The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War

The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War

by Roy Morris


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For nearly three years, Walt Whitman immersed himself in the devastation of the Civil War, tending to thousands of wounded soldiers and recording his experiences with an immediacy and compassion unequaled in wartime literature anywhere in the world.
In The Better Angel, acclaimed biographer Roy Morris, Jr. gives us the fullest account of Whitman's profoundly transformative Civil War years and an historically invaluable examination of the Union's treatment of its sick and wounded. Whitman was mired in depression as the war began, subsisting on journalistic hackwork, his "great career" as a poet apparently stalled. But when news came that his brother George had been wounded at Fredericksburg, Whitman rushed south to find him. Deeply affected by his first view of the war's casualties, he began visiting the camp's wounded and found his calling for the duration of the war. Three years later, he emerged as the war's "most unlikely hero," a living symbol of American democratic ideals of sharing and brotherhood.
Brilliantly researched and beautifully written, The Better Angel explores a side of Whitman not fully examined before, one that greatly enriches our understanding of his later poetry. Moreover, it gives us a vivid and unforgettable portrait of the "other army"—the legions of sick and wounded soldiers who are usually left in the shadowy background of Civil War history—seen here through the unflinching eyes of America's greatest poet.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780195124828
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date: 07/27/2000
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Roy Morris, Jr. is a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee. He is the author of Sheridan: The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan and Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

New York Stagnation

An uncharacteristically quiet—some said sullen—crowd of thirty thousand New Yorkers clogged the streets around the ornate Astor House on the west side of Broadway on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 19, 1861. They were there to see, if not necessarily to cheer, the president-elect of the United States, then en route from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., to take up the reins of an increasingly fractious and runaway nation. Shortly before 4 P.M., a procession of horse-drawn carriages arrived at the front entrance of the hotel, which was located diagonally across the street from P. T. Barnum's American Museum. As Abraham Lincoln climbed out of his carriage, an uneasy silence filled the air. Given the circumstances, he must have felt a little like one of the Great Humbug's prize exhibits.

    New York as a whole was cool toward Lincoln. In the presidential election the past November, the city had given the Republican nominee a mere 35 percent of its votes. Since then, an increasingly emboldened Mayor Fernando Wood, himself a Tammany Hall Democrat, had begun recommending publicly that New York secede from the Union and transform itself into a new city-state, somewhat clumsily named Tri-Insula, with himself presumably serving as doge. Secession was on everyone's minds just then. The day before Lincoln's arrival, former U.S. senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi had taken his own oath of office in Montgomery, Alabama, as president of the nascent Confederate States of America. Already, seven deep South states hadseceded; more were expected to follow any day. Decades of worsening intersectional strife, culminating in the savage guerrilla war between pro- and antislavery supporters in "Bleeding Kansas" and John Brown's abortive raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, had led to the formation of the Republican party and Lincoln's bitterly divisive election with a scant minority of the popular vote. After years of self-righteous posturing, political demagoguing, and outright lying by Northern abolitionists and Southern fire-eaters, the nation as a whole was looking straight down the barrel of a ruinous civil war.

    Marooned atop a stage in the massive traffic jam around the Astor House that afternoon was a forty-one-year-old Brooklynite as troubled in his way as the nation itself. Walt Whitman—former carpenter, former printer, former schoolteacher, former newspaper editor, former novelist, former political activist, and, as it sometimes seemed, former poet—was becalmed in his own "horrible sloughs." Six years after his astonishing poetic debut, Leaves of Grass, had seemed to presage, as Ralph Waldo Emerson told him, "the beginning of a great career," Whitman was locked in the grip of a spiraling depression. His low spirits were occasioned more or less equally by the loss of his job as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Times, the mixed reception of his latest book of poetry, the ongoing burdens of his troubled and troublesome family, the bankruptcy of his Boston-based publishers, and the end of an unhappy love affair with a young man several years his junior. He was currently spending most of his days like today, riding alongside New York's hard-bitten stagecoach drivers as they made their way through the city's teeming streets. His nights were spent at Pfaff's beer cellar in Greenwich Village, drinking, talking, and swapping barbs with the tavern's self-styled bohemians. Far from being poised on the brink of a great career, Whitman increasingly felt stranded in a personal and professional dead end, caught in a vortex of "quicksand years that whirl me I know not whither."

    Whitman's depression mirrored the mood of anxious Americans everywhere concerning the future—if any—of their imperiled republic. Always politically sensitive, he understood only too well the likely consequences of Lincoln's election and the failure of political leaders on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line to resolve their differences peaceably. In a prescient passage in Leaves of Grass he had tried almost physically to hold the states together by force of will:

States! Were you looking to be held together by the lawyers? By an agreement on a paper? Or by arms? Away! I arrive, bringing these, beyond all the forces of courts and arms, These! to hold you together as firmly as the earth itself is held together.

    Against the rising tide of sectionalism, Whitman urged "a new friendship" between the states, "indifferent of place" and woven together by an overarching affection. "Those who love each other," he insisted, "shall be invincible." Ironically, Abraham Lincoln, the one individual charged with holding the states together politically as Whitman had tried to do poetically, would say much the same thing at his upcoming inauguration. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman had promised that "affection shall solve every one of the problems of freedom." Lincoln, who in his own way was also a poet, would put it slightly differently in his first inaugural address. "We are not enemies, but friends," he would say, directing his speech to the unhappy South. "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

    Few individuals had heard those chords as long or as often as Whitman himself. From the time of his birth at West Hills, Long Island, on May 31, 1819, he had absorbed the American democratic experience in all its boisterous variety. His ancestors were English and Dutch immigrants, stolid farmers and canny horse traders who during the Revolutionary War had thrown in their lot with the patriots. His paternal grandmother had told him hair-raising stories of British atrocities during the military occupation of Long Island; his grand-uncle had been killed at the Battle of Brooklyn. As a boy, Whitman had found the washed-up bones of some of the twelve thousand American prisoners of war who had died in the rotting prison ships in Brooklyn's Wallabout Bay; and years later, as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, he had successfully led a public campaign to raise a monument to the borough's martyred dead. As a child of six, he had been lifted into the arms of the Marquis de Lafayette during the old hero's triumphant return to America. He had seen President Andrew Jackson parading down Fulton Street in a white beaver hat, and as an office boy he had personally delivered legal papers to the fallen dynast Aaron Burr. American history, particularly the revolution, lived vividly in his imagination, engendering an almost religious devotion to the Union. In his own household, three of his brothers were named after presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. His father was an acquaintance of Thomas Paine.

    Whitman's intense love of country was reflected in his art. Leaves of Grass was not simply a book of poetry, it was a working manifesto for a new American religion based upon "the supremacy of Individuality"—and Whitman himself was nothing if not an individual. His groundbreaking poetry, with its frank discussion of sex, bodily functions, and sweaty quotidian life, together with his carefully cultivated image as a rough-and-ready man of the people, openly challenged accepted norms of behavior. His "barbaric yawp" was a new kind of language, the lingua franca of the common man, transmitting its revolutionary message of self-liberation and personal worth to people across all strata of society. The all-including "I" of "Song of Myself," the longest poem in Leaves of Grass and the first great poem in the American vernacular, was not simply "Walt Whitman, an American" but men and women everywhere, particularly those of his native country. "I celebrate myself and sing myself," he said in the poem's famous opening lines, "and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." He heard America singing, he said, in the humble voices of her workers, the unheralded farmers, sailors, storekeepers, and mechanics who quietly transacted the daily business of the republic. To their rough voices he lent his own:

Take my leaves America, take them South and take them North, Make welcome for them everywhere, for they are your own offspring, Surround them East and West, for they would surround you, And you precedents, connect lovingly with them, for they connect lovingly with you.

    At the time of Lincoln's New York visit, Whitman was contemplating a national tour of his own to broadcast his vision of a cohesive country, "strong, limber, just, open-mouthed, American-blooded, full of pride, full of ease, of passionate friendliness." He was too late. The nation was indeed full of passion and pride, but by early 1861 it was far from friendly. Lincoln's journey to the capital seemed more like a foray into enemy territory than a triumphant political victory march. A covey of bodyguards, including future Union generals John Pope, Edwin Sumner, and David Hunter and private detective Allan Pinkerton, shadowed the president-elect every step of the way. Armed guards patrolled each bridge and overpass, suspiciously eyeing the welcoming crowds, and spare locomotives were parked ahead of time in all of the cities that Lincoln was scheduled to visit, ready to spirit him away instantly at the first sign of trouble. Even with such extraordinary precautions, a bomb was discovered under Lincoln's seat on his private train, and a sinister gang of toughs called the Blood Tubs was said to be plotting his immediate assassination. Whitman was not the only one who worried, when Lincoln stepped out of his carriage at the Astor House, that "many an assassin's knife and pistol lurk'd in hip or breast-pocket there, ready, as soon as break and riot came."

    There was no riot that day in New York, merely an anticlimactic "dumb-show" in which Lincoln and the assembled crowd looked at each other with silent curiosity. Whitman, atop his stagecoach, had "a capital view of it all, and especially of Mr. Lincoln, his look and gait—his perfect composure and coolness—his unusual and uncouth height, his dress of complete black, stovepipe hat push'd back on the head, dark-brown complexion, seam'd and wrinkled yet canny-looking face, black, bushy head of hair, disproportionately long neck, and his hands held behind him as he stood observing the people." Whitman felt that it would take four different sorts of genius—Plutarch, Aeschylus, Michaelangelo, and Rabelais—to truly sketch Lincoln's portrait. Somewhat surprisingly, he failed to realize that he had already taken the new president's measure himself, six years earlier, in his unpublished essay, "The Eighteenth Presidency!".

    Written against the backdrop of the dispiriting 1856 presidential campaign between Democratic nominee James Buchanan, the American (Know-Nothing) party's Millard Fillmore, and the Republican party's first standard-bearer, John C. Frémont, "The Eighteenth Presidency!" was an impassioned appeal to the idealized workingmen and women of the nation. These open-hearted laborers Whitman contrasted favorably to the corrupt politicians then in power, the "limber-tongued lawyers, very fluent but empty, feeble old men, professional politicians, dandies, dyspeptics, and so forth," who controlled the nation's destiny. Their ranks included a dizzying array of malefactors: "robbers, pimps ... malignants, conspirators, murderers ... infidels, disunionists, terrorists, mail-riflers, slave-catchers ... body-snatchers ... monte-dealers, duelists, carriers of concealed weapons, blind men, deaf men, pimpled men, scarred inside with the vile disorder, gaudy outside with gold chains made from the people's money and the harlot's money twisted together ... the lousy combings and born freedom sellers of the earth." At the head of the whole unsavory combination, Whitman charged, sat the president of the United States, Franklin Pierce, who "eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals."

    Against such a malodorous combination, the poet yearned for a "Redeemer President" who would come out of the West, "some heroic, shrewd, fully-informed, healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced American blacksmith or boatman ... dressed in a clean suit of working attire, and with the tan all over his face, breast, and arms." This was a remarkably accurate, if incomplete, description of Lincoln himself, written a good two years before Whitman or most of the nation had ever heard of him, and nearly five years before the poet first laid eyes on the president-elect in front of the Astor House. "I would certainly vote for that sort of man," Whitman had promised, and four years later he did just that. It remained to be seen if the majority of the country, which had not voted for Lincoln, would react as favorably when he finally took office.

    The slashing poem "Respondez!", written the same year as "The Eighteenth Presidency!", offered little hope for optimism. In its almost hysterical linking of public and private corruption, the poem recalls the darkest passages in Timon of Athens, depicting a depraved, demoralized society led by "murderers, bigots, fools, unclean persons." The poem posits a nightmare world in which the worst people dominate the best, a godless society governed by "money, business, imports, exports, custom, authority, precedents, pallor, dyspepsia, smut, ignorance, unbelief." Traditional roles are grotesquely reversed: judges trade places with criminals, jailers with prisoners, masters with slaves. The highest ideals of American life—freedom, democracy, and equality—are replaced by "management, caste, comparison." Wholesome sexuality has become the province of "she-harlots and he-harlots." All the cardinal virtues have been lost:

Let freedom prove no man's inalienable right! every one who can tyrannize, let him tyrannize to his satisfaction! Let none but infidels be countenanced! Let the eminence of meanness, treachery, sarcasm, hate, greed, indecency, impotence, lust, be taken for granted above all!

    In their bitterness and cynicism, "The Eighteenth Presidency!" and "Respondez!" are light-years removed from the utopian expansionism of Leaves of Grass (even the exclamation points in the titles reveal a desperate stridency). Whitman himself, in the half-decade since their composition, had undergone a similar transformation. Gone was the gladsome, celebratory poet of the open road; he had been replaced by a detached, world-weary onlooker who had taken to spending much of his time indoors in a vaultlike tavern inhabited by some distinctly unquiet ghosts.

    Whitman had begun going to Pfaff's beer cellar, at 653 Broadway, in the summer of 1859, soon after he lost his job as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Times. Pfaff's had become the nightly meeting place for an ever-changing group of poets, artists, journalists, critics, actors, agents, and assorted hangers-on, united only by their artistic pretensions and their épater les bourgeois approach to life. Chief among them was Henry Clapp, the acid-tongued editor of the Saturday Press, a New York weekly whose literary prestige was exceeded only by its fiscal fragility. Clapp had been to Paris in the 1840s and witnessed the birth of la vie de bohème. He had returned to America determined to establish a New World beachhead for modish artistes. Pfaff's, conveniently located just down the street from the New York Free Love League (which he also frequented), was Clapp's chosen staging ground. The beer was cold, the sausages and potato pancakes were tasty, and the wine cellar was considered one of the finest in the city.

    With his short stature, high-pitched voice, grizzled beard, and ever-present pipe, Clapp looked a little like a down-on-his-luck leprechaun. A reporter for the New York Leader described him in appropriately continental terms as "a queer fellow—a character. He is a born Yankee; speaks French like a native; plays poker like a Western man; drinks like a fish, smokes like a Dutchman; is as full of dainty conceits as a Spanish or Italian poet, is as rough in his manners as a Russian or a Russian bear." No one was safe from Clapp's sharp tongue. Fellow editor Horace Greeley was "a self-made man that worships his creator." William Dean Howells and Nathaniel Hawthorne were "a couple of shysters." A certain local clergyman was "awaiting a vacancy in the Trinity." Wall Street, with its howling and screeching traders, was "Caterwaul Street," and the United States Treasury was said to be changing its motto from "In God We Trust" to "In Gold We Trust." One of his favorite bits of advice was: "Never tell secrets to your relatives. Blood will tell."

    For all his sniping, Clapp had a generous side, and he was one of Whitman's earliest and strongest supporters, at a time when the poet needed all the friends he could get. Years later, Whitman would tell his young disciple Horace Traubel: "I don't know if you have ever realized ... what it means to be a horror in the sight of the people about you: but there was a time when I felt it to the full—when the enemy—and nearly all were the enemy then—wanted for nothing better or more than simply, without remorse, to crush me, to brush me, without compunction or mercy ... to do anything, everything, to rid themselves of me."

    Clapp was different. He recognized Whitman's poetic genius—many did not—and he also saw the poet's symbolic value as an avatar of the rising new bohemian. As the reigning "King of Bohemia," Clapp enthusiastically welcomed Whitman into Pfaff's inner circle; more important, he gave him a public forum for his work, however sporadic it would prove to be in the years preceding the Civil War. He published favorable—and sometimes unfavorable—reviews of Whitman's work, free advertisements for Leaves of Grass, parodies written in the Whitman style, and snippets of what could only be called press agentry, such as the November 12, 1859, announcement that "whoever wishes to see a perfect likeness of Walter Whitman should go to Root's Gallery, No. 363 Broadway." It was with a deep sense of gratitude that Whitman told Traubel, late in life, that "Henry Clapp stepped out from the crowd of hooters—was my friend, a much needed ally at that time.... My own history could not be written with Henry left out. I mean it—that is not an extravagant statement."

    Clapp was the acknowledged ringleader at Pfaff's, but he was far from alone in his subterranean kingdom. Sitting at the head of a long, low table strategically placed at the far end of the cellar, he presided over a raucous gathering of the city's most outrageous, if not always most talented, literati. Among the regulars were Artemus Ward, the western comedian and friend of Mark Twain; future novelist Thomas Bailey Aldrich; Irish-born short-story writer Fitz-James O'Brien; poet-humorist George Arnold; drama critic Edward G. P. Wilkins; drug addict-turned-author Fitz-Hugh Ludlow; New York Times journalist John Swinton; Polish expatriate Count Adam Gurowski; and travel writer and poet Bayard Taylor.

    Adding immeasurably to the beauty and tumult of the surroundings were two remarkable women: Ada Clare and Adah Isaacs Menken. Clare, whose real name was Jane McElheney, was a Charleston, South Carolina, beauty who had relocated to New York as a girl of nineteen to become an actress. Her professional debut in The Hunchback was a disaster; critics found her arms too thin and her voice too shrill. Undismayed, she turned to poetry as her creative outlet, publishing a number of confessional lyrics on the subject of lost love. It was a topic she knew painfully well—her seduction and jilting by concert pianist Louis Gottschalk was a famous scandal, producing an out-of-wedlock child with whom she traveled openly, signing hotel guestbooks with a defiant flourish, "Miss Clare and Son."

    Sharing Clare's bad luck with men was her fellow-Southerner Menken. The New Orleans—born Menken was the more successful actress, largely because of her well-rounded figure, which she showed to good effect in the Broadway melodrama Mazeppa, in which she wore flesh-colored tights and rode off into the sunset on the back of a "fiery steed." But despite being widely acclaimed as "the most perfectly developed woman in the world," Menken also had trouble holding onto men. She was married four times, and her second husband, heavyweight boxing champion John "the Benicia Boy" Heenan, publicly disowned both her and their son, denying unchivalrously that he and Menken had ever been married in the first place.

    Despite, or perhaps because of, his comparative immunity to the two Ada(h)s' potent sexual charms, Whitman got along well with the distaff bohemians. He encouraged their writing, listened sympathetically to their romantic travails, and in general acted the role of a literal Dutch uncle. Menken in turn fulsomely praised Whitman as a great philosopher, "centuries ahead of his contemporaries," and predicted that one day he would have marble statues erected in his honor. "It is very curious that the girls have been my sturdiest defenders," Whitman mused later. "Some would say they were girls little to my credit, but I disagree with them there." After Clare's grisly death from hydrophobia at the age of thirty-eight—she was bitten through the nose by her theatrical agent's rabid lapdog—he went out of his way to mourn "poor, poor Ada Clare," whose uncoventional lifestyle, he said, had been "gay, easy, sunny, free, loose, but not ungood." As for Menken, he returned her good will by standing best man at her penultimate wedding.

    Whitman's relations with the male bohemians were not always as smooth. Reflecting, perhaps, his depressed, disordered state, the usually good-natured poet quarreled openly, and at times physically, with the men at Pfaff's. He derided the foppish drama critic Wilkins for being "sickish, dressy, Frenchy." When Aldrich published a book of poems titled The Bells, Whitman told him cuttingly, "Yes, Tom, I like your tinkles: I like them very well." William Winter earned his lasting enmity for characterizing Leaves of Grass as "odiferous." Whitman, in turn, characterized Winter as "a dried up cadaverous schoolmaster," and years later still remembered him hotly as "little Willy Winter, miserable cuss!" It was all part of the backbiting repartee common to literary gatherings everywhere—not even Whitman was immune from scorn. One night, he told Traubel, he was forced to listen helplessly while someone at the table gave a burlesque reading of Leaves of Grass, "the strokes bright, witty, unsparing." According to the poet, he had been untroubled by the teasing—"I was inclined to let them be amused." He was decidedly not so inclined when, shortly after the beginning of the Civil War, would-be humorist George Arnold rose to his feet and proposed a mock toast: "Success to Southern arms!" Whitman, ever the patriot, jumped up and denounced the toast in loud, angry terms. The embarrassing scene ended with the two men scuffling briefly and Arnold giving Whitman's beard a vigorous parting tug.


Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION The Medicine of Daily Affection3
CHAPTER ONE New York Stagnation9
CHAPTER TWO A Sight in Camp48
CHAPTER THREE The Great Army of the Sick75
CHAPTER FOUR The Real Precious & Royal Ones of This Land124
CHAPTER FIVE The Melancholy Tide161
CHAPTER SIX Retrievements Out of the Night201
EPILOGUE Lose Not My Sons238

What People are Saying About This

Simon Winchester

This deftly written, almost unbearably moving book serves to remind us powerfully of the horrors faced by the wounded on the Civil War battlefields, of the genius and compassion of Walt Whitman in dealing with them, and of the remarkable skill of one of America's most accomplished biographers in researching and telling so poignant a story.
— Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and The Madman

Robert H. Abzug

The Better Angel illuminates Walt Whitman's Civil War years with frankness and compassion. His insights and compelling narratives afford us new and humanly rich understandings of the poet and his vision of America.
— Robert H. Abzug, author of Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination and Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps

Sean Wilentz

Elegant and moving…Essential reading for everyone who cares about American culture.

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The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While I am not a frequent reader of poetry, I am enamored with both History and Biography, and that is what drew my interest to 'The Better Angel' by Mr. Roy Morris Jr. My knowledge of this Country's notable poets and their work is a void in my reading. Were there to be more books written in this manner it is a gap I believe that would be lessened. I did not expect to read Mr. Whitman's work to any extent as I thought this was a biography of a time period in the poet's life. Mr. Morris does indeed share a great deal about a familiar name in American Literature; he also selectively uses the work of Mr. Whitman, and finally places it all within the context of the deadliest war this Country has ever fought. Approximately 750,00 died in our Civil War. The numbers were so astronomically high due to the nature of the fighting, the ammunition used, and the medical profession's ignorance of even the most basic hygiene, infection, the inability to care for those wounded expeditiously, and the use of medicines that poisoned as often as they helped. Dysentery killed 100,000; one particularly virulent infection, Pyemia claimed 97.4% of those infected. Tetanus was also responsible for killing 89% of its victims. I take the space to mention these statistics, as this was the environment that Mr. Whitman made a major part of his life for years, and many consider this same commitment caused his lingering illnesses and finally his death. While it is true he introduced many to ice cream, brought with him countless small gifts, including a requested toothpick, his time and the comfort he gave to these soldiers made him a hero to thousands forever. All too many times his act was to sit with the dying so that they did not do so alone. He wrote countless letters for those too injured or unable to do so for themselves. He visited the families of some who had been slain. He was a man torn by his personal feelings about the war, the price it exacted, and what was bought. The man was very complex in his thoughts and the angst and contradiction he was forced to deal with. He had a Brother who fought for nearly the entire war, was for a time a prisoner but ultimately survived. He Family in New York included a Mother he loved, and a Brother who slipped into madness and violence as the disease that consumed him advanced. This is not a lengthy book, but it provides a well-written documentary on a portion of this famous man's life. It puts some of his work into the context from which it was created, and how the same circumstances so affected the poet. There was one facet of Mr. Whitman that was mentioned and associated so many times that it began to sound defensive. I suggest this part of the man need not be defended, as it did not add or subtract from his deeds, and while it certainly was part of his writing, his works were not the focus of this book. Long after Mr. Whitman died he lived on in the children grateful soldiers had named after him who lived from Syracuse New York to Kentucky, and one imagines many points between.