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Engagement at Deloges Bluff [1]

Chuck Veit
©2006 C. L. Veit

Map of the Red River Valley with inset of the battle area
Sketch of the battle

D.D.  Porter

H.H. Goringe

S.L. Phelps

USS Cricket

USS Ft Hindman

“Give those fellows in the bushes a two-second shell!” The crew of the boat howitzer mounted on the upper deck fired the round, which burst among the guerillas. “Give them another dose!” Before the sailors could respond, a volley of nineteen shells ripped into their small ship, causing it to stagger under the force of the explosions. Within four minutes, half the crew was dead or wounded, their ship helpless and spinning in the current. In their wake, the masked battery savaged the remainder of the convoy as the flagship drifted away.


The promising March-May 1864 Red River Campaign turned sour for the Union Army on 8 April at the Battle of Sabine Crossroads. The Federal rout convinced General Nathaniel Banks that it was impossible for him to capture Shreveport and that it would be best to beat a hasty retreat. His sudden withdrawal left Admiral David Dixon Porter’s fleet isolated far behind enemy lines. The squadron’s 200-mile descent to Alexandria—plagued by falling water and punctuated by enemy attacks—is a unique page in naval history. Sandwiched in between two well-known episodes in the journey—the loss of the Eastport and the passage of the falls above Alexandria—is the lesser-known ambush at Deloges Bluff. This brief but murderous engagement nearly cost Admiral Porter his life—and did claim the lives of over 200 sailors and civilians aboard his ships.


The powerful 20-ship squadron that had assembled at the mouth of the Red River in March—“the most formidable force ever collected in western waters"—had by the last week of April been winnowed down to two ironclads and four lightly-armored gunboats.[2] This remnant lay some 30 miles below Grand Ecore, struggling to yet again free the USS Eastport. The hole blown in her bow by a torpedo on 15 April had proven impossible to repair, and only constant pumping and towing (sometimes dragging) had allowed the Union sailors to bring her the last twenty miles. The sole bright spot in the past ten days was the relative absence of the Confederates, who were paying attention to Banks’ army as it retreated to Alexandria. On 26th April the “butternuts” returned, and “were after us like a pack of wolves.”[3]

That morning, the captain of the Eastport, Seth Phelps, finally agreed to destroy his vessel. The latest struggle resulted in getting the ironclad off one pile of submerged logs only to jam her firmly atop another—with word that an impassible bed of trees lay only 200 yards downstream. It was time to save at least the shallow-draft gunboats; even this would be a challenge as the water level in the river continued to fall. Already stripped of her guns and stores, the Eastport was packed with forty barrels of powder and combustibles. At 10:30, as the last of her officers boarded the Fort Hindman, a force of 1200 Confederates opened fire on the ships and attempted to rush the Cricket, which was tied up along the bank. Although over half her crew was ashore gathering fence rails to feed the boiler fires, the watch on board was ready and opened up with grape and shrapnel. One sailor braved the musket fire and ran on deck with an axe to cut the hawser that tied the gunboat to the shore. Once free, the Cricket drifted away from bank. Together with the guns of the Juliet and Fort Hindman, she drove the rebels back after a one-hour fight.

After three attempts to detonate the Eastport with a galvanic battery, Phelps ordered cotton powder trains laid. At 2:10p.m., he applied the match, dove into a waiting cutter, and barely escaped the destruction of the ironclad. The succession of blasts bent the trees along the banks and sent a clear signal to any Confederate forces in the area. That the enemy was gathering to make further attacks on the warships was verified by a rebel captured in the morning’s fight, who claimed that the recent assault was made by only the vanguard of 6000 artillery and infantry that would give the ships a “warm reception” further down. At 3:20, Admiral Porter returned from discussion with Phelps aboard the Hindman, and ordered Cricket—his flagship—to head downstream.

All three of the “warships” under Porter were, in reality, civilian river steamers designed for hauling cargo—not combat. Purchased by the Navy and thinly “armored” with 1/8 inch of iron plate over their wooden sides, they were called “tinclads” by the sailors—an indication of the value the crews assigned to the metal plating. Although reasonably proof against musket fire, tinclads did not fare as well when faced with cannon. They were, as Porter described them, “mere thread paper[4] vessels.” The Cricket and Juliet each carried a battery of six 24-pound howitzers, while the Hindman had six 8” smoothbores. All were around 150 feet long and varied in the beam between 28 and 30 feet (Juliet and Cricket) to 37 feet (Hindman). Crew strength of the Cricket was 50 men; the similar crew of the Juliet was augmented by the men of the Eastport, and that of the Hindman by her officers. The 27-man Marine unit under Lt Frank Church that accompanied Porter was also detailed to the more spacious Hindman for this leg of the journey.

In addition to the naval personnel, the fleet had with them several hundred Negroes picked up at Grand Ecore, eager to take passage to “the land of freedom.” Originally aboard the Eastport, Porter had ordered them transferred to the two pump boats (New Champion and Champion No. 5) under the assumption that, in the event of an attack, enemy fire would be concentrated on the gunboats. He placed the New Champion behind Cricket, Champion No. 5 lashed alongside Juliet next, and the Fort Hindman–with Phelps in command–bringing up the rear. Confederate scouts saw the ships pull away from the wreck of the Eastport, and orders were passed to Colonel Caudle of Polignac's division to set up an ambush near the confluence with the Cane River at Deloges Bluff.


The convoy steamed slowly down the Red River at six knots for twenty miles, with Admiral Porter coolly perched in a chair on Cricket’s upper deck reading a book—and keeping one eye on the shoreline.[5] Just after passing the mouth of the Cane River at 6:15p.m. he spotted figures moving in the brush on the right bank, and ordered a round of shrapnel fired at them. The shot flushed the group of men and alerted Porter to the presence of a large force of Confederates. The Admiral ordered a second round as the gunboat drifted to within twenty yards of the steep bank, but before the sailors on the foredeck could respond, the woods erupted with cannon and musket fire. Nineteen shells struck the ship within moments, “shattering the Cricket in all her parts.”[6]

Porter dashed for the pilothouse and opened the door just as a shell struck, stunning him and wounding Mr. Drening, the pilot, in the head. As blood streamed down Drening’s cheeks, he told Porter, “I am all right, sir, I won’t give up the wheel.” Another round exploded on the upper deck, killing the gun crew and leaving their bodies piled together around the howitzer. As Porter recovered from the blast, he realized that the ship’s engines had stopped and her guns were silent. The captain, Acting Master Henry H. Gorringe, rang the engine room bell to go ahead, telling Porter he wanted to bring the Cricket around to bring her broadside to bear. Porter belayed this order, telling Gorringe “I doubt if there’s anybody left to fire a gun.” Instead he told Gorringe to run the battery, allowing the ship to drift downstream in the four-knot current, while he (Porter) made his way below to see what was wrong with their engine.

As Cricket drifted under the bluff, she was, for a moment, safe from the artillery atop it; the musket fire from the estimated 3,000 infantry, however, continued unabated. When the gunboat rounded the point and came again into the field of artillery fire, a second volley of nineteen shells struck her stern, raking through the vessel. Porter ran for the engine room, running along the exposed starboard side of the ship. As he made his way aft, a rebel on the bank fired at him. Porter grabbed a musket from a nearby sailor and took aim at the Confederate. At the last moment, he remembered that shooting people was not his job—ordering others to shoot people was. He handed the rifle back to the sailor, told him to shoot the rebel, and watched as the man on the bank fell—one of only two documented Confederate casualties.

The fighting deck of the Cricket presented Porter a shocking scene: the dead and wounded of the two broadside guns lay strewn everywhere, the guns nearly all destroyed, and “everything torn to pieces.”[7] Porter assembled the surviving crewmen—mostly “contrabands”—and ordered them to fire the remaining gun. They were not to worry about aiming, but just load and fire so the rebels would know they were still in the fight.

In the engine room, Porter found all but one fireman wounded, and the engineer dead. Second Assistant Engineer Charles Parks had died as he responded to orders from the bridge, his hand on the steam throttle. In falling, he had turned the steam off. Porter turned it back on and the engines sprang to life. It was barely 6:20p.m.  In the past five minutes, Cricket had sustained twelve killed and nineteen wounded (most of these severely). A relative of Porter’s who had come on the expedition “to see sheol,” told him that what he’d seen was “certainly next door to it,” and his curiosity was satisfied.[8] Despite being under power again, the tinclad quickly ran aground—within range of the enemy’s guns, but luckily out of sight behind the trees. She was hung up for the next hour, but not out of the battle.


Seeing the Cricket adrift, Phelps in the Fort Hindman worried that Porter had been killed. The Confederates, however, were elated, and gave three cheers. They turned their attention to the next ship, the New Champion, figuring the disabled flagship could be located and destroyed later.

The rapid attack on Cricket had unnerved the pilot of the New Champion, who backed furiously away from the stricken gunboat and directly into the oncoming Juliet, smashing her bow. The rebel gunners skewed their guns around and found the range on the New Champion with their first volley. Sadly, in addition to her crew, this ship carried about 150 of the fleeing contrabands picked up at Grand Ecore; many would never see the “land of freedom” they sought in running to the “Lincoln gunboats.” As the New Champion and Juliet worked to untangle themselves, a 12-pound shell pierced the boiler of the transport. A torrent of live steam hissed through the ship, killing a hundred freemen and crew instantly, and so scalding another 87 that they died soon thereafter.[9] Not every casualty was the result of the boiler explosion: the people clinging to the wreck were easy targets for the Confederate infantry. Porter later wrote that “some of them may have got ashore, but we never saw any of them again.” Confederate reports said that only three people survived. This tragedy helped the Cricket escape, as the cloud of steam hid the stricken ship while she drifted away.

The barrage that doomed the New Champion also struck the Juliet, cutting her tiller ropes, blasting the wheel out of the pilot’s hands, and slicing the steam line that provided power to her engines, as well as damaging the head of the Champion No. 5’s rudder. While the gunners aboard the warship returned fire, the civilian crew of the transport tied to her side tried desperately to escape. While their captain tried to turn about and flee upstream, they began cutting away the hawsers that tied their ship to the Juliet. As the steam cleared, Acting Master John S. Watson, captain of the Juliet, was shocked to find his vessel turned sideways in the channel, under the full force of the Confederate batteries. The lifeless New Champion was also turned perpendicular to the bank, into which she drifted and lodged. Aboard the Hindman, Phelps cursed at the three ships before him as he tried desperately to get closer to the enemy guns.

On Juliet, Watson saw the crew of the No. 5 hacking at the ropes between the ships. He realized that both the captain and pilot of the transport had abandoned the wheelhouse, leaving both ships to drift towards the rebel guns. Watson—followed by the Juliet’s pilot, William Maitland—rushed  down to the deck in time to prevent the No. 5’s crew from severing the last line. He did this by leveling his pistol at them and threatening to shoot any man who attempted to cut it. Some of the No. 5’s crew attempted to leap overboard, but were driven back by musket fire from the Fort Hindman as Phelps—shouting through a speaking trumpet—warned that “deserters would be shot.” Maitland, “with great bravery and presence of mind,” leapt aboard the No. 5 and ran to her pilothouse and took control of the transport. The two ships had by now drifted directly under the bluff—effectively out of range of the Confederates—buying them a few precious moments. Maitland turned the Champion around and slowly towed the Juliet upstream and out of range.

Phelps had since the beginning been trying to get as close as possible to the bluff, both to shield the transports and damage the rebels as much as possible. Now, as Juliet moved past him, he dropped below her to cover her withdrawal. The Hindman had already taken fire, one shot blowing a hole in her hull at the waterline, and now became the focus of the rebel artillerists. Lt Church, USMC, was knocked to the deck by a shell fragment that struck his leg; this saved his life, for the next blast killed Acting Ensign S. Pool of the Eastport, who stood next to the marine; Ordinary Seaman Joseph Scott was also badly wounded. Panic spread through the men on the gun deck—who, within but a few minutes, had witnessed the almost-certain destruction of Cricket, the hideous deaths of the crew and passengers of the New Champion,  fired upon the crew of the Champion No. 5 as they sought to abandon the Juliet, and realized they themselves were now drawing closer to the batteries—and Phelps ran below. “I found it necessary to lay my hand upon my revolver and caution them that the first man who should flinch from his gun would receive its contents.”

The Hindman received some small help from an unexpected source—the Cricket’s single remaining “bulldog”[10] was barking—steadfastly pumping shells in the direction of the Confederate battery. At least one shot from the two tinclads struck home, as Captain Florian O. Cornay, commander of the St. Mary’s Cannoneers, was killed by a burst at this time.

Seeing the disabled Juliet and the transport pulling into the bank out of range upstream, Phelps brought the Hindman around and withdrew to cover the other ships. The trio of battered vessels tied up one mile above the bluff. Phelps and his officers discussed what to do. It was decided to spend the night repairing the ships and run the batteries on the morrow; this would at least make navigation in the shallow river easier than it would be in the dark.

Shortly before sunset, at 6:15p.m., as the gunfire ceased, powder on the Cricket’s gun deck ignited and the ship took fire. The flames were quickly extinguished and at 6:30p.m. the small warship was able to free herself and proceeded down the river. With but a single gun working and half her crew out of action, she could not materially aid Phelps, and Porter decided to make for a prearranged rendezvous downstream where he hoped to find other gunboats of the squadron.

Throughout the night, in sight of the enemy, the crews above the battery worked to repair steam lines, rudders, wheel and tiller ropes, plugged holes in their hulls, and buttressed the most vulnerable parts of the three ships with bales of cotton transferred from Juliet. Occasionally, the Fort Hindman fired her stern guns towards the New Champion in hopes of preventing the Confederates from moving to midstream and blocking the channel. At 7:30p.m., Seaman Scott succumbed to his wounds.

Despite the periodic shelling by the Yankees, the Confederates managed to board the New Champion and offload her stores. They then headed the transport out to mid-channel in hopes of blocking the river.

Downstream, Porter found the gunboats Lexington and Osage at 9:30p.m. Although anxious to help Phelps, Porter realized that the gunfire upstream had ceased. The same concerns about the intricacies of the channel that prevented Phelps from running past Deloges Bluff in the dark convinced the admiral to wait for daybreak to send support.

With the dawn on 27th April, Confederate marksmen worked their way up the bank and began “annoying” the Yankee sailors still hard at work aboard Phelps’ three ships. His men had been able to only partially repair the Juliet—it was estimated that her steam lines could be fixed by mid-morning, but the vessel’s steering was too badly cut up to be made workable. She would have to be towed alongside the Fort Hindman. Phelps’ main concern was whether there would be room in the channel—which he expected to find blocked by the New Champion—to allow the two gunboats to pass. Captain Phelps had also to deal with the mutinous officers and crew of the Champion No. 5,  who argued for leaving the transport behind and running the battery aboard the Navy ships. Phelps refused, pointing out that the cotton bales loaded on her decks made her easily as well-protected as the gunboats; she was going through. He “therefore made her people go on board”[11] and, to make certain of their compliance, relieved the captain and placed William Maitland (who volunteered) in charge. As a show of faith, Phelps left his personal belongings aboard the No. 5, where they had been loaded for passage.

The Fort Hindman began shelling the woods in the area of the battery at 5:30a.m., and kept this up while work proceeded on the three vessels. A little past 9a.m., the ships headed downstream, moving very slowly.  At 9:20 the Juliet struck a snag that put a hole in her port bow below the waterline. Watson gave orders to prepare to abandon her, but Phelps, seeing the Juliet taking water, ordered a return upstream, where they quickly brought the leak under control using mattresses and planks. At 9:30 the ships again pointed their bows downstream and approached the rebel batteries. It was Phelps’ plan to not only engage the batteries, but to destroy the New Champion as they passed.

No sign of the Confederates could be seen. At 9:40 rebel sharpshooters began peppering the ships with musket fire, and at 500 yards the main batteries opened up. Phelps saw the New Champion to port near the northern bank of the river, partially blocking the channel, but believed he could get through. Suddenly two 24-pound shots went through the Hindman’s pilot house, cutting her tiller ropes, partly disabling her wheel, and leaving her unmanageable (as well as wounding Lt. John Pearce, captain of the Hindman). The two gunboats, lashed side by side, spun in the current, striking their bows and then sterns on the banks. Unable to fire effectively (but firing nonetheless at whatever came into view), the gunboats could do little to protect the civilian ship, which consequently “suffered more severely than was anticipated.”

Aboard the Champion No. 5, a shell wounded Maitland in both legs just as the ship pulled opposite the battery. The pilot dropped to his knees, unable to manage the wheel. The ship drifted into the Confederate bank, where another shell struck the pilot house and wounded Maitland in several places; another cut away the bell rope and speaking tube. The wounded pilot reached for another bell rope, rang astern, and backed the ship across the river, towards the New Champion. Once alongside, the crew scrambled ashore and tried to flee, but all were captured. Her captain was dead and she was afire in her hold.[12]

Phelps was unable to destroy either of the civilian ships, and was satisfied to simply be able to get past the New Champion and escape “waltzing, as I may say” (a reference to the side-to-side drift of the spinning vessels). Juliet was “much injured,” having her rudder shot off and a shell strike her port crankshaft, which knocked out both cylinder heads on the engines. Happily, the gunfire did not result in many casualties.  “It seemed as if Providence turned the shot through the crowds that it should do no harm. I saw them traverse her crowded decks and cannot understand how so little harm came of them.” A shot that passed through the magazine and broke open several barrels of powder failed to ignite them. Riddled and with several holes beneath the waterline of the Fort Hindman, the two gunboats made it past the batteries by 10a.m. with relatively few casualties, although Confederate sharpshooters continued to plague the gunboats for another hour.

Twelve miles below the bluff, Phelps was much relieved to encounter the Neosho at 1p.m., ordered upstream by Porter to support him, but arriving too late to be of any help. In her haste to reach Phelps, she had run aground. All of the sick and wounded were transferred aboard the Neosho and all three gunboats stood down river. Cricket was hours ahead of them, steaming under escort to Alexandria to care for her wounded and bury her dead. She was so cut up that Porter considered her all but defenseless against the batteries he expected to find en route.

Cricket had lost 24 dead and wounded, Juliet 15, and the Fort Hindman eight. Confederate losses, officially, were but one man killed and one wounded; anecdotal evidence suggests there were “severe” losses among the infantry as the result of the Navy gunfire, but this cannot be proven. The greatest loss of life, of course, occurred aboard the pump boat New Champion, where all 200 crew and passengers were killed by the hot steam, artillery, and musket fire. Her sister ship, the Champion No. 5, lost two men killed, but the remainder of the crew captured. Admiral Porter, who considered this “the heaviest fire I ever witnessed,” admitted that “the passage from Grand Ecore down could not be called a success.”[13]

[1] The Official Records call the site “DeLoach’s Bluff” and it appears elsewhere as “Delouch’s Bluff.” However, modern maps correctly name the site after the local Deloges family, whose cemetery lies atop a rise just inland from the bluff.

[2] Most of these vessels had been sent downstream as the water fell and the Army pulled back, not lost in combat.

[3] Letter to Major General Sherman from RAdm Porter, 16 April 1864 in Official Records of the navies, volume 26, p. 61.]

[4] A very thin security paper invented in 1829 which had strands of thread running through it.

[5] This was either an act of bravado or foolishness. On 3 April, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Joseph P. Couthouy had been picked off by a rebel guerilla while directing fire on the deck of the USS Chillicothe—and Porter had written the letter informing Gideon Welles of his death. Confederate Major General Richard Taylor, in fact, described his plan on 26 April to “keep up a constant fight with the gunboats, following them with sharpshooters and killing every man who exposes himself."

[6] The actual size of the rebel force at Deloges Bluff has been questioned since the battle. Confederate General Taylor claimed—based on testimony of his Chief of Artillery, Colonel Brent—that there were but four guns and two hundred infantry. But Brent was not actually on the field, and histories from the individual batteries present indicate that the number of guns was greater. The Val Verde Battery fielded five guns (three 6-pounders and two recently-captured 12-pound rifled cannon); the 3rd Louisiana Light Artillery (Benton’s or Bell’s Battery) brought two rifled guns; St. Mary’s Cannoneers or Cornay’s Battery (later the 1st Field Battery) had two 12-pound and two 24-pound howizters. This adds up to eleven recorded guns, and there may have been more. A Union pilot captured on 27 April testified two months later that he overheard among the rebels that the number was eighteen. In a private conversation with Porter following the war, Taylor supposedly informed the Admiral that he had had “three batteries of artillery and three thousand infantry pouring fire into the vessels all the time.”

[7]Among the dead was Ann Johnson, wife of the ship’s steward. Her name was listed in the Daily National Intelligencer among the dead aboard Cricket for 26 April, and her “rank” that of laundress. This situation was not common, but also not unknown aboard the ships of the Mississippi Squadron. A laundress was mentioned aboard the Forest Rose in March 1864 and orders to pay “authorized female contrabands” $7 a month were issued to the Mississippi Marine Brigade in January of the same year. Perry Johnson, “Officer’s Steward,” is recorded on the 31 March 1864 muster sheet for the Cricket, but is not shown on the subsequent 17 April sheet. Had he been killed after enlisting on 8 February?

[8] There may also have been another “guest” aboard. Porter reports that upon leaving the engine room, he came upon a contraband named Bob “holding on to Mrs Holmes’s horse.” No officer or enlisted man named “Holmes” appears in the muster sheets. Was Mrs Holmes a local Unionist fleeing aboard the gunboat?

[9] In the words of Colonel Brent, this “was probably the most fatal single shot fired during the war.”

[10] The nickname for the howitzers among the black crewmen.

[11] LtCmdr Phelps’ report of 28 April 1864 in Official Records of the Navies, volume 26, page 82.

[12] Pilot William Maitland, however, recovered from his eight wounds and was released by the Confederates two months later. Admiral Porter’s comment of pilots in general, “I never knew a braver set of men,” most surely applied to this man.

[13] Porter’s Naval History of the Civil War, p. 524.



1st Battery Volunteer Artillery (St. Mary Cannoneers, 1st Field Battery, Cornay's, Gordy's) http://www.acadiansingray.com/1st%20Batt.htm

3rd La. Battery Light Arty http://www.lascv.com/1444.htm

18th Louisiana Infantry regiment http://members.tripod.com/j_richard/18th_history_the_regiment.html

The American Conflict: a History of the Great Rebellion in the United States of America, 1860-64, Greeley, Horace, 1811-1872.

Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography, New York, D. Appleton and company, 1887-89.

Civil War Marine: A Diary of the Red River Expedition, 1864
Edited and Annotated by James P. Jones and Edward F. Keuchel, History & Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, Washington, D.C. 1975

Cricket Log Book for 24-28 April 1864

Cricket Muster Sheets for 31 March and 17 April, 1864

Documenting the American South  http://docsouth.unc.edu/taylor/taylor.html

Fort Hindman Log Book for 24-28 April 1864

From the Freshwater Navy, 1861-64: The Letters of Master's Mate Henry R. Browne and Acting Ensign Symmes E. Browne, US Naval Institute, Annapolis, 1971.

The Handbook of Texas Online http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/VV/qkv1.html

History of the Val Verde Battery http://www.geocities.com/valverde_battery/

Incidents & Anecdotes of the Civil War, David Dixon Porter, D. Appleton and Co., New York, 1885. pp239ff

Ironclad Capt.: Seth Ledyard Phelps & the U.S. Navy, 1841-1864, Jay Slagle (Kent State University Press, Kent, 1996)

Naval History of the Civil War, David D. Porter, Sherman Publishing Co., New York, 1885, p. 520-524

The Navy in the Civil War: The Gulf and Inland Waters, Alfred. T. Mahan, USN, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NYC, 1883, pp 196-203

Pictorial History of the Civil War in the United States of America, Lossing, Benson John, 1813-1891.

Report of the Joint committee on the Conduct of the War at the Second Session Thirty-eighth Congress.

The Road to Glorieta Readers Companion: The Valverde Battery at http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~donh/page78.html

St. Mary’s Cannoneers http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/Quarters/5023/Cornay1.htm

The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War-The Third Year, David M. Sullivan (White Mane Publishing Company, Shippensburg, 1999) pp120-121

USS Cricket (1863-1865, "Tinclad" # 6) http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-c/Cricket.htm

What Finer Tradition: The Memoirs of Thomas O. Selfridge, Rear Adm, USN
T. O. Selfridge (Wm Still, editor), (University of South Carolina, Columbia, 1987 [orig. 1924]) pp. 95-97

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