Part 9 – The Reminiscences of Capt. Thomas Chatfield

…continued from part 8

When our relief came we returned to West Pass, and the Port Royal was ordered to some other station. It was the last we ever saw of her. That left the Somerset alone at what was the most important station east of Pensacola – important because it was a port of entry, with fourteen feet of water to the mouth of the river – the the Chattahoochee River navigable to Atlanta, Georgia. I am sure the next three months were the most disagreeably anxious months I ever spend during my service. You will remember that we had expected the rebel gunboat Chattahoochee, aided by river steamer, with riflemen on board, would attempt to break the blockade at West Pass: and we had no reason to suppose that Catsby Ap. Jones had abandoned the project, and while we would have liked nothing better than a fight with the gunboat, single handed, we knew perfectly well that if those river steamers could get within rifle range they would force us to abandon the guns: for our whole battery was on uncovered deck. First we debated the question, wouldn’t it be best to lie at the mouth of the bay: and then if the expedition hove in sight steam out into the gulf in hopes the gunboat would follow, and then fight her in the open: but that meant the abandonment of a small inlet, six miles east of West Pass, and good for vessels of eight feet drought. We decided that we musn’t do that: so we finally decided on this plan. I with an armed party went up to the city and got a lot of boards and scantling, and with it built a double fence around our hurricane (upper) deck, packing it between the boards with four inches of sand, making a breastwork, breast height – this in case the river steamers should get within rifle range (we would sink them first if we could) we would abandon the guns, take to our improvised fort, and fight it out with our small arms. Still there was the Chattahoochee. If we had not been able to dispose of her we should still be at the mercy of her heavy guns. The other part of our plan was never to lay all night in the same part of the bay, and to show no lights. Soon after dark we would move to a different part of the bay, then with steam at low pressure, but ready to be increased, also prepared to get up anchor quick, or slip if necessary, and a ten o’clock inspection, drummer in his place, and orders to the officer of the deck to beat to quarters at the first sign of anything unusual. I would, instead of removing part of my clothes, buckle on my side arms, and lie down for such sleep as I could get: and I won’t even guess the number of times the roll of that drum called us to quarters during the three months we were watching for that expedition to come out of the river.

It turned out in the end that all our trouble and anxiety went for nothing: and it came about in this way: When Captain Harris attempted to go up the river with the Port Royal, and while he was aground on the bar, the Confederates drove a double row of piles from each side in a narrow part some fifteen miles above Appalachicola, filled the spaced between with logs, leaving the open wide enough for the steamers and also the gunboat Chattahoochee to squeeze through: but not wide enough for the Port Royal. Then the hurricane came, especially strong in the river, the water rising several feet above normal, that brought down a mass of trees and other debris, which not only filled the gap they had left, but created a shoal a good distance above the piling, turned the water out upon the marshes, creating a broad shoal lake, and so rendering the river unnavigable at that point. The Chattahoochee broke from her moorings, and when the hurricane had passed and the water had subsided, she was out of the river altogether, deeply embedded in mud, and buried in a mass of debris. But we knew nothing of that for over three months. You may be sure we were well pleased when we learned that the combined expedition could not get out of the river.

We remained at West Pass until the spring of 1863: then were sent to St. Marks to relieve the steamer Stars & Stripes: but we had made a number of boat expeditions to isolated parts of the bay, destroyed several sets of salt works. These salt works were composed of sugar kettles set in mud furnaces and were always located at shoal water points, out of reach of the heavy guns, and so only to be reached by boats. We captured a small schooner that attempted to enter the small pass that divided St. George’s Island into two parts.

The town of St. Marks is some eight miles up the river of the same name, which has a channel good for small vessels of from eleven to twelve feet draught. Large vessels, and vessels of deeper draught, must stop at Spanish Hole near the lighthouse. The channel is narrow, with short, sharp turns, caused by numerous oyster reefs which lap each other, so that large vessels even of light draught cannot make the turns. This river is formed by the union of two smaller ones, the St. Marks and the Walla Walla, the town lying between the two: and it is, or was, of some importance, it being the port of Tallahassee. We knew there was a three-gun battery of the point in front of the town, which commanded the river as far as the guns would carry, and that there was a river steamer with a scow lashed alongside, with two guns of some caliber on board. But none of our war vessels could get within reach on account of the crooked channel. In fact an effort was made towards the end of the war by a small fleet. No success attended it.

Captain Crossman was young, ambitious to distinguish himself, and blockading (anchored) is very tedious for the commanding officer, who is never expected to leave his ship to take command of boat expeditions, unless there are two ships at the same place, when the junior commander may go. I commanded every expedition where two or more boats were engaged after Dennison left.

So Captain Crossman planned a night expedition with the view of surprising the battery, intending if successful to spike the guns, and then attack and capture the steamer, and took command of the expedition himself. It was a risky thing to do. For if we had met with disaster he would surely been censured, probably court-martialed, for leaving his ship without a line officer above the grade of Acting Master’s mate, (which was just no grade at all) on board. We could muster about eighty men, including marines, and we had six boats, besides the captain’s gig, which would carry only himself and four men. So by close packing we could crowd the eighty men, including officers, in. We muffled oars, covered the metal seaboards with thick cloth, and made every preparation against noise: and with a quantity of spare ammunition left the steamer soon after sunset on a very dark night, crept up through marshes and lowlands bordering the lower part of the river, seeing nothing until we reached Port Leon, the first firm ground, and about one and a half miles below the town. Here we came in touch with a rebel force, and got into a small fight. Just how many rebels there were we never knew; but judging by the amount of ammunition they expended in the five minute fight, there must have been in the neighborhood of a full company. The river at Port Leon is about 100 hundred yards wide, the opposite short is marshy and was covered with tall swale grass. As we drew near we saw four small fires, the extremes some six or eight hundred feet apart, and knew from these that a line of sentries were posted along the river shore. Then Crossman dropped back alongside my boat: and we held a consultation. The conclusion we reached was that the grass on the opposite shore was sufficiently tall to overshadow us: and that by keeping close under it we could creep past the sentries without being seen. Then we started on again, the orders being that if we were hailed we were to keep moving and not to answer the hail. It turned out differently. The grass instead of overshadowing us was barely up to our shoulders, and there were also occasional breaks of a few feet. We had reached midway of their line when the hail came “Boat ahoy”. No answer. Then again: “boat ahoy.” Still no answer. Then sharp and peremptory, accompanied by the sound of the creaking of a musket “Boat ahoy, I say.” Then Crossman answered “ We are fishermen going up to the town.” “Come ashore fishermen and give the countersign.” Just then another voice called out “Sentry No. 2 I see four boats,” and immediately they both fired. The jig was up. You must remember that we had planned a surprise party for that battery guard, and the surprise party came to grief when those sentries (only a mile and a half below) woke up the night with their shots. We heard the order to fall in, and knew by the sound that there was considerable body getting under arms: and we had been moving up river to the time the sentries fired, consequently were somewhat above the rebels, and to retreat as quickly as possible we must cross their lines of fire at point blank range. Probably several would be hurt in doing so, for the men could not row and use their rifles at the same time. Then Crossman called to me personally, “ Land your men, Mr. Chatfield, and clean those fellows out,” and then he pulled up the river as fast as possible to get out of the fight. Now, Crossman was no coward. Nothing would have suited him better than to have led the men into the scrimmage, but as he told me afterwards he suddenly realized the situation he had placed himself in. He had taken every fighting man, including every line officer, out of his ship, and gone with them himself on a very uncertain expedition, when the only duty he was required to perform was to maintain an effective blockade of that port, at the same time keeping his ship in the best condition to resist any attempt the enemy might make to raise the blockade, and so to open the port to foreign commerce.

As he told me afterwards, he felt that he must get back to that ship with his men if possible, but without them in so it was to be: and in that case get the ship out of the harbor and maintain the blockade from outside until some arrangements were made, for his comrade of the same class (Naval Academy class) who had spent some years as an active lieutenant on board ship, commanded at St. Marks, and being a sailor would understand the conditions, and would be after his ship before another sunset. And after telling it he looked at me and said “And Tom I knew you would do the job if anyone could.”

When I got that order I passed it down the line, and rushed the boats to the beach. We grounded some twenty before reaching it. My first impulse then was to order the men to disembark, but before doing so I took an oar to test the bottom. The oar went down at least three feet in soft mud. As it would never do to get stalled in that mud, I gave the order “Trail oars and commence firing.” Both sides fired at practically the same time, and we kept up a lively fusillade for some five minutes. Then the fire from the shore ceased: and after another round I ordered the men to cease too. We plainly heard the jingle of the enemy’s equipment as they made off at double quick. Captain Crossman returned in a short time, and while we were consulting as to the propriety of continuing the expedition, the boom of a heavy gun reached us, and a shot ploughed the water a few feet outside the line of boats, and was quickly followed by another directly over our heads. The night was awakened, and the chance of surprising the battery lost. She fired some ten shots. Some went over our heads, others a few feet outside of us, skimming the surface as they passed. They had the range and the line of the river perfect, for every shot passed between the banks, and we were puzzled to understand why those that were in line with the boat went overhead, until we discovered that we were sheltered under a small bluff, a mere lump some twenty feet high projected into the river a few feet under which we were lying. We could hear the shots strike the bluff, and then ricochet over our heads.

It has always been a surprise to me whenever I thought of the very small number of men hit in proportion to the amount of ammunition expended in battle. For although most of the rebel bullets passed high, still the water was hissing all round the boats. There were five shot holes through the launch (my boat) and she contained twenty-seven men. Some of the oars were splintered, one rifle stock was ruined, and one marine musket had its sight knocked off and its muzzle bent so as to render it useless, and only one man was hit – a slight wound above the elbow – the bullet having passed between the arm and the body.

We got back to the steamer at midnight, having met with no loss, and done no damage. I am sure no report of this affair ever reached the Navy Department, at least none was published in the Blue Book. And right here let me say that too much credence must never be given to official reports. They are all covered to suit the occasion, and to please the powers that be. Subordinates avoid reporting unpleasant things when it is possible.

A day or two after I conducted an expedition to Oclacking Island, some six or eight miles distant, for the purpose of destroying some salt works, which we had located at that place. I destroyed the works (some fifty kettles) and captured three men. Two were civilians from Georgia who owned the works, and whom we released a day or two afterwards. The other wore a Confederate uniform, and claimed to belong to a South Carolina regiment, and on leave. We detained him a prisoner of war. I was amused at his answers to my questions as to who and what he was, and why he was in the Rebel army. He said: “I believe in Southern rights.” I told him I believed in Southern rights too: but that as we were fighting on opposite sides it would seem that we did not understand them in the same way. He thought a few minutes, then gave it up with a remark “Judge McGrath said it was all right, and he knows more than I do: so I went in.” Which goes to show that all big mischief in this world comes from the top. It was a common thing for the Confederate rank and file to ask, and in all innocence too: “What did you alls come here to fight we alls for?” which also shows how little the common people of the South knew concerning the cause which brought about the war.

We were soon ordered back to West Pass to resume the blockade of that place, and in a short time Captain Crossman was ordered North, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant William Budd relieving him in command of the Somerset. I was sorry to part with Crossman, for he was a gentleman and a good fellow: and he came as near admitting me to the status of good comradeship as it was possible for a regular to do. For in common with them all he bitterly resented the necessity the government was under of admitting civilians to the service, and placing them on a par as to regarded rank and privilege as themselves. His remark: “Tom, I knew you would do the job if anyone could”, although the only time he ever addressed me by my Christian name, showed that he would have liked to have admitted me to full comradeship.

From that time my position was one of perpetual torment as long as I served on board the Somerset. Budd was a roué, foul of speech and foul in deportment: a big, strong fellow, full of a restless energy, good to look at until one reached his face. That showed sensuality in every line and feature. I am sure he drank too much liquor. He upset the whole routine and discipline of the ship: not in a quiet way, with a method: but would break in and change drill, or anything else, at any and all times, until officers or crew knew not what to expect next. It was now the fall of 1863, and after the Proclamation of Emancipation: and we had ordered to extend protection to all blacks claiming it: and it was surprising how soon the blacks caught on to it: and also the number that were coming to us, men, women and some children, though not many of the latter. The men were sent forward under the Master of Arms, who compelled them to strip and thoroughly scrub each other, throw their old clothes overboard, and when clean furnished them with a sailor’s suit then I camped them on the island with instructions to keep away from the women, else I would send them back to the main land (a thing I would not dared to have done, but the threat answered the purpose). For the women I set up a tent, rigged a sugar kettle in a mud furnace, and instructed them to clean themselves and children, and to immerse every article of clothing not less than one hour in boiling water. Some had evidently been house servants and were inclined to resent the cleaning process as an indignity: but I would make no distinctions. On the whole they were tractable and easily managed. As the transports arrived we sent them to Key West for the admiral to dispose of.

The Confederate conscription was in full blast, and in that section was being executed ruthlessly. This caused a stampede among the white inhabitants, and the cracker families were coming claiming aid and protection (mostly women with their children), and one and all claiming that their husbands and sons were Union men who had been forced into the Rebel army. Poor, half-starved things. If they hid they were surely excusable. A few men also came claiming to be Unionists who had escaped the Conscription. Some of them brought their families with them: others joined their families who had already reached us while they were in hiding. Most of them elected to remain on St. George’s. They could erect palmetto houses: and as there were deer and some cattle on the island t6hey could, by hunting and fishing, easily take care of themselves. For everyone had his rifle, and the palmetto scrub was a good hiding place, and they were under the protection of the war ship’s guns. As most of them were enlisted in a refugee regiment, which a Major Weeks, who held a commission issued by General Newton commanding the Department, commanded, they had probably told the truth as to their being Unionists. The remainder of these refugees we turned over to the army at Cedar Keys as soon as possible after they came to us. But how the poor things did die off! Half starved, as they were, the heavy army rations threw them into fever, which carried off large numbers in a short time. As an illustration: during the following winter, and after I had left the Somerset, I carried a family of twelve, (Father, Mother, and ten girls) named Johnson, to Cedar Keys. Some time after I visited the Keys, and saw Mary, the oldest girl, and she told me that everyone of the family was dead of the fever but herself and her father, and he had enlisted in the refugee regiment, so she was alone. “The hell of war, and its consequences.”

But there was another element that was claiming assistance. Northern families who had been caught when the war broke out, and well bred people. They had lived quietly enough until the conscription was ordered. Then no exception was made in their favor. A Mr Dodge, his wife, a son and his wife: a younger son had been caught and sent to the army. They belonged to Brooklyn, N.Y. He owned one of the three cotton presses at Appalachicola, and received and forwarded cotton. A Mr Cleaveland, wife and daughter of Rhode Island. He was a cotton sampler. His two sons had been caught and sent to the army. They were sent north in the transport Union, I think, and were gone before Captain Crossman was detached. After he had gone a Mrs Pullman and a little girl about five. Her husband was a furniture dealer at Appalachicola: had gone into hiding, and had succeeded in reaching one of the war vessels (at East Pass, I think) of which she knew. Then she came to us. At the same time a Mrs Bond and her little boy, not far from five years old, came to us. Her husband was a civil engineer, and they were located in Georgia somewhere. He too had taken to the woods to avoid being sent to the army: and had got on board the blockading vessel at St. Andrews, of which she knew. Then the Confederate colonel had given her a pass, authorizing her to proceed to Appalachicola, and I went up to the city with an armed party and brought her down, and incidentally about thirteen blacks. To do this I had to seize every boat on the water front, order its owner to accompany one of my blue jackets whom I put in charge, load her (the boat) with blacks, and send them down to the steamer. Even then I was forced to leave a number behind for want of transportation. These women, each about thirty years old, were well bred, and ladies in every sense: knew their husbands were safely out of the Confederacy, and they were in safety and on their way to their former home in the North, the land of promise to them at that time. But both instinctively avoided Captain Budd, and all other women who came on board did the same. I had given them use of my room, which opened directly on the quarter deck: and they used it as a sitting room during the day time, I , of course, having access to my desk during the day: and I noticed they always kept the door partly shut when he was around.

I think they were with us about ten days before the transport came along. One morning Captain Budd sent his steward to my door to invite Mrs Bond to take breakfast with him. She did not want to go, and appealed to me. But I told her she had better accept: that he could do her no real harm, and he could, if he chose, make her very uncomfortable (even send her ashore to live with the blacks), and I had reached the conclusion that he was vindictive enough to do so if she had slighted his invitation. (But perhaps not). So I accompanied her to the door of his room, and then went to the ward room for my own breakfast. Before we had finished she came in amongst us like a tornado, eyes blazing, and burst out: “Now, I want to take my breakfast with gentlemen.” When I had finished breakfast and went out, I found Budd walking the deck, looking like a baffled hound: and I guess that was what he really was. When the transport came Budd went on board of her, leaving me as usual to dispose of the passengers and contraband (negroes). I sent Mrs Pullman and Mrs Bond in one of the cutters, and watched them as they boarded the ship. As Mrs Bond reached the top of the gangway stairs a big, broad-shouldered fellow caught her, and lifted her from the deck, carried her aft out of my sight, she clinging to him with both arms round his neck, and the little boy holding to her skirts toddling behind, safe under the stars and stripes once more, bound North to their former home, ruined financially, but happy in their reunion. Mrs Pullman must wait until the transport arrived at East Pass – her next stopping place – when a similar scene would be enacted.

My situation had become so intolerable that I had, some days before, applied to the admiral for transfer to some other vessel, and a day or two after the transport had passed, Acting Ensign James P. Montague (a Sandwich man) came to West Pass in the U.S. Schooner Two Sisters, bringing ordered detaching me from the Somerset, ordering me to assume command of the Two Sisters, and to cruise between Cedar Key and Tampa Bay. When my provisions ran short I was to report to the Flag Ship at Key West for more. Captain Budd handed me my orders, and directed me to turn over the muster rolls and Executive Officer’s accounts to Mr (Acting Master) Waugh, and to report to him when I was ready to leave the ship. I finished that piece of business, and was about to report myself ready when a messenger boy called my attention to the men, who were crowded in the waist – a hundred or more – waiting to bid me good-bye. And how the loyal fellows did grip and shake my hand: and old Gambell (Chief Boatswain’s Mate) old sea dog, but a man to tie to, blurted out “We’re d—d sorry to lose you Mr Chatfield, but we wish you good luck.” I reported to Captain Budd that I had carried out his orders, and asked permission to the leave the ship, which he gave. Then I lifted my cap to him for the last time, passed over the side into my boat, and a half hour later was standing out under full sail. I had a command of my own now, was no longer Captain Budd’s subordinate, was glad I had seen the last of him, and so was a happy man.

In speaking of Captain Budd in connection with his inviting Mrs Bond to breakfast, I said that I had come to believe that he was vindictive enough to treat her shabbily had she refused his invitation: and a short time after we parted he committed an act which I think proved that I had sized him up correctly. There was a family at Appalachicola consisting of a young middle-aged couple, with no children (Monks by name). He was a member of a company of irregulars, coast guards, or coast patrol: and, I suspect, a good deal of a devil. She lived quietly in a neat, moderately sized, well furnished home, which I was told was their own. I had occasion to know of this, for I had called once and questioned her, and she appeared to be a decent woman. Budd went there with an armed party, who, under his personal supervision, turned her out, and then burned the house with all its contents. This seemed to me a pure act of vandalism. It could forward the Union cause in now way. I am glad I was not compelled to have any part in it, which I probably should had I then been serving on board the Somerset. I suppose Budd had a good side, but I never got in touch with it. I never came across a man that didn’t have some good in him.

Perhaps my use of the title of Captain may be confusing, and so I had better explain. When I entered the Navy there were but three grades of commissioned officers, Lieutenant, Commander and Captain, and Passed Midshipman, one who was waiting for his commission. A captain when commanding a squadron was officially termed Flag Officer. By courtesy he was called Commodore: but the title of Commodore was not recognized at the Department. During the year 1862, the latter part, Congress rearranged the grades. Midshipman was dropped, the Academy boys being designated Naval Cadets: from that they passed to Ensign, the lowest commission: then Lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander, Commander, Captain, Commodore, and then Rear Admiral, the highest grade. Admiral is a special creation. There have only been three: Farragut, Porter, and now Dewey. Any one of these officers (grades) may be placed in command of a war vessel, and then be by courtesy called captain, but only while in actual command: hence Captain Crossman, Captain Budd, Lieutenant Commander and Acting Volunteer Lieutenant respectively.

The Two Sisters was a small schooner of about fifty tons measurement, of the kind used by Delaware Bay and the Chesapeake oystermen: a fast sailor, capable of keeping the sea in all weathers. Her complement was one Acting Master commanding, and one Acting Ensign, and fifteen enlisted men: and being a tender to the Flag Ship her crew and officers were bourne of the Flag Ship’s book. She was one of five fitted out by the Admiral to cruise between the blockaded ports with a view to capturing the many small vessels seeking an entrance in the numerous inlets on the Gulf Coast of Florida: and a free and independent service it was, with no log book, and no accounts of any kind, provisioned for thirty days, then return to Key West for more, make a written report of our doings addressed to the commander of the flag ship, but rarely to the Admiral, have a chat with the old fellow, then away on another cruise. Of the many incidents occurring between November 1863 and May 1865 while I commanded my little craft, I shall only mention a few of the most important, else my story would have no end.

After leaving West Pass, and while on my way to my cruising ground between Cedar Keys and Tampa Bay, I captured a schooner out from Nassau, which was trying to get into the inlet of Deadman’s Bay. She was not much of a prize, being bound in with no cargo. I sent her to Key West, giving Montague four men, taking all the schooner’s crew, captain accepted, on board the Two Sisters. You must know that a neutral vessel is never a prize until condemned as such by a prize court. Consequently the captain must never be taken out of his vessel. The captors simply take her to port, and deliver her to the Prize Commissioner, when their duties are ended. I saw the captain at Key West a few days afterwards, and he hailed me with: “You were d—d smart to take every man on board your craft. If you’d left me with just one I would have retaken my vessel or died trying.” And he looked fully capable of it. He had all the marks of a genuine descendant of the old freebooters.

We cruised during the winter all the way between St Marks and Punta Rossa, as we received ordered: overhauled many vessels, but made no captures. It was only the following summer that General Seymour left Jacksonville in his attempt to cross Florida. Gainesville was understood to be his objective point. I had verbal orders to cruise off, or in the vicinity of the Homosassa River, keep things as hot as possible with a view to keeping the Rebel coast guards on the lookout, and so prevent as many as we could from joining General Finegan: but he, the Admiral, cautioned me to be very careful and not lose any of my men. We were never able to keep the ships fully manned. Seamen were too scarce for that and they must not be risked doing soldiers work. It was easy to keep things pretty hot. We carried a twelve-pound rifled Howitzer, good to throw a shell two and half miles: and we could make demonstrations with the boat. But Montague was not a safe man to send away in the boat. He was such a fearless fellow, that once out of reach of orders there was no telling where he would go, or when he would return. I spent many anxious hours wondering what had become of him.

As is well known, Seymour was badly beaten by Finegan at Clustee and retreated to Jacksonville with the remnant of his army, and that ended that phase of my service.

It was in June 1864 that I received orders to relieve the steamer Hendrick Hudson in charge of the station at Tampa, and with the orders a letter from the Admiral’s secretary (private of course) but evidently inspired, saying that yellow fever was raging in Havana, and would surely reach Key West and get among the squadron: that the Admiral had decided to send all ships infected to Tampa Bay for isolation, and that the reason for putting me in charge was on account of my small crew: and further that a gang of carpenters had already gone to build a hospital on Egmont Key: and a surgeon (Parker) with a dozen negro nurses and some laborers had been detailed to care for the sick and bury the dead: that the surgeon and his gang would be independent of me, but that I must see to the discipline of the negroes: and in a foot note the Admiral hopes that you will not let the fever get among your men.

I relieved the Hendrick Hudson at Tampa, and she left immediately. The hospital was finished in a day or two afterwards, and within a week the steamer Moluska – a first class gunboat – with a complement of one hundred and eighty men came with the yellow fever. Commander Gifford, her commander, transferred his sick to the hospital. I went on board to take his orders as in duty bound, he being my senior. He told me that his orders were to leave me in charge of the station, as he, the admiral, had confidence in my discretion. I told him that being the case I should claim the privilege of moving my vessel at any time without referring the question to him, which he assented to. In less than a fortnight there were four ships in Tampa Bay, and later the Hendrick Hudson returned, all aggregating from eight to nine hundred men, and infected with yellow fever. They soon filled the hospital, and the rest of the sick had to be cared for on board their respective ships. It was a pretty anxious time for me. The negroes got unruly: and Parker (the hospital surgeon) sent for me, and I went with my blue jackets to straighten them out. It isn’t worth while to mention the means I resorted to. It is sufficient to say that they were very tractable thereafter, and that Parker had no further trouble with them.

continued in Part Ten

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