In the wake of the French and American revolutions, the rise of nationalism and romantic notions of the folk, the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of clear battle lines between the forces of liberal republicanism and the more traditional adherents of monarchy. Aided by advancements in technology and transportation, soldiers very often moved between these various theatres of war, bringing with them ideas and ideologies, not all of them useful or accurate. In this article, Michael Kenneth Huner traces the life and career of General Martin Thomas McMahon, the son of Irish immigrants, who rose to prominence in the US Civil War and went on to serve as the US representative and informal advisor to President Francisco Solano López during the bloody and violent Paraguayan War (formerly known as the War of the Triple Alliance, 1864-1870). Huner shows that devotion to a federal and republican ideal was widespread among Americans and some Europeans, often advanced by soldiers of Irish descent like McMahon, who was able to forge a more personal bond with a Paraguayan leader through the good offices of his beloved Irish mistress.
General Martin Thomas McMahon made his reputation as a war hero. Over a quarter century after the end of the conflict that defined his life, he received the US Congressional Medal of Honor in 1891. The ultimate award for valour in combat recognised his action taken while captain and aide-de-camp in the Union army during the American Civil War. It was June 1862. The Army of the Potomac was retreating from its position on a Virginia battlefield, when the then Captain MacMahon led a party of soldiers under musket and artillery fire to burn a wagon supply train that was in danger of falling under the control of the Confederate forces. Scorching war materials so that nothing was left behind for the advancing enemy decades later justified the grateful nation awarding him such a prestigious medal. By that time, however, McMahon had also forged a rising career in the Democratic political machine of New York City. He had won election to the New York State Senate in 1891 after four years serving in the State Assembly. He had held previous appointments as Tax Collector and U.S. Marshal for New York during the presidential administration of Grover Cleveland. Soon his friends and supporters were encouraging him to run for Congress.  McMahon commanded respect as a tireless advocate for veterans and was a prominent curator of a heroic memory of the the Northern cause in the Civil War as well. Member and leader of various veterans’ groups, he attended their annual meetings and gave rousing speeches. And in such talks he often reflected on how “this great American conflict for the maintenance and restoration of the Union will stand in human history as one of the most important events that has ever been chronicled by the pen of man.” 
Son of Irish immigrants, Martin McMahon had staked his life and career as a U.S. patriot. He contributed to the mythic proportions surrounding the central violent struggle of his generation, one in which he participated and saw so many losses. Like thousands of his fellow veterans and citizens, he had salvaged the noble meaning of it all from the idea of a republic saved. McMahon was quite conventional in this regard, but stood out for lending his experienced voice to the commonly-held opinion that war was a natural, even sometimes necessary, calling of nationhood. He had clung to the identity of a lifetime soldier and continued to wear his rank of general, something which gave him clout that served his rise in political circles. But after McMahon’s death in 1906 at the age of sixty-eight, while sitting as a New York state judge, he fell back into relative obscurity like so many middling politicians and former officers of his time.
This article briefly examines the memories and episodes from the life of this Irish-American who served in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. If McMahon’s services and sacrifices in the Civil War were typical of others of his generation, it was his brush with a similarly momentous war in South America that was more unusual and now draws our historical attention. His experience there sheds light on a somewhat forgotten geopolitical vision from the nineteenth-century past that perceived the rivalry of New World republics and Old World monarchies as the defining contest for the heart of the Americas as a whole, and took place at a crucial moment when this vision was widely shared across the hemisphere. Not long after the end of hostilities in his country, McMahon took a diplomatic post in war-torn Paraguay where, in his mind, the conflict brought to the forefront the global importance of saving American republics from dissolution. There his service, sacrifice, and loss in the U.S. Civil War took on political meaning of a hemispheric scale. He stayed only a short stint before being suddenly recalled, seeing just a part of the desperate end of Paraguay’s fight against its larger, neighbouring invaders Brazil and Argentina. Back in the US, McMahon emerged as a vocal and controversial proponent of the autocratic Paraguayan president, Francisco Solano López, who had led his country into the war and was gaining increasing infamy as a bloodthirsty tyrant.
McMahon’s passionate and polemical defence of a South American dictator seemed to undermine the very ideals of republican government that his experience in the Civil War had fortified. Yet this contradiction ironically reveals the depth of his conviction, whereby ugly matters and inconvenient truths could be rationalised with the belief that so much was at stake, in the light that darker possibilities loomed. McMahon advocated for the Paraguayan president as a consequence of their mutual belief in the cause of republicanism against the predations of Old-World-style monarchies, manifested, in this case, by the Empire of Brazil. McMahon cast his defence of the autocrat in these very terms, as a fellow soldier fighting for the liberty of his native land, just as he believed that he himself had done in the U.S Civil War. We thus first examine the principles and beliefs that General McMahon took away from his participation in the Civil War, as he reflected upon them in public speeches and statements in the decades following it. We then consider how these incipient meanings went on to inform the way in which he approached the situation in Paraguay. McMahon was not alone in his convictions; his life and legacy provides us with a clear voice representing a shared strand of opinion across the Americas that considered republican causes in the United States, Ireland, Mexico, Paraguay, and even those of insurgents in Cuba to be intimately linked.
Loss and Meaning from the U.S. Civil War
The experience of war weighed on the health and memory of the Irish-descended general; it was the defining episode of his life. Martin Thomas McMahon was born on 21 March 1838, in Laprairie County, Québec, his parent’s first son born in the New World. They had recently come from Ireland and were on their way to try out settling in the United States. He had two older brothers, John and James, who had spent their early years in the town of Waterford, Ireland from whence his family came.  The McMahons were thus a family of Irish Catholic immigrants who made their way to New York like thousands of others at the time. It is unclear what work or wealth their parents had, but their sons proved upwardly mobile and anxious to succeed in their adopted country. Martin and his two older brothers all attended and graduated with law degrees from St. John’s College in Fordham, New York. Martin himself received his initial degree from Fordham in 1855 and subsequently earned his Masters there two years later, at the young age of nineteen. He then moved around the country, looking perhaps to move up the ranks of Government service. He spent time in Buffalo as a law clerk before heading out West to work as special agent for the Post Office in San Francisco. He later accepted a short stint as an Indian Administrator before returning east. In 1861, he gained admittance into the New York State Bar Association. Of course, that same year he also had joined the mobilising volunteer Federal Army at the news of the shelling of Ft. Sumter and the secession.  His older brothers also entered the force. And just as unexpectedly for many who volunteered, McMahon ended up serving four long years in the Army of the Potomac.
McMahon rose rapidly in the ranks of the wartime force, which later proved to have been a professional boon. His education, and most likely political connections as well, got him posted in 1861 as Captain and Aide-de-Camp of General McClellan, the head of the Army. He made Adjutant General and Chief of Staff of the Sixth Army Corps less than a year and a half later, due to bold actions taken, including torching the enemy’s vulnerable wagon supply train. This new position coincided with his professional capacity as a lettered officer directing the paperwork and orders moving men and material. He did it all well, no doubt cultivating the necessary influence with other highly-ranked men. By the end of the conflict, he was at once brevetted Major and Brigadier General as his war record was later remembered to have been “without flaw.” 
McMahon walked away from the battlefields respected as an honourable officer. Yet the battlefields had left their mark, most notably on his physical appearance. He had entered the military as a smooth-skinned twenty-three-year-old with a sunny countenance; a contemporary photograph showed his bright eyes staring out to an optimistic future, his brow resting in relaxed, confident contemplation. Short brown hair swept cleanly away from his face graced his head and a neatly trimmed moustache hid his upper lip. McMahon’s face embodied the best of Irish-American youth, hardly touched by life’s rigours and radiating self-assurance. Four years later, however, another image revealed that his jowls now carried the roughness of hardened experience, bags puffed around his eyes, and his hair already had premature white wisps. A pained scowl had overtaken face, and his pupils possessed a new stare, one which seemed to look backwards.  His health had suffered. Occasionally over the course of the rest of McMahon’s life, it hurt him to breathe and his lungs spewed blood, all due to exposure to four years of military camps, combat, and riding.  Shortly after the Civil War, influential friends tried to secure for him appointment as United States Minister to Mexico partially to aid the general’s health, as a temperate climate was thought could reduce stress on his lungs. 
Likewise, McMahon had felt first-hand the tremendous weight of the death and loss of the conflict. He saw subordinates and superiors alike killed by his side. When he led squadrons of troops in dashes across the battlefield, his men often did not come back. In one instance in May 1864, he was standing next to his immediate commander, General John Sedgwick, a friend dear to his heart, when a sharpshooter’s bullet ripped into Sedgwick’s face. The General fell back into McMahon’s arms, blood pouring from the wound as he braced his friend’s body and watched the man die. Years later he described how he broke the news to headquarters: “As they saw me covered with blood, Gen. Williams started forward and said but one word, ‘Sedgwick?’ I could not answer. Each one in that tent, old gray warriors, burst into tears and for some minutes sobbed like children mourning a father.”  Other losses were equally difficult to bear. In May 1863, his brother John died in Buffalo as the result of wounds suffered in the field. In June of the following year, bullets and shells killed his other brother, James, at the battle of Cold Harbor. While still serving in the army, McMahon also received word that his beloved Irish father had passed away.  Wartime had leveraged a heavy personal cost.
Years later McMahon memorialised such great losses, both personal and collective, in his speeches. He recalled the aftermath of battles where the morning dew mixed with “the blood of one thousand gallant men… many of them cold in death, many of them writhing in the agony of painful wounds.” He dwelled on the wives and children who had waited to hear word of husbands and fathers killed, those “hearts in many homes that day that were ready to break as they wearily waited news from the front.”  McMahon also lamented the thousands of missing, unknown soldiers who “went to the field and they came not back, where they fell, or how, a mystery forever here.” He expressed sadness over the way in which so many never received proper veneration of their death on the battlefield, his speeches aiming to rectify this omission.  As indicated above, his civic engagement after the war significantly revolved around participation in veterans’ groups. He dedicated his service to supporting and exalting men who had burdened conflict and loss in the U.S. Civil War. McMahon was President in 1886-1887 as well as lifetime member of the Society of the Army of the Potomac. Other memberships included the Military Order of the Loyal Legion and the Army and Navy Club. He also served as President and on the governing board of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Accordingly, he testified several times in Congressional Committee hearings on their behalf.  Friends and colleagues remembered McMahon as one who adored fellow veterans and worked continuously for their well-being.  Such commitment in words and actions helped to channel collective memory on the immense sacrifice of war, which he had himself experienced so vividly. Indeed, as a representative in the New York State Senate during the 1890s, the public record noted his efforts to preserve battle memorials and commission statues to war heroes. 
McMahon recognised the pain and loss constituent to his war experience, while nonetheless extracting noble meaning from it all. He did so in the conventional ways of an outspoken patriot in the public charge. His participation in veterans’ groups was an extension of his growing political involvement. He became an active member of the New York Democratic Party in New York, where he held political appointments through the 1870s and 1880s and later won elected office. In 1894, McMahon explained his political affiliation in the press as embracing “the party of the people,” seeing it likewise as “the party of the equal many, instead of the favored few,” and championed the notion that “Government is trust and confidence, deep and sincere, in the people.” He thus understood the party as defending the ideal that the “only purpose of government is to preserve order, nothing more or less,” thereby remaining within the “rules of Democracy.”  In his career and civic engagement after the war, McMahon further solidified convictions as a political liberal in the classical sense. He believed popular sovereignty and limited government were the ultimate expression of democracy. These convictions had become the fabric of his public political persona, as one who, in the eyes of supporters, cherished the rule of law, fair justice, and representative government.  And accordingly when he recalled the war in speeches, making sense of all the pain and loss, he typically depicted the Federal cause in the conflict as a heroic struggle of heroic figures pursuing such democratic ideals. In one speech to the Vermont Officers’ Reunion Society in Montpelier in 1880, he gave a keynote address honouring the state’s native son, his late friend and commanding officer, General John Sedgewick. Here he fashioned the description of the sorrow surrounding the General’s death in combat, but also the memory of a beloved commander in a democratic army of citizen-soldiers. McMahon recounted how within the ranks, a smile from Sedgewick “went like a sunbeam through long columns of tired men until it broadened into a laugh, and culminated in cheers that came from the true hearts of as gallant soldiers as ever served a patriot cause... he endeared himself to the men who followed him and was loved by all with a love surpassing the love of woman.”  And such men in Sedgewick’s ranks were everyday citizens, “the farmer and the blacksmith, the lawyer and the mechanic, the preacher and the laborer, the doctor and the clerk, men of all walks of life, men of all grades of talent, men with and without ambition,” all who had struggled “to establish a principle which it had heretofore seemed to them it was sacrilege to question. This principle was that this Republic is an indestructible Union of indestructible States.”  They had preserved order and saved a republic.
The idea of a republic saved thus offered to those who had perished in the conflict an epitaph of “honorable service and a glorious death upon the field of battle.”  McMahon, in turn, had depicted all soldiers who had fought with the Union army as worthy of the “inheritance bequeathed them by the founders of this government” and “it may be said that they differed in character and achievement as well as in personal demeanor ‘as one star differeth from another star in glory.’”  Cultivated for himself and fellow veterans then was a glorified memory of the war. It was entwined with a powerful pride of having allegedly lived up to the promise of forefathers and borne the sacrifice to sustain a political revolution that they had begun. That is, he contributed his public memory to fix the service of his generation, by the native-born and immigrants alike, within a mythic national past that had created and now preserved a grand American republic. Nearly two decades after his speech in Vermont, McMahon articulated similar sentiments in verse during the 1899 reunion of the Army of the Potomac in Pittsburgh:
... We fought our fight, and fought it to the last.
Not for ourselves alone, but for mankind.
To us befell the consecrated task
To make our country truly free and strong... 
They confirmed earlier expressions that asserted that never “throughout all the past annals of the world has any nation or people or race produced grander types of humanity than this American Republic.”  McMahon’s recollections reflected dominant currents of patriotism coming out of the conflict itself that indeed washed the pain of loss from war in the conviction that government by the people “for mankind” as a whole was rescued when its very existence in the Americas seemed in doubt.  Moreover, a country now rid of slavery had reconstituted a republic “truly free and strong.” This son of Irish parents had crafted his public career and memory into that of a vociferous US patriot, liberal politician, and leader of veterans’ groups. He had thus forged from Irish roots a life and identity as American, in a broad understanding of the term for McMahon had also walked away from the battlefields with an incipient sense of the global implications for the Union victory and the work of saving republics in general. Soon thereafter, this notion attracted him to the battlefields of Paraguay in South America, where another momentous battle was about to take place.
Episodes from Paraguay
While battles in North America were winding down in 1864-1865, a conflict involving Paraguay was escalating into a major regional war growing out of an armed insurgency in Uruguay. In 1864, the Empire of Brazil, led by the monarch Dom Pedro II, had intervened militarily in the small country’s rebellion, overthrown Montevideo’s sitting government and installed a friendly faction into power, all with tacit support from Argentina. The autocratic president of landlocked Paraguay, Francisco Solano López, took exception to this aggressive act and ordered the invasion of Brazil and Argentina on the very pretext of defending American republicanism. The López regime proclaimed that they did this to save Paraguay’s “sister republic” Uruguay from domination by monarchic Brazil, acting in collusion with Buenos Aires. Of course, Solano was making his own bid for power and influence by sending large armies to occupy outlying provinces of Brazil and Argentina. The gamble proved disastrous. The Brazilian empire and its client state in Uruguay formed an official alliance with Buenos Aires dedicated to destroying the López government. Beholden to the strident liberal-positivist ethics of the time, the allied states declared the war to be a crusade of Progress and Civilisation to crush barbarism and tyranny inherent in the heavily-indigenous state Paraguay. With their much-larger forces thus mobilised, the allies soon repulsed the southward invasion of López’s armies. By 1866 they had begun a protracted invasion of their own into Paraguayan territory. The fight endured for over four more years, as Paraguayan defensive trenches in the south of the territory proved perilous to break. It became a total war for Paraguay with combatants and civilians alike being mobilised to sustain the resistance. Tens of thousands of soldiers and inhabitants perished along the way, mainly due to disease and hunger. 
As the U.S. Civil War drew to a close in 1865, Martin McMahon started to see the central events of his own life as one episode in a larger conflict raging throughout the Americas. The Paraguayan war would be a prominent one in this regard; a major civil war also had erupted in Mexico when imperial French forces attempted to impose a European monarch to rule the bankrupt country, at the invitation of desperate Mexican conservatives. The 1862 invasion sent the Mexican liberal-republican government under Benito Juárez into armed insurgency in the countryside while the Austrian prince Maximilian assumed a newly-fashioned crown as Emperor of Mexico. Contemporary commentators also noted how Spain had tried to reassume imperial control of Santo Domingo (and reinstate slavery), as well as assert its naval influence over waters near Peru. At the same time, in 1868, insurgents in Cuba began a revolution for an independent republic and the abolition of slavery on their island, the remaining bastions of monarchical Spanish rule in the Americas.  McMahon shared the view of many North Americans, who understood the sacrifices for the Federal victory in their Civil War as serving to reinforce the vitality of republican government in America, with a corresponding eradication of slavery in their country.  Developments in Mexico, Paraguay, and later Cuba and even Ireland proved alternately heartening and despairing for those likewise invested in the fate of republican governments elsewhere in the hemisphere.
Intriguingly, Paraguayan state officials had manifested such geopolitical fears shortly before their own conflict, while the outcome of the U.S. Civil War was still in doubt. In December 1863, Foreign Minister José Berges wrote to his consul in New York, Richard Mullowney, concerned that the “situation in Mexico cannot be insignificant for the Spanish American republics.” Berges found the news of a European-imposed monarchy there disturbing. He requested: “I want to know how the [U.S. Government] views the crisis in the neighboring Republic, and what it thinks or can do in favor of the republican faction in Mexico.”  Correspondents for the state-run newspaper in Paraguay articulated similar concerns. One article from February 1864 affirmed the embrace of republican government by former Spanish American territories and asserted that “because a monarchy could not arise from revolution made against monarchy, they have bound themselves to democratic institutions, having fought for independence evoking liberty and equality.” It then recommended the alleged democratic unity inherent in Paraguay.  Another article in July was more ominous in tone, claiming “the plan to monarchize republican America is well thought-out and has percolated in conquest-minded crowned heads for some time.” It cited the proof of European monarchical aggression in Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico and contested: “The entire world knows the greed with which our rich republics are looked upon by the crowned heads.” It thus advocated “the true and sincere union… of Uruguayans, Paraguayans, Argentines, Chileans, Bolivians, Peruvians, and Mexicans, that is, of all the sons of America.” 
By June of 1864, the crisis in Uruguay had already reached alarming proportions for these officials, as imperial Brazil prepared to invade their “sister republic.” Early that month, the Foreign Minister Berges had written to the Paraguayan diplomatic agent in Paris describing the threats that now allegedly confronted Paraguay. He believed the “certain fact” that Brazil and Argentina “have organized an armed intervention and are going to take possession [of Uruguay] for six years, with the knowledge and acquiescence of England and France.” This unusual alliance would eventually turn its territorial ambitions against Paraguay, he suggested. “I call your attention to the events of Mexico,” continued Berges, signalling: “mutual intrigue between the Monarchies of Europe and America over this part of the New World.”  The Río de la Plata region of South America seemed, in his view, exposed to a similar monarchic offensive against American republics, as the Brazilian monarchy was the one now apparently poised to expand. It was, in fact, this geopolitical vision of Atlantic-wide scope that had informed and rationalised the López regime’s decision to go to war against its powerful neighbours. Indeed it subsequently justified Paraguayan occupation of part of the neighbouring republic of Argentina, whereby Paraguayans claimed to be “the brave defenders of the sovereignty and independence of the Plata,” whose cause was the “hope of democracy” rather than invaders themselves. 
The lettered officials of the Paraguayan regime were appropriating republican rhetoric heard and read throughout Spanish America since the wars of independence. Their talk and propaganda gathered similar anti-colonial, anti-imperial sentiments, again on a continental scale, around the cause of Paraguay in its war with Brazil and allies. Furthermore, the Paraguayan regime later claimed common cause with the victorious Northern faction in the U.S. Civil War in a fight for republicanism against slavery, as Brazil remained one of the last large slave-holding powers in the Americas. And, when the South American conflict turned decidedly against Paraguay, and it became primarily a war of resistance against foreign invasion, the discourse of anti-imperial and anti-slavery only grew in intensity among the regime’s friends. In particular, Gregorio Benítez, the main diplomatic agent of the López state in France, emerged as the principal advocate and genuine believer in such a “Paraguayan cause” in the extensive propaganda battles over the war that occupied readers and foreign offices in the political and economic centres of the North Atlantic - London, Paris, Brussels, New York and Washington. He commissioned numerous works and articles in the European press supporting the Paraguayan side in the conflict. In so doing, he worked closely with the Argentine intellectual Juan Bautista Alberdi, who also lived in France at the time. Alberdi, past critic of the López regime, became a tireless advocate of the Paraguayan resistance. He thus also wrote countless pamphlets and articles for European and American audiences decrying the monarchic imperialism of Brazil and touting the republican struggle of Paraguay.  Other major publicists also contributed. Benítez especially valued the work of the French thinker Eliseo Reclus.  Both Reclus and Alberdi emphasised the anti-imperial fight of the small, landlocked country. They also linked the Paraguayan struggle to a fight against slavery and thus to other similar “republican” struggles in the Americas. 
In his personal correspondence, Benítez himself revealed how undertones of racialised contradistinction provided increasing resonance to such claims, despite all the tensions involved coming from an autocratic and patriarchal society. For he allegedly despised the widespread slavery still practiced in Brazil, and the empire’s use of impressed Afro-Brazilian soldiers to prosecute the war, but his disgust turned its projection of derogatory blackness onto the entire country. He called the Brazilians the “black imperialists,” the “black empire,” and the “empire of the blacks,” occasionally applying the racist term macaco (monkey). Benítez employed in tandem the mocking titles of “slavecratic empire” and “slavecrats.”  He thus regarded the “republican cause,” the “democratic cause,” the “beautiful (even Holy) American cause” of Paraguay in sharp distinction against “the slavocratic empire of South America.”  For him, Paraguay was republican above all by virtue of its armed opposition to the slaveholding monarchy of Brazil. The Brazilian military campaign, he admonished to a colleague, had “for its primary objective the servile subjugation of the peoples of the Plata to the pretensions of the Empire of blacks that scandalizes the American continent.”  The fight against “black imperialists” and their alleged pretensions to enslave such people thus gave, in his view, Paraguayan soldiers their clearest claim to the title “republican and free.”  Indeed, these very sentiments lent vituperative charge to the sort of folk republicanism championed in the wartime state propaganda within Paraguay itself, which had even acquired popular resonance in the country’s vernacular language of indigenous origin, Guaraní. 
General Martin Thomas McMahon came late to the war in Paraguay, having already heard and read many polemics circulating about it. News reports and editorials had filled the presses of the North Atlantic. Coverage was mixed. The allies did receive sympathetic treatment in many of these reports, which repeated wisdom received from Brazilian and Argentine propagandists; in this view, the war was a crusade of Progress and Civilisation against a barbaric tyrant in an indigenous and backward country. Yet large currents of U.S public opinion also sided with Paraguay, believing that, since their country had just emerged from its own conflict to preserve republicanism and end slavery, the potential expansion of slave-holding, imperial Brazil was hardly reason to cheer.  The U.S. government was officially neutral in the war, yet a significant faction within the State Department also openly supported the Paraguayan cause.  The head of the U.S. legation in Paraguay for most of the war, Charles Washburn, also often expressed his wishes that the country would prevail in its resistance against the allied invasion and led diplomatic commissions to negotiate a peaceful settlement.  Yet he soon fell foul of the autocrat López at a desperate time of the war, when the President was also conducting show trials and executing alleged traitors. Even so, Washburn noted how, upon leaving his post, he heard the general opinion “held almost universally throughout the United States and Europe, that Lopez was a hero, fighting bravely in defiance of his country and republican principles against monarchy, despotism, and slavery…”  McMahon himself was inclined to see things this way.
In fact, it was Washburn’s troubles that eventually brought McMahon to Paraguay as his replacement, appointed in mid-1868 by the outgoing Johnson administration as the new head of the U.S. diplomatic legation. Previously, Washburn and other members of the legation had fallen under the suspicion by López. The autocrat believed that they, along with dozens of Paraguayans and other foreigners, had been conspiring to overthrow his government and seek capitulation to the allies. López apparently wanted to arrest the U.S diplomat and have him pay for his supposed crimes. Washburn had consequently petitioned for a release from his post, was eventually extracted from the capital Asunción by a U.S. warship in September 1868, and left believing himself to have barely escaped with his life. Moreover, he left decrying López as a tyrant, a petty South American despot who lived outside the pale of civilisation. He later attested that the autocrat “was not, properly speaking, a member of the human family, that he was mentally a malformation, a monster,” who proved “the worst tyrant that ever figured on the page of history.” 
Upon arriving back in Washington, he spread these depictions and his own tales of horror to influential friends in Congress and the State Department, or anyone who would listen. He soon had more people convinced of his impressions. For Washburn was confirming other reports emerging from the theatre of war that López was, in fact, conducting a repressive campaign against dissidents in his camp, arresting, torturing, and executing them, including members of his own family.  At this point in the conflict, the defensive bulwarks of Paraguayan forces in the south of the country had collapsed. Their armies were in retreat. Brazilian ironclads had finally surpassed their major riverside fortress to steam up the river Paraguay and shell the capital Asunción. As allied armies pressed northward, repulsing subsequent Paraguayan counters, López soon ordered a general retreat into the countryside, forming provisional capitals, first in Luque, and later into the interior hills in the small village of Piribebuy. The repression of the regime had turned the intense violence of the war inward in its desperation for political survival. 
McMahon eventually reached Paraguay in November 1868 amid such desperate conditions, ironically presenting his diplomatic credentials to a government on the verge of complete annihilation. He nonetheless fulfilled his mission with a dignified sense of political commitment. McMahon had come out of the U.S. Civil War looking for diplomatic appointment as an obvious means to advance a career in government. His rank as general and respectable service in the war, as well as his many political connections developed in the Federal army, positioned him well to receive a nomination. In 1867, influential friends in Washington had pushed for him to be named diplomatic minister to the eventually-victorious liberal Juárez faction in Mexico. Beyond reasons of health and career ambition, the post coincided with geopolitical sympathies, to represent the United States before another American republic that had been saved, having just beaten back an imperial monarchic threat from Europe. Unfortunately for McMahon, a rival got the post. 
When the post in Paraguay opened, Washburn pleaded to be removed from consideration, and the administration named McMahon as the replacement. His nomination proved that United States took an interest in the political survival of a small South American republic fighting against a monarchy. McMahon accepted the call with a deepening conviction that such was indeed the case and that he had a role to play. He made the long, two-leg journey by steamer, first from New York to Europe, then southward to Buenos Aires. Upon initially arriving in the Argentine capital, both Washburn (who had just escaped from Paraguay) and the U.S. Minister to Brazil, James Webb, implored McMahon not to travel on to Asunción. They argued that the United States instead should be at war with Paraguay, due to López’s alleged violation of international law, and claimed that these circumstances trumped McMahon’s official instructions from the State Department.  Nevertheless, he pressed stubbornly on, having the U.S. naval ship Wasp take him north up the Paraná and Paraguay rivers, past the amassed allied armies and warships, and on toward the nebulous, shrinking, sovereign territory of the Paraguayan republic still under the control of the López regime. 
Little was heard from McMahon for the next several months. Indeed his accreditation to the regime proved a major irritant to the allied powers, and inversely was a boon for those Paraguayans still loyal to López. He was the last diplomatic representative from a North Atlantic power to reside with the López government, granting it a continued level of legitimacy, particularly in the face of a provisional Paraguayan government being formed by the allies in now-occupied Asunción. As part of their blockade of the regime, the Brazilians did not allow any correspondence from McMahon to pass through their lines. Along with the regime, he was isolated.
Not long removed from scenes of war and devastation in his own country, McMahon soon encountered similar, perhaps even more awful experiences in Paraguay. After arriving, he travelled with retreating government officers, soldiers and civilians to the provisional capital of Piribebuy. He witnessed several combat actions in which the Paraguayan troops, many of whom were mere adolescents, took on overwhelming numbers of Brazilian soldiers, if only to delay their further advance. His writings and sketches later recalled wrenching incidents of child-like soldiers “dragging shattered limbs or with ghastly bullet wounds in their half-naked bodies,” and mothers carrying over their heads on wooden planks the lifeless bodies of toddlers, as they pressed on in the general retreat ordered of soldiers and civilians alike. Yet as with description of women selflessly attending the battle wounded within Paraguayan lines, or captured Paraguayan soldiers escaping to rejoin López’s forces, he largely remembered such scenes as evidence of the people’s commitment to a patriotic cause. 
Indeed, all indications suggest that he formed a personal friendship with the autocrat López, even agreeing, more controversially, to serve as the protector of his children and executor of his will. The relation seemed to reflect a mutual respect between soldiers, one his predecessor never had with the president. McMahon also made friendly acquaintance with López’s notorious Irish mistress, Eliza Lynch, and frequently provided her with company during extended afternoon conversation and horseback rides.  Their Irish camaraderie, fellow-feeling and connection was evident and likely contributed to the regime’s willingness to trust him. For López and his diminishing entourage, McMahon’s presence also offered the last respite of a stately life and recognition before being doomed to disappear. 
In spring 1869, with word of the imminent destruction of the Paraguayan government, the new U.S. President Ulysses Grant issued the order to recall McMahon. With little known of McMahon himself, Washburn speculated that he too had fallen victim to the tyrant López.  McMahon nonetheless stepped through the allied lines under escort in June and promptly made his trip back to the United States with a much different impression of the Paraguayan leader. Upon reaching Europe, he exchanged correspondence with Gregorio Benítez who was anxious for any word from the front and desirous for the general’s public advocacy of the Paraguayan cause. In fact, Benítez had just been in the United States in May lobbying political leaders and major newspapers there, reminding them that the “Republic of Paraguay currently defends not only its own cause but that of all of republican America.”  McMahon did not disappoint in this regard. He arrived back in the United States as the most prominent public defender of the López regime and the alleged cause that it sustained. He spoke to newspapers, gave lectures to veterans groups, testified in Congress, and wrote articles himself doing so, all during the final despairing months of the war.
McMahon was not naïve. He acknowledged the severity with which López crushed dissenters and executed deserters in the ranks.  When pressed, he even admitted to the likelihood of some atrocities committed by his forces.  Yet he actively countered accusations that López was a monster beyond the pale of humanity. Instead, his impressions offered to the press emphasised qualities just the opposite, that of a refined and enlightened leader. He called López in one instance an “intelligent, polished and courageous, and conversant with European manners and diplomacy.”  On another occasion, he described the president as “possessed of fine administrative abilities, and not more cruel in war than the most complaining of Allied Generals.”  He vacillated in having ever actually witnessed torture in the Paraguayan lines and placed doubt in the validity of most such reports.  In a lecture to the veterans of the 69th New York Regiment in February 1870, McMahon pronounced the character of López as “that of a true soldier and scholar, a gentleman of winning and pleasing address… Unlike the monster his enemies have represented him, he was gentle, though brave, his worst crime being that for five years he has heroically defended the liberty of his native land.”  López seemed, above all, to be an upstanding General and patriot.
These were controversial positions. In early 1870, the House Committee on Foreign Relations had begun a formal investigation into events surrounding the López government’s alleged violation of the U.S. legation, while Washburn was still minister. Later an official censure from the chamber condemned the actions of the regime.  The proceedings produced accusations by congressmen against McMahon himself for alleged illicit dealings, given his staunch defence of the autocrat. Washburn, whose powerful family had pushed for the proceedings, also took his shots at the character of McMahon. He resorted to defamations of religious prejudice and called his successor’s support of López the fancy of a fanatical Catholic. The allied propaganda machine had also levelled accusations that McMahon was López’s lackey, having allegedly taken money and even led troops in the field. 
The charges, however unfounded or discriminatory, forced McMahon to face the seeming contradiction inherent in his position, that of a democratic defender of an apparent dictator whose actions evoked the atrocities of petty warlord-caudillos. He, in turn, fell back on a portrayal of the Paraguayan president consistent with liberal-democratic values. In his estimation, López was the beholder of the will of the Paraguayan people, the embodiment of national determination. McMahon testified that, although some dissenters rankled, “There certainly exists among the people - and I think among quite a majority of them - a most devoted attachment to López. It is a devotion that surpasses anything I have ever witnessed before. My impression is, this feeling exists among the great majority of the people.”  López, in his view, only represented the popular sovereignty of Paraguay. And as with his endearment to old General John Sedgewick, McMahon could appreciate the appeal of a charismatic leader for people supposedly fighting for a patriotic cause.
McMahon also believed that greater evils loomed than López’s alleged atrocities. In a February 1870 article written for the magazine Harper’s Monthly, he charged that the prosecution of the war itself by Brazil and its allies proved more criminal in its act and potential consequences. He condemned the treaty provisions of the Triple Alliance as contrary to democratic values and self-determination. McMahon openly described the conflict as “a war of conquest and absorption by Brazil” and asserted as incoherent “to claim that the war, on part of the allies, if unjust in its inception, can be defended by prophetic relation to the vile but imaginary murders done three or four years later upon the person of the venerable mother of President López.”  Moreover, he decried:
to permit such conquest and absorption is contrary to received and traditional principles of American policy. We have assumed the role of protector of the American republics. We played it with success and honor in regard to Mexico. We encourage by popular sympathy the struggle which Cuba carries on to gain her independence. Yet both the government and the people survey with indifference the magnificent fight which Paraguay has maintained for five long years to preserve the independence which she gallantly conquered a half a century ago; and this independence, won from Spain, is threatened by a monarchy far less enlightened, whose dominion will be fatal to the development of Paraguay and to the progress initiated there eight years ago by this very ruler whom it is the fashion among certain interested parties of more or less standing to denounce as a barbarian and a “monster unfit to live.” 
While invoking the “traditional principles” of the Monroe Doctrine, McMahon nonetheless articulated the evolved and perhaps more idealistic sentiments of his time. It was the geopolitical vision that saw co-aligned American republics struggling anew against monarchic and slave regimes of Old World origin, similarly expressed by lettered agents of the Paraguayan state, which also had its echoes elsewhere in the hemisphere. Indeed, McMahon explicitly noted how such struggles in Mexico, Cuba, and Paraguay were linked and deserving of sympathy from the United States. Their fights all seemed to reflect the efforts to preserve and extend republicanism, as was won with his own country’s sacrifices in civil war. They seemed to gather the inspiring aura of anti-colonial and anti-slavery battles, behind which perhaps the United States, considering its revolutionary origins and recent travails, should stand. A subsequent article in Harper’s in April thus made further appeals for this very sympathy for Paraguay’s war, vividly, in words and sketches, as indicated, depicting incredible acts of sacrifice by Paraguayan men, women, and children in the context of patriotic devotion, as the plight of fellow Americans.  Here, outrage over alleged crimes by a dictator diluted into anti-colonial, anti-imperial feelings garnered for a fellow republic also fighting to be saved from a monarchy. McMahon had joined counterparts from Latin America and elsewhere to indeed declare López and his people heroic defenders of republican America.
By the time McMahon’s second article was published in April 1870, the war in Paraguay had already come to an end. On 1 March, Brazilian soldiers killed López in a creek bed in the North-Eastern forests of the country. His resistance had finally reached its collapse. The war had devastated Paraguay; over half of the territory’s pre-war population of a half-million had either died or fled the disaster. The republic remained under mainly Brazilian occupation for a decade longer, its existence perhaps a mere legal fiction, only revived again toward the end of the century.  And with the defeat, López’s memory persisted in infamy for decades as that of a barbaric tyrant who had destroyed his country in war. Even former lieutenants who were faithful to the end later disavowed him.  Largely forgotten was the old reverence of López as republican hero. In fact, his alleged role as national hero also had to be revived in the country much later, if nonetheless, in altered form, serving different political purposes in another era.  McMahon himself had most likely learned of López’s death and defeat in a newspaper dispatch. He nonetheless hung onto his convictions. Three years later, living in New York City and soon to pursue a political career in the Democratic Party, he was elected president of the local “Cuban League,” a lobby group supporting Cuban insurgents in their efforts to win their independence from Spain. 
Although McMahon held onto a geopolitical vision once shared with lettered patriots from Paraguay, as well as with those from Mexico and Cuba, it proved perhaps too laden with contradiction and difficult to sustain. Just as he and Gregorio Benítez, for example, never fully resolved the tension of championing the purported republican cause of a Paraguayan president who behaved much like a repressive despot, it turned more doubtful that the United States itself could serve as a benevolent protector of American republics. In Mexico, expanding political and economic interests of the United States in the region helped to prop up the dictatorial successor of the Juárez regime, Porfirio Díaz, for over three decades. Then, in Cuba, a pre-emptive invasion by the United States in 1898 helped Cuban insurgents finally to secure their independence from Spain, if only to fall under the imperial influence of their supposed benefactor. McMahon despaired at these developments. In his 1899 poem read at a ceremony to commend the efforts of Union soldiers to save the Republic, he denounced such imperial tendencies as betraying their noble sacrifices.
1. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
2. “Will Not Run for Congress - Gen. McMahon has decided not to be a candidate,” New York Times, 22 October 1892.
3. “General Martin Thomas McMahon,” Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography. ed. James Grant Wilson and John Fiske. (New York: D. Appleton Co., 1888-89) vol. 4, 148.
4. “Gen. McMahon Rumored to be Appointed Collector,” New York Times, 16 April 1885. This article provides biographical information on McMahon’s life before the Civil War.
5. “Gen. Martin T. McMahon Nominated by Democrats for the Assembly,” New York Times, 15 October 1890.
6. Arthur H. Davis, Martin T. McMahon: Diplomático en el estridor de las armas (Asunción: Editora Litocolor, 1985) 82, 439. Davis provides the photographs of McMahon in his edition.
7. “Gen. McMahon’s Illness,” New York Times, 14 February 1887. The article reported on an incident in which McMahon was overcome by intense chest pain and “raised considerable blood” after lifting weights at a health club. It attributed the affliction to the exposure suffered during the Civil War and indicates a similar attack sixteen years earlier.
8. Davis 57.
9. McMahon, Sedgwick 32. Bruce Catton provides a classic description of Sedgwick’s death, A Stillness at Appomattox. (Garden City: Doubleday and Co., 1953) 109.
10. Appleton’s 129; Davis 441.
11. McMahon, Sedgwick 19.
12. “Decoration Day,” New York Times, 1 June 1875. An excerpt from McMahon’s speech during the ceremony was included in the article.
13. Who Was Who in America (Chicago: A.N. Marquis Co., 1943) vol.1, 820.
14. Davis, 470.
15. New York Times, 8 February 1894. In a review of the New York State Senate’s proceedings, the edition mentions McMahon’s advocacy for the erection of a statue in Stueben County in honour of a Revolutionary War hero. New York Times, 10 April 1893. This article describes McMahon’s introduction of a bill to send New York state commission that would cooperate with a Federal commission, in restoring the Chickamuagua battle site.
16. “Why I am a Democrat,” New York Times, 29 October 1893. The article takes excerpts out of McMahon’s essay under the same title in Donahue’s magazine.
17. Davis 472.
18. McMahon, Sedgwick, 28-29.
19. McMahon, Sedgwick 5.
20. McMahon, Sedgwick 23.
21. McMahon, Sedgwick 4.
22. New York Times, 12 October 1899.
23. McMahon, Sedgwick 5.
24. James M. McPhearson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford UP, 1997).
25. For the origins and early development of the conflict, see Thomas Whigham, The Paraguayan War: Causes and Early Conduct (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002). Other recent narratives of the war include: Chris Leuchars, To the Bitter End: Paraguay and the War of the Triple Alliance (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002) and Francisco Dorotioto, Maldita guerra: Nova história da Guerra do Paraguai (Sao Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2002). For a classic work in English, see Charles Kolinski, Independence or Death! The Story of the Paraguayan War (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1965). For a brief overview and excellent historiographical discussion of the conflict, see "Introduction,” I Die with My Country: Perspectives on the Paraguayan War, ed. Hendrik Kraay and Thomas Whigham (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004) 15-19.
26. The Chilean diplomat and publicist José Victorino Lastarria articulated such warnings in his work La América (Gante: Imprenta de Eug. Vanderhaeghan, 1867), 146-51. Within the book, he reprints a proposed July 1864 declaration from the Chilean congress protesting the European intervention in Mexico and pushing Chile to lead the defence of republican America. During the French invasion, Mexicans themselves sounded such rhetoric. See Brain Hamnet, Juarez (London: Longman, 1994), 166-75. For the republicanism of Cuban insurgents during the Ten Years’ War, see Ada Ferrer, Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), ch. 1-2.
27. Robert Conrad Hersch, “American Interests in the War of the Triple Alliance, 1865-70” (PhD diss, New York University, 1974), 27-29.
28. José Berges to Richard Mullowney, Asunción, 6 December 1863, Archivo Nacional de Asunción-Colección Río Branco (hereafter ANA-CRB) I-22, 11, 1 n. 243.
29. El Semanario (Asunción), 13 February 1864.
30. El Semanario (Asunción), 9 July 1864.
31. José Berges to Candido Bareiro, Asunción, 6 June 1864, ANA-CRB I-22, 11, 1 n. 350. Subsequent letters reinforced this rhetoric, José Berges to Richard Mullowney, Asunción, 6 November 1864, ANA-CRB I-22, 11, 1 n. 447; José Berges to Candido Bareiro, Asunción, 6 November 1864, ANA-CRB I-22, 11, 1 n. 450.
32. A proclamation of pro-Paraguayan provisional government in the province of Corrientes is reprinted in Dardo Ramírez Braschi, La guerra de la triple alianza a través de los periodicos correntinos (Corrientes: Amerindia Ediciones, 2000), 67-68.
33. See, for example, Juan Bautista Alberdi, Los intereses argentinos en la guerra del Paraguay con el Brasil (Paris, 1865) and “El imperio Brasil ante la democracia de América,” Obras Selectas de Juan Bautista Alberdi ed. Joaquin V. González ,v. 6 (Buenos Aires, 1920), 369-427. For a list and description of these polemics, see Ricardo Miguel Zuccherino, Juan Bautista Alberdi (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Depalma, 1987) 183-195. For a discussion of Alberdi’s activities and philosophy during the war, see Mayer Alberdi y su tiempo (Buenos Aires: Editorial Universal de Buenos Aires, 1963), 675-764.
34. Gregorio Benítez to Francisco Solano López, Paris, 24 October 1866, Biblioteca Nacional de Asunción-Colección O’Leary, Papeles de Gregorio Benítez (hereafter BNA-CO, PGB).
35. For the publications of Reclus during the war, see Milda Rivarola, La polémica francesa sobre la guerra grande (Asunción: Editorial Histórica, 1988), 13-103.
36. See, for example, Gregorio Benítez to Carlos Saguier, Paris, 7 August 1866; Benítez to Juan Bautista Alberdi, Paris, 6 August 1866; Benítez to Alberdi, Paris, 28 November 1866; Benitez to Franciso Solano López, Paris, 24 December 1866; Benítez to Alberdi, Paris, 17 September 1868; Benítez to Martin McMahon, Paris, 11 November 1869, BNA-CO, PGB.
37. Benítez to Carlos Saguier, Paris, 7 August 1866; Benítez to Alberdi, Paris, 22 October 1866; Benítez to Alberdi, Paris, 26 November 1869, BNA-CO, PGB.
38. Benítez to Don S. de Santa Cruz, Paris, 6 August 1868, BNA-CO, PGB.
39. Benítez to Alberdi, Paris, 19 November 1867, BNA-CO, PGB.
40. Michael Kenneth Huner, “Toikove Ñane Retã!: Republican Nationalism at the Battlefield Crossings of Print and Speech in Wartime Paraguay, 1867-1868,” Building Nineteenth-Century Latin America: Re-rooted Cultures, Identities, and Nations, ed. William G. Acree Jr. and Juan Carlos González Espitia (Vanderbilt University Press, 2009) and “Cantando la república: la movilización escrita del habla popular en las trincheras del Paraguay, 1867-1868,” Paginas de guarda, Buenos Aires, (noviembre 2007), 115-32. For such anti-Brazilian folk republicanism in the Argentine provinces during the war, see Ariel de la Fuente, “Federalism and Opposition to the Paraguayan War in the Argentine Interior: La Rioja, 1865–67,” I Die with My Country, 140-53.
41. Hersch 137; For an example of allied propaganda distributed in the United States, see Manuel Garcia, Paraguay and the Alliance Against the Tyrant Francisco Solano López (New York: Hallet and Breen, 1869).
42. Hersch 96.
43. Harold F. Peterson, “Efforts of the United States to Mediate in the Paraguayan War,” Hispanic American Historical Review (February 1932): 9. In 1867, Washburn attempted to negotiate a cease-fire and a mediated peace conference with Brazil’s military commander Marquis de Caxias. Caxias refused mediation on the grounds that Brazil would not come to the peace table until López was removed as the leader of Paraguay. Washburn consequently condemned such an erroneous demand for peace as contrary to the ideals of self-determination.
44. Charles Ames Washburn, The History of Paraguay, with Notes of Personal Observations of Diplomacy under Difficulties, vol. 2 (Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1871), 435-436.
45. Washburn 547, 480.
46. New York Times, 23 February 1869; 5 March 1869. Washburn 494.
47. Luc Capdevila, Une guerre totale: Paraguay 1864-1870 (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2007), 95-105.
48. Hersch 208.
49. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Paraguayan Investigation. 41st Cong., 2nd ses., May 1870, H.R. report no. 65, 218.
50. For an excellent overview of Washburn’s troubles, McMahon’s time in Paraguay, and the diplomatic circumstances surrounding them, see Frank O. Mora and Jerry W. Cooney, Paraguay and the United States: Distant Allies (Athens: The University of Georgia Press), 26-36.
51. Martin T. McMahon, “The War in Paraguay,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 40 (April, 1870): 637, 646; Paraguayan Investigation, 228.
52. Davis 76, 510.
53. “South and Central America,” New York Times, 22 August 1869. Reprinted were the farewell correspondences between McMahon and López and the glowing niceties expressed between them.
54. New York Times, 5 May 1869. Washburn offers this theory in a reprinted letter to Minister James Webb.
55. Benítez to Martin McMahon, Paris, 11 November 1869 (cited above); Benítez to J. Hassard, Paris, 14 May 1869, BNA-CO, PGB.
56. Paraguayan Investigation 224,227.
57. Paraguayan Investigation 228.
58. "Minister McMahon on Lopez: A Defense of the Dictator,” New York Times, 12 September 1869.
59. New York Times, 27 October 1869.
60. Paraguayan Investigation, 227.
61.“The War in Paraguay- Lecture by General M. T. McMahon,” New York Times, 15 February 1870.
62. Congressional Globe, 41st Cong., 3rd ses, 322, 5 May 1870.
Washburn 557; Globe 325; Mora and Cooney, 32.
64. Paraguayan Investigation, 223.
65. Martin Thomas McMahon, “Paraguay and Her Enemies,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 40 (February 1870): 421-29.
66. McMahon, Harper’s. (February 1870): 429.
67. McMahon, Harper’s (April 1870): 639-646.
68. The full extent of Paraguay’s loss of population continues to be a subject of debate. Thomas Whigham and Barbara Potthast, “The Paraguayan Rosetta Stone: New Insights into the Demographics of the Paraguayan War, 1864-1870,” Latin American Research Review (Hereafter, LARR) 34, no. 1 (1999) is the most accurate estimation. Vera Blinn Reber contends the casualty numbers were much lower than suggested by Whigham and Potthast, see her “Comment on ‘The Rosetta Stone,’” LARR 37, no. 3 (2002): 129-35, and Whigham and Potthast’s consequent response “Refining the Numbers: A Response to Reber and Kleinpenning,” ibid: 143-48. For the post-war decade, see Warren Harris Gaylord, Paraguay and the Triple Alliance: the Postwar Decade, 1869-1878 (Austin: University of Texas Press,1978).
69. For examples of the anti-lopista literature in Paraguay after the war, see Hector Francisco Decoud, Los emigrados paraguayos en la guerra de la Triple Alianza (Buenos Aires: Talleres Graficos Argentinos, 1930); Cecilio Báez, La tiranía en el Paraguay; sus causas, caracteres y resultados (Asunción: Tip. de “El País,” 1903); Juan Crisóstomo Centurión, Memorias o reminiscencias históricas sobre la Guerra del Paraguay, vol. 1-4 (Asunción: El Lector, 1987).
70. Capdevila, ch. 6.
71. “The Cuban League,” New York Times, 27 November 1873.
72. New York Times, 12 October 1899 (cited above).
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