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Women Soldiers Of The Civil War

Near the end of the Civil War, a wounded Confederate soldier (Jude Law) struggles to reach his girlfriend's (Nicole Kidman) North Carolina home. As Law encounters mysterious characters on his trek, Kidman tries to run her late father's farm with help from a no-nonsense spitfire (Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winner Renee Zellweger). Anthony Minghella's stunning adaptation of Charles Frazier's novel co-stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman.

It is an accepted convention that the Civil War was a man's fight. Images of women during that conflict center on self-sacrificing nurses, romantic spies, or brave ladies maintaining the home front in the absence of their men. The men, of course, marched off to war, lived in germ-ridden camps, engaged in heinous battle, languished in appalling prison camps, and died horribly, yet heroically. This conventional picture of gender roles during the Civil War does not tell the entire story. Men were not the only ones to fight that war. Women bore arms and charged into battle, too. Like the men, there were women who lived in camp, suffered in prisons, and died for their respective causes.

Both the Union and Confederate armies forbade the enlistment of women. Women soldiers of the Civil War therefore assumed masculine names, disguised themselves as men, and hid the fact they were female. Because they passed as men, it is impossible to know with any certainty how many women soldiers served in the Civil War. Estimates place as many as 250 women in the ranks of the Confederate army.

Writing in 1888, Mary Livermore of the U.S. Sanitary Commission remembered that: Some one has stated the number of women soldiers known to the service as little less than four hundred. I cannot vouch for the correctness of this estimate, but I am convinced that a larger number of women disguised themselves and enlisted in the service, for one cause or other, than was dreamed of. Entrenched in secrecy, and regarded as men, they were sometimes revealed as women, by accident or casualty. Some startling histories of these military women were current in the gossip of army life.

Jennie Hodgers

In May 1911, the US Bureau of Pensions opened an investigation of a Civil War veteran named Albert D.J. Cashier to learn whether the former Union soldier qualified for increased benefits. A half dozen comrades-in-arms, some traveling long distances, made the trip to Quincy, Illinois, to testify on the applicant's behalf.

But they also learned for the first time this startling fact: the person they knew as Albert D.J. Cashier, who fought Confederates alongside them, and once was singled out by a superior for bravery, was really Jennie Hodgers, a woman disguised as a man throughout a full tour of duty.

The revelation was a sensation. Leroy Scott, an employee at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Home in Quincy, where Hodgers resided during the inquiry, told reporters "all members of the company who have visited her told me that they never suspected the secret of her sex."

Women were forbidden in the military during the Civil War, but historians say hundreds took up arms before wounds, sickness, pregnancy, capture or other circumstances led to discovery. Hodgers, who continued to pass as a male afterward, is the only female known to be in combat, receive an honorable discharge and then a pension, according to National Archive records.

The US Adjutant General's Office shows Albert D.J. Cashier, 19, an Irish immigrant and illiterate, enlisted 6 August 1862, in Boone County, Illinois, shortly after drifting there from the East Coast. She became a member of Company G in the Illinois 95th Regiment. At the time, Cashier, who had not lived in the area long.

Physical examinations obviously were scattershot. Many medical staff were poorly trained and inexperienced. A few taps on the chest, a glance down a throat, and very often recruits were sent on their way to drills. The Army's policy, according to a report in the Kankakee (Ill.) Daily Journal, was simple: "Don't test the eyes, count them."

And Cashier? When Company G veterans were asked for depositions, no one could recall being stripped during their examinations. Robert Horan told the Bureau of Pensions that he was asked just to show hands and feet. He would testify that only Albert's diminutive size would've indicated something askew. Furthermore, soldiers often went weeks without changing clothes on the front lines, and kept to themselves when not on maneuvers.

Civil War author Bell Irvin Wiley, in his Billy Yank: The Union Soldier, noted: "These men were irreproachable as soldiers, but they seemed shut up within an impenetrable shell, and would be on their blankets silent while all others joined in the social round...should you address them, they could not be drawn out and keep to themselves at all times as much as possible."

The Illinois 95th infantry unit fought in the war's western theater, participating in bloody battles in Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi and traveling nearly 10,000 miles during Hodgers' hitch. One of the commanders, Col. Thomas W. Humphrey, was among the regiment's many fatalities.

In the Vicksburg Campaign attack of 19 May 1863, the 95th was the only regiment to directly rush the Confederate defense line. They drove to within 700 yards south of the Stockade Redan, crossed Glass Bayou, scrambled up a steep slope and weathered blistering fire to reach a point less than 100 yards from the enemy position before ordered to withdraw, according to military records.

Three days later at Vicksburg, the Illinoisans advanced against the defense perimeter south of the present day Missouri Memorial. A withering fire stopped the assault close to the enemy works, costing the regiment 109 casualties. Eventually, Company G was among the first units to march triumphantly into the city when it fell.

In one noteworthy piece of combat testimony that emerged in the inquiry by the Bureau of Pensions, Hodgers was briefly taken prisoner by the Confederates while on foraging detail and escaped by overpowering her captor. One Union officer said in a report: "(Cashier was) ...selected whenever dependable men were absolutely needed."

A year later, the Illinois 95th was engulfed in the rout of Union forces at Brice's Crossroads in northern Mississippi. In this battle, the unit lost its colonel, Humphrey, and three captains who successively commanded the regiment before returning to Memphis. It also participated in the ensuing Red River and Nashville Campaigns, closing out the war in operations at Mobile, Alabama.

Little was known about Hodgers' Irish background, owing to New York City listed as her birthplace during enlistment. Employees of the Soldiers' & Sailors' Home in Quincy, in attempts to bolster pension claims, and later to settle a modest estate, learned her true place of birth was Clogherhead, Ireland, and her father's occupation was either a sheep buyer, coachman or horse trader.

Dressing as a man? Several scenarios were hinted at and explored, but never confirmed due to Hodgers' own evasiveness and, eventually, dementia.

She told some at the home there was a love affair with a man, who was killed in action and, on his deathbed, made her pledge to never again wear women's clothing. One explanation was that she was raised with a twin brother in Ireland, where she was forced to wear men's clothing because the family was too poor to buy individual garments. Another popular tale had her stowing away on a ship to America disguised as a cabin boy.

This much is known: Cashier returned after the discharge to Belvidere in northern Illinois, where she took up work in a plant nursery. In less than a year, she started drifting south and eventually landed in Saunemin, a small town in the central part of the state, in 1869, where it was apparently easy to keep the secret.

In a 1969 Illinois State University master's thesis written by Mary Catherine Lannon, a descendant of Hodgers' neighbors, it was noted: "Albert - herder, lamplighter, janitor, general handyman - was notably eccentric; but the people of the town called on her services, often paying her with meals and, at times, a place to sleep, never really suspecting that this peculiar man was in fact a woman."

Occasionally taunted by youngsters as the "little drummer boy", Hodgers was proud of her military career and put on the Union uniform to march in parades. Jennie voted in elections long before women were granted the vote in Illinois in 1913. "She was remembered by many with affection and retrospective amazement," Lannon wrote.

At first, Hodgers lived on a farm that employed her. Eventually, she moved into town and slept on the floor of a hardware store she cleaned. Then, she moved into a one-room house, adjacent to a church she helped maintain, and this would remain her home for decades.

It took a long time for the secret to unravel. Hodgers first applied for a pension in 1899, but did not complete the process until 1907 as it required a medical exam. Later, she convinced the examining board not to reveal her cover and the pension was granted.

In 1910, her world started to unravel. When Hodgers fell ill that year, a visiting nurse from Chicago paid a visit and discovered the 66- year old veteran's secret. The revelation was kept quiet, but a year later, she suffered a broken leg when Ira Lish, a local state senator who employed her to do odd jobs, accidentally ran into her with his automobile.

When Lish subsequently learned the secret, he arranged for Hodgers to be admitted to the Soldiers' and Sailors' Home in Quincy. The superintendent and physician were let in on the secret, which they agreed to keep. The new resident enjoyed discussing Army days with other vets. One highlight of her stay was a visit from her company commander, who verified her service.

In 1914, the home decided Hodgers' mental decline warranted a transfer to the Watertown State Hospital for the insane in East Moline, Illinois. This required a court hearing, and although her true sex was not referred to at the hearing, somehow word got out and the press broke the story.

Once at the asylum, and declared mentally unfit, Hodgers was placed in the women's ward and forced to wear dresses for the first time in 50 years. She continued to be visited by military buddies.

One of them, Charles W. Ives, would say later in a letter that, as he thought back over the war, he never had an inkling of his little comrade's identity. He wrote: "I left Cashier, the fearless boy of 22, at the end of the Vicksburg campaign. When I went to Watertown, I found ... a frail woman of 70, broken, because, on discovery, she was compelled to put on skirts. They told me she was as awkward as could be in them. One day she tripped and fell, hurting her hip. She never recovered."

Hodgers died at age 71 on 10 October 1915, of an apparent infection. She never became aware of publicity surrounding her role in the Civil War while institutionalized because she never learned to read.

"Find Old Soldier Is Just a Woman", trumpeted a Chicago Tribune headline above a 1913 story. Buried in a Grand Army of the Republic uniform and with full military honors, the headstone in the Saunemin cemetery read: "Albert D. J. Cashier, Co. G, 95 Ill Inf."

Livermore and the soldiers in the Union army were not the only ones who knew of soldier-women. Ordinary citizens heard of them, too. Mary Owens, discovered to be a woman after she was wounded in the arm, returned to her Pennsylvania home to a warm reception and press coverage. She had served for eighteen months under the alias John Evans.

In the post - Civil War era, the topic of women soldiers continued to arise in both literature and the press. Frank Moore's Women of the War, published in 1866, devoted an entire chapter to the military heroines of the North. A year later, L. P. Brockett and Mary Vaughan mentioned ladies "who from whatever cause . . . donned the male attire and concealed their sex . . . [who] did not seek to be known as women, but preferred to pass for men." Loreta Velazquez published her memoirs in 1876. She served the Confederacy as Lt. Harry Buford, a self-financed soldier not officially attached to any regiment.

The existence of soldier-women was no secret during or after the Civil War. The reading public, at least, was well aware that these women rejected Victorian social constraints confining them to the domestic sphere. Their motives were open to speculation, perhaps, but not their actions, as numerous newspaper stories and obituaries of women soldiers testified.

Most of the articles provided few specific details about the individual woman's army career. For example, the obituary of Satronia Smith Hunt merely stated she enlisted in an Iowa regiment with her first husband. He died of battle wounds, but she apparently emerged from the war unscathed. An 1896 story about Mary Stevens Jenkins, who died in 1881, tells an equally brief tale. She enlisted in a Pennsylvania regiment when still a schoolgirl, remained in the army two years, received several wounds, and was discharged without anyone ever realizing she was female. The press seemed unconcerned about the women's actual military exploits. Rather, the fascination lay in the simple fact that they had been in the army.

The army itself, however, held no regard for women soldiers, Union or Confederate. Indeed, despite recorded evidence to the contrary, the U.S. Army tried to deny that women played a military role, however small, in the Civil War. On October 21, 1909, Ida Tarbell of The American Magazine wrote to Gen. F. C. Ainsworth, the adjutant general: "I am anxious to know whether your department has any record of the number of women who enlisted and served in the Civil War, or has it any record of any women who were in the service?"

She received swift reply from the Records and Pension Office, a division of the Adjutant General's Office (AGO), under Ainsworth's signature. The response read in part: I have the honor to inform you that no official record has been found in the War Department showing specifically that any woman was ever enlisted in the military service of the United States as a member of any organization of the Regular or Volunteer Army at any time during the period of the civil war. It is possible, however, that there may have been a few instances of women having served as soldiers for a short time without their sex having been detected, but no record of such cases is known to exist in the official files.

This response to Ms. Tarbell's request is untrue. One of the duties of the AGO was maintenance of the U.S. Army's archives, and the AGO took good care of the extant records created during that conflict. By 1909 the AGO had also created compiled military service records (CMSR) for the participants of the Civil War, both Union and Confederate, through painstaking copying of names and remarks from official federal documents and captured Confederate records. Two such CMSRs prove the point that the army did have documentation of the service of women soldiers.

The Union CMSR for John Williams of the Seventeenth Missouri Infantry, Company H, shows that the nineteen-year-old soldier enlisted as a private on October 3, 1861, in St. Louis and was mustered into the regiment on the seventh. Later that month, Williams was discharged on the grounds: "proved to be a woman." The Confederate CMSR for Mrs. S. M. Blaylock, Twenty-sixth North Carolina Infantry, Company F, states: This lady dressed in men's clothes, Volunteered [sic], received bounty and for two weeks did all the duties of a soldier before she was found out, but her husband being discharged, she disclosed the fact, returned the bounty, and was immediately discharged April 20, 1862.

Another woman documented in the records held by the AGO was Mary Scaberry, alias Charles Freeman, Fifty-second Ohio Infantry. Scaberry enlisted as a private in the summer of 1862 at the age of seventeen. On November 7 she was admitted to the General Hospital in Lebanon, Kentucky, suffering from a serious fever. She was transferred to a hospital in Louisville, and on the tenth, hospital personnel discovered "sexual incompatibility [sic]." In other words, the feverish soldier was female. Like John Williams, Scaberry was discharged from Union service.

Despite the fact that the U.S. Army did not acknowledge or advertise their existence, it is surprising that the women soldiers of the Civil War are not better known today. After all, their existence was known at the time and through the rest of the nineteenth century. Even though some modern writers have considered Seelye and Cashier, the majority of historians who have written about the common soldiers of the war have either ignored women in the ranks or trivialized their experience. While references, usually in passing, are sometimes found, the assumption by many respected Civil War historians is that soldier-women were eccentric and their presence isolated. Textbooks hardly ever mention these women.

The writings of Bell Wiley and Mary Massey are good examples. Wiley wrote at some length of "the gentler sex who disguised themselves and swapped brooms for muskets [who] were able to sustain the deception for amazingly long periods of time." But he later refers to them, indirectly, as "freaks and distinct types."(13) Massey erroneously asserted that "probably most of the women soldiers were prostitutes or concubines."(14) For the most part, modern researchers looking for evidence of soldier-women must rely heavily upon Civil War diaries and late nineteenth-century memoirs.

It is true that the military service of women did not affect the outcome of campaigns or battles. Their service did not alter the course of the war. Compared with the number of men who fought, the women are statistically irrelevant. But the women are significant because they were there and they were not supposed to be. The late nineteenth-century newspaper writers grasped this point. The actions of Civil War soldier-women flew in the face of mid-nineteenth-century society's characterization of women as frail, subordinate, passive, and not interested in the public realm.

Simply because the woman soldier does not fit the traditional female image, she should not be excluded from, or misinterpreted in, current and future historical writings. While this essay cannot discuss all the soldier-women, their lives and military records, recent chroniclers of the Civil War and women's history have begun to note the gallantry of women in the ranks during the war.(15) Most important, recent works refrain from stereotyping the women soldiers as prostitutes, mentally ill, homosexual, social misfits, or anything other than what they were: soldiers fighting for their respective governments of their own volition.

It is perhaps hard to imagine how the women soldiers maintained their necessary deception or even how they successfully managed to enlist. It was probably very easy. In assuming the male disguise, women soldiers picked male names. Army recruiters, both Northern and Southern, did not ask for proof of identity. Soldier-women bound their breasts when necessary, padded the waists of their trousers, and cut their hair short. Loreta Velazquez wore a false mustache, developed a masculine gait, learned to smoke cigars, and padded her uniform coat to make herself look more muscular.

While recruits on both sides of the conflict were theoretically subject to physical examinations, those exams were usually farcical. Most recruiters only looked for visible handicaps, such as deafness, poor eyesight, or lameness. Neither army standardized the medical exams, and those charged with performing them hardly ever ordered recruits to strip. That roughly 750 women enlisted attests to the lax and perfunctory nature of recruitment physical checks.

Once in the ranks, successful soldier-women probably learned to act and talk like men. With their uniforms loose and ill-fitting and with so many underage boys in the ranks, women, especially due to their lack of facial hair, could pass as young men. Also, Victorian men, by and large, were modest by today's standards. Soldiers slept in their clothes, bathed in their underwear, and went as long as six weeks without changing their underclothes. Many refused to use the odorous and disgusting long, open-trenched latrines of camp. Thus, a woman soldier would not call undue attention to herself if she acted modestly, trekked to the woods to answer the call of nature and attend to other personal matters, or left camp before dawn to privately bathe in a nearby stream.

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Frank Thompson was born Sarah Emma Edmonds in New Brunswick, Canada, the fifth daughter of a farmer impatient for another boy. In this hostile environment, she flung herself recklessly against the limits imposed on her by her sex. She broke colts, scrambled up the barn roof, and hunted in the dense forests around her home. She was seventeen when her father arranged her engagement to an elderly widower, and she fled to the United States dressed in men’s clothing. Under the alias Frank Thompson she worked as a book salesman, selling serials on the frontier, a solitary life riding trains across the sparsely populated West. She was further isolated by having to eschew intimacy to maintain her disguise, so perhaps she joined the regiment as much out of loneliness as patriotism.

Frank Thompson did not cut an impressive figure as a soldier. She was five-foot-six, tall for a woman, but most of her comrades saw her as boyish, with comically small feet and no beard. They assumed she was a boy lying about his age. Because of this she was put to work as a nurse, and other soldiers teased her as “our woman.” One person did know her identity. She became smitten with a fellow nurse, Jerome Robbins, and brashly revealed her identity to him when divulging her love. He didn’t return her affections, but at least he kept her secret.

Unlike Belle Boyd, Rose Greenhow and Elizabeth Van Lew, Sarah Edmonds was not born into a life of privilege. Bitterly disappointed that she was not a boy, her father treated her poorly. It got so bad that she fled her home in New Brunswick and moved to Flint, Michigan. When the Civil War began, Sarah decided to do her part to defend her new country. She cut her hair, dressed like a man, took the name Frank Thompson and enlisted as a private in the Union Army.

When "Private Thompson's" unit was sent south as part of General McClellan's Virginia campaign, she got the opportunity to join his staff as a spy. Needing a cover that would get her behind Confederate lines, Sarah darkened her skin with silver nitrate, donned a minstrel's wig, adopted the name "Cuff" and set off on her first mission disguised as a black man. She got a job as a kitchen worker and kept her ears and eyes open. As soon as she got the chance, she returned to her unit with a great deal of valuable information for General McClellan.

On her second mission, Sarah disguised herself as a fat Irish peddler-woman named Bridget O'Shea. This time, she not only returned with information, but with a Confederate horse that she named "Rebel". When her unit was transferred to General Phillip Sheridan, Sarah on several occasions took the identity of Cuff the black man, of whom she later said, "I truly admire the little fellow — he's a plucky one; got his share of grit". In 1862, Sarah became a black mammy and worked as a laundress. Later, she became Charles Mayberry, a young Southern man from Kentucky.

In 1863, Sarah's unit was sent to prepare for the battle of Vicksburg with General Grant. Her disguise as Private Thompson was threatened when she became ill with malaria. Rather than be discovered, she left camp, went to Cairo, Illinois and, as a woman, entered the hospital for treatment. While there, she read an army bulletin that included in a list of Union deserters one Private Frank Thompson. Her career as a Union soldier and spy was over. She spent the rest of the war as a nurse in Washington. After the war, she returned to Canada, married and moved back to the US, where she raised three sons. The thought of having been a deserter always bothered her, though, so she petitioned the War Department to review her case. Considering the circumstances, the House of Representatives granted her an honorable discharge, a bonus and a veteran's pension. She died in La Porte, Texas in 1889.

Militarily, the women soldiers faced few disadvantages. The vast majority of the common soldiers during the Civil War were former civilians who volunteered for service. These amateur citizen soldiers enlisted ignorant of army life. Many privates had never fired a gun before entering the army. The women soldiers learned to be warriors just like the men.

The women soldiers easily concealed their gender in order to fulfill their desire to fight. An unknown number of them, like Cashier, Jenkins, and Hunt, were never revealed as women during their army stint. Of those who were, very few were discovered for acting unsoldierly or stereotypically feminine. Though Sarah Collins of Wisconsin was suspected of being female by the way she put on her shoes, she was atypical.

Also unusual were the Union women under Gen. Philip Sheridan's command, one a teamster and the other a private in a cavalry regiment, who got drunk and fell into a river. The soldiers who rescued the pair made the gender discoveries in the process of resuscitating them. Sheridan personally interviewed the two and later described the woman teamster as coarse and the "she-dragoon" as rather prepossessing, even with her unfeminine suntan. He did not state their real names, aliases, or regiments.

For the most part, women were recognized after they had received serious wounds or died. Mary Galloway was wounded in the chest during the Battle of Antietam. Clara Barton, attending to the wound, discovered the gender of the soft-faced "boy" and coaxed her into revealing her true identity and going home after recuperation. One anonymous woman wearing the uniform of a Confederate private was found dead on the Gettysburg battlefield on July 17, 1863, by a burial detail from the Union II Corps. Based on the location of the body, it is likely the Southern woman died participating in Pickett's charge. In 1934, a gravesight found on the outskirts of Shiloh National Military Park revealed the bones of nine Union soldiers. Further investigation indicated that one of the skeletons, with a minieball by the remains, was female. The identities of these two dead women are lost to posterity.

Some soldiers were revealed as women after getting captured. Frances Hook is a good example. She and her brother, orphans, enlisted together early in the war. She was twenty-two years old, of medium build, with hazel eyes and dark brown hair. Even though her brother was killed in action at Pittsburgh Landing, Hook continued service, probably in an Illinois infantry regiment, under the alias Frank Miller. In early 1864, Confederates captured her near Florence, Alabama; she was shot in the thigh during a battle and left behind with other wounded, who were also captured. While imprisoned in Atlanta, her captors realized her gender. After her exchange at Graysville, Georgia, on February 17, 1864, she was cared for in Union hospitals in Tennessee, then discharged and sent North in June. Having no one to return to, she may have reenlisted in another guise and served the rest of the war. Frances Hook later married, and on March 17, 1908, her daughter wrote the AGO seeking confirmation of her mother's military service. AGO clerks searched pertinent records and located documentation.

Other prisoners of war included Madame Collier and Florina Budwin. Collier was a federal soldier from East Tennessee who enjoyed army life until her capture and subsequent imprisonment at Belle Isle, Virginia. She decided to make the most of the difficult situation and continued concealing her gender, hoping for exchange. Another prisoner learned her secret and reported it to Confederate authorities, who sent her North under a flag of truce. Before leaving, Collier indicated that another woman remained incarcerated on the island.(23)

Florina Budwin and her husband enlisted together, served side by side in battle, were captured at the same time by Confederates, and both sent to the infamous Andersonville prison. (The date of their incarceration has not been determined.) Mr. Budwin died there in the stockade, but Mrs. Budwin survived until after her transfer with other prisoners in late 1864 to a prison in Florence, South Carolina. There she was stricken by an unspecified epidemic, and a Southern doctor discovered her identity. Despite immediately receiving better treatment, she died January 25, 1865.

The women soldiers of the Civil War engaged in combat, were wounded and taken prisoner, and were killed in action. They went to war strictly by choice, knowing the risks involved. Their reasons for doing so varied greatly. Some, like Budwin and Hook, wished to be by the sides of their loved ones. Perhaps others viewed war as excitement and travel. Working class and poor women were probably enticed by the bounties and the promise of a regular paycheck. And of course, patriotism was a primary motive. Sarah Edmonds wrote in 1865, "I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work, and I was not obliged to stay at home and weep." Obviously, other soldier-women did not wish to stay at home weeping, either.

Herein lies the importance of the women combatants of the Civil War: it is not their individual exploits but the fact that they fought. While their service could not significantly alter the course of the war, women soldiers deserve remembrance because their actions display them as uncommon and revolutionary, with a valor at odds with Victorian views of women's proper role. Quite simply, the women in the ranks, both Union and Confederate, refused to stay in their socially mandated place, even if it meant resorting to subterfuge to achieve their goal of being soldiers. They faced not only the guns of the adversary but also the sexual prejudices of their society.

It is estimated that more than 700 women took up arms during the Civil War, both on the Union and Confederate sides of the conflict. They fought in every major battle of the war, in most cases disguising their gender and fighting alongside men who had no idea they were going to battle with a woman at their side.

On both sides of the war, women were not allowed to enlist in the conflict. However, many ladies had a burning desire to fight for their country, so they took up disguises and fought dressed as men. Most historians estimate that around 400 female soldiers participated in the war.

Michael Conklin. Walk Like a Man: The Jennie Hodgers Story. History Magazine. December/January 2010.

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