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General musings

2012 is a memorable year for the commemoration of historical events. The sesquicentennial of the Civil War continues. The bicentennial of the war of 1812 is celebrated this year. And today marks the centennial of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. Given my lifelong fascination with the sinking of the Titanic, I would be remiss if I did not at least mention it here, off topic as it may be.

I’ve long been fascinated by shipwrecks. Perhaps it stems from the fact that the anchor of the U.S.S. Maine rests in my hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania, and I went on a childhood search to learn the story of that big anchor in the park. I have a small shelf full of books on the sinking of the Titanic, and we made a special trip to Chicago to see the traveling museum exhibit of artifacts from the sunken liner. The arson fire that destroyed the Morro Castle in 1934 has long fascinated me. I have several books on the sinking of the Andrea Doria in 1959. Even the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald intrigues me. I have read several books on its tragic ending. I’m sure that when the books begin to appear on the wreck of the Costa Concordia, I will invest in them too.

None, however, hold sway over the public’s imagination like the Titanic. Certainly, James Cameron’s movie stirred another generation’s fascination. Personally, I could have done without the distracting love story, but the footage of the shipwreck and Cameron’s slavishly and eerily accurate recreation of the ship made the mawkish story of Jack and Rose tolerable. The scene at the beginning of the movie where the image transitions from the shipwreck to the promenade deck of the recreated ocean liner alone was worth the price of admission.

I’ve read a bunch of books about the tragic ship and her only voyage, and I find myself just as drawn to it today as I did the first time I ever read A Night to Remember as a boy. The story of the bravery of the musicians, as one example, as they continued to play even as they knew they were doomed, has always been very moving to me. The courage, bravery and dignity of the male first-class passengers, such as John Jacob Astor, one of the wealthiest men alive, as they stepped aside to allow women and children to board the lifeboats awes me. The quiet dignity of these men changing into their finest clothes so that they could die like gentlemen inspires me. The story of Isadore and Ida Strauss choosing to die together even though Ida could have taken a spot in a lifeboat has always moved me too. The story of the cowardice of Bruce Ismay, who refused to do the honorable thing and go down with his ship equally repels me. The human toll is what I find most fascinating. And being a dog lover, the story of the dogs of the Titanic is equally compelling. I have always wanted to visit the cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where so many of the victims of the disaster were buried, and it’s on my bucket list of places to go.

Often overlooked in the tragedy of the Titanic is the eerily similar fate of her sister ship, the R.M.S. Britannic. Britannic was the largest of the three sister ships, and she also sank. She was launched just before the outbreak of World War I, and was used as a hospital ship during the Great War. In that role she struck a mine off the Greek island of Kea, in the Kea Channel on November 21, 1916, and sank with the loss of 30 lives. Only the R.M.S. Olympic, the third sister ship, managed to avoid the fate of her sisters.

Let’s not forget the 1,514 souls that departed this earth one hundred years ago today when the Titanic sank.

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25 Dec 2011, by

Happy holidays!

To all of my readers, I wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year. I hope that 2012 is a better year for all of us.

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Reader Gordon Ponsford, a sculpture conservator, is apparently also a poet. He forwarded this poem about battlefield monuments at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chickamauga to me, and I have decided to share it with all of you, as I find it moving. Enjoy.

The Sentinels of Hallowed Ground

On Battlefields across our land
Flags raised high, sword in hand
Standing guard over fallen dead
Where history dwells, now tourists tread

Gazing upon the open fields
Where valor stood and didn’t yield
These statues are more than bronze and stone
They’re bought with blood, by boys from home

Now a century and a half have gone
Since the silence of the drums and guns
Etched in stones are their epitaphs
Told to those who this way pass

So remember those who heard the call
They fought the fight, and gave it all
The cannons salute with a solemn round
To the Sentinels of Hallowed Ground

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My old friend Terry Johnston approached me last year to talk about an idea he had. I’ve know Terry for fifteen years now, and he’s a good guy and an excellent historian in his own right. That he’s a Philadelphia sports fan doesn’t hurt any either. I had a lot of interactions with Terry while he was the editor of North & South before Keith Poulter ran it into the ground, and Terry did an excellent job in that role.

Terry came to me last year and said that he was thinking about starting his own, new mass market Civil War magazine. We talked about lots of things, and I failed to talk him out of it. I’ve been consulting with him all along, and Im pleased to announce that the first issue of the magazine is out.

The new magazine is called The Civil War Monitor, and it’s intended to be a new look at the Civil War. The first issue has a number of good articles, with a nice blend of tactical detail, political history, and social history. The presentation is handsome, and I’m very impressed with the first issue. Congratulations, Terry.

I also introduced Terry to a client of mine, Blind Acre Media, and together, the folks at Blind Acre and Terry have created an excellent website to go along with the print edition of the magazine.The website includes some additional content from the magazine, and will grow as the magazine does.

The Civil War Monitor is off to a great start, and I can only hope that it will hammer the last nails into the moldy corpse of North & South, which has been dying a long, slow, painful death for a long time now. Good luck to Terry with his new venture, and I hope you will check it out. I’m honored to have played a small role in its launch. I’ve added a link to the magazine’s website.

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The following poem about the June 9, 1863 Battle of Brandy Station appeared in the Journal of the Military Service Institution of the United States, Vol. 49, July-August 1911, page 142. It was originally published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat,, date unknown.

The Cavalry Veteran

This sabre-cut on my forehead scored?
I picked it up at Beverly Ford
The day we turned “Jeb” Stuart’s flank
And hurled him from the river bank.
It was parry and thrust with a hearty will
As we fought for the guns on Fleetwood Hill,
While over the fields and through the pines
Backward and forward surged the lines;
Twelve thousand men in a frenzied fray;
Charge and rally and mad melee —
Oh, the crash and roar as the squadrons met,
The cheers and yells — I can hear them yet!
But we’d forced the fords, so our work was done,
And we galloped away ere set of sun.

With thanks to Clark B. “Bud” Hall for sharing this with me. Good stuff.

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There’s only one word to describe the scope of this reenacting fail…epic….

To see a larger version of the photo, double click on it.

Enjoy.

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Readers of this blog will remember that I had very little good to say about History’s Gettysburg film when it aired back in May. I wasn’t alone in this assessment. I was concerned that old friend Garry Adelman, who was one of the talking heads in the program, might have his reputation sullied by being involved in such a God-awful project.

Garry has been silent about it to date. However, Garry has penned a guest post on Kevin Levin’s excellent Civil War Memory blog today that addresses his role in the project. Garry points out that the film, even with its almost countless inaccuracies, has spurred new interest in the battle, and for that reason it was worthwhile. I can’t really disagree with that, although I still hate the almost innumerable inaccuracies in it.

Here’s what Garry says about those inaccuracies:

Just before the scripts got under way, the Gettysburg National Military Park’s Supervisory Historian, Scott Hartwig, came on board. Scott and I served as the primary historical consultants thereafter. We reviewed three versions of the script and watched rough cuts of the production as it emerged. Together, we made no fewer than 400 specific comments and requests for changes, and, to History’s great credit, almost every single one of these comments was addressed in the final show. Scott and I have both worked with other production companies before and we agree that none were so dedicated to trying to get it right as was History and Herzog & Co. In the first scripts, there were scores of significant errors and I mean significant.

He points out that there was nothing that could have been done about many of the wrong sets, uniforms, etc., as all of those were filmed before he and Scott Hartwig got involved, so they focused on what they could fix. That makes good sense to me, and I certainly can appreciate it.

The film will air again on Wednesday night. I will do all in my power to avoid it, as I still think it’s just atrocious. However, I do appreciate Garry’s insight, and I also understand completely where he’s coming from on this. And if it does manage to spur new interest in the Civil War, then I suppose I can live with it. Thanks for setting the record straight, Garry.

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Some guy I’ve never heard of previously named James R. Leighton left a review on Amazon of my 2001 book, Glory Enough for All: Sheridan’s Second Raid and the Battle of Trevilian Station. I read it and was floored. I actually was left speechless by it and had to share my exchange here.

The title of the review is “Another biased Civil War book.” This is what the review says:

Like so many books and articles as well as art I found this book heavily in favor of the South. The North is often made to seem lacking in good Generals or often even in good horses. It is always something!! I really only liked this book because it was about a train station and I am a train collector. Actually I have read many books about the civil war since I was 16 years old and have visited many of the important battle sites. I even collect toy soldiers and here I am 68 years old!

What are the good points about this book? One is that it is easily readable and the story flows evenly with good maps which is rare in civil war books. It also does a good job of describing the content of the battle, going into the purpose of the raid, as well as the many difficulties of being in a troop of some 9000 men trying to engage an elusive enemy. I also found that Sheridan’s tactics in trying to lead the Southern cavalry away from Grant’s movements to Petersberg were justified. Also remember it was under Grant’s approval that this raid was conducted. Since that goal was accomplished I would say that the raid was successful and disagree with the authors opinion that it was a failure.

What is not so good about this book? I would say that it could have used a few more maps in some strategic places, that the battle of Samaria seemed more like an after thought and was not very well described. Most of all, the books inherent Southern bias made me wonder how accurately the battle is described in spite of the rather large amount of documentation included at the end of each chapter. But since the documentation included many references to the First Maine Cavalry in which some of my relatives served at least now I have to find another book to read which is often the outcome of reading one book on the very Lost Cause.

Wow. I’ve been called a lot of things in my day, but a Lost Causer? Inherent Southern bias? Say what? Those of you who read this blog regularly know that nobody has EVER accused me of having inherent Southern bias or of being a Lost Causer before. I was blown away and had to respond. Here’s my response:

Wow. I’m blown away by this. I’ve been accused of a lot of things, but one thing I have NEVER been called is a Southern partisan. If anything, I’m known for my work on the UNION cavalry. The Union cavalry has always been the primary focus on my work. I am most assuredly NOT a Lost Causer. NOBODY has ever accused me of that before. Wow.

So, he responded. Get a load of this:

Whether or not you write about the Union cavalry is is not the issue. The issue is the fact that you are and other writers are critical of the Union side of the war until the last year of the war. You depict Sheridan as basically incompetent just like other writers about Sherman and Grant. Why is this? The Battle of Travilian Station was another victory of the Union not a loss as you depict it. Sherman gave the South exactly what it deserved with a constitution that approved of slavery and so did Sheridan. Even Mort Kuntsler depicts the South in a positive light. I cant find one artist or writer including you that depicts the South as basically a criminal society. Such is revisionist history!!

Let me see if I’ve got this right: anyone who doesn’t portray the South as a criminal society is a revisionist Lost Causer with an inherent Southern bias. Anyone who criticizes the Union high command–even when it’s appropriate and deserved–is a Lost Causer. Hmmmmm….that’s a new one on me, and I thought I’d heard pretty much everything in my years of working with the Civil War.

My reply:

That’s a very strange definition you use, Mr. Leighton.

You seem to think that I should have preconceived notions rather than go where the evidence leads me. If it takes being what you criticize to satisfy you as to my work, I’ll take a pass, thanks.

By every definition–tactical and strategic–Sheridan failed miserably. You and he are the only ones who call it a victory. How is being driven from the battlefield after failing to achieve your objective a victory? That’s one strange definition you have, sir.

Good luck to you.

Normally, I would be terribly amused by this sort of thing, but I’m actually troubled by it. The only thing that will satisfy this bozo is something that condemns the South as a criminal society and compares Jefferson Davis to Adolf Hitler. It really concerns me that this guy takes such a viewpoint seriously. He can say what he wants about me–I don’t care what he thinks about me. I am, however, worried now about how many others are out there who share this absurd viewpoint.

It seems that I have found the mirror image of the Lost Causers and neo-Confederates that I so despise. I guess I now have a new category of moron to contend with, and that concerns me. What do we even call this viewpoint?

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And just for fun, I give you the Ulric Dahlgren bobblehead. I gotta git me one of these….

Here is the official press release issued by the Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau (with the blurb from article on Dahlgren in the Gettysburg Campaign excised):

Media Release

Contact: Hagerstown-Washington County CVB, 301-791-3246

Hagerstown Suns, 301-791-6266

For Immediate Release:

Hagerstown-Washington County CVB and Hagerstown Suns Unveil “Captain Ulric Dahlgren” Bobblehead; Hero of Battle of Hagerstown to be Given Away at July 9th Home Game

HAGERSTOWN, MD — The Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau will present Captain Ulric Dahlgren bobbleheads to the first 1,000 fans arriving at the Hagerstown Suns’ 7:05 p.m. game against the West Virginia Power on Saturday, July 9.

Gates will open at Municipal Stadium at 6:05 p.m., and the Suns advise fans to arrive early, as the supply of bobbleheads is not expected to last long.

The bobblehead commemorates the famous Civil War officer known as “The Hero of Hagerstown.” Captain Ulric Dahlgren was the son of the well-known Union Rear-Admiral John Adolf Dahlgren. On July 6th, 1863, then-Captain Dahlgren led a charge of Union Cavalry against numerically superior Confederate forces in the streets of Hagerstown. The hand-to-hand and fierce fighting exemplified the bravery and gallantry of Ulric Dahlgren.

The new bobblehead was unveiled at a press conference at the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Visitor Welcome Center.

“The Convention and Visitors Bureau is very proud to be the financial sponsor of this bobblehead giveaway,” Bureau President and CEO Tom Riford said. “With the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War upon us, we felt that this particular bobblehead would be unique, and a reminder of the struggles endured in Hagerstown during July 1863.”

Riford announced that a direct descendent of Ulric Dahlgren will be throwing out the first ceremonial pitch at the July 9th baseball game at Municipal Stadium, “Ulric Dahlgren, IV and Ulric Dahlgren, V have agreed to represent their famous ancestor’s legacy, and throw out the first pitch at the opening ceremony.”

Captain Ulric Dahlgren is the sixth figure to be honored by the Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) with a bobblehead giveaway at Municipal Stadium, joining General George Washington, author Nora Roberts, MSO music director Elizabeth Schulze, General Abner Doubleday, and Hagerstown’s symbol Little Heiskell.

“It is appropriate that our sixth annual CVB-sponsored bobblehead be of such an important and historic figure from our city’s past,” Riford said. “Just as Hagerstown fielded the first minor league baseball team in Maryland, the CVB is proud to make the Hagerstown Suns the first professional baseball team ever to give away a Captain Ulric Dahlgren bobblehead.” The figure is historically accurate, and is dressed in the uniform of a Union Captain from 1863, complete with sword.

“This project has been more than eight months in the making,” according to Hagerstown Suns General Manager Bill Farley. “We’ve been working very hard with the CVB to make this bobblehead ready for the July 9th home game.”

“The Suns are proud to partner with the Convention and Visitors Bureau on the 2011 Ulric Dahlgren Bobblehead giveaway. We hope our fans enjoy adding another historical piece of Suns memorabilia to their collections.”

The game is expected to be a sell out. The Hagerstown Suns management urges people to purchase tickets as soon as possible.

The Hagerstown Suns play at Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, MD and are a Class “A” affiliate of the Washington Nationals. Visit the Suns on the web at www.hagerstownsuns.com.

The Hagerstown Suns baseball team is a member of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau. For more information, see; www.marylandmemories.com. Washington County is part of the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, and the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area. For more information see: www.heartofthecivilwar.org and also www.hallowedground.org.

Don’t forget: July 6th Premiere of “Valor in the Streets: The Battle of Hagerstown.” See: http://tinyurl.com/6b46kuk.

Don’t forget: Bobblehead Give-Away Night: July 9th at Municipal Stadium.

About Ulric Dahlgren (compiled by historian Steve Bockmiller, from multiple sources):

US Army Colonel Ulric Dahlgren was the second son of Rear-Admiral John Adolf and Mary Dahlgren, and was born April 3, 1842, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Completing his school-days in 1858, it was decided that his vocation was civil engineering, and, as he had received much practical instruction from his father, he was in 1859 employed to survey some tracts of wild land in Mississippi. In September, 1860, in obedience to his father’s wishes, he entered a Philadelphia law-office, but amid the rush of events which followed the inauguration of President Lincoln he desired to serve his country, and July 24, 1861, he was attached to a naval expedition from the Washington Yard to assist in the defense of Alexandria, Virginia. Ulric then reluctantly resumed his law studies, with the promise that he would be recalled when the hour of action should come.

During the winter of 1861-62 he was one of an association of young men who formed a light artillery company in Philadelphia, at the same time pursuing his studies.”

On the 26th of May, 1862, young Dahlgren, who was then just twenty years old, was sent to Harper’s Ferry, in charge of a battery of navy howitzers, and on the 29th was sent back to Washington to obtain needed supplies of ammunition. Appointed a captain in the army, he returned to Harper’s Ferry the next morning in time to take part in the final repulse of the rebels.

Captain Dahlgren was attached to the staff of General Sigel, and later the staff of Army of the Potomac commander Major General Joseph Hooker.

General Sigel desired to make Captain Dahlgren chief of artillery of his corps, and in a note addressed to the governor of Pennsylvania, endorsed by President Lincoln and Admirals Smith and Foote, spoke of his aide as a “young officer of merit and usefulness, who has already distinguished himself and reflected much credit on the service.”

Captain Dahlgren’s led sixty men on a raid into Fredericksburg, Virginia to disrupt Confederate operations there and held the town for three hours against a force of Confederates that outnumbered his 5 or 10 to 1, and then withdrew with thirty-one prisoners and their horses and accoutrements.

During the Gettysburg campaign he entered Greencastle and captured several very important dispatches, and then rode at break-neck speed through thirty miles of enemy-held territory to Gettysburg. Some historians have argued one of the letters revealed that General Robert E. Lee did not have the large force at Gettysburg that Union intelligence officers had estimated, and that General Meade then decided to stay and fight a third day. The third day of the Battle of Gettysburg resulted in a Union victory.

He was given one hundred men to operate with, and July 4, 1863, he attacked a brigade of Confederate cavalry and captured Greencastle. On his way back dashed into a rebel train, destroyed one hundred and seventy-six wagons, captured two hundred prisoners, three hundred horses, and one piece of artillery.

Confederates held Hagerstown, and were ransacking the town, and terrorizing the residents. In the July 6, 1863 Battle of Hagerstown, Captain Dahlgren, on horseback and in plain site to every enemy soldier, led a charge of 20 dismounted cavalrymen up Potomac Street toward Confederates emplaced at the present-day Zion Reformed Church. When he reached Franklin Street (at City Hall) his right foot and ankle was blasted by a shot from hiding Confederate soldiers. He was wounded in the foot by gunfire from the area of today’s Pioneer Hook and Ladder Company on West Franklin Street. It was said that his charge up Potomac Street was of such a heroic nature that Confederates ran from his fury, and he fought on even after being horrifically wounded. He avenged a dear friend’s life, and afterwards “no man could withstand him.”

Sent to his father’s home in Washington, gangrene set in and his foot had to be amputated. On July 24th he received his commission as colonel, directly from President Abraham Lincoln.

Returning to the field on February 18, 1864, he was given a command of five hundred picked men to join an expedition to release the Union prisoners at Richmond, Virginia. Colonel Dahlgren drove the enemy’s pickets into their works around Richmond, but the country being aroused he could not make the junction with Kilpatrick, and in endeavoring to return to the Union lines he was ambushed, and killed. Orders were allegedly found on his body to burn Richmond and capture and kill President Davis and his cabinet. This became an international incident. It may have inspired John Wilkes Booth to begin his plot against Abraham Lincoln, and Admiral Dahlgren spent the rest of his life trying to clear his son’s name.

Colonel Dahlgren’s remains were secured at the close of the war, and, after lying in state in the City Hall of Washington and Independence Hall of Philadelphia, were buried with distinguished honors at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. After the war, his step-mother, Madeline Vinton Dahlgren purchased the stone house on the National Road at the top of South Mountain and maintained it as a summer home for many years. That stone home is now the Historic Old South Mountain Inn restaurant. Mrs. Dahlgren constructed the Dahlgren Chapel across the street from the restaurant, which stands to this day. It honors both the Admiral, and the heroic son, Colonel Ulric Dahlgren.

Sadly, I will miss the game–we should be somewhere in southern Virginia about the time the first pitch is thrown by either Ric Dahlgren or his son Ulric V, but I’ve got a line on one of these little beauties, which will have a place of honor in my library at home.

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Every now and again, I wander off the reservation and post about something that has nothing to do with my historical work. Today is going to be one of those occasional wanderings off topic, as I would be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on the death of Clarence Clemons, The Big Man, yesterday. I hope you will forgive me for doing so.

Music has long played a very important role in my life. I have no musical talent whatsoever, but I have always loved music, and it has long been the soundtrack of my life. A big part of the soundtrack of my life has been the music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. For reasons that I’ve never quite understood, Bruce’s blue-collar paeans to life have always deeply resonated with me. I first discovered the Boss at 14 in 1975, when his epic Born to Run was released. Playing a major role in the stories that fill “Born to Run” was the honking saxophone of the great Clarence Clemons.

As an example of how large a role the Boss and his music have played in my life, I spent the night before my first day of law school–in August 1984–attending a Springsteen concert in Washington, DC with my good friend Stuart Jones, and then drove all night to get back to Pittsburgh in time to get a couple of hours of fitful sleep before getting up to go to my first day of law school. I never got caught up on my rest again until after I took the bar exam three years later. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing the E Street Band perform live eight times in my life, and I now worry that there with Clarence’s passing, there will be no more such opportunities.

Bruce knew how much Clarence meant to the band and to the fans. He always introduced the Big Man last, and he acknowledged his importance in the song “Tenth Avenue Freezeout”, from Born to Run:

When the change was made uptown
And the big man joined the band
From the coastline to the city
All the little pretties raise their hands
I’m gonna sit back right easy and laugh
When scooter and the big man bust this city in half

In the fall of 1982, my senior year in college, I got to see Clarence’s own band, Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers, in a concert at Gettysburg College. The band featured Clarence, obviously, Max Weinberg, and most of the horn section of the Asbury Jukes, and it was a fun, rollicking night. After the show, I got to chat with Max and Clarence for a while, which was a great thrill. They were willing to talk to a couple of college kids, and we had a few laughs together. I will never forget their kindness to a couple of middle-class college students.

Clarence was not the greatest technical sax player, but he was larger than life, a huge star in his own right–as Bruce so often put it, he was the king of the universe. He was a gentle bear of a man at 6’4″, 270 pounds, with a large personality and an even larger stage presence. The eye naturally gravitated toward him, as he loved the limelight. Before long, it was obvious that, other than Bruce himself, Clarence was the one member of the E Street Band who was irreplaceable. Indeed, I cannot even begin to imagine hearing something like “Jungleland”–Clarence’s most famous and most epic solo, one that still gives me chills when I hear it today–without Clarence’s horn.

I can’t help but wonder whether Clarence’s untimely passing yesterday at the too-young age of 69 won’t mean the end of the E Street Band–I hope not, but as I said, I cannot imagine it without the Big Man’s outsized persona and his even bigger horn. For now, rest in peace, Clarence. Thank you for the memories, and thank you for filling such a large place in the soundtrack of my life. You will be missed.

It’s a sad day on E Street today…..

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