy watching all your drawings and life adventures on Instagram 🙂

  20. I have seen his name on a few landmarks but didn’t know his story. Thanks for bringing him to life with this post!

  21. What a wonderful story! We need more people like Francis in the world. I liked that you threw in odd parts – like him being mistaken for his wife’s son, and the way he needed to keep his feet clean. It gave him a human aspect – as opposed to super hero.

    • I do enjoy the human aspects of those larger than life people – reminds us that we’re all in this together! 🙂 So glad you enjoyed the post, I hope you are keeping well.

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