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Chapter 31:

  • The author leaves Liverpool to join the Alabama
  • -- arrival at Terceira -- description of the Alabama -- preparing her for sea -- the Portuguese authorities -- the commissioning of the ship -- a picture of her birth and death -- Captain Bullock returns to England -- author alone on the high seas.

Having cleared the way, in the last two chapters, for the cruise of the Alabama, by removing some of the legal rubbish with which Mr. Seward and Mr. Adams had sought to encumber her, we are in a condition to put the ship in commission. I was at last accounts in Liverpool, as the reader will recollect, having just arrived there in the steamer Bahama, from Nassau. The Alabama, then known as the ‘290,’ had proceeded, a few days before, to her rendezvous, the island of Terceira, one of the group of the Azores. The name ‘290’ may need a word of explanation. The newspapers of the enemy have falsely charged that the Alabama was built by 290 Englishmen, of ‘rebel’ proclivities, and hence, they say, the name.

One Parson Boynton has written a book, which he calls the ‘History of the Navy,’ but which is rather a biography of Mr. Secretary Welles, his Assistant Secretary Fox, and several ingenious mechanics. Judging by this attempt, parsons are rather bad hands to write histories. Speaking of the Alabama, this gentleman remarks: ‘Insultingly, this vessel was named “290,” to show, by the large number that contributed to fit her out, how widespread was the English sympathy for the rebel cause. The Alabama was not regarded as a rebel vessel of war, but as a British pirate, or rather, perhaps, as an English man-of-war, sent forth under the veil of the rebel flag, to [401] sink and destroy our merchantmen.’ It is thus seen, that this history repeats the stale newspaper slander. Of such stuff the Yankee histories of the war, generally, are made, especially such of them as are written by amateur parsons. The fact is, as the reader has seen, that the Alabama was built by the Messrs. Laird of Birkenhead, under a contract with the Confederate States, and was paid for out of the Confederate Treasury. She happened to be the 290th ship built by those gentlemen, and hence the name.

The Alabama had been built in perfect good faith by the Lairds. When she was contracted for, no question had been raised as to the right of a neutral to build, and sell to a belligerent such a ship. The reader has seen that the Federal Secretary of the Navy himself had endeavored, not only to build an Alabama, but iron-clads in England. But as the war progressed, the United States, foreseeing the damage which a few fast steamers might inflict on their commerce, took the alarm, and began to insist that neutrals should not supply us, even with unarmed ships. The laws of nations were clearly against them. Their own practice, in all former wars, in which they had been neutrals, was against them. And yet they maintained their ground so stoutly and defiantly, threatening war, if they were not listened to, that the neutral powers, and especially Great Britain, became very cautious. They were indeed bullied—for that is the word—into timidity. To show the good faith which the Lairds had practised throughout, I quote again from the speech made by the senior partner, in the House of Commons:—

‘I can only say from all I know, and from all I have heard, that from the day the vessel was laid down, to her completion everything was open and above board, in this country. I also further say, that the officers of the Government had every facility afforded them for inspecting the ship, during the progress of building. When the officers came to the builders, they were shown the ship, and day after day, the customs officers were on board, as they were when she finally left, and they declared that there was nothing wrong. They only left her when the tug left, and they were obliged to declare, that she left Liverpool a perfectly legitimate transaction.’

Notwithstanding this practice of good faith, on our part, and our entire innocence of any breach of the laws of nations, [402] or of the British Foreign Enlistment Act, Lord John Russell had been intimidated to such an extent, that the ship came within an ace of being detained. But for the little ruse which we practised, of going on a trial-trip, with a party of ladies, and the customs officers, mentioned by Mr. Laird, on board, and not returning, but sending our guests back in a tug, there is no doubt that the Alabama would have been tied up, as the Oreto or Florida had been, in court. She must have been finally released, it is true, but the delay itself would have been of serious detriment to us.

After a few busy days in Liverpool, during which I was gathering my old officers of the Sumter around me, and making my financial arrangements for my cruise, with the house of Frazer, Trenholm & Co., I departed on the 13th of August, 1862, in the steamer Bahama, to join the Alabama. Captain James D. Bullock, of the Confederate States Navy, a Georgian, who had been bred in the old service, but who had retired from it some years before the war, to engage in the steam-packet service, accompanied me. Bullock had contracted for, and superintended the building of the Alabama, and was now going with me, to be present at the christening of his bantling. I am indebted to him, as well the Messrs. Laird, for a very perfect ship of her class.

She was of about 900 tons burden, 230 feet in length, 32 feet in breadth, 20 feet in depth, and drew, when provisioned and coaled for a cruise, 15 feet of water. Her model was of the most perfect symmetry, and she sat upon the water with the lightness and grace of a swan. She was barkentine rigged, with long lower masts, which enabled her to carry large fore-andaft sails, as jibs and try-sails, which are of so much importance to a steamer, in so many emergencies. Her sticks were of the best yellow pine, that would bend in a gale, like a willow wand, without breaking, and her rigging was of the best of Swedish iron wire. The scantling of the vessel was light, compared with vessels of her class in the Federal Navy, but this was scarcely a disadvantage, as she was designed as a scourge of the enemy's commerce, rather than for battle. She was to defend herself, simply, if defence should become necessary. Her engine was of three hundred horse-power, and she had [403] attached an apparatus for condensing, from the vapor of seawater, all the fresh water that her crew might require. She was a perfect steamer and a perfect sailing-ship, at the same time, neither of her two modes of locomotion being at all dependent upon the other. The reader has seen that the Sumter, when her fuel was exhausted, was little better than a log on the water, because of her inability to hoist her propeller, which she was, in consequence, compelled to drag after her. The Alabama was so constructed, that in fifteen minutes, her propeller could be detached from the shaft, and lifted in a well contrived for the purpose, sufficiently high out of the water, not to be an impediment to her speed. When this was done, and her sails spread, she was, to all intents and purposes, a sailing-ship. On the other hand, when I desired to use her as a steamer, I had only to start the fires, lower the propeller, and if the wind was adverse, brace her yards to the wind, and the conversion was complete. The speed of the Alabama was always greatly over-rated by the enemy. She was ordinarily about a ten-knot ship. She was said to have made eleven knots and a half, on her trial trip, but we never afterward got it out of her. Under steam and sail both, we logged on one occasion, thirteen knots and a quarter, which was her utmost speed.

Her armament consisted of eight guns; six 32-pounders, in broadside, and two pivot-guns amidships; one on the forecastle, and the other abaft the main-mast—the former a 100-pounder rifled Blakeley, and the latter, a smooth-bore eightinch. The Blakeley gun was so deficient in metal, compared with the weight of shot it threw, that, after the first few discharges, when it became a little heated, it was of comparatively small use to us, to such an extent were we obliged to reduce the charge of powder, on account of the recoil. The average crew of the Alabama, before the mast, was about 120 men; and she carried twenty-four officers, as follows: A Captain, four lieutenants, surgeon, paymaster, master, marine officer, four engineers, two midshipmen, and four master's mates, a Captain's clerk, boatswain, gunner, sailmaker, and carpenter. The cost of the ship, with everything complete, was two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

On the morning of our departure from Liverpool, the Ba- [404] hama had dropped some distance down the Mersey, and we joined her by tug. She had her steam up, and was ready to trip her anchor, the moment we arrived, and in a few minutes after getting on board, we were under way. The tug cheered us, as she turned to steam back to the city, and the cheer was answered lustily by our crew. We were a week on the passage from Liverpool to Terceira; our old friend, Captain Tessier, of the Bahama, with whom I had made the passage from Nassau to Liverpool, rendering our time very comfortable. On the morning of the 20th of August, we were on the lookout, at an early hour, for the land, and it was not long before we discovered the island, looking, at first, hazy and indistinct in the distance, but gradually assuming more form and consistency. After another hour's steaming, Porto Praya, our place of rendezvous, became visible, with its white houses dotting the mountain side, and we now began to turn our glasses upon the harbor, with no little anxiety, to see if our ships— for a sailing-ship, with the Alabama's battery and stores, had preceded her some days, and should now be with her—were all right. We first caught sight of their spars, and pretty soon, raising their hulls sufficiently for identification, we felt much relieved. Our secret had been well kept, and the enemy, notwithstanding his fine ‘smelling qualities,’ had not scented the prey.

In the meantime, our own approach was watched with equal anxiety from the deck of the Alabama. We might be, for aught she knew, an enemy's steamer coming in pursuit of her; and as the enemy was in the habit of kicking all the small powers, that had not the means of kicking back, a neutral port, belonging to effete old Portugal, would not afford her the least protection. At half-past 11 A. M., we steamed into the harbor, and let go our anchor. I had surveyed my new ship, as we approached, with no little interest, as she was to be not only my home, but my bride, as it were, for the next few years, and I was quite satisfied with her external appearance. She was, indeed, a beautiful thing to look upon. The store-ship was already alongside of her, and we could see that the busy work of transferring her cargo was going on. Captain Butcher, an intelligent young English seaman, who had [405] been bred in the mail-packet service, and who had taken the Alabama out from Liverpool, on that trial trip of hers, which has since become historical through the protests of Messrs. Seward and Adams, now came on board of us. He had had a rough and stormy passage from Liverpool, during which he had suffered some little damage, and consumed most of his coal. Considerable progress had been made, in receiving on board from the transport, the battery and stores, and a few days more would suffice to put the ship in a condition for defence.

The harbor of Porto Praya lies open to the eastward, and as the wind was now from that quarter, and blowing rather freshly, a considerable sea had been raised, which rendered it inconvenient, if not unsafe, for the transport and the Alabama to continue to lie alongside of each other; which was nevertheless necessary for the transfer of the remainder of the heavy guns. I therefore directed Captain Butcher to get up his anchors immediately, and follow me around to Angra Bay, on the west side of the island, where we should find a lee, and smooth water. This was done, and we arrived at Angra at four o'clock, on the same afternoon. Here the transshipment of the guns and stores was renewed, and here, for the first time, I visited the Alabama. I was as much pleased with her internal appearance, and arrangements, as I had been with her externally, but everything was in a very uninviting state of confusion, guns, gun-carriages, shot, and shell, barrels of beef and pork, and boxes and bales of paymaster's, gunner's, and boatswain's stores lying promiscuously about the decks; sufficient time not having elapsed to have them stowed in their proper places. The crew, comprising about sixty persons, who had been picked up, promiscuously, about the streets of Liverpool, were as unpromising in appearance, as things about the decks. What with faces begrimed with coal dust, red shirts, and blue shirts, Scotch caps, and hats, brawny chests exposed, and stalwart arms naked to the elbows, they looked as little like the crew of a man-of-war, as one can well conceive. Still there was some physique among these fellows, and soap, and water, and clean shirts would make a wonderful difference in their appearance. As night approached, I relieved Captain [406] Butcher of his command, and removing my baggage on board, took possession of the cabin, in which I was to spend so many weary days, and watchful nights. I am a good sleeper, and slept soundly. This quality of sleeping well in the intervals of harassing business is a valuable one to the sailor, and I owe to it much of that physical ability, which enabled me to withstand the four years of excitement and toil, to which I was subjected during the war.

There are two harbors called Angra, in Terceira—East Angra, and West Angra. We were anchored in the latter, and the authorities notified us, the next morning, that we must move round to East Angra, that being the port of entry, and the proper place for the anchorage of merchant-ships. We were playing merchant-ship as yet, but had nothing to do, of course, with ports of entry or custom-houses; and as the day was fine, and there was a prospect of smooth water under the lee of the island, I got under way, and went to sea, the Bahama and the transport accompanying me. Steaming beyond the marine league, I hauled the transport alongside, and we got on board from her the remainder of our armament, and stores. The sea was not so smooth, as we had expected, and there was some little chafing between the ships, but we accomplished our object, without serious inconvenience. This occupied us all day, and after nightfall, we ran into East Angra, and anchored.

As we passed the fort, we were hailed vociferously, in very bad English, or Portuguese, we could not distinguish which. But though the words were unintelligible to us, the manner and tone of the hail were evidently meant to warn us off. Continuing our course, and paying no attention to the hail, the fort presently fired a shot over us; but we paid no attention to this either, and ran in and anchored—the bark accompanying us, but the Bahama hauling off, seaward, and lying off and on during the night. There was a small Portuguese schooner of war at anchor in the harbor, and about midnight, I was aroused from a deep sleep, into which I had fallen, after a long day of work and excitement, by an officer coming below, and informing me, very coolly, that the Portuguese man-of-war was firing into us! ‘The d—l she is,’ said I; [407] “how many shots has she fired at us?” ‘Three, sir,’ replied the officer. ‘Have any of them struck us?’ ‘No, sir, none of them have struck us—they seem to be firing rather wild.’ I knew very well, that the little craft would not dare to fire into us, though I thought it probable, that, after the fashion of the Chinese, who sound their gongs to scare away their enemies, she might be firing at us, to alarm us into going out of the harbor. I said therefore to the officer, ‘Let him fire away, I expect he won't hurt you,’ and turned over and went to sleep. In the morning, it was ascertained, that it was not the schooner at all, that had been firing, but a passing mail steamer which had run into the anchorage, and fired three signal guns, to awaken her sleeping passengers on shore—with whom she departed before daylight.

We were not further molested, from this time onward, but were permitted to remain and coal from the bark; though the custom-house officers, accompanied by the British Consul, paid us a visit, and insisted that we should suspend our operation of coaling, until we had entered the two ships at the custom-house. This I readily consented to do. I now called the Bahama in, by signal, and she ran in and anchored near us. Whilst the coaling was going forward, the carpenter, and gunner, with the assistance of the chief engineer, were busy putting down the circles or traverses for the pivot guns; and the boatswain and his gang were at work, fitting side and train tackles for the broadside guns. The reader can understand how anxious I was to complete all these arrangements. I was perfectly defenseless without them, and did not know at what moment an enemy's ship might look in upon me. The harbor of East Angra, where we were now anchored, was quite open, but fortunately for us, the wind was light, and from the S. W., which gave us smooth water, and our work went on quite rapidly.

To cast an eye, for a moment, now, from the ship to the shore, I was charmed with the appearance of Terceira. Every square foot of the island seemed to be under the most elaborate cultivation, and snug farm-houses were dotted so thickly over the hill-sides, as to give the whole the appearance of a rambling village. The markets were most bountifully supplied [408] with excellent beef and mutton, and the various domestic fowls, fish, vegetables, and fruits. My steward brought off every morning in his basket, a most tempting assortment of the latter; for there were apples, plums, pears, figs, dates, oranges, and melons all in full bearing at Terceira. The little town of Angra, abreast of which we were anchored, was a perfect picture of a Portuguese-Moorish town, with its red-tiled roofs, sharp gables, and parti-colored verandas, and veranda curtains. And then the quiet, and love-in-a-cottage air which hovered over the whole scene, so far removed from the highways of the world's commerce, and the world's alarms, was charming to contemplate.

I had arrived on Wednesday, and on Saturday night, we had, by the dint of great labor and perseverance, drawn order out of chaos. The Alabama's battery was on board, and in place, her stores had all been unpacked, and distributed to the different departments, and her coal-bunkers were again full. We only awaited the following morning to steam out upon the high seas, and formally put the ship in commission. Saturday had been dark and rainy, but we had still labored on through the rain. Sunday morning dawned bright and beautiful, which we hailed as a harbinger of future success. All hands were turned out at early daylight, and the first lieutenant, and the officer of the deck took the ship in hand, to prepare her for the coming ceremony. She was covered with coal dust and dirt and rubbish in every direction, for we had hitherto had no time to attend to appearances. But by dint of a few hours of scrubbing, inside and out, and of the use of that wellknown domestic implement, the holy-stone, that works so many wonders with a dirty ship, she became sweet and clean, and when her awnings were snugly spread, her yards squared, and her rigging hauled taut, she looked like a bride, with the orange-wreath about her brows, ready to be led to the altar.

I had as yet no enlisted crew, and this thought gave me some anxiety. All the men on board the Alabama, as well as those who had come out with me, on board the Bahama, had been brought thus far, under articles of agreement that were to be no longer obligatory. Some of them had been shipped for one voyage, and some for another, but none of them for service [409] on board a Confederate cruiser. This was done to avoid a breach of the British Foreign Enlistment Act. They had, of course, been undeceived from the day of our departure from Liverpool. They knew that they were to be released from the contracts they had made, but I could not know how many of them would engage with me for the Alabama. It is true I had had a talk with some of the leaders of the crew, who had promised to go with me, and to influence others, but no creature can be more whimsical than a sailor, until you have bound him past recall, unless indeed it be a woman.

The ship having been properly prepared, we steamed out, on this bright Sunday morning, under a cloudless sky, with a gentle breeze from the southeast, scarcely ruffling the surface of the placid sea, and under the shadow of the smiling and picturesque island of Terceira, which nature seemed to have decked specially for the occasion, so charming did it appear, in its checkered dress of a lighter and darker green, composed of corn-fields and orange-groves, the flag of the new-born Confederate States was unfurled, for the first time, from the peak of the Alabama. The Bahama accompanied us. The ceremony was short but impressive. The officers were all in full uniform, and the crew neatly dressed, and I caused ‘all hands’ to be summoned aft on the quarter-deck, and mounting a guncarriage, I read the commission of Mr. Jefferson Davis, appointing me a captain in the Confederate States Navy, and the order of Mr. Stephen R. Mallory, the Secretary of the Navy, directing me to assume command of the Alabama. Following my example, the officers and crew had all uncovered their heads, in deference to the sovereign authority, as is customary on such occasions; and as they stood in respectful silence and listened with rapt attention to the reading, and to the short explanation of my object and purposes, in putting the ship in commission which followed, I was deeply impressed with the spectacle. Virginia, the grand old mother of many of the States, who afterward died so nobly; South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana, were all represented in the persons of my officers, and I had some of as fine specimens of the daring and adventurous seaman, as any ship of war could boast.

While the reading was going on, two small balls might [410] have been seen ascending slowly, one to the peak, and the other to the main-royal mast-head. These were the ensign and pennant of the future man-of-war. These balls were so arranged, that by a sudden jerk of the halliards by which they had been sent aloft, the flag and pennant would unfold themselves to the breeze. A curious observer would also have seen a quartermaster standing by the English colors, which we were still wearing, in readiness to strike them, a band of music on the quarter-deck, and a gunner (lock-string in hand) standing by the weather-bow gun. All these men had their eyes upon the reader; and when he had concluded, at a wave of his hand, the gun was fired, the change of flags took place, and the air was rent by a deafening cheer from officers and men; the band, at the same time, playing ‘Dixie,’— that soul-stirring national anthem of the new-born government. The Bahama also fired a gun and cheered the new flag. Thus, amid this peaceful scene of beauty, with all nature smiling upon the ceremony, was the Alabama christened; the name ‘290’ disappearing with the English flag. This had all been done upon the high seas, more than a marine league from the land, where Mr. Jefferson Davis had as much jurisdiction as Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Who could look into the horoscope of this ship—who anticipate her career? Many of these brave fellows followed me unto the close.

From the cradle to the grave there is but a step; and that I may group in a single picture, the christening and the burial of the ship, let the reader imagine, now, some two years to have rolled over—and such a two years of carnage and blood, as the world had never before seen—and, strangely enough, another Sunday morning, equally bright and beautiful, to have dawned upon the Alabama. This is her funeral morning! At the hour when the church-goers in Paris and London were sending up their orisons to the Most High, the sound of cannon was heard in the British Channel, and the Alabama was engaged in her death-struggle. Cherbourg, where the Alabama had lain for some days previously, is connected with Paris by rail, and a large number of curious spectators had flocked down from the latter city to witness, as it proved, her interment. The sun rose, as before, in a cloudless sky, and the seabreeze [411] has come in over the dancing waters, mild and balmy. It is the nineteenth day of June, 1864. The Alabama steams out to meet the Kearsarge in mortal combat, and before the sun has set, she has gone down beneath the green waters, and lies entombed by the side of many a gallant craft that had gone down before her in that famous old British Channel; where, from the time of the Norseman and the Danish seaking, to our own day, so many naval combats have been fought, and so many of the laurel crowns of victory have been entwined around the brows of our naval ancestors. Many of the manly figures who had stood with uncovered heads, and listened with respectful silence to the christening, went down in the ship, and now lie buried with her, many fathoms deep, with no other funeral dirge than the roar of cannon, and the howling winds of the North Sea. Such were the birth and death of the ship, whose adventures I propose to sketch in the following pages.

My speech, I was glad to find, had produced considerable effect with the crew. I informed them, in the opening, that they were all released from the contracts under which they had come thus far, and that such of them as preferred to return to England could do so in the Bahama, without prejudice to their interests, as they would have a free passage back, and their pay would go on until they were discharged in Liverpool. I then gave them a brief account of the war, and told them how the Southern States, being sovereign and independent, had dissolved the league which had bound them to the Northern States, and how they were threatened with subjugation by their late confederates, who were the stronger. They would be fighting, I told them, the battles of the oppressed against the oppressor, and this consideration alone should be enough to nerve the arm of every generous sailor. Coming nearer home, for it could not be supposed that English, Dutch, Irish, French, Italian, and Spanish sailors could understand much about the rights or wrongs of nations, I explained to them the individual advantages which they might expect to reap from an enlistment with me. The cruise would be one of excitement and adventure. We had a fine ship under us; one that they might fall in love with, as they would with their sweethearts [412] about Wapping. We should visit many parts of the world, where they would have ‘liberty’ given them on proper occasions; and we should, no doubt, destroy a great many of the enemy's ships, in spite of the enemy's cruisers. With regard to these last, though fighting was not to be our principal object, yet, if a favorable opportunity should offer of our laying ourselves alongside of a ship that was not too heavy for us, they would find me disposed to indulge them.

Finally I came to the finances, and like a skilful Secretary of the Treasury, I put the budget to them, in its very best aspect. As I spoke of good pay, and payment in gold, ‘hear! hear!’ came up from several voices. I would give them, I said, about double the ordinary wages, to compensate them for the risks they would have to run, and I promised them, in case we should be successful, ‘lots of prize-money,’ to be voted to them by the Confederate Congress, for the ships of the enemy that they would be obliged to destroy. When we ‘piped down,’ that is to say, when the boatswain and his mates wound their ‘calls’ three times, as a signal that the meeting was over, and the crew might disperse, I caused the word to be passed for all those who desired to sign the articles, to repair at once to the paymaster and sign. I was anxious to strike whilst the iron was hot. The Alabama had brought out from the Mersey about sixty men, and the Bahama had brought about thirty more. I got eighty of these ninety men, and felt very much relieved in consequence.

The democratic part of the proceedings closed, as soon as the articles were signed. The ‘public meeting’ just described, was the first, and last ever held on board the Alabama, and no other stump speech was ever made to the crew. When I wanted a man to do anything after this, I did not talk to him about ‘nationalities,’ or ‘liberties,’ or ‘double wages,’ but I gave him a rather sharp order, and if the order was not obeyed in ‘double-quick,’ the delinquent found himself in limbo. Democracies may do very well for the land, but monarchies and pretty absolute monarchies at that, are the only successful governments for the sea. There was a great state of confusion on board the ship, of course, during the remainder of this day, and well into the night. Bullock and Butcher were [413] both on board assisting me, and we were all busy, as well as the paymaster and clerk, making out half-pay tickets for the sailors' wives and sweethearts, drawing drafts for small amounts payable to relatives and dependants, in different parts of England, for such of the sailors as wanted them, and paying advance-wages to those who had no pay-tickets to leave, or remittances to make. I was gratified to find, that a large proportion of my men left half their pay behind them. ‘A man, who has children, hath given hostages to fortune,’ and you are quite as sure of a sailor, who sends half his pay to his wife or sweetheart.

It was eleven P. M. before my friend Bullock was ready to return to the Bahama, on his way back to England. I took an affectionate leave of him. I had spent some days with him, at his quiet retreat, in the little village of Waterloo, near Liverpool, where I met his excellent wife, a charming Southern woman, with whom hospitality was a part of her religious, faith. He was living in a very plain, simple style, though large sums of public money were passing through his hands, and he has had the honor to come out of the war poor. He paid out moneys in good faith, to the last, even when it was quite evident that the cause had gone under, and there would be no accounts to settle with an Auditor of the Treasury. I had not only had the pleasure of his society during a number of anxious days, but he had greatly assisted me, by his counsel and advice, given with that modesty and reserve which always mark true ability. As soon as the Bahama had steamed away, and left me alone, I turned my ship's head to the north-east, set the fore-and-aft sails, and directed the engineer to let his fires go down. The wind had freshened considerably, and there was some sea on. I now turned into an unquiet cot, perfectly exhausted, after the labors of the day, and slept as comfortably as the rolling of the ship, and a strong smell of bilgewater would permit.

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