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Chapter
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
R. E. Lee: A Biography

by Douglas Southall Freeman

published by Charles Scribner's Sons,
New York and London, 1934

The text, and illustrations except as noted, are in the public domain.


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Vol. III
p18
Chapter III

The Army Starts Northward Again

While Lee was reorganizing the Army of Northern Virginia after the death of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jackson, he could not forget the enemy across the river or the Federal forces that were gathering in ominous strength on other fronts. During the two weeks following the battle of Chancellorsville, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hooker made a few moves of no consequences, but he seemed to be receiving reinforcements as if the Washington government were determined to utilize his army for the major eastern offensive of the year.1 Around Vicksburg, the front of the Federals was slowly advancing, while General Joseph E. Johnston seemed powerless to divert Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant. In Tennessee, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Rosecrans was defying Bragg. In North Carolina, a force appeared to be preparing for another drive against the railroads, and from Hampton Roads a small army was threatening the lower end of the Peninsula of Virginia.

In what manner could the dwindling Confederate armies best be employed against the hosts that were concentrating as if to cut the South into bits that could be devoured at leisure? Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet maintained that Bragg should be strengthened to club Rosecrans; Secretary Seddon favored the dispatch of two of Longstreet's divisions to the Mississippi; Lee explained that, in his opinion, the Confederacy had to choose between maintaining the line of the Mississippi and that of Virginia.2 If he could procure sufficient troops and could draw General Hooker away from the Rappahannock, he proposed to assume the offensive and to enter Pennsylvania. He believed that the best defensive for Richmond was at a distance from it; he did not think it desirable to fight again on the Rappahannock, where he could not follow up his victory. Neither did he wish once more to carry his army into the ravaged counties near Washington. A defeated foe could easily retire within the defenses of that city, as Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pope had done. p19 Even had Lee been willing to give battle in Virginia, he did not think he could subsist his troops there,3 whereas, if he marched into Pennsylvania he would find provisions in abundance.4 By crossing high up the Potomac he could move into the rich Cumberland Valley, draw the enemy after him, clear Virginia of Federals, break up their plan of operations for the summer, and perhaps force the enemy to recall the forces that were troubling the south Atlantic coasts and threatening the railroads.5 Contact with the realities of war, moreover, might increase in the North the peace movement which seemed to be gathering strength.6 "It would be folly," he said subsequently, "to have divided my army; the armies of the enemy were too far apart for me to attempt to fall upon them in detail. I considered the problem in every possible phase, and to my mind, it resolved itself into a choice of one of two things — either to retire to Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately have ended in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania."7 Of all the arguments that weighed with him, the most decisive single one was that he could no longer feed his army on the Rappahannock. He had to invade the North for provisions, regardless of all else.8

While he was developing this plan, he was summoned to Richmond for conference. He spent May 14‑17 there and reviewed the military situation with the President, the Secretary of War, and the Cabinet.9 Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Davis was much troubled at the time by calls for troops at Vicksburg and sought the advice of Lee, who urged that Johnston attack Grant promptly;10 but when it came to a final choice between advancing into Pennsylvania or detaching troops from Lee to do battle on the Mississippi, the President and all members of the Cabinet except Postmaster-General Reagan favored a new invasion of the North.11

p20 Back on May 18 at his old headquarters near Hamilton's Crossing, Lee began to develop the details of his new adventure. He met with opposition from one man only — Longstreet. The commander of the First Corps was still enamored of his own theory that the proper course was to reinforce Bragg and attack Rosecrans. It is impossible to say how far his ambition influenced his proposal or to what extent his plan stirred his ambition. Perhaps he dreamed of supplanting Bragg and of winning the decisive victory. In any case he held with tenacity to his opinion and argued for it stubbornly.12 Lee heard him, as always, with patience, but did not see how any good could possibly result from dividing the Army of Northern Virginia, perhaps for months, in the face of the enemy. The Confederacy was witnessing around Vicksburg at the time an example of the impotence that followed a dispersal of force.

Finding that his own plan had no chance of adoption, Longstreet unwillingly yielded, but insisted that if a campaign was to be undertaken in Pennsylvania, it should be offensive in strategy but defensive in tactics. If Lee would move into Pennsylvania and not attack the enemy, but attempt to force Hooker to give battle, Longstreet conceded that the results might justify the venture. He even assured General Lee "that the First Corps would receive and defend the battle if he would guard its flanks, leaving his other corps to gather the fruits of victory."13

The event was to show that it would have been better if Lee had stood Longstreet before him and had bluntly reminded him that he and not the chief of the First Corps commanded the Army of Northern Virginia. Had he done so, he either would have had a different lieutenant general in the fateful days of July, or else his senior lieutenant would have been in a different state of mind. Apparently, however, it never occurred to Lee that Longstreet was trying to dictate. So little was such an idea in his mind that when Swinton affirmed, some years later, in his Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac,14 that Longstreet had told him Lee had promised to maintain a tactical defensive in Pennsylvania, p21 Lee refused to believe that Longstreet had ever made a statement to that effect. The idea, he told Colonel William Allan, was absurd. Lee "never made any such promise and never thought of doing any such thing."15 At the time, moreover, he promptly rejected a proposal that Seddon conveniently put forward, without any knowledge of the discussion at headquarters, for placing Longstreet in command between the James and Cape Fear. "The services of General Longstreet," Lee said simply, "will be required with this army."16 Longstreet in his vanity mistook Lee's tact and politeness for acquiescence in his plans and went about his preparations for the move in the proud belief that he had carried his point and that the campaign was to be conducted in accordance with his ideas.17 It was characteristic of him to be energetic and enthusiastic when he approved the course of his commanding general, but to be apathetic and full of misgivings when his superior acted contrary to his views. This graceless quality was stronger than ever during the months immediately following Jackson's death, when he magnified his own office. He had nobody but himself to blame for misinterpreting politeness as p22 compliance. Yet the episode is a warning to students of war that tact is sometimes dangerous in dealing with self-assertive subordinates.

Unaware that there was any menace to the cause in the mind of Longstreet, Lee's misgivings were not of him, but of the safety of Richmond, the strength of the army, and the possibility of manoeuvring Hooker out of his strategic position on Stafford Heights. A Federal force reported to number 5000 had gone to West Point at the head of York River, thirty-seven miles from Richmond.18 Troops of unreported roster were still in the vicinity of Suffolk. Lee was satisfied that an offensive across the Potomac would impel President Lincoln to abandon any plan for a general forward movement from the coast, but he considered it likely that a dash might be made on Richmond, and he could not afford to leave it defenseless, though he was most anxious to recall to the army the brigades that had from time to time been detached from his army and sent southward.19 How could he protect Richmond and at the same time make his army large enough for a distant offensive?

Gathering sufficient strength for the offensive was a matter of provisions, of horses, and of additional men, not a question of morale, for the victory at Chancellorsville had raised the spirit of the army to the highest pitch.20 As for food, Longstreet's activities in eastern North Carolina had not resulted in the accumulation of any surplus at the advanced base. Whatever had been collected in the North state during the spring had disappeared in the commissary warehouses. However, raids into transmontane Virginia had yielded a goodly stock of cattle. Lee planned to requisition some of this from General Samuel Jones just before he moved,21 and he reasoned that if he could drive beef on the hoof with him until he reached Pennsylvania, he would find abundance of everything there.

Little could be done in procuring horses from the South.22 The p23 animals with the army were in a slightly better condition now that grass was springing, but they were still thin. They looked much as they had during the Chancellorsville operation when a Federal officer had said that they and the wagons were like a "congregation of all the crippled Chicago emigrant trains that ever escaped off the desert."23 There was nothing to do but to use these mournful beasts until they could be recruited by the sleek horses enjoying the lush grass of the fat Cumberland Valley.

The reinforcement of the cavalry with Jenkins's and Imboden's brigades was under way.24 When the army moved into the Valley and the Federals were cleared out, Jones's brigade, which was still serving there, would be available, also. The mounted troops would then number seven brigades, enough to cover the advance, if properly disposed. Any material increase in the infantry, though it seemed imperative, was almost a forlorn hope. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Hood was returning with his full division and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pickett was at Hanover Junction with three of his four brigades, but all Lee's powers of persuasion had not sufficed to prevail upon President Davis to release the fourth brigade of Pickett or the three brigades that had been sent southward during the previous winter.25 Unless he could procure them at the last moment, he would not have for the campaign as many as 75,000 officers and men of all arms — about 60,000 infantry, 4700 artillery and 10,200 cavalry.26 Except for the cavalry recruits, most of these troops were tried veterans of Chancellorsville and of the campaign of 1862, men who had never failed Lee. As he reviewed some of them toward the end of May27 his confidence in them was greater than ever. "The fact is," to quote Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Harry Heth, "General Lee believed that the Army of Northern Virginia, as it then existed, could accomplish anything."28 If the detached brigades were returned, Lee was willing p24 to trust the army for its part in the great gamble of a second invasion of the North, even though the odds against it were dangerously long. But how could he recover those absent brigades so long as Richmond seemed to be threatened by raiders?

The final difficulty in the way of an advance, that of manoeuvring around the Federal right flank and wresting the initiative from Hooker, could only be measured by the attempt. There was, however, the risk that Hooker might anticipate Lee and either move his army from Aquia Creek to James River by water, or cross the Rappahannock and offer battle before Lee could start, or else throw his bridges and start an advance on Richmond as soon as Lee weakened his forces at Fredericksburg. The gossip in the camps was that Lee had said he believed he would "swap queens," Washington for Richmond,29 but he never hoped to capture Washington and he never intended to expose Richmond if he could prevent it. He was not sure what his adversary was planning to do, and he could not find out. For it no longer was as easy a matter for Lee's spies to penetrate the Federal lines as it had been under the lax administration of Burnside. Whatever else Hooker had failed to do, and however much he had disappointed the expectations of the North, he had reorganized his outposts and had placed an almost impenetrable screen around his army. For the first time on Virginia soil, thanks to the improvement in the Union cavalry and in the intelligence service of the Army of the Potomac, the Federals knew more of what was happening on the south side of the Rappahannock than Lee knew of what was taking place north of the river.30

In the face of these uncertainties — the safety of Richmond, the return of detached units, and the possibility of a sudden move by Hooker — Lee had to prepare for the defensive while hoping to be able to take the offensive. On May 11, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Stuart had been p25 ordered into Culpeper to observe the enemy;31 on the 19th, as soon as Lee had returned from Richmond, the artillery had been put on the alert.32 The next day Pickett had been ordered to prepare to march to the front when called.33 By the 23d Lee was satisfied that Hooker was making ready for another move. Stuart was directed to concentrate and await developments.34 Four days later there were indications of a decline in the strength of the Federal forces in front of Fredericksburg.35 This was taken to be a sign that Hooker was about to advance again by some of the fords on the upper Rappahannock. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McLaws was accordingly instructed to have his troops in condition to cross the river in a counter-demonstration, and Hood, who had come up in rear of the Confederate left, was told to move to Verdiersville, close to the fords of the Rapidan.36 "I wish I could get at those people over there," Lee said that day, as he looked wistfully across the river.37

The apparent imminence of another battle on the south bank of the Rappahannock, where victory would be as barren as costly, made Lee more anxious than ever to launch his projected offensive in Pennsylvania. He was willing to take the other risks if he could be reasonably sure of the safety of Richmond and could recover his "lost brigades." The difference between a hazardous defensive and a practicable offensive resolved itself into the difference between the strength he then mustered and the strength he could command if those brigades were returned to him. Yet it was so easy for Hooker to engage Lee while the forces at Suffolk and at West Point marched on Richmond! By May 30 Lee was almost persuaded that the time had passed when he could take the offensive, and as he was desirous of building up a force for the protection of the Richmond front, he urged on the Secretary of War that troops be called to Richmond from the Carolina coast, that the fortifications be strengthened, and that local-defense units be organized.38

Three anxious days passed at the end of May, with the troops p26 disposed either to start a march up the Rappahannock or to meet Hooker if he crossed the river.39 Lee could not wholly forgo hope of the offensive, even in the face of all the obstacles, but he had to admit to the President, "If I am able to move, I propose [to] do so cautiously, watching the result, and not to get beyond recall until I find it safe."40 Then, unexpectedly, on the very day that this letter was written, June 2, there came a telegram from Richmond announcing that the troops previously at West Point, supported by a force from Gloucester and Yorktown, were marching northward.41 The destination of these Federals was not clear, but it was manifest that if they were moving away from that city no immediate advance on Richmond was contemplated. Lee saw in this his opportunity. Now, if ever, he must seize the initiative and forestall the offensive he believed Hooker was preparing. With Richmond no longer in serious danger, he could hope that the President would authorize him to call Pickett's division and Pettigrew's brigade from Hanover and start his manoeuvre around the Federal flank in the hope that he might enter Pennsylvania.

There was no certainty that the President would authorize the movement of the troops from Hanover Junction, but orders were forthwith issued by Lee for an advance by part of the army the very next day. Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Ewell was called to headquarters and given his instructions. Longstreet was present during the conference, on Lee's invitation, and promptly took the floor to argue his thesis of a strategic offensive and a tactical defensive. He insisted that if the army was to take the offensive at all, it should do so south of the Potomac, preferably in the vicinityº of Culpeper Courthouse.42 Lee, as usual, seems to have let Longstreet present his view fully, with few remarks on his own part, but with no intention whatever of sanctioning another battle that could only exact a heavy toll of the Army of Northern Virginia on a field whence the Federals could easily withdraw to the Washington defenses.43

On the morning of June 3 the enemy showed no sign of p27 attacking,44 and McLaws's division was set in motion up the Rappahannock for Culpeper. The march was conducted without any Federal demonstration. That night Heth's division of A. P. Hill's corps relieved the pickets of Rodes's division of Ewell's corps,45 and on the morning of the 4th Rodes started toward Culpeper. Still there was no activity on the Stafford Heights. Emboldened by this, Lee withdrew Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Early and Johnson on the 5th and left only A. P. Hill on the Fredericksburg line. Scarcely had the last of Ewell's regiments wound their way over the hills than the Federals began to lay a pontoon bridge over the Rappahannock on the old site opposite Deep Run. It was done so ostentatiously as to raise suspicion from the first,46 but it was followed by a furious cannonade and then by the crossing of a small force of infantry. Lee reasoned that Hooker was either attempting to feel out the Confederate strength, or else was attempting to divert attention from some move on his own part, but he deemed it prudent to halt Ewell's march in case Hooker should develop a general offensive, and he disposed Hill's forces to hold the line temporarily. On the 6th, the Federals not being strengthened, Lee became satisfied that Hill could cope with the troops in his front and he ordered Ewell to resume his advance. That afternoon, having delivered to Hill detailed instructions drawn up the preceding night, Lee broke up headquarters at Hamilton's Crossing — for the last time, as it proved — and took the road his men marched.47 Hill's orders were to resist the enemy, to conceal the movement of the army, to fall back down the line of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, if attacked in superior force, and to call up Pettigrew's brigade and Pickett's division from Hanover Courthouse if necessary. In case the Federals disappeared from his front, Hill was to cross the river and pursue.48

Had Lee made an orderly appraisal of the situation when he p28 stopped by the roadside and bivouacked on that night of his new march toward the enemy's country,49 his chief causes of concern would have been the reorganization of the army, and the brevity of the time that had elapsed since it had been effected. The process of selection and commission had been slow. It had been only four days before the march began that the Second Corps had been formally set up under Ewell and the Third under A. P. Hill.50 The battalions of ordnance had not been allotted the corps until June 2,51 and on the 4th the general artillery reserve had been broken up and the corps chiefs of artillery assigned.52 The troops were the same magnificent fighting men, but the groupings, in large part, were new. Too many untried general officers were facing northward for the most difficult campaign the Army of Northern Virginia had ever undertaken. Granting that delay in launching the offensive was impossible, the risks involved in ordering the army into the enemy's country before the recently named commanders had accustomed themselves to handling large bodies of troops with their small staffs were immense and ominous.


The Author's Notes:

1 O. R., 25, part 2, pp791‑2.

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2 O. R., 25, part 2, p790.

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3 Cf. Heth in 4 S. H. S. P., 153: "It is very difficult for anyone not connected with the Army of Northern Virginia to realize how straitened we were for supplies of all kinds, especially food."

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4 Marshall, 182 ff., and William Allan's notes of a conversation with Lee in ibid., 250‑51; Long, 269.

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5 O. R., 25, part 2, pp791‑2; ibid., 27, part 2, p305; 2 Davis, 438.

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6 O. R., 27, part 2, pp302, 305; Cooke, 270‑71.

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7S. H. S. P., 154.

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8 Cf. infra, pp49‑50.

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9 1 R. W. C. D., 325; Mrs. McGuire, 214; Reagan, 121. Some of the considerations that prompted Lee to advocate an advance into Pennsylvania were developed subsequent to this conference.

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10 O. R., 25, part 2, p843.

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11 Reagan, 121‑22.

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12 Annals of the War, 416‑17.

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13 Longstreet, 334.

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14 Swinton, 340: "General Lee expressly promised his corps commanders that he would not assume a tactical offensive. . . ." Swinton added as a footnote, "This and subsequent revelations . . . I derive from General Longstreet . . . in a full and free conversation."

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15 Allan's memorandum in Marshall, 252. Allan quoted Lee as referring to "a reported conversation with Longstreet, in which the latter was reported to have said that General Lee was under a promise to the lieutenant general not to fight a general battle in Pennsylvania." There is, of course, a material difference between a promise "not to fight a general battle" and a promise to hold to a tactical defensive, but as Lee had read at least a part of Swinton, there can scarcely be room for doubt that the "conversation" of which he spoke is that in which Swinton quoted Longstreet as contending that Lee had promised him to adhere to defensive tactics.

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16 O. R., 25, part 2, p811.

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17 Cf. Henderson: Longstreet made "no attempt to explain on what grounds he considered himself entitled to dictate conditions to his superior officer. He had no mandate from the government as Lee's adviser. He was merely the commander of an army corps — a subordinate, pure and simple; and yet he appears to have entered on the campaign with the idea that the commander-in‑chief was bound to engage the enemy with the tactics that he, General Longstreet, had suggested" (Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, October, 1897). Longstreet, in his later writings, was careful to refrain from asserting that Lee had promised him not to pursue a tactical offensive in the North. He referred to "an understanding" in Annals of the War, 417. In 3 B. and L., 246, he employed this extraordinary language: "I then accepted his proposition to make a campaign into Pennsylvania, provided that it should be offensive in strategy but defensive in tactics"; and in From Manassas to Appomattox, 331, he said: "All that I could ask was that the policy of the campaign should be one of defensive tactics. . . . To this he readily assented as an important and material adjunct to his general plan." At no time, however, did he ever deny that he had told Swinton that "General Lee expressly promised his corps commanders that he would not assume a tactical offensive. . . ." Inasmuch as Longstreet could not deny what Swinton attributed to him, yet would not assert over his own signature that Lee had made him any such promise, it is not necessary to seek for confirmation of Lee's statement that he made no commitment regarding his course of action in Pennsylvania.

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18 O. R., 25, part 2, p797.

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19 O. R., 25, part 2, p834. In addition to Pickett's and Hood's divisions, Lee lost Ransom's, Cooke's, and Evans's brigades (O. R., 25, part 2, p833).

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20 Cf. W. S. White in Richmond Howitzers Battalion, 185: "Lee's army has the greatest confidence in him, and if we are defeated it will be at terrible cost to the enemy" (June 10, 1863).

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21 O. R., 25, part 2, p846.

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22 O. R., 25, part 2, pp812‑13.

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23 Marginalia, 48.

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24 See supra, p14.

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25 O. R., 25, part 2, pp831, 833, 842.

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26 O. R., 25, part 2, p846. This return certainly included Jenkins's and Imboden's cavalry and it probably included Jones's brigade also, though the return read "Not reported" opposite the entry "Valley District." If Jones's 1500 horse were not included, this would raise Lee's total strength to nearly 76,000, but it would credit Stuart with 11,700 cavalry, which are certainly more than he had. The fullest analysis of Lee's strength at this time was given by Early in 4 S. H. S. P., 244, and by Taylor in 5 ibid., 240, but as they wrote before the publication of the Official Records their figures are perhaps subject to revision.

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27 Malone, 33; E. A. Moore, 177‑78; Captain R. E. Parks in 26 S. H. S. P., 10.

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28S. H. S. P., 160.

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29 Cooke, 274.

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30 Cf. Lee to Stuart, May 23, 1863: "As regards the enemy, it is difficult for me to determine his intentions" (O. R., 25, part 2, p820); Lee to Stuart, May 31, 1863: "I am unable yet to determine what are the plans or intentions of the enemy; reports are so contradictory" (O. R., 25, part 2, p844). See also Lee to Davis, May 30, 1863 (ibid., pp832‑33). In contrast, see the report, May 27, 1863, of George H. Sharpe, chief of the bureau of information of the Army of the Potomac (O. R., 25, part 2, p528). This document is correct in nearly every particular as to the location of the Confederate units and the plans of Lee. It seems to have been derived chiefly from deserters, whereas Lee thought most of the enemy's information was coming from Negroes (cf. O. R., 25, part 2, p826).

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31 O. R., 25, part 2, p792.

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32 O. R., 25, part 2, p808.

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33 O. R., 51, part 2, p711.

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34 O. R., 25, part 2, p820.

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35 O. R., 25, part 2, p827.

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36 O. R., 25, part 2, p839; ibid., 51, part 2, pp717‑18.

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37 R. H. McKim: A Soldier's Recollections, 134.

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38 O. R., 25, part 2, pp827, 832‑33, 834, 839, 844.

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39 Cf. Hood's instructions, O. R., 25, part 2, p845.

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40 O. R., 25, part 2, p848; cf. Lee to Stuart, June 2, 1863, O. R., 25, part 2, p850.

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41 O. R., 25, part 2, p847.

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42 Longstreet, in 3 B. and L., 248‑49.

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43 It is possible that this interview with Ewell occurred before June 2, but that seems to be the most probable date.

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44 For once, Lee was entirely misled as to the intentions of the Federal commander. That officer was then out of favor in Washington and, though he had not been so informed, was not to be allowed to fight another battle. The policy of the Federal administration in dealing with the Army of the Potomac at the time was the passive one of waiting developments.

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45 O. R., 51, part 2, p720.

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46 O. R., 27, part 3, p859.

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47 O. R., 27, part 2, pp293, 347.

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48 O. R., 27, part 3, p859.

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49 O. R., 27, part 3, p347.

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50 O. R., 25, part 2, p840.

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51 O. R., 25, part 2, p850.

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52 O. R., 51, part 2, p720; O. R., 25, part 2, p859.


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