Continental Congress vs. Continental Army: Strategy and Personnel Decisions

Politics During the War (1775-1783)

November 22, 2018
by Stuart Hatfield Also by this Author


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When the American Revolution became a shooting war, it was left to the Continental Congress to become the body of state for the thirteen colonies. They had to build a functioning central government, build an economy, find allies and build a military force that would help them stand up to Great Britain. Over the course of the war they addressed each of these tasks with a varied amount of success, and more often than not a varied amount of failure. There were men in Congress that were well versed in how to build a government. There were some who knew enough about mercantilism and running a business to get an economy started. There were even several natural diplomats among them. There were not, however, many men that knew how to put together a war effort. Any that may have been well enough versed in this sought to serve in the field with the army.

Even so, Congress would not be daunted and took control of the war effort with gusto. Immediately they began making decisions as to how the war would be fought. General Washington was often left trying to carry out the orders of Congress with the very limited resources that they gave to him. Often it was a matter of trying to do a lot with very little. It is much to his credit, and perhaps at the same time to his detriment, that Washington very seldom questioned Congress directly on some of their decisions. Although many “off the record” discussions occurred behind the scenes, what Congress decided became the path that Washington was to follow.

This meant that often Congress felt it had the right to tell Washington where and when to fight and to dictate overall strategy. Decisions made in regards to Canada, New York and Philadelphia were often made from a political standpoint and not a realistic military one. Even when their decisions on when to fight made sense, they were not able to provide the proper resources.

Several personnel decisions made by Congress during the war were no better. In an attempt to balance politics versus strategy, they were often left with their decisions causing more problems than were intended. Congress was not always the best arbiter of who should be in command. One decision led to two commanders overseeing one department and others would lead to a hero of the revolution abandoning the cause and going over to the enemy. Their efforts to guide the strategy of the war led to several missteps that had very dire and almost disastrous consequences for the army and the Revolution.

With the main British forces on the continent bottled up in Boston, things started moving fast for Congress and the army. All eyes immediately turned north to Canada. Fort Ticonderoga fell early in the war making heroes of Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen and clearing the way for a full scale invasion of what some called the fourteenth colony. As Washington was making his way to the Cambridge army, General Artemas Ward (who was in command until Washington arrived) and his council had already decided that Canada would be a target. Washington and Congress agreed.[1]

The fact that Congress signed off on this flew directly in the face of a resolution it passed on June 1, “As this Congress has nothing more in view than the defense of these colonies. Resolved, that no expedition or incursion ought to be undertaken or made, by any colony, or body of colonists against or into Canada.”[2] Of course by this time forces were already gathering to do just that.

To many in Congress, the move into Canada was seen as an attempt at liberation and not of conquest. It was felt that if an invitation to join was accompanied with a show of force, the invitation would be more seriously considered. As such, a two prong invasion was launched by Generals Schuyler and Montgomery leading one advance towards Montreal, and General Arnold taking a backwoods route north towards Quebec. The stories of these two advances are legendary in themselves. Never has such bravery and resourcefulness been shown by such a ragtag military force. Eventually Montreal fell and Quebec was besieged. It looked almost as if the Congressional dream of Canada joining the cause would be fulfilled. There were very important issues that Congress did not take into account.

First off, the people of Canada, although they had only been part of the British Empire for about twenty years, really didn’t have many problems with the British. In fact, the Quebec Act of 1774 had gone a long way to placate those disaffected members of the Catholic religion and upper class land owners, as such there was no desire to join the American cause. Especially since the ragtag forces that besieged them looked and acted no better than thieves and pillagers. It is difficult to believe someone has come in peace when they are carrying away as many of your belongings as fit in their pocket.[3]

The second issue was Congress itself. As most of the American Colonies were firmly rooted in the Protestant beliefs of their forefathers, the idea of working with the Catholics in Canada did not go over well. Even as the Quebec act repaired relations between Britain and Canada, it drove a serious wedge between Canada and the Colonies. Two years after many of the men in Congress were public and vocal in their prejudices of the “papists” to the north, these same men now reached out to those same “papists” with a hand of friendship. The people of Canada could be forgiven for not taking their “liberators” seriously.

It would be fair to say that while there were many in Canada who supported the American cause, most of the rank and file took on a stance more akin to neutrality. For the most part, the bulk of the Canadian people supported whoever was in charge and really just wanted to be left alone. Both sides, Britain and America, would come to lament the lack of support that Canada provided.

In November 1775, confident that Canada would soon be taking its place besides the United Colonies in the fight against Britain, Congress provided instructions to a committee sent north to confer with General Schuyler.

The Congress desire you to exert your utmost endeavors to induce the Canadians to accede to a union with these colonies, and that they form from their several parishes, a provincial Convention, and send Delegates to this Congress. And as, in the present unsettled state of that country, a regular election can hardly be expected, the Congress will acquiesce in the choice of such parishes and districts, as are induced and willing to join us.
You may, and are hereby empowered to assure them, that we shall hold their rights as dear as our own, and on their union with us, exert our utmost endeavors to obtain for them, and their posterity, the blessings of a free government, and that security to their persons and property, which is derived from the British Constitution.
And you may, and are hereby empowered further to declare, that we hold sacred the rights of conscience, and shall never molest them in the free enjoyment of their religion.[4]

As the initial dispatches rolled in to Congress it looked as if their plan was coming to fruition. After a number of false starts Montgomery and Schuyler were making progress on the way to Montreal and Arnold’s expedition had arrived outside of Quebec. Praises were sung in Congress of both Arnold and Montgomery and based on their accomplishments promotions were in the works for both. Arnold’s expedition alone drew both praise and wonder as he was being compared to all manner of Romans and Greeks from antiquity. Alas, on January 17 that all came to a screeching stop. Charles Thompson, the Congressional secretary, broke into the ongoing debates and read a series of dispatches that laid bare the truth. The attack on Quebec had failed with the most disastrous results. Montgomery dead, Arnold wounded, the bulk of the American forces involved either captured or killed.[5]In the snows outside the old city, the Congressional dream of bringing Canada into the fold was gone.

While Congress rushed as many men and as much material as possible to reinforce their invasion, it was never enough. Canada became a sink for the fledgling army until spring came, and with it British reinforcements. John Adams summed up the campaign in a June 1776 letter:

Our misfortunes in Canada are enough to melt a heart of stone. The small pox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians and Indians, together. This was the cause of our precipitate retreat from Quebec. This the cause of our disgraces at the Cedars. I don’t mean that this was all. There has been want approaching to famine, as well as pestilence and these discouragements have so disheartened our officers, that none of them seem to act with prudence and firmness. But these reverses of fortune don’t discourage me. It was natural to expect them, and we ought to be prepared in our minds for greater changes, and more melancholy scenes still. It is an animating cause, and brave spirits are not subdued with difficulties.[6]

Soon the American forces would be driven from Canada and down Lake Champlain. If not for the valiant effort of Benedict Arnold, who lead a Continental Navy Fleet in action at Valcour Island in October, the British very well could have advanced all the way to Albany, splitting the rebellion in half, something the British would end up trying again in the next campaign season. While there was talk later in the war of another attempt on Canada it never went beyond the planning stage.

New York
Another example was the ordered defense of New York City. After the British were forced to leave Boston in March 1776 they took to the seas and headed for Halifax. Knowing that the enemy was not driven away for good, General Washington and Congress attempted to determine where they would return. All parties agreed that the city of New York would be the best target. To prepare the people of the city, Congress passed a resolution, published in the May 24 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, that they should prepare to “repel force by force,” move all military provisions, and prepare avenues of retreat for the women and children.[7] At the same time that they were preparing that resolution, a committee met with Generals Washington, Gates and Mifflin in regards to the possible defense of the city. When asked how many enemy were expected to attack the city, the generals answered twelve thousand five hundred (a number less than half of what actually did) and indicated that there were approximately fifteen thousand troops and militia to secure the city and the communication route to Canada.[8]

Congress ordered Washington to defend the city at all costs or, as General Lee wrote in his memoirs, “it was the Congress’s opinion were the grand objects they had in view, and for the attainment of which they would give up every inferior consideration.”[9]John Adams told his wife Abigail of the decision in a letter dated 7 July 1776:

The design of our enemy now seems to be, a powerful invasion of New York and New Jersey. The Halifax fleet and army is arrived, and another fleet and army under Lord Howe is expected to join them. We are making great preparations to meet them, by marching the militia of Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey down to the scene of action, and have made large requisitions upon New England. I hope, for the honor of New England, and the salvation of America, our people will not be backward in marching to New York. We must maintain and defend that important post, at all events. If the enemy get possession there, it will cost New England very dear.[10]

They had their reasons for sure. New York was a large city and a valuable commercial center. New York itself was a colony that was still somewhat unsure of its role in the revolution and the rebels were almost as strong as the Loyalists. It was hoped that if New York City were attacked and defended, the Loyalists would lose what power they had and New York would be solidly under rebel control. Congress made a decision based on politics and propaganda. Strategically, there was no way that the city could be defended with the resources that were available to the Continental Army.

For one thing, the city sat on the island of Manhattan, surrounded, as the word island suggests, by water on all sides. Deep navigable rivers and an ocean were its boundaries. Had the Americans had a decent sized navy which was capable of standing off against the British, they may have been able to put up a defense. When the British arrived in July 1776 they brought with them the Royal Navy in such numbers that one onlooker commented, “It looked as if all the trees in England were coming our way.” With no navy to confront them, the British could land troops anywhere they wanted, could line up their ships and bombard the fortifications anywhere they wanted, and if the conditions were right, they could prevent the Continental Army from being able to retreat, since their backs would almost always be against the water. With impunity the British attacked and on several occasions routed the Americans; if not for an early morning fog they would have indeed captured the Continental Army and probably would have ended the war. As it was, the decision to defend New York very nearly led to an end of the war before it even really started. The numerous defeats during the campaign did little to build any confidence in the Congress or the Continental Army among the very people they were fighting for.

Still, on July 23, 1776 Congress told Washington that it had “such an entire confidence in his judgment as to him shall seem the most conducive to the public good.”[11] In modern parlance it would seem that having given Washington their orders, Congress was leaving him to carry them out. It did not go well. Over matched and out maneuvered, the Americans quickly found their defensive positions overrun and in the blink of an eye Long Island was lost. With the remains of his army filing through the streets of New York City, and with the British army just over the channel, Washington was unsure what to do about the city. He had almost nothing left to defend it with and to try and do so would lead to the loss of the entire army. Seeking counsel from his staff, General Greene told him, “I give as my opinion that a General and Speedy Retreat is absolutely necessary and that the honor and interest of America requires it.” As a follow up, he also suggested that they burn the city on the way out to deprive the enemy of barracks and supplies and also punish the Tories that remained. Washington thought the plan was good, both the retreat and the burning. Congress, however, would not allow the city to burn.[12] If they had known that by leaving the city intact they provided the British with a base and a supply of men and material that they would be able to draw upon for the entire rest of the war, they may have taken action. If Washington and Greene had been allowed to burn the city, the British may not have been able to use it and things may have taken a different turn.

Later in the war, British General Howe sailed out from New York and decided that he was going to end the war by taking the rebel “capitol” located in Philadelphia. Washington, who had regained some of the lost morale of the country in his brilliant strokes at Trenton and Princeton, had pretty much resigned himself to his Fabian strategy or War of Posts. By conserving his strength and striking only when he had an advantage, he could save his army from destruction and delay if not defeat his enemy. However with the British heading for Philadelphia, Congress decided that conservation was not necessary and ordered Washington to prevent Howe from capturing the city. Of course, this order was given as Congress itself was fleeing to York, well out of the path of the advancing redcoats.

Washington did as he was ordered, and in two battles, Brandywine and Germantown, he threw his army against the British and lost both times. Unable to keep the British from taking Philadelphia, Washington retreated to winter quarters at Valley Forge. It was during the long cold winter at Valley Forge that Congress, or at least a strong and growing faction, would do their best to drive Washington from his post. Luckily that was one battle that Washington was more than capable of winning.

As winter drew in the Board of War, an extension of Congress, pressed upon Washington that a winter campaign may be in order to try and wrest Philadelphia from the British. It took much convincing of Washington and his generals on the board that such a campaign was not feasible due to the strong position of the enemy, the relative lack of men and supplies available to the Continental Army, and the lateness of the season that would make gathering enough militia and supplies to even carry out the attack impossible. As the Congressional Journal puts it, “That until sufficient reinforcements can be obtained, such a post should be taken by the Army as will be most likely to overawe the Enemy, afford supplies of provision, Wood, Water, and Forage, be secure from surprise, and best calculated for covering the Country from the ravages of the Enemy, as well as provide comfortable Quarters for the Officers and Soldiers.”[13] With common sense taking the driver’s seat, the Philadelphia campaign was over and the Army was allowed to go into winter quarters.

Personnel Decisions
Besides strategy, there were other instances where the civilian leaders of Congress made military decisions that proved disastrous. After the loss of an entire army at Charleston, the Continental Army was reduced to a shambles in the Southern theater. With the Northern front settled into a stalemate and the bulk of the British forces moved to the south, it would be a very important task to rebuild the southern army. Washington knew of only one man that he felt fit for such a job, Gen. Nathanael Greene. Greene was not only a favorite of Washington, but he was a talented and skilled commander in the field and had proven to be one of the best. He longed for a command of his own and was ready to move on from his post of quartermaster general, another job that Washington had thought him best suited for. Unfortunately for Greene, Washington and the Revolution in general, Congress had other ideas.

Greene and Congress had a long history of not getting along and as such he had few friends in the body. Rather than give the very important command to him, they opted to turn to Gen. Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga. Gates was a much better politician than general and accepted the assignment that he was in no way qualified for. Gates had made it almost his personal quest to subsume Washington as the head of the army and saw this as the way to make it happen. Many in Congress shared his feelings. In fact, earlier in the war when Gates was given command of the northern army, Adams wrote, “We have given New England men what they will think a complete triumph in the removal of Generals from the northward and sending Gates there. I hope every part of New England will now exert itself to its utmost efforts.[14]

Upon arriving in North Carolina, Gates took command of the remnants of the army and, flush with the prospect of earning greater glory, set them off to confront the enemy. The men that he led were tired and beaten, ill prepared for a major campaign, and short of almost every sort of supply. Hoping to make up in quantity what he lacked in quality, Gates called in as many militia that could join him, many of which were little better than raw recruits. On August 16, 1780, Gates led his army into battle against the British at the Battle of Camden.

He lost. Badly. It was tradition in the British Army, where Gates had served, to always put your best and most experienced regiments on the right hand side of the line, a place of honor. As Gates prepared to face off against General Cornwallis, he chose to place his untested, raw, green militia units on his left hand side, across the field from the cream of the British Army. Once the fighting had commenced, the militia ran and didn’t stop. The American lines were enveloped and the only the incredible tenacity of some of the North Carolina militia, and the Maryland and Virginia Continental Army troops stopped the second southern army from being completely destroyed. For his part, Gates missed much of the final phase as he himself set to running, not stopping for several hours. Only his political connections inside Congress prevented Gates from being court-martialed for his failure.

Congress had first appointed Robert Howe and then he lost Savannah. Congress had appointed Benjamin Lincoln and then he lost Charleston. They appointed Horatio Gates and he lost the entire South.[15] A young aide in Washington’s camp, Alexander Hamilton, wrote to one of his acquaintances in Congress, “for God’s sake . . . Send Greene.”[16] With a record of 0 and 3 on commanders for the southern theater, Congress finally decided to listen to Washington and gave the command to Greene.

While Greene would go on to finish the war in the south without winning a single battle himself, his ability to strike at the British and cause them pain eventually won the backcountry for the rebels, driving the British in the enclaves of Charleston and Savannah. His tenacity was a leading factor in the decision of General Cornwallis to move the war into Virginia and eventually to Yorktown. If Congress had listened to Washington the first time, how may this have all played out differently?

Gates and Schuyler
In what became a hallmark of Congressional confusion, they ended up with two men in command of the Northern Department. At the start of the war, one of the first four major generals that Congress commissioned was Phillip Schuyler, a native of New York and a member of the “aristocracy.” Schuyler was given command of the Northern Department and one of his first tasks was to oversee the campaign into Canada. A year later when the campaign fell apart and the American prospects in Canada seemed to be dimming, many in Congress sought to replace Schuyler. As such, a man no less than John Adams championed Gen. Horatio Gates as the replacement for Schuyler. With Congressional approval, Gates was sent north with very encouraging words by Mr. Adams, “We have ordered you to the Post of Honor, and made you Dictator in Canada for Six Months, or at least until the first of October.”[17] There was a slight problem though.

When Gates arrived to supplant Schuyler, Schuyler refused. At first, his refusal was based on the fact that he outranked Gates outright. When this did not work, Schuyler simply announced that the Canadian Army which Gates was commanding no longer existed since all American troops had already withdrawn from the foreign country. Gates demanded that Schuyler step aside, as Congress’s resolution clearly implied. Both sides appealed to Congress and rather than see the conflict escalated, Congress agreed that Schuyler had seniority but did not rule clearly on who was in command.

The conflict between the two generals escalated. Gates did not take the decision lightly and although he continued to work in the department, taking charge of Crown Point and Ticonderoga (which to many implied that he was the one in command), he continually worked behind the scenes to supplant Schuyler and have him removed entirely, going so far as to leaving his post to lobby directly with Congress.[18] Much to his chagrin, he would actually come out the loser, for a while at least.

In a report to Congress made on May 15, 1777, the Board of War indicated that General Schuyler would be taking command of the Northern Department (acceding that in the mind of Congress, Gates currently held the command). Asking for a letter to be sent to the current commander, General Gates, they asked that Gates be given the choice of either staying in the department and serving under General Schuyler or reporting the main army and serving as Washington’s second in command.[19]

A week later, Congress approved the recommendation, leaving both men with a bad taste in their mouths. Gates would not go quietly, though. As the 1777 campaign wore on and Schuyler was eventually forced to abandon Ticonderoga in the face of British General Burgoyne’s advance to Albany, Gates was waiting in the wings. Eventually he was given sole control of the department and Schuyler himself was court-martialed for his defeat. Had Congress made a firm decision at the outset of the conflict between the two generals, would more time have been spent preparing the defenses of the strategically important region, rather than in political infighting?

Benedict Arnold
The relationship between Congress and Benedict Arnold has been touched on in a previous section, and to say that there was a love-hate relationship between the two is an understatement. Even outside of promotions and recognition there were other issues. One involved a clamor raised by a Canadian officer against Arnold. As the American Army was preparing to leave Canada, Arnold ordered a Colonel Hazen to seize a large amount of goods from commercial establishments and transport them back to the American lines. Hazen, who felt that this was simply plunder for Arnold’s own gain, refused the order. His refusal led to a large amount of the goods being pilfered and put Arnold in the sights of the merchants whose goods had disappeared. Arnold blamed Hazen, Hazen requested a court-martial, and was exonerated of any wrong doing. Arnold refused the decision and even challenged the judges to a duel. Gates became involved and eventually was ordered to arrest Arnold. With the British on the move, Gates refused, telling Congress, “The warmth of General Arnold’s temper might possibly lead him a little farther than is marked by the precise line of decorum to be observed towards a court martial, the United States must not be deprived of the excellent officer’s services at this important time.”[20] Congress assented, but this would not be the last time Arnold’s name would be brought before them.

On June 19, 1778, General Arnold and a regiment of Continental soldiers marched into Philadelphia which had just been evacuated by the British. Arnold, still recovering from the wounds that he received at Saratoga, had been appointed military governor of the city by none other than General Washington himself. Carrying out orders from Congress, his first act was to prevent trade in and out of the city until a general inventory could be taken and proper ownership of all goods determined. Several things went wrong for Arnold at this point.

First, while all the trade was prohibited, Arnold allowed several purchases and deals to be made, ostensibly for the army, but from which he profited personally. Second, he set himself up in the best mansion in town and took great part in the very same nightlife and frivolity that the British had so been accustomed to, and he ended up marrying the daughter of one of the most prominent Loyalists still in the city. All of this raised the ire of many in Congress and the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, and in February of 1779 Arnold was forced to resign.

His resignation was not enough however, and the two bodies pursued charges against Arnold.[21] This was the final blow and pushed Arnold down his road of infamy. While the most severe charges were thrown out, he was found guilty of several small ones which ended in just a reprimand from General Washington. Had Arnold not been in the crosshairs of some of the members of Congress, who knows if he would have still made the decisions he did. In the end, the Congress was able to do what the British were not; they drove Arnold from the field.

Missed Opportunities
Some of the strategic decisions that Congress made can be chalked up to inexperience and lack of military knowledge. The decision to invade Canada can be seen in a light of trying to expand the revolution and prevent the British from using it as a base of operations. What they did not take into account was the total lack of support that the army would face and the amount of resources needed to carry it out. Even so, based on the heroic efforts of Montgomery and Arnold, it was very nearly pulled off. However, what sort of resources could have been given to Washington in and around New York had they not been wasted on the fields of Canada? While it is easy to see the political value of trying to defend New York, the task that the army had to undertake was much grander than they were prepared for. Up until that point the army and Congress had only played at war, and trying, without a navy, to defend an island against the world’s most powerful navy was not going to have a happy ending. As a result of the losses sustained in the defense of the city, Washington dedicated himself to only fighting with the odds in his favor. Above all he needed to keep the army intact. The battles around Philadelphia flew in the face of that strategy and as Congress fled, Washington was forced to attack a superior enemy and lost each and every time. The losses that Congress forced on the army would further denigrate themselves to the people and undermine the confidence that would be so necessary to carry out their other functions. Had they allowed Washington and his officers to make the decisions, it is possible that a stronger and better-supplied army could have stood up to the British sooner and had a greater impact.

Congress faced more political challenges in the personnel decisions that they made. Their actions in this realm not only affected the confidence of the nation, but caused seething rivalries inside the army that nearly tore it apart. While the conflict between Gates and Schuyler distracted an entire theater, the British were allowed to regain the momentum in the region. Later, the decision to send Gates south against the recommendations of General Washington had a disastrous effect, and practically handed three colonies to the British. In almost every respect, the way that Congress handled Benedict Arnold only turned an avowed and dedicated patriot into a traitor whose name is still synonymous with treason.

In the end, the way Congress dealt with the issues of strategy and personnel left a lot to be desired. At times it was hard to tell whose side they were really on. The fact that the war was won despite the way Congress ran it is one the most amazing aspects of the revolution.


[1]Thomas Allen, Tories (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), 93.

[2]Arnold Lefkowitz, Benedict Arnold’s Army (New York: Savas Beatie, 2008), 21.

[3]Richard Ketchum, Saratoga (New York: Holt Company, 1997), 14.

[4]Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789Edited from the original records in the Library of Congress (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1904-37), 2: 340.

[5]Lefkowitz, Benedict Arnold’s Army, 264-5.

[6]Charles Francis Adams, Letters of John Adams, Addressed to His Wife. Edited by His Grandson, Charles Francis Adams, Volume I (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1876), 121.

[7]Todd Andrlik, Reporting the Revolutionary War (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2012), 135.

[8]Journals of the Continental Congress, 4: 399-400.

[9]Charles Lee, The life and memoirs of the late Major General Lee, second in command to General Washington, during the American Revolution, to which are added, his political and military essays (New York: Richard Scott, 1813), 27.

[10]Adams, Letters of John Adams, 130.

[11]Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), 209.

[12]Terry Golway, Washington’s General(New York: Holt, 2006), 92-93.

[13]Journals of the Continental Congress, 9: 1031.

[14]Adams, Letters of John Adams, 240.

[15]John Buchanan, The Road to Guilford Courthouse (New York: Wiley & Sons, 1997), 274.

[16]Golway, Washington’s General, 6.

[17]Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind, 226.

[18]Ibid., 250.

[19]Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 7: 364.

[20]Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind, 178.

[21]Ibid., 410.

One thought on “Continental Congress vs. Continental Army: Strategy and Personnel Decisions

  • Yet more examples of political interference in military matters leading to defeat. This article made me think of the “little corporal” in 1939 Germany, of LBJ’s handling of Vietnam, Jeff Davis’ leaving incompetent generals in command, etc. Who was it that said, “it is a general’s place to know how to fight a war, a politician’s place to know against whom, and a philosiphor’s place to know if should be fought”. I’m paraphrasing, of course.

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