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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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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

Vol. I
Chapter XXXII

Lee Discloses a Weakness

On the morning of July 28, 1861, Lee started from Richmond to perform his first field duty for the Confederacy. It was not an impressive departure. No commissaries or quartermasters attended him. His only military companions were Colonel Washington and Captain Taylor. He had no more than two private attendants, Meredith, his cook, a Negro from the White House plantation, and Perry, another Negro, who had been employed in the dining room at Arlington and was now acting as Lee's body servant. Except for his horses, his baggage was of the smallest proportions. The only recorded part of it was a simple mess kit of tin, destined to serve him until after Appomattox.​1 Many a brigadier, starting for the front, had a far larger entourage and a more ostentatious leave-taking. If any of the family came to see Lee off, it was Custis, for Mrs. Lee, Robert, and the girls were visiting friends, and Rooney's cavalry was in the Allegheny Mountains.2

It was not precisely to the command of an army that Lee was going. He had no written instructions. As the President's confidential military adviser, still in titular command of all the Confederate forces in the Old Dominion, he was being sent to western Virginia, where Garnett had fallen and where small, separate commands were feebly struggling to prevent a Federal advance. His mission was to co-ordinate rather than to command — not to direct operations in person but to see if rivalries could not be suppressed and united effort against the enemy assured.​3 The nature of his assignment had been correctly reported in at least  p542  one newspaper,​4 but it was not generally understood by the public. The assumption that he was directly in command led the public to expect great achievements of him, but the fact that immediate charge of the troops was not entrusted to him by the President made such achievements almost impossible. Authority and responsibility were divided, with the usual disastrous results. So much trouble could have been avoided if he had temporarily been assigned to command the scattered units in western Virginia that it is difficult to say why this was not done. Perhaps Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.President Davis did not wish Lee formally detached; perhaps he felt that Lee's known tact could best be employed if he appeared on the scene to counsel all the general officers in western Virginia and not to supersede any of the touchy individuals who were exercising semi-independent command in the mountains. The Confederate authorities, in July, 1861, had not developed the courage to deal bluntly with men of this stamp, but proceeded cautiously in an effort to preserve the complete unity of the South. In this instance the welfare of the forces was subordinated to the ambitions of the leaders. It was to prove a costly concession to pride.

As far as Gordonsville, Lee's journey lay along the route he had followed when he had come to Richmond from Alexandria on that memorable 22d of May. West of Gordonsville he continued on the Virginia Central Railroad by way of Charlottesville to Staunton, where he detrained on the evening of July 28. He knew, of course, that he was not making a tour of an army possessed of the proud confidence that Johnston and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Beauregard's men felt, now that they had achieved a victory at Bull Run. A measure of demoralization he anticipated. A lack of equipment he was certain to find, because he had learned that some blundering quartermaster had forwarded to General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.T. J. Jackson at Winchester certain essential supplies intended for General H. R. Jackson at Monterey.5

From the hour he arrived at Staunton, however, Lee encountered a state of affairs unlike anything he had ever seen in war. Into the quiet valley town had rolled the backwash of Garnett's  p543  little command — men whose zeal for war had been quickly dampened by contact with its dirty, bloody realities, ragged men, hungry men, the sick and the road-worn. One Georgia regiment, shattered in mountains, had straggled back in such utter despair that its bewildered colonel had granted all its men a furlough without consulting his superiors. General Loring, who had preceded Lee a few days on his way to the army, had countermanded all the furloughs and had put the baffled colonel under arrest, but had been very doubtful of his ability to get the men together again.​6 It was not soldiery that Lee saw at Staunton; it was panic exhausted in paralysis.

With the detachment of mind he always sought to cultivate, Lee did not let himself think solely of these things as, on the morning of July 29, he left Staunton and started on horseback for Monterey. "A part of the road, as far as Buffalo Gap, I passed over in the summer of 1840, on my return to St. Louis, after bringing you home," Lee wrote his wife. "If any one had then told me that the next time I traveled that road would have been on my present errand, I should have supposed him insane. I enjoyed the mountains, as I rode along. The views are magnificent — the valleys so beauti­ful, the scenery so peaceful. What a glorious world Almighty God has given us. How thankless and ungrateful we are, and how we labour to mar his gifts."7

There was rain that first day, but it did not delay him. He regarded it simply as an incident of the journey and not as an omen of what lay ahead. At Monterey, a little village in Highland County, ten miles east of the principal ridge of the Allegheny Mountains, he came to the headquarters of Brigadier General Henry R. Jackson of Georgia, commander on that part of the front. A strange fortune it was that brought such a man into so precipitous a wilderness. For Judge Jackson was a Yale graduate, an art lover, a poet, an ex-judge and former United States minister to Austria. Not long before the war, when still under forty, he had declined the chancellor­ship of the University of Georgia. The people of Savannah had elected him to the Confederate Congress, but as he had served as the youthful colonel of the First Georgia Volunteers during the Mexican War, he had  p544  felt that he should enter the army.​8 With a brigadier's commission, he had brought Georgia troops to western Virginia just before Garnett had been defeated. As the senior officer of the reserve, he had been forced to take charge of operations at a time when the Confederate forces had been in chaos, with every prospect of a quick Federal pursuit to the Virginia Central Railroad. General Jackson would have been far more at ease if he had been asked to translate an obscure passage in an Horatian ode, or if he had been called upon to draft a diplomatic note in the most precise Continental style; but, in a new capacity and in an unfamiliar country, he had kept his head, had used his strong, native intelligence, and had made in the crises what were, all things considered, probably the best dispositions possible with the small force at hand. Although he had acted with decision, Jackson had displayed unusual modesty. He had urged that Lee come in person to western Virginia and he had suggested that a man of greater military experience than himself be placed in direct command.​9 Those of the troops that had not shared in Garnett's campaign — only two regiments at the outset — were in good condition. So were the reinforcements that were now coming up from Staunton, under orders issued after the disaster at Carrick's Ford. But many of this survivors of Garnett's command, as Lee had already seen, were in a pitiable plight, "without tents or camp equipage, and with but the clothing on their backs, the horses of the artillery and cavalry jaded and galled."​10 After their escape from the enemy their recovery of morale was slow. Added to their other miseries was an epidemic of measles, a malady that went hard with the soldiers from the rural districts of the South, most of whom had escaped it in childhood. Fever debilitated many that escaped the measles. Hospital facilities were too crude for classification. The soldiers who kept their health were wet and dejected, for the rain that Lee had encountered on the ride from Staunton had been falling steadily since July 22.11

Some of the younger officers, like Rooney Lee and Edward  p545  Johnson, were already displaying the high promise they later fulfilled, but most of the others were a shock and perhaps a disillusionment to Lee. Instead of trained soldiers who could be relied upon to understand orders and to obey them promptly, he found that the tools of command were zealous and patriotic enough, but were men to whom everything had to be explained, men who took their time to follow instructions, apparently unconscious that the very life of the army, much less its military success, depended upon precision. "It is so difficult," Lee wrote his wife, "to get our untrained people to comprehend and promptly execute the measures required for the occasion."12

The feebleness of the army seemed all the worse when measured against the assumed strength of the enemy. And the strength of the enemy was increased by the geographical position he then occupied in that forbidding land. The Confederates had advanced westward from the Virginia Central and from the Virginia and Tennessee Railroads. The Federals had moved to the occupation of the disputed section of the Old Dominion eastward from the Kanawha River and southeastward from the line of the Baltimore and Ohio. The two forces had come together on the watershed of the Allegheny Mountains, an imposing range that runs northeast and southwest through the whole of Virginia. The contest was for the mountain passes and the roads that wound through them.

On the northern part of the front, where Lee then was, the range was divided, from east to west, into four principal chains of mountains, the Alleghenies, strictly so‑called, Greenbrier Mountain, Cheat Mountain, and Rich Mountain. The distance from the crest of the Alleghenies to the top of Cheat Mountain was fifteen miles. These heights were traversed by one of the historic highways of Virginia, the Staunton-Parkersburg turnpike, which joined the two towns its name hyphenated. The strongest of the passes through which this road ran was that on Cheat Mountain, where there was a long crossing at an elevation in excess of 3500 feet, easily swept away by artillery on the summit. The first conflict had been for Rich Mountain. Then had come a race for Cheat Mountain. This had been decided before Lee's arrival. The Federals had occupied the  p546  eminence while the Confederates were demoralized by the early successes of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McClellan. Jackson had been compelled to take second choice, which was the pass over the Alleghenies. Greenbrier Mountain, which did not possess great military strength, could also be occupied by the Southerners as an advanced position, but only because the Federals had not thought it worth taking so long as they held Cheat Mountain. All the advantage of position was on the Northern side.

Fifty miles to the southwest of this sector the James River and Kanawha turnpike ran through the mountains from Covington to the head of light navigation on the Gauley River, one of the two main streams that unite to form the Kanawha River. In that area, where the mountains did not set their parapets so high as in front of Monterey, General Henry A. Wise had been conducting a campaign presently to be described.

It was generally assumed that the Staunton-Parkersburg road and the James River and Kanawha turnpike were the only highways an army could follow across the mountains. That was not the case. West of Cheat Mountain a fairly good road ran from the village of Huttonsville southward up Tygart's Valley and through a cross-range of mountains to a small place known as Huntersville. From that point a difficult but passable road led over the Alleghenies, via Warm Springs, to Millborough,​13 which was close to the Virginia Central Railroad, southwest of Staunton. The essential features of the terrain may be seen from the sketch on page 547 on which the Staunton-Parkersburg and the James River-Kanawha roads are marked with double lines and the Huntersville-Millborough road appears as a series of dashes.

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If the Federals could push forward up the Kanawha Valley and thence up New River they could reach the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, which was the only direct line of communication between the two states whose name it bore.

Again, a Federal advance from Huntersville to Millborough would cut off the supplies that were going from Jackson's River, the western terminus of the Virginia Central Railroad, to the Confederate Army in the Kanawha Valley.​14 A Federal advance  p547  to Millborough would likewise bring the enemy dangerously close to the rear of the forces in front of Cheat Mountain, who were being supplied in large part from Staunton. Finally, a drive along the Staunton-Parkersburg road, resulting in the occupation of Staunton, would sever all rail communication between eastern and western Virginia and would deprive the South of rich grain crops of the Shenandoah Valley. In short, any advance of the enemy to the Virginia Central Railroad would be, or would threaten, a major Confederate disaster.

The possibilities of a Confederate offensive were equally great. If Cheat Mountain could be passed there was no insurmountable barrier on the road to the Baltimore and Ohio, at Grafton, some ninety miles from Jackson's outposts at the Greenbrier River. At Grafton, as the Confederates had realized since the beginning of  p548  the war, they could sever one of the main railways linking the East to the West. If, again, the Confederates could advance down the Kanawha eighty-five miles from Gauley Bridge, while covering their flank against attack from the north, they would reach the Ohio and would effectually free the greater part of western Virginia from the grip of the enemy.

General H. R. Jackson had been quick to sense the importance of the little-known and little-used road from Huntersville to Millborough. Even when his force had been very small he had divided it to protect this route and had urged that reinforcements be sent forward directly from the railroad near Millborough.​15 He had heard, moreover, that from Huntersville a road led northward down Tygart's Valley to the rear of Cheat Mountain, and he had ordered the troops at Huntersville to advance and seize a position that commanded this route.16

Leaving out of account, therefore, the units in or adjacent to the Kanawha Valley and those on the march to join Jackson or to strengthen Loring, who had gone to Huntersville before Lee reached Monterey, the disposition of the troops was about as shown on the opposite page.

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Situation on the Allegheny Front, about August 1, 1861.

1. H. R. Jackson occupying Monterey and Allegheny crest, preparing to advance to Greenbrier River. 2. W. W. Loring at Huntersville with reinforcements coming up from Monterey. 3. Two Confederate regiments in this vicinity, where they might turn Cheat Mountain. 4. United States forces, strength unknown, holding Cheat Mountain and the road to Beverly.

In this situation, of course, where the strength of the Federals was unknown, the first step had to be defensive. Lee must make certain that the troops were numerous enough, vigilant enough, and well enough fortified in the mountains to keep the Union forces from reaching the Virginia Central Railroad. He had naturally been acutely conscious of this danger before he left Richmond and he had forwarded urgent and explicit orders to hold the mountain passes and to take no chances.​17 It was not until some time after his arrival at the front that he was entirely satisfied the enemy could not break through the defenses and strike the railway.

Offensively, the key position in the campaign manifestly was the high ground north of Huntersville, dominating the road in rear of Cheat Mountain. If the troops that Jackson had sent forward had chosen a good position there was every reason to hope that a quick advance might turn Cheat Mountain before the enemy  p549  was aware of the danger from the direction of Huntersville. To ascertain the exact state of affairs Lee bade Jackson adieu on the morning of August 3 and set out for Huntersville with his few companions. The rain that he had first encountered the day he left Staunton was falling still and was enveloping in damp gloom a country of great natural beauty. The roads, which were bad at best, were becoming very heavy. The return of fair weather began to assume importance as a factor in the campaign.

Lee found Huntersville crowded with sick soldiers, a "most  p550  wretched and filthy town," according to a Confederate chaplain.​18 Situated about twenty-five miles from Monterey, it is on Knapp Creek within an hour's trot of the Greenbrier River and has an elevation of 2200 feet. The road from the north in which Lee was interested had its forks here. One branch was the strategically important route over the Alleghenies to Millborough. The other ran southward to the valley of the Kanawha. The place was worth the risks Jackson had taken when he had divided his little army in order to dispatch troops thither.

As soon as Lee reached the village he went to call on General Loring, who, on July 30, had established his headquarters there.​19 He met with a surprised and distinctly cold reception. Loring had not expected to see him and was not pleased to greet him. Not two weeks had passed since Lee had given Loring discretionary orders in Richmond and had sent him forward. And now, before Loring had developed his plans — here was Lee to see that he did his duty! Loring did not feel that he needed supervision. A native of South Carolina but a resident of Florida since boyhood, he had been an Indian fighter while Lee was a headquarters staff lieutenant; and though he was eleven years Lee's junior and was not a West Pointer, he had seen far more field service than his commanding officer, thus suddenly descended on him from the clouds and the mountain top. Had not Loring been brevetted colonel for gallantry in Mexico? When he had been entrusted with command of the Department of Oregon had he not successfully marched a column across the continent? Did he not have a good record as commander in New Mexico, where he had whipped Indians more elusive than the raw Federal troops, and in a country more difficult? It was apparent from the moment of Lee's meeting with Loring that another difficulty had been added to the inexperience, the demoralization, and the sickness of the Confederates — to endless rains, to roads like bogs, and to pathless mountains: jealously had come into the campaign, and had come at a time when it might cost the army a great opportunity.20

For it developed that Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William Gilham, whom Jackson  p551  had ordered in advance from Huntersville, had gone forward eighteen miles and had come to a ridge known as Valley Mountain, across which the Huttonsville-Huntersville road passed at an elevation of 3460 feet, near the present post office of Mace. From Valley Mountain northward, as reported, the road descended into the lush Tygart's River Valley, in rear of the Federal position in Cheat Mountain pass. Not an enemy had been in sight when Gilham had arrived. If he had been strong enough then he could have swept forward and could have trapped the Federals on Cheat Mountain, opening a way for Jackson on the Greenbrier side. The Federals, however, had quickly learned of Gilham's presence on Valley Mountain and were said to be preparing to fortify a position farther down Tygart's Valley to prevent a Confederate advance. Even now, if Loring would advance with all his forces, the enemy might be driven back and the road could be opened.​21 Everything depended on speed. And Loring showed not the slightest disposition to move fast! Weary teams dragged their loads through the mud of the baffling roads, discharged their boxes and barrels and started protestingly back towards Millborough. Loring's staff officers, some of whom were quite capable, were kept busy in tallying deliveries and in collecting beef cattle, chafing all the while. Loring intended to advance. He confided that much to Lee. But before he went forward he was determined to establish a base at Huntersville and to stock it adequately with supplies brought up from Staunton over the swimming roads.​22 When he would be ready to move, Loring did not say — though the passage of every hour made it more certain that Federals would realize the full extent of danger and effectually block an advance. The great opportunity was being lost for fear the soldiers might miss their breakfast! Of course, a long offensive could not be sustained without building up a reserve of supplies as Loring proposed, for communications would be difficult to maintain over the execrable roads. To that extent Loring was right. But a brief advance was all that was  p552  necessary to seize the key positions, and that was worth the risks, even if the men had to carry their own rations.

Lee's alternatives were plain: he must wait on Loring, smooth down his ruffled feathers, win his confidence, and coax him into action, when and if he could; or else he must disregard Loring's jealousy, overrule his authority, and by virtue of his superior rank order the troops forward. Zachary Taylor would not have hesitated. Neither would Scott. Neither would Lee's hero, Washington. Had Lee employed stern military methods with Loring, as Stonewall Jackson did the following February, when he preferred charges against that officer for neglect of duty,​23 there can be no doubt that President Davis would have sustained him, timid though the administration then was. But Lee could not bring himself to impose his will on Loring. The General was jealous; controversies were to be avoided; Lee's orders were to co-ordinate rather than to command; and, if Loring would not advance, some other way of worsting the enemy must be found. Instead of hurrying Loring to Valley Mountain, he set out to conciliate him and to shape a new plan of campaign in place of the one the Federals had carelessly presented and Loring was negligently letting slip by. So Lee waited on Loring. Dealing most deferentially with his sensitive associate, he issued orders assigning troops to the "Army of the Northwest, under Brigadier General W. W. Loring,"​24 and he reminded one of the leaders in the Kanawha Valley that General Loring was "commanding the whole force of the Northwest Army."​25 In a word, he chose the rôle of diplomatist instead of that of army commander and sought to abate Loring's jealousy by magnifying that officer's authority.

All his life Lee had lived with gentle people, where kindly sentiments and consideration for the feelings of others were part of noblesse oblige. In that atmosphere he was expansive, cheerful, buoyant even, no matter what happened. During the Mexican campaigns, though his sympathies had been with General Scott, he had largely kept himself apart from the contention and had been a peacemaker. Now that he encountered surliness and jealousy, it repelled him, embarrassed him, and well-nigh bewildered  p553  him. Detesting a quarrel as undignified and unworthy of a gentleman, he showed himself willing, in this new state of affairs, to go to almost any length, within the bounds of honor, to avoid a clash. In others this might have been a virtue; in him it was a positive weakness, the first serious weakness he had ever displayed as a soldier. It was a weakness that was to be apparent more than once and had to be combated, deliberately or subconsciously. His personal humility and his exaggerated sense of his obligations as a man and a Christian were to make him submit to a certain measure of intellectual bullying by those of his associates who were sour and self-opinionated. The more inconsiderate such people were of him, the more considerate he was of them, and the more forbearant, up to the point where his patience failed and his temper broke bounds. Then he would freeze men quickly in the cold depths of his wrath. Prior to this time no man, probably, had guessed it of him, and doubtless he was unconscious of this weakness; but from those days at Huntersville until Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Longstreet was wounded in the Wilderness on May 6, 1864, there always was a question whether Lee, in any given situation, would conquer his inordinate amiability or would permit his campaigns to be marred or his battles to be lost by it. Of some other commanders in the great American tragedy one might have to ask whether they were drunk or sober on a given day, whether they were indolent or aggressive, whether they lost their heads in the emergency or mastered themselves. Of Lee it became necessary to ask, for two years and more, whether his judgment as a soldier or his consideration as a gentleman dominated his acts.

The Author's Notes:

1 R. E. Lee, Jr., 37, 41, 50; Taylor's Four Years, 36.

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2 J. V. Drake: Life of General Robert Hatton (cited hereafter as Drake's Hatton), 372.

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3 Davis to J. E. Johnston, Aug. 1, 1861; O. R., 5, 767; ibid., 828‑29; Taylor's Four Years, 16; Brock, 194. It was later believed in the Lee family that the command in western Virginia had been offered General Joseph E. Johnston and had been declined by him (Fitz Lee, 116). The writer has found no record of this.

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4 Richmond Examiner, July 31, 1861, p3, cols. 3 and 4: ". . . a tour to the West, looking after the commands of Generals Loring and Wise. . . . His visit is understood to be one of inspection, and consultation on the plan of campaign."

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5 O. R., 2, 993.

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6 O. R., 2, 999.

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7 Letter of Aug. 4, 1861; R. E. Lee, Jr., 39.

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8 C. M. H., 6, 426 ff.

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9 O. R., 51, 2, 182.

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10 O. R., 2, 998. Cf. ibid., 989 and O. R., 51, 2, 181.

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11 O. R., 2, 989; Taylor's Four Years, 17. Lee stated subsequently that the rains began on July 24, but they started two days earlier. For the effect of the measles on the troops, see Richard Taylor: Destruction and Reconstruction (cited hereafter as R. Taylor), 23, and Surgeon General S. P. Moore's report in IV O. R., 1, 694.

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12 Letter of Aug. 4, 1861; R. E. Lee, Jr., 38.

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13 Always spelled thus in war-time dispatches but now shortened to Millboro.

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14 The actual terminus at this time was one and one-half miles west of Clifton Forge, according to J. P. Nelson: The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, p9. A sketch of the railroad (p547)in the vicinity appears in O. R., 29, part 1, p947. In February, 1862, J. G. Paxton stated that eight miles of "railroad iron" (rails) were needed to complete the road to Covington. (IV O. R., 1, 944‑45.)

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15 O. R., 51, part 2, pp187‑88; O. R., 2, 988, 991‑92.

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16 O. R., 2, 999.

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17 O. R., 2, 996; O. R., 5, 150‑51.

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18 A. H. Noll: Doctor Quintard (cited hereafter as Dr. Quintard), 17.

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19 O. R., 2, 1009.

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20 Long, 120. Long was with Loring and was a witness of virtually all that happened.

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21 The published correspondence of the Federal army shows the opportunity to have been as great as Lee thought it was. General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Rosecrans was thinking more about an advance up the Kanawha Valley than about the defense of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Reynolds's position. Cf. O. R., 5, 552, 564.

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22 Long, 120.

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23 O. R., 5, 1065‑66.

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24 O. R., 5, 770.

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25 O. R., 51, part 2, p253; cf. O. R., 5, 768.

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