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Jefferson Davis

DAVIS, Jefferson, statesman, born in that part of Christian County, Kentucky, which now forms Todd County, 3 June 1808. His father, Samuel Davis, had served in the Georgia cavalry during the Revolution, and, when Jefferson was an infant, removed with his family to a place near Woodville, Wilkinson County, Miss. Young Davis entered Transylvania College, Kentucky, but left in 1824, on his appointment by President Monroe to the U. S. military academy. On his graduation, in 1828, he was assigned to the 1st infantry, and served on the frontier, taking part in the Black Hawk war of 1831'2. He was promoted to first lieutenant of dragoons on 4 March 1833, but, after more service against the Indians, abruptly resigned on 30 June 1835, and having married, after a romantic elopement, the daughter of Zachary Taylor, then a colonel in the army, settled near Vicksburg, Miss., and became a cotton planter. Here he pursued a life of study and retirement till 1843, when he entered politics in the midst of an exciting gubernatorial canvass. He was chosen an elector on the Polk and Dallas ticket in 1844, made a reputation as a popular speaker, and in 1845 was sent to congress, taking his seat in December of that year. He at once took an active part in debate, speaking on the tariff, the Oregon question, and military matters, especially with reference to the preparations for war with Mexico. On 6 February 1846, in a speech on the Oregon question, he spoke of the " love of union in our hearts," and, speaking of the battles of the Revolution, said : " They form a monument to the common glory of our common country."

In June 1846, he resigned his seat in the house to become colonel of the 1st Mississippi volunteer rifles, which had unanimously elected him to that office. Having joined his regiment at New Orleans, he led it to reinforce General Taylor on the Rio Grande. At Monterey he charged on Fort Leneria without bayonets, led his command through the Streets nearly to the Grand Plaza through a storm of shot, and afterward served on the commission for arranging the surrender of the place. At Buena Vista his regiment was charged by a Mexican brigade of lancers, greatly its superior in numbers, in a last desperate effort to break the American lines. Colonel Davis formed his men in the shape of a letter V, open toward the enemy, and thus, by exposing his foes to a covering fire, utterly routed them, though he was unsupported. He was severely wounded, but remained in the saddle till the close of the fight, and was complimented for coolness and gallantry in the commander-in-chief's dispatch of 6 March 1847. His regiment was ordered home on the expiration of its term of enlistment, and on 17 May 1847, Colonel Davis was appointed by President Polk a brigadier general, but declined the commission on the ground that a militia appointment by the Federal executive was unconstitutional.

He was appointed by the governor of Mississippi to fill a vacancy in the U. S. Senate in August 1847, and in January 1848, the legislature unanimously elected him senator, and reelected him in 1850 for a full term. He was made chairman of the senate committee on military affairs, and here, as in the house, was active in the discussions on the various phases of the slavery question and the important work of the session, including the fugitive slave law, and the other compromise measures of 1850. Mr. Davis proposed the extension of the Missouri compromise line to the Pacific, and continued a zealous advocate of state rights. He was the unsuccessful state rights or "resistance" candidate for governor of his state in 1851, though by his personal popularity he reduced the Union majority from 7,500 to 999. He had resigned his seat in the senate to take part in the canvass, and, after a year of retirement, actively supported Franklin "Pierce in the presidential contest of 3852. After the election of General Pierce, Mr. Davis received the portfolio of war in his cabinet, and administered it with great credit. Among other changes, he proposed the use of camels in the service on the western plains, introduced an improved system of infantry tactics, iron gun carriages, rifled muskets and pistols, and the use of the Mini5 ball. Four regiments were added to the army, the defenses on the seacoast and frontier were strengthened, and, as a result of experiments, heavy guns were east hollow, and a larger grain of powder was adopted. While in the senate, Mr. Davis had advocated the construction of a Pacific railway as military necessity, and a means of preserving the Pacific coast to the Union, and he was now put in charge of the organization and equipment of the surveying parties sent out to examine the various routes proposed. He also had charge of the appropriation for the extension of the capitol.

Mr. Davis left the cabinet at the close of President Pierce's term in 1857, and in the same year entered the senate again. He opposed the French spoliation bill, advocated the southern route for the Pacific railroad, and opposed the doctrine of " popular sovereignty," often encountering Stephen A. Douglas in debate on this question. After the settlement of the Kansas contest by the passage of the Kansas conference bill, in which he had taken a chief part, ha wrote to the people of his state that it was " the triumph of all for which we contended." Mr. Davis was the recognized democratic leader in the 36th congress. He had made a tour of the eastern states in 1858, making speeches at Boston, Portland, Maine, New York, and other places, and in 1859, in reply to an invitation to attend the Webster birthday festival in Boston, wrote a letter denouncing " partisans who avow the purpose of obliterating the landmarks of our fathers," and containing strong Union sentiments.

He had been frequently mentioned as a democratic candidate for the presidency, and received many votes in the convention of 1860, though his friends announced that he did not desire the nomination. Before congress met, in the autumn of 1860, Mr. Davis was summoned to Washington by members of President Buchanan's cabinet to suggest some modifications of the forthcoming message to congress. The suggestions were made, and were adopted. In the ensuing session Mr. Davis made, on 10 December 1860, a speech in which he carefully distinguished between independence, which the states had achieved at great cost, and the Union, which had cost " little time, little money, and no blood," taking his old state rights position. He was appointed on the senate committee of thirteen to examine and report on the condition of the country, and, although at first excused at his own request, finally consented to serve, accepting the appointment in a speech in which he avowed his willingness to make any sacrifice to avert the impending struggle. The committee, after remaining in session several days, reported, on 31 December their inability to coma to any satisfactory conclusion.

On 10 January 1861, Mr. Davis made another speech on the state of the country, asserting the right of secession, denying that of coercion, and urging the withdrawal of the garrison from Fort Sumter. Mississippi had seceded on 9 January and on 24 January having been officially informed of the fact, Mr. Davis withdrew from the senate and went to his home, having taken leave of his associates in a speech in which he defended the cause of the south, and, in closing, begged pardon of all whom he had ever offended. Before ha reached home he had been appointed by the convention commander-in-chief of the army of Mississippi, with the rank of major general ; but on 18 February 1861, he exchanged this office for that of President of the Confederate States, to which the provisional congress at Montgomery had elected him on 9 February He selected for his cabinet Robert Toombs, of Georgia, as secretary of state; Leroy P. Walker, of Alabama, secretary of war; Charles G. Memminger, of South Carolina, secretary of the treasury; Stephen R. Mallory, of Florida, secretary of the navy; Judah P. Benjamin, of Louisiana, attorney general; and John H. Reagan, of Texas, postmaster general.

The last three continued in the cabinet as long as the Confederate Govermnent maintained its existence. Toombs, Walker, and Nemminger were succeeded by others. In his inaugural address Mr. Davis asserted that "necessity, not choice," had lad to the secession of the southern states" that the true policy of the south, an agricultural country, was peace; and that "the constituent parts, but not the system," of the government had been changed. The attack on Fort Sumter, on 12 April precipitated the war, and Mr. Davis, in his first message to the provisional Confederate congress, on 29 April after a review of events (from the formation of the United States constitution till 1861), which, in his judgment, had led to the contest, commended this act, while avowing a desire to prevent the shedding of blood. The message also condemned, as illegal and absurd, President Lincoln's proclamation calling for troops, and that announcing a blockade of southern ports, and ended with the famous words, "All we ask is, to be let alone," followed by a promise to resist subjugation to the direst extremity. Shortly after the change of the Confederate capital from Montgomery to Richmond, which he had strongly advised, Mr. Davis removed thither, and was met on his way with many marks of popular favor, every railway station swarming with men, women, and children, who greeted him with waving handkerchiefs. Soon after his arrival the fine residence of James A. Seddon was bought and put at Davis's disposal by citizens of Richmond.

His first days in the new capital were spent in reviewing troops and in speechmaking. He exhorted his hearers to remember the dignity of the contest, and "to smite the smiter with manly arms, as our fathers did before us," and declared his willingness to lay down his civil office and take command of the army, should the extremity of the cause ever warrant such action. Before his arrival in Virginia an army of about 30,000 men had been raised, and as fast as new troops arrived their officers were assigned to a rank in the Confederate service, regulated by that which they had formerly held in the U. S. army. On 20 July Mr. Davis sent his second message to the provisional congress, then in session at Richmond. In this message he complained of barbarities committed by National troops, and again asserted the impossibility of subduing the south. On the morning succeeding the delivery of this message he set out for Manassas, where a contest was thought to be impending, and arrived there in time to witness the close of the battle of Bull Run, reaching the field when victory had been assured to the Confederates. The battle of Bull Run was followed by a period of inaction, and Mr. Davis was blamed by many for this policy, as well as for his "failure to organize the troops of the several states into brigades and divisions formed of the soldiers of each," as the law directed.

In answer to these complaints, he has urged the length of time necessary to organize "the terrible machine, a disciplined army," and protested that, as far as in him lay, he favored an advance and endeavored to comply with the legal plan of army organization. The question of the treatment of Confederate prisoners by the National authorities soon demanded his attention. On 17 April 1861, two days after Mr. Lincoln's call for troops, Mr. Davis had issued a proclamation inviting applications for letters of marquee and reprisal.

The "Savannah," a private vessel commissioned in accordance with this offer, was captured off Charleston, and her officers and crew were tried for piracy in New York and sentenced to death. Later the captain and crew of the privateer "Jefferson Davis" were similarly convicted in Philadelphia. Thereupon, in November 1861, Mr. Davis ordered retaliatory measures to be taken, and fourteen Union prisoners were selected by lot and held as hostages for the safety of the condemned men the latter were ultimately put on the footing of prisoners of war by order of the National government, and subsequently a cartel was adopted for the exchange of prisoners, which remained in force till its suspension in 1864, caused by disagreement as to the status of Negro soldiers.

In November 1861, a presidential election was held in the Confederacy, and Mr. Davis was chosen president for six years without opposition. In his message to the provisional congress at its last session, 18 November 1861, he briefly sketched the situation at the close of the first year of the war, alluding to the Confederate successes, the contest for the possession of Kentucky and Missouri, and to the "Trent" affair. He urged the construction of another railway line through the Confederacy, asserted the improvement of the south in military means and financial condition, and the inefficiency of the blockade, and said:" If it were indeed a rebellion in which we were engaged, we might find ample vindication for the course we have adopted in the scenes which are now being enacted in the United States." The first congress under the permanent constitution met in Richmond, on 18 February 1862, and Mr. Davis was inaugurated on 22 February The Confederacy had just met with its first serious reverses in the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson ; but in his inaugural, after a vindication of the right of secession, Mr. Davis indulged in many favorable hopes. "The final result in our favor," said he, "is not doubtful. Our foes must sink under the immense load of debt which they have incurred In the heart of a people resolved to be free, these disasters tend but to stimulate to increased resistance."

In his short messages of 25 February and 15 August he suggested various measures for the improvement of the Confederate forces. The result of the reverses in the early months of the year, to which had now been added the capture of New Orleans, began to show itself in a growing opposition to Mr. Davis's administration, which up to this time had seemed all but universally popular, and this opposition increased in force up to the latest days of the war. One of the first acts of the congress was to puss a sweeping conscription law, to which Mr. Davis reluctantly assented. This was stoutly resisted in some quarters, and led to a spirited correspondence between Mr. Davis and Governor Joseph E. Brown, of Georgia, who disputed the constitutionality of the measure. Congress also authorized the suspension of the habeas corpus act for ten miles around Richmond, and the formation of a military police, for the alleged reason that the government was continually in danger from the presence in Richmond of National spies, and the consequent plots and intrigues.

Mr. Davis was present with General Lee at the battle of Fair Oaks on 31 May and, after the wounding of General Joseph E. Johnston in that engagement, assigned Lee to the command of the Army of Northern Virginia, having previously, on 13 March charged him, "under the direction of the president, with the conduct of military operations." During a visit to the army in the western department, in December 1862, Mr. Davis, in an address to the Mississippi legislature, defended the conscription law and declared that "in all respects, the Confederacy was better prepared for war than it was a year previous." The proclamation of emancipation by President Lincoln, to take effect 1 January 1863, called out from Mr. Davis a retaliatory proclamation, dated 23 December 1862, in which, after reciting, among other acts, the hanging of William B. Mumford for tearing down the United States flag at New Orleans, after the City was captured by the National forces, General Benjamin P. Butler was declared a felon, and it was ordered that all commissioned officers serving under him, as well as any found serving in company with slaves, should be treated as "robbers and criminals deserving death." These threats, however, were not generally executed, though supported by the legislation of the congress.

In his message of January 1863, Mr. Davis announced his intention of turning over National prisoners for prosecution in state courts, as abettors of servile insurrection; but this proposition was rejected by congress, and provision made for their trial by military tribunals. The two long messages sent by Mr. Davis to congress in 1863 consist largely of discussions of the position of foreign powers, especially Great Britain, with reference to the war. The one dated 7 Dee. announces the fall of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and urges "the compulsory reduction of the currency to the amount required by the business of the country," together with other measures for improving the finances, which had become hopelessly depreciated. They had never been on a sound basis, and the currency had declined in value till it was nearly worthless.

In April 1863, in compliance with a request of the Confederate congress, Mr. Davis had issued an address to the people of the south, in which he drew the happiest conclusions as to the success of the Confederacy, from the way in which, in the face of obstacles, it had already organized and disciplined armies. "At no previous period of the war," said he, "have our forces been so numerous, so well organized, and so thoroughly disciplined, armed, and equipped as at present." The disasters of Julyat, Gettysburg and Vicksburg coming in the face of this assertion, and the state of the currency just mentioned, emboldened the opposition party in all parts of the Confederacy fiercely to assail the administration. Mr. Davis was held responsible for the advance into Pennsylvania, and accused of partiality in appointing Peruberton to command in the west.

Charles G. Memminger, secretary of the treasury, resigned, and his place was filled by George A. Trenholm; but the new secretary was unable to stop the depreciation of the currency. The lack of coin in the country, the inability of the people to bear more taxation, and the spirit of speculation fostered by the enormous issues of paper money, hastened the financial ruin of the Confederacy. Food, too, was scarce. Kentucky and Tennessee, whence had come most of the meat supplies, were lost to the Confederacy, and the army was on half rations. At this time there was a clamor against the commissary general, Colonel Northrop. A committee of the Confederate congress investigated the matter and exonerated him ; but the opponents of the administration have continued to hold him, and Mr. Davis through him, responsible for the scarcity of food in the Confederacy, and therefore, indirectly, for much of the sufferings of Union prisoners during the war. The exchange of prisoners had been interrupted for some time by the refusal of the Confederate government to recognize Negroes as National soldiers, and after many futile attempts to come to an understanding with the National government, "We offered," says Mr. Davis (" Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government," vol. ii., p. 601), "to the United States government their sick and wounded, without requiring any equivalents."

The year 1864 opened with Confederate successes in Florida, the southwest, and North Carolina; and Mr. Davis, in his message of 2 May said: " The armies in northern Virginia and Tennessee still oppose, with unshaken front, a formidable barrier to the progress of the invader." That progress, however, was not long to be stayed. By an order issued on 17 July 1864, Mr. Davis removed General Joseph E. Johnston from the command of the army opposed to General Sherman in Georgia. The cause and alleged injustice of this removal have not yet ceased to be subjects for controversy, it being asserted by Mr. Davis's opponents that personal reasons influenced him against an officer with whom he had never been very friendly, while his supporters, denying this, fully justify the act. The reasons given in Adjunct General Cooper's brief dispatch were, to tuft General Johnston had "failed to arrest the advance of the enemy to the vicinity of Atlanta, and expressed no confidence that he could defeat or repel him." In answer to which General Johnston wrote: " I assert that Sherman's army is much stronger, compared with that of Tennessee, than Grant's compared with that of northern Virginia. Yet the enemy has been compelled to advance much more slowly to the vicinity of Atlanta than to that of Richmond and Petersburg. and penetrated much deeper into Virginia than into Georgia."

General John B. Hood, successor of General Johnston, was obliged to evacuate Atlanta on 1 September and Mr. Davis then visited Georgia and endeavored to raise the spirits of the people there, and to restore harmony between the Confederate and state governments. Governor Brown, who had opposed the conscription act, continued to be hostile to the administration, notwithstanding an interview with Mr. Davis in which the latter tried to convince him that his complaints were unjust. He reviewed and addressed Hood's army on 18 September and afterward, in speeches made in Macon, Augusta, and elsewhere. strove to inspire the people with the spirit of renewed resistance, and to persuade them that an honorable peace was impossible. As is evident from the tone of these and other speeches, the peace party in the south was daily gaining strength. Besides those who really desired peace, there were others who hoped that a rejected attempt to treat with the National government might, fire the south with indignation. As early as 30 December 1863, Governor Zebulon B. Vance, of North Carolina, had written to Mr. Davis urging negotiation. The latter, in his answer, dated 8 January 1864, cited previous unsuccessful attempts to communicate with the authorities at Washington, and concluded that another would be undesirable.

In January 1865, however, after an interview with Francis P. Blair, Sr., who had gone to Richmond, unofficially, in the hope of bringmg about peace, Mr. Davis agreed to send three commissioners to confer with the National government The result was an unsatisfactory meeting on a steamer in Hampton Roads. On the return of the commissioners public meetings were held, at which there seemed to be a return of the enthusiasm of the early days of the war. Peace with the independence of the south was now seen to be impossible, and the horrors of subjugation by the north were painted in gloomy colors by the speakers. Mr. Davis, always an able and impressive speaker, made what has been called the most remarkable speech of his life. But this outburst of enthusiasm was only temporary. The evacuation of Atlanta had been followed by Sherman's march to the sea, and Hood's disastrous campaign in Tennessee. General Hood himself said, in speaking of it when taking leave of his army in January 1865 :' " I alone am responsible for its conception." These reverses, however, with Grant's steady advance on Richmond, and, above all, the reelection of President Lincoln, had produced a growing conviction in the south that defeat was inevitable. The Confederate congress that met in November 1864, was outspoken in opposition to the administration, and in January 1865, the Virginia delegation urged a change in the cabinet, expressing their want of confidence in its members.

As a consequence of this, James A. Seddon, then secretary of war, sent in his resignation. In his last message to congress, dated 13 March 1865, Mr. Davis, while acknowledging the peril of the Confederacy, asserted that it had ample means of meeting the emergency. On Sunday, 2 April 1865, while seated in his pew in St. Paul's Church, Richmond, he was handed a telegram from General Lee, announcing the latter's speedy withdrawal from Petersburg, and the consequent necessity for the evacuation of the capital. That evening, accompanied by his personal staff, members of the cabinet, and others, he left by train for Danville. On his arrival there he issued, on 5 April a proclamation of which he afterward admitted that, "viewed by the light of subsequent events, it may fairly be said it was oversanguine." In it he said : "Relieved from the necessity of guarding particular points, our army will be free to move from point to point, to strike the enemy in detail far from his base."

Danville was abandoned in less than a week, and after a conference at Greensboro, N. C., with Generals Johnston and Beauregard, in which his hopes of continuing the war met with little encouragement he went to Charlotte, where he heard of the assassination of Mr. Lincoln. His wife had preceded him with a small escort, and it was just after he had overtaken her, while encamped near Irwinsville, Georgia, that the whole party were captured, on 10 May by a body of cavalry under Lieutenant Col. Pritchard. He was taken to Fort Monroe, and kept in confinement for two years.

On 21 September 1865, the U. S. Senate called on the president for information on the subject of his trial, and in response reports were submitted from the secretary of war and the attorney general, their substance being that Virginia was the proper place for the trial, and that it was not vet possible peacefully to hold a U. S. court in that state. On 12 October in reply to a letter from President Johnson, Chief Justice Chase said that he was unwilling to hold court in a district still under martial law. On 10 April 1866, the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives reported that there was no reason why the trial should not be proceeded with, and thai it was the duty of the government to investigate, without delay, the facts connected with Lincoln's assassination. On 8 May 1866, Mr. Davis was indicted for treason by a grand jury in the U. S. court for the district of Virginia, sitting at Norfolk under Judge Underwood, the charge of complicity in the assassination of the president having been dropped. On 5 June at a session of the court held in Richmond, James T. Brady, one of Mr. Davis's counsel, urged that the trial be held without delay; but the government declined to proceed on the indictment, urging the importance of the trial and the necessity of preparation for it. The court refused to admit the prisoner to bail. On 13 May 1867, he was brought before the court at Richmond on a writ of habeas corpus, and admitted to bail in the amount of $100,000, the first name on his bail bond being that of Horace Greeley. Mr. Davis's release gave much satisfaction to the southern people. The interest taken in him during his imprisonment, and their prudent idea that he was to suffer as a representative of the south, rather than for sins of his own, and was "a nation's prisoner," had made him more popular there than he had been since the first clays of the war. After an enthusiastic reception at Richmond he went to New York, then to Canada, and in the summer of 1868 visited England, a Liverpool firm having offered to take him as a partner, without capital. This offer, after investigation, was declined, and, having visited France, he returned to this country. He was never brought to trial, a nolle prosequi being entered by the government in his case in December 1868, and he was also included in the general amnesty of that month. After his discharge he became president of a life insurance company at Memphis, Tenn.

In 1879 Mrs. Dorsey, of Beauvoir, Miss., bequeathed to him her estate, where he has since quietly resided, giving much of his time to literary pursuits. In June 1871, in a speech at a public reception in Atlanta, Georgia, he said that he still adhered to the principle of state sovereignty, was confident of its final triumph, and was "not of those who ' accept the situation.'" In 1876, when a bill was before the House of Representatives to remove all the political disabilities that had been imposed on those who took part in the insurrection, James G. Blaine offered an amendment excepting Jefferson Davis, and supported it by a speech in which he accused Mr. Davis of being " the author of the gigantic murders and crimes at Andersonville." Senator Benjamin H. Hill, of Georgia, spoke in reply, defending Mr. Davis from this charge. Again, in 1879, Mr. Davis was specially accepted in a bill to pension veterans of the Mexican war, the adoption of an amendment to that effect being largely the result of a speech by Zachariah Chartdler.

In October 1884, at a meeting of Frank P. Blair post, of the Grand Army of the Republic, in St. Louis, General William T. Sherman asserted that he had seen letters and papers showing that Mr. Davis had abandoned his state rights doctrines during the war, and had become practically a dictator in the south. Mr. Davis, in a letter to a newspaper, denied the charge, and General Sherman then filed with the war department at Washington papers that, in his view, substantiated it. On 28 April 1886, Mr. Davis spoke at the dedication of a monument to confederate soldiers at Montgomery, Ala., and was enthusiastically received.

The engraving on the preceding page is a view of his early home in Mississippi. Two biographies of Mr. Davis have been written, both by southern authors, which illustrate the extremes of southern opinion. That by Frank H. Alfriend (New York, 1868) represents those who are friendly to Mr. Davis, while that by Edward A. Pollard, with the subtitle " Secret History of the Confederacy" (Philadelphia, 1869), holds him responsible for all the disasters of the war. Mr. Pollard, who was an editor of the Richmond "Examiner," a paper hostile to the administration, concedes that Mr. Davis was thoroughly devoted to the cause of the south, and had indomitable pluck, but accuses him of vanity, gross favoritism, and incompetency.

In addition to these works, see Dr. Craven's " Prison Life of Jefferson Davis" (New York, 1866). Mr. Davis himself has published " The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government" (2 vols., New York, 1881).His brother, Joseph Emory, lawyer, born near Augusta, Georgia, 10 December 1784; died in Vicksburg, Miss., 18 September 1870, was the oldest of the ten children of Sanmel Davis, and in 1796 removed with his father to Kentucky. He was placed in a mercantile house at an early age, studied law in Russellville and in Wilkinson County, whither he accompanied his father in 1811, was admitted to the bar in 1812, and practiced in Pinckneyville, and afterward in Greenville, rising to high rank in the profession, he was the delegate from Jefferson County in the convention that organized the state govermnent in 1817, and took a prominent part in framing the constitution. In 1820 he removed to Natchez, and formed a copartner ship with Thomas B. Reed, then the leader of the Mississippi bar. In 1827 he decided to retire from the profession in which he had won success by his learning, argumentative powers, and oratorical ability, in order to become a planter. In this occupation he was also very successful, and at the Beginning of the civil war he possessed one of the finest plantations on the Mississippi river. During the war he was driven from his home with his family, and endured many hardships. He returned to Vicksburg at its close, and, after a controversy with the officers of the Freedmen's bureau, regained possession of his estate, but continued to reside in the City of Vicksburg. Mr. Davis was noted for his benevolence, and many youths of both sexes were indebted to him for a liberal education.

Edited Appletons Encyclopedia, Copyright © 2001 VirtualologyTM

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