Saturday Snippet: The Civil War at sea, from one of my current works in progress


As regular readers will know, I’m hard at work on several novels that I hope to publish over the course of the next year.  Two are approaching completion:  the sixth volume of the Maxwell Saga military science-fiction series, and the first in a trilogy about the Union Navy during the Civil War of 1861-65.  There are several others partly written and awaiting further attention.

I published the beginning of the book as a stand-alone short story in “Tales Around The Supper Table Vol. 2” last year, and an excerpt from the protagonist’s early adventures – the prelude to the assault on Port Royal in South Carolina – in these pages a few months ago.  Today’s episode follows the Port Royal attack.  Intelligence has been obtained concerning a Confederate blockade-running ship, Alice, that’s expected to arrive in Savannah with a valuable cargo of weapons and military supplies.  Lt. Rufus King takes his ship, USS Selinsgrove, on a high-speed run to that port to try to intercept her.  (I’ve added some links for further information where I mention something of historical interest.)

Rufus paced the deck with Bayard as the first dim gray light of dawn lit the eastern horizon. He was dog-tired after a busy day and a sleepless night, but that couldn’t be helped. Around him the ship’s company was already at General Quarters, ready for action. Rufus could sense their eagerness all around him. If they could capture Alice intact, it would mean another very healthy prize money payout, Selinsgrove’s second of the war.

The ship’s main courses were furled, to prevent sparks from the cannon from igniting the low-hanging canvas. She was under topsails alone, sailing very slowly, her engine standing by, but her paddle-wheels not turning. That would get her to the probable scene of any action after sunrise, giving the lookouts time to see any ship trying to avoid interception by creeping along the shoreline. To an observer ashore, it would be clear she was ready for action, but not what sort of action. Selinsgrove hadn’t been part of the Savannah blockade, so they wouldn’t know her by sight. Was she a Union blockader, hoping to intercept a blockade-runner? Was she a Confederate vessel, waiting to see whether the coast was clear – literally – before making a dash for the safe haven of the Savannah River? They wouldn’t be able to tell.

Rufus’ mind raced as he considered his alternatives. If Alice did not show up, should he wait offshore for her? If she did show up, how could he best approach her without appearing to be a threat, lest she flee inshore into an inlet, or take shelter beneath the guns of the temporary battery on Tybee Island, or Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island, before he could reach her? What if escorting vessels put out from Savannah to bring her safely home? Would he have to fight two ships at once, or even more? He plotted move and counter-move on the mental chart in his mind, calculating the influence and effects of wind and tide, trying to anticipate problems before they arose.

One immediate step came to mind. He asked Bayard, “Do we still have that Confederate flag – the one we flew at Fort Jackson during our escape from New Orleans?”

“Yes, sir, I think we do.”

“Good. Hoist it in place of our United States ensign, but keep that handy. I hope we can fool enemy observers into thinking we’re a Confederate ship. If it lets us get closer to Alice, we’ll replace it with our own ensign before we open fire, to avoid violating the rules of war.”

Bayard grinned. “I like that, sir.” He bellowed for the Yeoman and issued orders. Within a few minutes, Selinsgrove had changed sides – visually, at least. Her crew murmured in surprise at seeing the change, but word soon passed among them of what was happening and why.

“Fresh lookouts to all three mastheads,” Rufus ordered. “Make sure they all know what Alice looks like. Tell the foremast lookout to keep watch ahead for Alice or other ships. The mainmast lookout’s to warn of ships coming down the Savannah River, and the mizzenmast lookout’s to watch to seaward and astern. In particular, he’s to look for Trevorton and Asherton. If Lieutenant Sauls found Commander Turnbull quickly enough, and if they move fast, they might get here within the next hour or two.”

“Yes, sir – if the Commander decided to follow your suggestion.”

Rufus heaved a sigh. “Yes, there is that. We can only hope. One more thing. Tell the guns’ crews to run in their guns and lie down on deck, out of sight behind the bulwarks. The same goes for everyone not in the sail handling party. Let’s not make it obvious to observers that we’re cleared for action.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Almost immediately, the mizzenmast lookout called, “Deck there! Three ships broad on the port bow, hull down on the horizon, sir. I can only see their masts and sails against the dawn light. All look to be heading away from the coast.”

Rufus cursed softly. “Damn it! The Confederates know the blockade’s been interrupted by the fighting at Port Royal, and they’re taking advantage of that to run cargoes in and out of Savannah. Those ships must have sailed during the small hours. They’ll be on their way to Bermuda or the Bahamas, loaded with cotton to trade there. Oh, well. Perhaps they’ll get over-confident, and we’ll seize them on their return voyages.”

As the light slowly grew, they saw with dismay that a bank of fog hovered off the coast of Tybee Island, obscuring it. Rufus cursed again. “Alice might turn away from the coast if she can’t see far enough ahead to make a safe landfall,” he muttered.

“Yes, sir, but she might equally well head northward, to see whether the fog lifts off the Savannah River,” Bayard pointed out. “That’ll bring her closer to us.”

“I hope you’re right.”

The mizzenmast lookout hailed, “Deck there! Ship – no, two ships dead astern, hull down. I can only see their topmasts, sir. No flags visible at their mastheads at this distance. They’re making heavy smoke, sir.”

“Keep an eye on them,” Rufus called up.

“Aye aye, sir.”

“That could be Trevorton and Asherton,” the First Lieutenant offered.

“They’re in the right place to be them, but we won’t know until they get closer. If they’re at full steam they’ll be up to us in less than an hour, what with us just idling along like this.”

Another hail interrupted them, this time from the mainmast. “Deck there! Small two-masted brig coming down the main channel of the Savannah River, sir. She’s still above Fort Pulaski. Can’t see her flag or name yet, sir.”

Bayard noted, “She could be an escort ship, coming out to bring Alice safely into port.”

“Yes, or a privateer looking for a Union merchantman to take as a prize.”

What should I do?, Rufus asked himself mentally. If I stand in to meet her, I’ll be giving up sea room I might need to stop Alice if she appears; but if I stay out here, this other ship might dodge inshore and down to Tybee Island, where she can warn Alice that I’m waiting.

His thoughts were interrupted by another hail from the mainmast lookout. “Deck there! Second ship about half a mile astern of the first, also coming down the main river channel. She’s much larger, sir; a three-masted paddle-wheeler, with a funnel ’tween main and mizzen. No cannon visible, sir. Looks like a big merchantman.”

“Another escort ship, sir?” Bayard wondered.

“I’m inclined to think she’s a blockade runner, if she’s that big.” Rufus raised his speaking trumpet. “Lookout, that second ship. How does she ride?”

“She’s very low in the water, sir. Looks like she’s heavily laden. Her decks are piled with what looks like bales covered in canvas.”

He glanced at Bayard. “Yes, I think she’s a blockade runner loaded with cotton. They usually use smaller, faster ships that can run away from blockaders, but since they know our warships are up at Port Royal, they might be trying to run a bigger, slower ship through while the going’s good. She’ll carry as much cotton as three or four smaller vessels. The smaller ship ahead of her might be a scout, to tell her whether it’s safe, or give her time to turn around and head back to port if it’s not.”

“What are we going to do about them, sir?”

Rufus heaved a sigh. “We can’t ignore them. If we play innocent, we might be able to fool that first ship into thinking we’re on their side. If so, we can deal with her before the bigger vessel can get away. Meanwhile, those ships behind us will be drawing closer. If they’re Trevorton and Asherton, they’ll be able to help us.”

“Yes, sir, and that’ll let us concentrate on Alice if she appears.”

“Let’s hope she does, but there’s no sign of her yet. In the absence of Alice, we’ll aim to disable and capture the ships in the river, but if Alice makes an appearance, we’ll turn our attention to her instead. We’ll turn towards the river, and start using the paddle-wheels while still moving as slowly as we can. That’ll bring us up to the brig after both ships are well past Fort Pulaski. We’ll figure out how best to take them both as we get closer.”

“Understood, sir. It’s a pity Alice hasn’t shown up.”

“Don’t speak too soon. She might turn up anytime, and then we’ll have three ships to take care of.”

“Won’t that be biting off more than we can chew, sir?”

“Perhaps so, but there are times when that’s necessary. We’ll do our best.”

The mizzenmast lookout hailed again. “Deck there! The two sail behind us are definitely Asherton and Trevorton, sir. They’re hull-up now, and coming on fast. I recognize both of them.”

Rufus smiled. “They’ll be a big help. Trouble is, as soon as Fort Pulaski sees them, the garrison there is bound to realize they’re Union Navy ships. Nothing else would be moving so fast to intercept other ships. They’ll warn those coming out. We’d better start our approach right away.”

A quick series of helm and engine orders, and Selinsgrove turned towards the mouth of the Savannah River, still more than four miles away. Rufus passed the word to the engine-room to maintain their slow speed, but stoke up the boiler, so that there was steam pressure available for sudden high-speed maneuvers if necessary. The smoke from Selinsgrove’s funnel began to grow thicker and darker.

Rufus examined the foremost Confederate ship carefully through his telescope. She was rather smaller than Selinsgrove, pierced for four cannon on each broadside. From what he could see, they were of mixed size, probably former field artillery 4- or 6-pounders fitted to naval gun carriages, which was about as much recoil as her light timbers would be able to absorb. That meant she was probably a privateer, fitted with whatever cannon her owners could scrounge up, rather than an official Confederate States Navy vessel that would be better and more uniformly armed.

Again he calculated angles and distances on the mental chart in his head. If he closed right up to the smaller vessel before he fired, she wouldn’t have time to evade, and the short range would allow his less experienced gunners to hit her hard, right from the start. By then the larger ship would be close behind her. She’d undoubtedly try to turn around and flee back up-river, to gain the protection of the guns of Fort Pulaski, but she wouldn’t be able to do so before Selinsgrove swept past her first victim and came close enough to hit her hard as well.

Rufus’ thoughts were interrupted by a sudden yell from aloft. “Deck there! Three-masted sailing ship just come out of the fog off Tybee Island, sir! She looks like Alice!”

He spun on his heel and raised his telescope. Sure enough, if the newcomer wasn’t Alice, she was a near-identical twin. His thoughts raced. If I stand on my present course, she’ll probably maintain her approach – she can see our Confederate ensign from her position, so she’ll assume we’re heading for Savannah, just as she is. When we open fire on the brig, Alice may turn tail and try to get back into the fog, but she’ll be further away from it, and she only has sails. She doesn’t have the advantage of paddle-wheels to turn and speed up quickly. She’s more likely to try to get beneath the guns at Tybee Island or Fort Pulaski, which means she’ll have to alter course and try to get past us before we can turn and catch her. She’ll be in range, but a long way off, so hitting her will be difficult. She’ll head for the south channel of the Savannah River, rather than its main channel.

He turned to Bayard. “We’ll hit that brig with our starboard broadside as we pass her. Tell the Gunner to take personal charge of the bow chaser and load with explosive shell. As soon as we open fire, he’s to try to disable the second, larger ship. I’ll continue to close with her in the hope of getting in a quick broadside, then we’ll turn and head for Alice. She’ll try to get away, I’m sure, but we have a full head of steam in our boiler, and I’m betting we’ll move faster than she can.”

“Understood, sir!”

“Very well. Tell Gunner Cosgrove, then take station on the quarterdeck. As you go, pass the word to the gun crews to stand by to run out their guns in a hurry and take aim. Rig tiller lines to steer from aft, in case the pilot-house is hit and the wheel’s disabled.”

“Aye aye, sir!” Bayard was quivering with excitement. He spun on his heel and headed towards where the Gunner was standing on the fo’c’sle.

Rufus marshalled in his mind the orders he’d have to give in a rapid-fire sequence. They had to be uttered in the right order, otherwise things would be chaotic. He glanced ahead. The small privateer was no more than half a mile away now, and would pass close down their starboard side. He waited a few moments, until he was sure of his timing, then raised his speaking-trumpet.

“Haul down that Confederate ensign and hoist our true colors! Helmsman, signal the engine-room to go half ahead!”

There was a loud cheer from his crew as the Yeoman hastened to obey.

“Gun crews, on your feet! Run out your guns! Starboard broadside, fire on that smaller ship as we pass her and your guns bear! Don’t wait for orders!”

There was a mad scramble around the already-loaded guns as the paddle-wheels began to thrash the sea harder and faster. The starboard gun captains adjusted their elevating quoins to depress their muzzles, so as to be able to hit the enemy as they passed within pistol shot. Rufus grinned savagely. Two 32-pounder solid shot fired at point-blank range might go all the way through both sides of that small brig, thanks to her light timbers. Flying splinters would kill and maim many of her crew, and probably throw the survivors into complete disarray, particularly since they hadn’t been expecting any danger.

He nodded approvingly as he saw the bow chaser elevate its barrel and pivot slightly to starboard, to line its sights on the big merchantman now less than a mile away. Cosgrove stood beside the gun captain, both bent over the sight, training the big gun carefully.

The brig was desperately trying to sheer off to port, opening the range from Selinsgrove, but she was already far too close to get away. Her crew was running frantically toward their guns, trying to open the ports and get them ready to fight back, but they would not have enough time. Rufus saw her captain standing on the rear deck next to her wheel. His mouth was open, shouting something, his eyes wide with shock and fear as he saw doom bearing down upon his ship. For a moment, Rufus felt genuinely sorry for him; but the roar of the foremost starboard cannon going off wiped all such thoughts from his mind.

The heavy shot smashed downward through the starboard bulwark of the brig’s bow, burst through the deck, shattered the base of its bowsprit in passing, and exited through a frame on the ship’s port side, ripping several planks out with it as it made a huge splash in the water. The bowsprit bucked violently, snapping or tearing loose all the stays made fast to it. The foremast instantly sagged and swayed as its primary stabilizing stay was ripped free; then, under pressure of the wind in its sails, it began to twist and topple slowly. It hadn’t gone more than a few feet off true when Selinsgrove’s second starboard cannon fired. This ball struck what looked like a 6-pounder cannon on the deck, knocking it clean out of its wooden carriage, and shattered. Pieces of the cannonball shrieked across the deck, along with a cloud of splinters from the smashed gun carriage, cutting down men on all sides. One piece struck the sailor manning the wheel. He screamed and collapsed. Relieved of his guiding hands, the wheel spun freely, aimlessly. As the foremast collapsed into the sea, the brig slewed to port and was dragged to a stop by the wreckage in the water.

“Good shooting, gunners!” Rufus yelled. “Reload, fast as you can!” Above his voice he heard the cheers of the rest of the ship’s company.

A deep boom! came from the 20-pounder Parrott rifle in the bows. Rufus shielded his eyes with his hand as he peered ahead. Within moments, a spout of water rose just off the bows of the oncoming merchantman. The bow chaser’s crew urgently began the task of reloading, while the Gunner and gun captain adjusted the elevation and waited. In just over a minute the gun was ready again, by which time the range had shortened to not much more than a quarter of a mile. The big merchantman tried to veer to port, beginning to turn around, but Cosgrove fired again, and this time his shell was right on target. It skipped off the surface of the sea and smashed into the bow timbers, penetrating them and exploding with a muffled roar and billow of smoke erupting from whatever compartment it had reached.

Rufus yelled, “Starboard broadside, stand by to fire first; then I’ll wear the ship around to give the port broadside a chance. Range will be two cables or less. Hit them, boys! Hit them!”

He turned to the helmsman. “Left half rudder!”

“Left half rudder, aye aye, sir.”

Selinsgrove began to swing rapidly. The two starboard broadside guns’ crews stood clear of their weapons as the gun captains checked their aim. Rufus straightened the ship, then raised his speaking trumpet. “Fire as you bear!”

The two cannon fired again with flashes of flame and billows of smoke. Rufus snapped, “Right half rudder, fast as you can!”

“Right half rudder, aye aye, sir.”

As Selinsgrove checked her turn and swung rapidly the other way, the port battery came into line of sight of the big merchantman. Rufus could see that at least one of the broadside shots had hit her; there was a ragged hole punched into her side just below the bulwarks, halfway between the bow and the paddle-wheel. Again he raised his speaking-trumpet. “Fire as you bear!”

Two more explosions sounded, and Rufus coughed as the smoke swept back over the deck. As he looked up, Cosgrove fired the bow chaser once more, again using an explosive shell. The entire crew erupted in cheers as the shell smashed into the merchantman’s paddle-wheel and blew up. Pieces of wood and metal flew in all directions, and the freighter lurched and began to spin around in the water. The far side paddle-wheel was still turning and exerting pressure, but on this side there was nothing to propel the ship. She was unmanageable under power.

She’ll have to switch to sails only, Rufus mentally exulted as he spun to look behind Selinsgrove. That means she’ll be much slower. Asherton and Trevorton should be able to catch her before she can get away!

He scanned the sea hurriedly. Alice had turned to port, and was clearly trying to get as close as she could to the battery of cannon sited on Tybee Island, so they could protect her from Selinsgrove. Further up the coast, now no more than a mile distant, Trevorton and Asherton were speeding towards the fight, the sea foaming and frothing around their bows as their engines thrust them through the water as fast as they could. As he watched, he saw their gun ports open and the muzzles of their cannon emerge.

I can leave those two ships to them, he thought with grim satisfaction. Now for the main prize!

He issued rapid helm and engine orders, and Selinsgrove turned towards Alice and began to close the range. It would be a race between her hard-working boiler and the morning breeze in Alice’s sails. If the sailing ship could get close enough to the battery for its guns to fend off Selinsgrove, she’d be safe. If he reached her before she could do that, she’d be lost.

He raised his telescope and looked past Alice to the battery on the point of Tybee Island, next to the lighthouse. Men were running around its guns, having obviously been summoned from whatever their other duties had been. He made some quick mental calculations. By the time he caught up with Alice, the battery would be no more than a mile and a half away, close enough to hit Selinsgrove if they were lucky; but unless their cannon were rifled – unlikely, because they looked too small – their accuracy would be poor. Once the range shortened to less than a mile, they would be much more dangerous. He set his teeth in a snarl and mentally urged his ship to greater speed. Come on, Selinsgrove! You can do it!

He raised his speaking-trumpet. “Gunner Cosgrove, see if you can hit her! Use solid shot. We want her disabled, not sunk!”

The Gunner waved his hand in acknowledgment, and bent to the sights of the bow-chaser. A few seconds later, the cannon fired. It had been aimed too high. The shot whistled over Alice and splashed into the sea a couple of hundred yards in front of her. Cosgrove shook his head in frustration and adjusted the sights, while the cannon’s crew hastened to reload it.

Alice had clearly been startled by the nearness of the miss. As Rufus watched, she jinked to starboard, coming almost directly between Selinsgrove and the battery, clearly hoping that the change of course would confuse her opponent’s gunnery. After each of the next two shots, she swung alternately to port and starboard, varying her course to present a more difficult target. The Gunner came close, but could not score a hit, to Rufus’ frustration.

He cast his eyes beyond Alice again. Tybee Island was getting closer, too close to the battery for comfort. He made up his mind. After the next round from the bow chaser, he’d veer to left and right to uncover his broadside guns, and see what they could do to slow the enemy ship. She was within half a mile now, and they were closing fast.

He glanced behind him. Trevorton had hauled alongside the big merchantman, and her boarding party was pouring over her bulwarks to capture her. Asherton had stopped next to the small brig, which was low in the water. Probably that hole in her bows was allowing water to enter her hull. She might not survive for long. He shrugged. Of the three enemy ships, she was the smallest and least valuable, so they wouldn’t lose much prize money if she sank.

Cosgrove fired again. This time the bow chaser’s shot struck high, punching a series of holes in Alice’s sails and breaking the mizzen topsail yard in two. A cheer rose from Selinsgrove’s crew as they saw the damage. Rufus raised his speaking-trumpet. “Broadside guns, stand by! I’m going to veer to port, then to starboard, to give you your chance! Stop her, boys! There’s money in our pockets if you do!” They cheered again as he turned to the helmsman and issued orders.

The ship had only just begun to turn when he saw white powder smoke erupt in unison from the guns ranged next to the lighthouse on Tybee Island. The range is still too long, he thought, but they’ve elevated their cannon as high as they can to fire a salvo. They’re trying their luck, hoping to scare me off.

He fancied he could actually see the cannonballs as they curved down towards Selinsgrove. As he suspected, the range was too great, and they splashed into the sea between the two ships – all except one. A hole appeared in Alice’s forecourse and he saw splinters fly from her deck, now only a couple of cables ahead. He realized at once that one of the battery’s rounds had fallen short, and hit her.

There was a moment’s breathless pause, then suddenly Alice exploded in a spectacular fireball, a billow of black smoke, and a colossal roar. Debris flew in all directions. That shot must have hit the barrels of gunpowder in her hold! Rufus thought as he flinched instinctively, staring wide-eyed at the devastation amid curses and cries of astonishment from his crew. The thunderclap of the explosion battered their ears as they craned to see the destruction. One moment a ship had been there… the next, only her stern was left, and not for long. It was rolling to one side, sinking rapidly. There was no sign of any of her crew, nobody swimming in the water waiting for rescue.

Debris began to rain down on Selinsgrove. Rufus instinctively ducked into the pilothouse, peering upward through the windows in dismay as his ship’s masts, yards and sails were hammered and ripped and torn by the debris. Some of it was stomach-churning, including the entire leg of one of Alice’s unfortunate crew. Whatever clothes its late owner had been wearing had been stripped off it by the blast. It bounced off a sail, leaving a bloody streak down the gray-white canvas, and thumped onto the deck. Other, less identifiable body parts were scattered among the wreckage of spars, rigging and equipment.

Rufus’ eye was caught by a long, thin black object falling towards him. He only had time to realize it was the barrel of a field gun, minus its carriage, before it smashed into the roof of the pilot-house with a horrendous crash. Raw red agony flared through his head, and the world went black.

Well, there you have it.  Civil War naval combat in an era in transition:  sails giving way to steam, and smoothbore cannon giving way to rifled guns that could reach out much further.  In the 1860’s the old and new technologies were blended, some of each being on almost every warship.  It would not be until the last quarter of the 19th century that the transition had been completed among the major powers, and not until the first quarter of the 20th century among the rest of the world’s navies.



  1. This must be a labour of love, because I imagine the research required will be phenomenal (e.g.what was the wording of onboard commands given on a vessel of this type at that period? What were the respecctive top speeds of sailing ships vs sail + paddle-steamers?). Impacting the return on time investment. I read that author Jeffery Deaver spends at least 8 months on research when writing a book (and he writes a book a year). How much time have you spent on research for this novel, and is it more or less than for Ash?

  2. I've always enjoyed "Age of Sail" books, so I'm glad you're writing one. I can hardly wait.

    A while ago I mentioned a war between Chile and Bolivia/Peru. It was also during this period of transition. One of it's firsts was Chile using a rifled cannon with an armor penetrating round to disable a Peruvian ironclad. I suspect the British, who were supporting Chile, were trying out their latest technology.

  3. @Guy Jean: Research time is probably at least equal to writing time for any of my historical novels. As far as one set in the Age of Sail is concerned, I have two advantages:

    1. I sailed in my youth in South Africa, from a small pram dinghy to an ocean-going yacht, so I have a basic understanding of wind, weather, course, sea conditions, etc.

    2. I've read very widely in the field for decades: Hornblower, Ramage, Aubrey, Bolitho, and many others. Sure, they're Napoleonic-era, but in the 1860's much of that still applied. The Age of Steam had not yet replaced the Age of Sail.

    As far as Westerns are concerned, South Africa had its "great eastward" expansion (the Great Trek and subsequent events) almost simultaneously with the USA's "great western" expansion. A great deal of the events of those years, in both countries, were very similar: gold rushes, land wars with native tribes, conflict between different settler groups/nations, and so on. That makes it a lot easier for me to study the history of westward expansion in the USA, because I can understand a lot of it innately, as it were. I've also read very widely in that field, so I have that background, too.

    I have had a lot of trouble researching Civil War navies in terms of their helm orders and day-to-day activities, because few books and memoirs incorporate that sort of information, and there doesn't seem to be any official history of the period that gives that sort of low-level detail. What ships were present/damaged/sunk? Sure. What their captains ordered while the fight was on? Not so much.

  4. @Hamsterman: Yes, that was the Battle of Angamos, during which the Chilean warship Almirante Cochrane used armor-piercing shells to engage the Peruvian ironclad Huáscar, which was eventually captured by Chile and is today a museum ship in that country.

  5. Hey Peter;

    I could visualize that area because I know that area, well done. I do know after the war, we had let the Navy stagnate and were embarrassed by the Spaniards in the "Virginius Affair". We were a force to be reckoned with during the civil war, but after the war, we let the Navy stagnate while the technology improved and we didn't. I had wondered why our navy was first rate during the Spanish American War but the Army wasn't. It was because of that.

  6. Peter, thanks for the explanation. I'll be there clutching my credit card in my hot little hand when the book comes out.

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