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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The stirring and important events which marked the prosecution of the war in the West during the year 1863 were matched by equally important ones in the East. Three great battles were fought, one in the closing days of 1862, and the others in the following year, of which the last, that of Gettysburg, was in certain respects the greatest battle of the war, and has been generally accepted as the turning-point, from which the fortunes of the Confederacy began to flow rapidly downward. We select, therefore, a detailed description of the closing scene of this great conflict, preceding our selection with a review of the events that succeeded the battle of Antietam.

It was on September 19 that Lee crossed the Potomac and retired into Virginia, after that battle. November arrived ere McClellan was ready to follow him. Meanwhile, the impatience of the authorities at McClellan's lack of activity had grown extreme, and on the 7th of November he was removed, and the command of the army given to General Burnside. The events that succeeded gave no encouraging warrant for this change of commanders. Feeling that he must do something at once to satisfy the government and the country, Burnside moved upon Fredericksburg, with the intention of occupying that town. His pontoon-bridges, however, were not ready, and he delayed crossing the Rappahannock so long while waiting for them that Lee had time to seize and fortify the heights back of the town and move his whole army to that situation. It was the night of December 10 before the crossing was attempted. Two bridges were laid, in front of and below the town. The march over the first proved difficult and sanguinary, on account of sharp-shooters concealed in the houses of the town. But during the day a crossing was effected at both points, and the army massed for an assault on the heights, which were strongly fortified, and guarded by an army of eighty thousand men.

The assault took place on the morning of the 13th, and was repulsed at every point with dreadful slaughter. The principal attack was made from the town, on the difficult position of Mary's Heights. It proved a murderous and futile effort, the assailants being mowed down in myriads and forced to retire in complete discomfiture. Charge after charge was made, but all with the same result. The Union losses during that fatal day are given by Draper at thirteen thousand seven hundred and seventy-one; those of the Confederates at five thousand three hundred and nine. Burnside intended to renew the struggle the next morning, but his leading officers were so strongly opposed to this that he withdrew the order, and on the night of the 15th evacuated the town and recrossed the river. Another movement was essayed by Burnside early in 1863. It was intended to cross the river at a point beyond the range of the Confederate works; but an unlooked-for thaw reduced the roads to quagmires, through which it proved impossible to move the trains and artillery, and the expedition had to be abandoned. Shortly afterwards General Hooker was appointed to replace Burnside in command of the Army of the Potomac.

With the opening spring Hooker attempted a flank movement on the Confederates, which resulted as disastrously as had Burnside's direct assault. He divided his army, leaving the left wing, under Sedgwick, to threaten Fredericksburg, while the main body of the army crossed the river some distance above the city, and marched into a wild district known as Chancellorsville, a country overgrown with a wilderness of thicket. Lee's army was considerably outnumbered, but he managed his forces with such skill as to defeat and almost disorganize his confident opponents. Leaving a small force to guard the heights at Fredericksburg, he marched towards Chancellorsville on the 29th of April. On the 1st of May, Hooker ordered an advance towards Fredericksburg. A flank attack was arranged by Lee, which proved remarkably successful. Jackson led the flanking column through the difficult country known as the Wilderness, and late on May 2 he made so sudden and furious a charge on Hooker's right that it was broken and driven back in confusion. Jackson was mortally wounded in this assault,--a serious loss to the Confederate army.

On the 3d the battle recommenced, and Hooker was severely pressed at all points. Meanwhile, Sedgwick had crossed at Fredericksburg, taken Marye's Heights, and was marching to join Hooker. Lee sent a strong force to meet him, and drove him back to the river, which Sedgwick recrossed on the night of May 4. This repulse ended the conflict. Hooker felt it necessary to retreat, and on the night of May 5, during a severe storm of wind and rain, the pontoons were laid and the whole army marched back to the northern side of the Rappahannock. The losses were heavy on both sides, though the Union forces suffered the most severely. With this battle ended the offensive efforts of the Army of the Potomac for that period. Its skilful antagonist immediately afterwards assumed the offensive, and threw his opponents into an attitude of defence, in which they much better proved their ability to cope with him.

Suddenly breaking camp, Lee began a rapid march northward, handling his troops so skilfully as to leave his antagonist in great doubt as to his intentions. Hooker moved north, disposing his army to cover Washington, and endeavoring to penetrate the designs of the force that was concealed behind the Blue Ridge. Ewell, in the advanced, marched hastily up the Valley, and surprised General Milroy at Winchester, defeating him, and capturing the bulk of his army, artillery, and trains. Lee's whole army was across the Potomac before his purpose was divined. He crossed at Shepherdstown on the 24th of June, and advanced with all speed into Pennsylvania, massing his army at Chambersburg on June 27. Ewell had occupied this place several days before. An advance on Harrisburg seemed contemplated, and part of the army reached and occupied York, but information that the Union army was rapidly approaching necessitated a change of plan, and a movement of concentration upon Gettysburg began. Lee's cavalry, under Stuart, had meanwhile moved so far to the eastward as to be intercepted by the Union advance, and their services were lost during the subsequent events.

Meanwhile, Hooker had discovered the purpose of the enemy, and began a march north which was prosecuted with the utmost speed. A general alarm pervaded the North, and the militia were called out in all directions. Yet the only safe reliance lay in the Army of the Potomac, which was making a strenuous effort to meet and check its opponent. On the 28th of June, Hooker, dissatisfied with the orders from Halleck at Washington, offered his resignation, and was replaced by General Meade, an officer previously known as an able and efficient corps- commander. He continued the rapid march northward, his advance reaching Gettysburg on July 1.

The advance, consisting of Buford's cavalry, numbering about four thousand men, first came into collision with the enemy, about a mile beyond the town. Dismounted, and acting as infantry, these men held their ground with great pertinacity against the steadily-increasing Confederate force. Reynolds, who led the Union advance, pushed forward his division to the support of Buford, and a hot battle ensued. Reynolds was killed, and after several hours of battle the Union line was forced to give way before the superior numbers and the impetuous charges of their foe. The conflict ended in a retreat to Cemetery Ridge, a range of low hills extending westerly and southerly from the town, and ending in a prominent and rugged elevation called Round Top. Meade, whose army was now rapidly coming up, decided to make this ridge his defensive position; while Lee's army, as it arrived, was stationed on the less elevated Seminary Ridge, somewhat over a mile distant from the ground occupied by the Union army. In this struggle for positions Meade had gained the advantage, having much the stronger ground.

Lee's advance was definitely checked. He must either retreat, or brush away the army in front of him and uncover the North by its defeat. He decided on attempting the latter. On the 2d of July an assault in force took place, Ewell moving against Meade's right and Longstreet against his left wing. The first movement proved of secondary interest, the main conflict of the day being that between Longstreet's and Sickles's corps.

Apparently by a misconception of Meade's instructions, Sickles had advanced his corps beyond the line of Cemetery Ridge, which at this point was quite low, and occupied the high ground along which runs the Emmettsburg road, some four or five hundred yards in advance. Though this position was in certain respects advantageous, it had the important defect that the left flank was exposed, and had to be bent back at an angle through low ground towards Round Top. This angle occupied a peach orchard, which became the main point of the Confederate attack.

It was late in the day when the Confederate force under Longstreet advanced to the assault. His right, under Hood, fell upon that portion of Sickles's corps between the peach orchard and Round Top. A gap had been left between the left flank and this elevation, and through this opening the right of Hood's line thrust itself unperceived, and advanced on Little Round Top, a rocky spur of the loftier hill above named. This movement placed Meade's army in great jeopardy. Little Round Top was at that moment quite unoccupied, and if captured by the Confederates the entire Union line would have been taken in reverse. Fortunately, General Warren discovered the critical situation of affairs in time to avert the danger. He hurried a brigade to the summit, brought a battery to the same point, and was just in time to repulse Hood's Texans, who were advancing eagerly to seize the hill. A desperate struggle ensued, the bayonet being used when the ammunition was exhausted. The position was secured, but not without much loss of life.

The heaviest pressure of the Confederate attack fell upon the salient angle in Sickle's line at the peach orchard. This position was stubbornly defended, but was at length carried by the impetuous assaults of Longstreet's men. Its capture quickly exposed the faulty character of the Union line. The enemy had burst through its central key-point, and was at liberty to assail the disrupted forces to right and left. One of the most desperate conflicts of the war ensued. The exposed lines were gradually withdrawn, while other brigades and divisions were hurried to the front, and a confused succession of advances and retreats took place, in which many valuable officers lost their lives, and the ground was strewn with multitudes of the dead and dying. General Sickles himself was severely wounded, losing a leg. Finally the Union line reached the position it had been originally intended to occupy, along the crest of Cemetery Ridge. The efforts of the enemy to break the line continued, but they had lost so heavily during their advance, and were so exhausted by their efforts, that their final sallies were easily repelled. Though Longstreet's success had been considerable, it was in no sense decisive. No point of Cemetery Ridge had been taken. About dusk Hancock ordered a counter-charge, before which the enemy easily yielded. On the left six regiments of the Pennsylvania Reserves, led by General Crawford, advanced on the enemy in front of Little Round Top, drove them from a stone wall which they had occupied, and to the woods beyond the wheat-field in front. During the night the opposite margins of this field were held by the combatants.

Ewell's attack on the Union right had been somewhat more successful. Johnson's division had gained a foothold within the Union lines which it held during the night. It was intended by Lee to make this position, in the next day's battle, the basis of an assault in force on the right wing of the Union army, while the left should be simultaneously assailed. But this project was seriously deranged by Meade's promptness of action. Early on the morning of the 3d a strong attack was made on Johnson before reinforcements could reach him, and he was driven out of the works he had occupied. The Union lines at that point were re-formed.

Lee's plan of action was now changed, and an assault ordered against the Union centre. Pickett's division of Virginians was selected to make this desperate charge, one destined to become famous in the annals of war. In preparation for the assault the great bulk of the Confederate artillery was massed in front of the selected point of attack, and the most terrible artillery-fire of the whole war opened upon the Union intrenchments. Meade had massed a smaller number of guns to reply. The story of the grand charge that succeeded, and of its disastrous repulse, we give in the words of the Comte de Paris, from the translated edition of his "History of the Civil War in America," published by Messrs. Porter & Coates, of Philadelphia.]

It is now the hottest time of day; a strange silence reigns over the battle- field, causing the Federal soldiers, worn out with fatigue, to look upon the impending general attack, which they have anticipated since early dawn, as extremely long in coming. . . . Longstreet learns at last that everything is ready; his orders are awaited to open the fire which is to precede the assault. . . . Much time has been lost, for it is already one o'clock in the after-noon. Two cannon-shots fired on the right by the Washington Artillery at intervals of one minute suddenly break the silence which was prevailing over the battle- field. It means, "Be on your guard!" which is well understood by both armies. The solitary smoke of these shots has not yet been dispersed when the whole Confederate line is one blaze. . . . One hundred and thirty-eight pieces of cannon obey Longstreet's signal. The Federals are not at all surprised at this abrupt prelude: they have had time to recover from the shock of the previous day, and have made good use of it. . . . [They] have eighty pieces of artillery to reply to the enemy. In conformity with Hunt's orders, they wait a quarter of an hour before replying, in order to take a survey of the batteries upon which they will have to concentrate their fire. They occupy positions affording better shelter than those of the Confederates, but the formation of their line gives the latter the advantage of a concentric fire.

More than two hundred guns are thus engaged in this artillery combat, the most terrible the New World has ever witnessed. The Confederates fire volleys from all the batteries at once, whose shots, directed towards the same point, produce more effect than successive firing. On the previous day their projectiles passed over the enemy; they have rectified the elevation of their pieces, and readily obtain a precision of aim unusual to them. The plateau occupied by the Federals forms a slight depression of the ground in the centre, which hides their movements, but affords them no protection from the enemy's fire; the shells burst in the midst of the reserve batteries, supply-trains, and ambulances; the houses are tottering and tumbling down; the head-quarters of General Meade are riddled with balls, and Butterfield, his chief of staff, is slightly wounded. In every direction may be seen men seeking shelter behind the slightest elevations of the ground. Nothing is heard but the roar of cannon and the whistling of projectiles that are piercing the air. A still larger crowd of stragglers, wounded, and non-combatants than that of the day before is again making for the Baltimore turnpike with rapid haste.

[This murderous fire causes considerable loss on both sides. Kemper's (Confederate) brigade in a few minutes loses more than two hundred men. The Confederate ammunition is running short, while the hope to silence the Federal guns has as yet proved unfounded. But at length the Federals cease firing, and Pickett makes ready for the desperate charge to which this hot artillery duel is preliminary.]

He is informed--what he might have found out for himself in spite of the roaring of the Confederate cannon--that the enemy's guns scarcely make any reply. The Federal artillery appears to be silenced from the lack of ammunition. The opportunity so long waited for has therefore at last arrived,--a mistake which the assailants will soon find out to their sorrow. In fact, about a quarter-past two o'clock, Meade, believing that enough ammunition has been expended, and wishing to provoke the attack of the enemy, orders the firing to cease; Hunt, who is watching the battle-field in another direction, issues the same order at the same moment, and causes two fresh batteries, taken from the reserve in the rear of Hancock's line, to advance. For a while the voice of the Confederate cannon is alone heard.

But new actors are preparing to appear on the scene. Pickett has caused the object of the charge they are about to execute to be explained to his soldiers. As the ranks are re-forming, many of them can no longer rise; the ground is strewn with the dead, the wounded, and others that are suffering from the heat, for a burning sun, still more scorching than that of the day before, lights up this bloody battle-field. But all able-bodied men are at their posts, and an affecting scene soon elicits a cry of admiration from both enemies and friends. Full of ardor, as if it were rushing to the assault of the Washington Capitol itself, and yet marching with measured steps, so as not to break its alignment, Pickett's division moves forward solidly and quietly in magnificent order. Garnett, in the centre, sweeping through the artillery-line, leaves Wilcox behind him, whose men, lying flat upon the ground, are waiting for another order to support the attack. Kemper is on the right; Armistead is moving forward at double-quick to place himself on the left along the line of the other two brigades; a swarm of skirmishers covers the front of the division. The smoke has disappeared, and this small band perceives at last the long line of the Federal positions, which the hollow in the ground where they had sought shelter had, until then, hidden from its view. It moves forward full of confidence, convinced that a single effort will pierce this line, which is already wavering, and feeling certain that this effort will be sustained by the rest of the army. Taking its loss into consideration, it numbers no more than four thousand five hundred men at the utmost, but the auxiliary forces of Pettigrew, Trimble, and Wilcox raise the number of assailants to fourteen thousand. If they are all put in motion in time, and well led against a particular portion of the Federal line, their effort may triumph over every obstacle and decide the fate of the battle. Marching in the direction of the salient position occupied by Hancock, which Lee has given him as the objective point, Pickett, after passing beyond the front of Wilcox, causes each of his brigades to make a half-wheel to the left. This manoeuvre, though well executed, is attended with serious difficulties, for the division, drawn up en echelon across the Emmettsburg road, presents its right flank to the Federals to such an extent that the latter mistake the three echelons for three successive lines.

The moment has arrived for the Federal artillery to commence firing. McGilvery concentrates the fire of his forty pieces against the assailants, the Federals even attributing the change in Pickett's direction to this fire,--a wrong conclusion, for it is when he exposes his flanks that the enemy's shots cause the greatest ravages in his ranks. If the thirty-four pieces of Hazard bearing upon the salient position could follow McGilvery's example, this artillery, which Pickett thought to be paralyzed, would suffice to crush him. But, by order of his immediate chief, Hazard has fired oftener and in quicker succession than Hunt had directed, and at the decisive moment he has nothing left in his caissons but grape-shot. He is therefore compelled to wait till the enemy is within short range. Pickett, encouraged by his silence, crosses several fields enclosed by strong fences, which his skirmishers had not been able to reach before the cannonade; then, having reached the base of the elevation he is to attack, he once more changes his direction by a half-wheel to the right, halting to rectify his line.

The Confederate artillery is endeavoring to support him, but is counting its shots, for it is obliged to be sparing of its ammunition: the seven light pieces intended to accompany the infantry, being wanted elsewhere, fail to appear at the very moment when they should push forward, and no other battery with sufficient supplies can be found to take their place.

But, what is still more serious, orders do not seem to have been clearly given to the troops that are to sustain Pickett. On the left Pettigrew has put his men in motion at the first order, but, being posted in the rear of Pickett, he has a wider space of ground to go over, and naturally finds himself distanced; moreover, his soldiers have not yet recovered from the combat of the previous day: from the start their ranks are seen wavering, and they do not advance with the same ardor as those of Pickett. . Presently these troops, through their imposing appearance, attract a portion of the enemy's attention and fire, and at a distance of two hundred and fifty yards they stop to reply with volleys of musketry. On the right Wilcox has remained inactive a considerable time, being probably detained by a diversity of opinion among the chieftains regarding the role that is assigned respectively to them. . Finally, in pursuance of an order from Pickett at the moment when the latter has halted in the vicinity of the Codori house, Wilcox pushes the brigade forward in a column of deployed battalions. In order to get sooner into line, and thus draw a portion of the enemy's fire, he marches directly on. He cannot, however, recover the distance that separates him from the leading assailants, the latter having disappeared in a hollow; then, becoming enveloped in smoke, he loses sight of them, and, following alone his direction to the right, does not succeed in covering their flank.

In the mean while, Pickett, causing his skirmishers to fall back, has again put his troops in motion, without waiting for his echelons to get completely into line: the artillery and infantry posted along the ridge he is to capture open a terrific fire of grape and musketry against him at a distance of two hundred yards, while the shot and shell of McGilvery take his line again in flank, causing frightful gaps in its ranks, killing at times as many as ten men by a single shot.

[The Federal position was a very strong one. A portion of the surface of the ridge, up whose slope the charge had to be made, was bordered by rocks projecting several feet from the ground. This natural wall was continued farther on by an ordinary stone wall, while an intrenchment covered other portions of the ridge.]

Seeing their adversaries advancing against these formidable positions, those amongst the Federals who fought under Burnside have the same opinion: they are at last to be avenged for the Fredericksburg disaster. The assailants also understand the perils that await them. On the left, Pettigrew is yet far off; on the right, Wilcox strays away from them and disappears amid the smoke. Pickett therefore finds himself alone with his three brigades. Far from hesitating, his soldiers rush forward at a double-quick. A fire of musketry breaks out along the entire front of Gibbon's division. The Confederate ranks are thinning as far as the eye can reach. Garnett, whose brigade has kept a little in advance, and who, although sick, has declined to leave the post of honor, falls dead within a hundred yards of the Federal lines; for an instant his troops come to a halt. They are immediately joined by Kemper, who at a distance of sixty yards in the rear has allowed their right to cover his left. The two brigades form a somewhat unsteady line, which opens fire upon the enemy. But the Confederate projectiles flatten themselves by thousands upon the strata of rocks, which are soon covered with black spots like a target, and upon the wall behind which the Unionists are seeking shelter. The game is too uneven: they must either fly or charge. These brave soldiers have only halted for a few minutes, allowing Armistead the necessary time to get into line. Encouraged by the example set by their chief, they scale the acclivity which rises before them: their yells mingle with the rattling of musketry; the smoke soon envelops the combatants.

Gibbon, seeing the enemy advancing with such determination, tries to stop his progress by a counter-charge, but his voice is not heard; his soldiers fire in haste, without leaving their ranks; the Confederates rush upon them. Unfortunately for the assailants, their right not being protected by Wilcox, their flank is exposed to the little wood which stretches beyond the Federal line. Stannard's soldiers, concealed by the foliage, have suffered but little from the bombardment; Hancock, always ready to seize a favorable opportunity, causes them to form en potence along the edge of the wood in order to take the enemy's line in flank. Two regiments from Armistead's right thus receive a murderous fire which almost decimates and disorganizes them. The remainder of the brigade throws itself in the rear of the centre of Pickett's line, which, following this movement, momentarily inclines towards Hays in order to attack the Federals at close quarters. Armistead, urging his men forward, has reached the front rank between Kemper and Garnett,--if it be yet possible to distinguish the regiments and brigades in this compact mass of human beings, which, all covered with blood, seems to be driven by an irresistible force superior to the individual will of those composing it, and throws itself like a solid body upon the Union line. The shock is terrific: it falls at first upon the brigades of Hall and Harrow, then concentrates itself upon that of Webb, against which the assailants are oscillating right and left. The latter general in the midst of his soldiers encourages them by his example; he is presently wounded. The struggle is waged at close quarters; the Confederates pierce the first line of the Federals, but the latter, dislodged from the wall, fall back upon the second line, formed of small earthworks erected on the ridge in the vicinity of their guns. These pieces fire grape-shot upon the assailants. Hancock and Gibbon bring forward all their reserves.. The regiments become mixed; the commanders do not know where their soldiers are to be found; but they are all pressing each other in a compact mass, forming at random a living and solid bulwark more than four ranks deep.

A clump of trees, in the neighborhood of which Cushing has posted his guns, commanding the whole plateau, is the objective point that the Confederates keep in view. Armistead, on foot, his hat perched on the point of his sword, rushes forward to attack the battery. With one hundred and fifty men determined to follow him unto death, he pierces the mass of combatants, passes beyond the earthworks, and reaches the line of guns, which can no longer fire for fear of killing friends and foes indiscriminately. But at the same moment, by the side of Cushing, his young and gallant adversary, he falls pierced with balls. They both lie at the foot of the clump of trees which marks the extreme point reached by the Confederates in this supreme effort. These few trees, henceforth historical, like a snail on the strand struck by a furious sea, no longer possessing strength enough to draw back into its shell, constitute the limit before which the tide of invasion stops,--a limit traced by the blood of some of the bravest soldiers that America has produced.

In fact, if the Federals have thus seen a large number of their chieftains fall, and their artillery left without ammunition, the effort of the assailants, on the other hand, is exhausted.

[Wilcox, on the right, fails to reach a supporting position. Pettigrew, on the left, followed closely by Trimble, arrives near the point of contest, but fails to maintain his ground.]

After a combat at short range, very brief, but extremely murderous, in which Trimble is seriously wounded, his troops and those of Pettigrew retire, even before the two brigades under Thomas and Perrin have reached their position, and while Pickett is still fighting on the right. The regular fire of Hays's impregnable line drives the assailants from that point in the greatest disorder as soon as they have taken one step in retreat. The four brigades of the Third Confederate corps that have thus been repulsed leave two thousand prisoners and fifteen stands of colors in the hands of the enemy. A few regiments of Archer's and Scales's brigades, which outflank Hays on the left, throw themselves on the right and unite with Pickett's soldiers, who are still contending with Gibbon. This reinforcement is, however, quite insufficient for the Confederates, who thus find themselves isolated, without support and without reserves, in the midst of the Federal line. Kemper is wounded in his turn. Out of eighteen field- officers and four generals, Pickett and one lieutenant-colonel alone remain unharmed: there is hardly any one left around them, and it is a miracle to see them yet safe and sound in the midst of such carnage.

The division does not fall back; it is annihilated. The flags which a while ago were bravely floating upon the enemy's parapets fall successively, to the ground, only to be picked up by the conquerors. A number of soldiers, not daring to pass a second time the ground over which the Federals cross their fire, throw down their arms: among those who are trying to gain the Southern lines many victims are stricken down by cannon-balls. The conflict is at an end. Out of four thousand eight hundred men that have followed Pickett, scarcely twelve to thirteen hundred are to be found in the rear of Alexander's guns; three thousand five hundred have been sacrificed and twelve stands of colors lost in this fatal charge.

[While this retreat was taking place, Wilcox, who believed Pickett to be still fighting, continued his advance. Stannard opened fire upon him from the opposite side of the sheltering wood, and advanced two regiments to a position where their fire took the Confederate line in flank. But Wilcox quickly realized the situation, and hastily retired, leaving two hundred of his men on the field.

Thus disastrously ended the most desperate assault of the whole war. It could scarcely have ended otherwise, considering the broad space of open ground which the assailants had to traverse, and the advantageous position occupied by their foes. With it ended the final effort at invasion on the part of Lee. With this grand charge and its repulse the tide of the war definitely turned, and from the slope of Cemetery Ridge it began to run downward to its final ebb at Appomattox.

Whether an advance in force by the Federals after the repulse of Pickett would have been successful, is a question which has been much debated. At all events, Meade did not risk it, but preferred to hold the advantage he had gained. Nothing was left to the Confederate army but retreat. On the 4th of July this retreat began. It was followed, but with considerable deliberation. Lee reached the Potomac unharmed. The river was swollen, and he was obliged to remain for some days on its banks, waiting for the waters to fall, and threatened by Meade. But the expected attack did not come, and the Confederates crossed the stream on the 12th of July without loss. Soon afterwards Meade followed across the Potomac, and once more Virginia became the battle-ground.]

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