Review: The Mechanical Fuze and the Advance of Artillery in the Civil War

The Mechanical Fuze and the Advance of Artillery in the Civil War, by Edward B. McCaul, Jr., (McFarland, 2010).  Paperback, 129 pages main, 217 pages total. $35.00.

Bottom line up front.  The Mechanical Fuze is a work which details the technical history of a weapons systems component.  It is not for light reading, or for those who are easily bored with descriptions of working components.  The intended audience for this book is one interested in the functionality of artillery during the Civil War.

Fuses, according to McCaul, are an overlooked component of the artillery weapon system.  Other authors have failed to appreciate the success and failures with regard to fuse technology and the impact upon the war.  At least from a tactical standpoint, McCaul feels, “The combination of rifled artillery and mechanical fuses changed warfare.”  Adding, “For the first time battlefields had become so dangerous that, by the middle of the Civil War, if a man could be seen, he could be killed.”  McCaul attributes the Federal advantage in the artillery arm in part to the superior weapon design process in the north.

With due respect to advocates of the rifled musket, sharpshooters, and the repeating rifle, the author’s premise carries some weight.  McCaul frames the discussion with reference to the Weapon System Pyramid – the three legs of industrial capacity, technical availability, and military need.   The linkage of these three legs requires constant feedback to refine and improve the design.

Bear in mind, McCaul focuses most upon the fuses provided to rifled artillery, which represented the most technically advanced weapons of the arm during the war.  Building up to that examination, the author first provides a historical and technical overview of the other components of the weapon system.  Short chapters detail the evolution of gunpowder and the US military standards applied, pre-war wood and paper fuses, and the cannon themselves.  Included are very descriptive explanations of the Bormann time fuse and the Navy water cap fuse – both widely used during the war and important starting points.

The middle chapters of the book focus less on the technical aspects and more on the production and operational use of the weapon system.  Certainly the chief disadvantage faced by the Confederacy throughout the war was limited manufacturing capacity.  McCaul documents the imbalance referring to the number of arsenals, armories, and private manufacturing firms in the respective regions.  Another chapter, somewhat longer, discusses the operational use of artillery in the war, with of course weight toward the use of fuses.  Rifled artillery, because of its nearly non-existent windage, presented a technical problem not solved by flame-ignited fuses of pre-war origin.  In order to make the most of rifled artillery’s range, the military called for new fuse technologies.

Inventors were certainly up to the challenge.  From 1855 to 1872, the United States issued 115 fuse-related patents (83 of them between January 1861 and December 1864 alone).  In addition to variations of the old flame-ignition pattern, these new fuses included concussion timing, friction timing, percussion impact, concussion impact, and combination types.  Remarkably these patterns formed the basis of all fuses developed up until World War II (with variable time and proximity fuses).

Most of the proposed innovations and patented fuses failed to see service.  But those of three inventors – Benjamin Hotchkiss, Robert P. Parrott, and John P. Schenkl –  became the principal sources for rifled artillery mechanical fuses.  Each inventor offered projectile designs in addition to fuses, and of course Parrott also developed the guns themselves.   McCaul explains these inventors worked both competitively and in cooperation, with regular correspondence with each other, and the military customer.   The last chapter of the book details post-Civil War developments which built upon the wartime progress.

McCaul provides appendices which enumerate the US and British fuse patents granted from 1855 to the 1870s.  An appendix with short biographies of the people involved with ordnance development (both in and outside the military) and another detailing the pre-war production facilities (armories, arsenals, yards, foundries and factories) round out the book.

I would be hard pressed to offer any sources not listed in McCaul’s bibliography.  The bases are well covered.  However, unlike perhaps a battle or unit history, the author is also reliant on physical artifacts as perhaps even more valuable source material than the written word.  From the text and citations it is clear McCaul  calls upon a hands-on familiarity with the fuses.

If anything I find two shortfalls in the book.  First, very limited discussion of Confederate fuse technology.  Granted, the Confederacy’s fuse production largely copied that of the Federals, there were certainly a few variations of note.  Even if the Confederate ordnance sources lacked the ability to produce advanced fuses, certainly they were aware of the problems.  A discussion of their suggested solutions might serve as a good comparison.

Secondly, even with a chapter discussing the operational role of artillery in the war, there is insufficient, in my opinion, linkage to the battlefield.  If indeed the rifled cannon with its mechanical fuse changed the battlefield (as I am apt to agree!), then what metrics can we advance to prove such?

Regardless, I found The Mechanical Fuze informative.  While short in volume, the work is heavy on details.  The description of the inner workings and components of the various fuses exceeded those I’ve encountered before.  Illustrations in the book provide handy reference, and are clearly drawn.  More importantly, McCaul sheds much-needed light on some rather obscure aspects of Civil War weapon system development.

It is a welcome addition to my bookshelf.


Forgotten Roads of Northern Virginia

The Hunter Mill Defense League recently posted a 36-page book titled “Forgotten Roads of the Hunter Mill Road Corridor” written by James G. Lewis Jr. with Charles Balch and Kenneth Jones.  The work was referenced in an article on the Washington Post today:

Hunter Mill Defense League members detail history of Virginia traffic arteries in book
By Kali Schumitz
Fairfax County Times
Thursday, September 16, 2010; VA17

If you are inclined to traipse through the woods around Reston and Vienna, you might come across the vestiges of roads that farmers, Civil War soldiers and lawyers once used to travel through rural Fairfax County.

Three members of the Hunter Mill Defense League, a nonprofit civic association, did just that and have chronicled the 270-year history of Lawyers Road and other former arteries in a new booklet, “Forgotten Roads of the Hunter Mill Corridor.”

About two years ago, James Lewis Jr., Charles Balch and Kenneth Jones set out to find the road networks shown on Union Gen. Irvin McDowell’s 1862 map of Northern Virginia. Their research quickly took them beyond the Civil War era.

“We started going into the woods, and immediately we started finding roads,” Lewis said.

The three men met through their involvement in local history groups.

Lewis, a retired marketing specialist with Xerox , and Balch, who is retired as a partner with Accenture, also were involved in creating the 2007 Hunter Mill Defense League documentary, “Danger Between the Lines.” The film chronicles life in the Hunter Mill corridor during the Civil War.

Both also were part of a group within the Defense League’s history committee that did extensive research to support the placement of six historical markers, installed last year, which document significant events in the corridor. Lewis also leads occasional bus tours highlighting local history.

Their work researching local Civil War-era history led them to the McDowell map and piqued their curiosity about local roads. Jones, a retired research scientist with the U.S. Navy, served as the cartographer for the project.

Much of the 36-page, illustrated booklet focuses on the long history of Lawyers Road, believed to be so named because lawyers from the western reaches of the county used the route to travel to the first county courthouse, near the present-day intersection of Old Courthouse and Chain Bridge roads in Tysons Corner. The courthouse was there from 1742 to 1752.

“We feel we have found the original route,” including a segment that runs through the present-day Polo Pointe community, Lewis said.

The booklet uses maps Jones created, as well as photos and historic maps, to trace the shifts of the road’s route in the context of local history.

“All of us travel through these areas at high speed,” Balch said. “I think [knowing the history] adds context as you’re driving through.”

The men also discovered a 0.6-mile mill race that once fed Broadwater’s Mill, built in the 1740s, which is one of three mills once located along Hunter Mill Road.

“It is still in very good shape,” Jones said of the mill race. “If you don’t destroy it, these things will last a long time.”

The booklet identifies old sections of Stuart Mill Road (identified as “Bad Road” on the McDowell map), Vale Road (“Old Bad Road”) and Crowell Road, as well as several unnamed roads.

“What’s really cool is that this area has been protected,” Lewis said. “If you go looking for it, it will blow you away, what’s still out there.”

Copies of the booklet will be sold for $14 at to support the Hunter Mill Defense League’s preservation efforts, historical research and placement of historical markers.

I haven’t purchased my copy of the book yet, but Jim Lewis has aided me on several occasions while tracking down some of the out of the way Civil War sites in Fairfax County.  So I know the attention to detail and effort he puts into his work.  The booklet will be a valuable resource for anyone interested in the movements through the western part of Fairfax County during the 1st Manassas, Antietam, and Gettysburg Campaigns.

As the article mentions, proceeds go toward preservation and awareness (um… markers!).  I’ve mentioned the League before.  They are a fine example of what can be done locally toward preservation goals.

HMDB Civil War Updates – Week of September 13

A batch of sixty-one marker entries for the Civil War category of Historical Marker Database this week.  The entries cover Civil War related sites in Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia:

– A marker relating the history of Tuscumbia, Alabama notes the city was occupied several times by Federal troops during the war.

– The bells of the Methodist church in Northport, Alabama rang in alarm when Federal raiders approached on April 3, 1865.

Thirty-one markers cover the battlefield of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, fought on March 7-8, 1862.  A few of the included markers discuss the Trail of Tears Indian removal.

Twenty-one markers (including some from last week) cover the battle of Prairie Grove, Arkansas, fought December 7, 1862.

– Four memorials from Connecticut this week.  The Branford Soldiers Memorial honors veterans from that community.  North Branford’s memorial lists the soldiers from the community who died in the war.  Northford’s veterans are listed on a plaque with the city’s veterans from other wars.  A 10-inch Rodman Gun with plaques is the East Haven veterans memorial.

– A marker near Atlanta, Georgia’s Springvale Park discusses the assault made by Manigualt’s Brigade during the Battle of Atlanta, July 22, 1864.  On the other side of the line, another marker notes the line of D.S. Stanley’s Federal Division.

– Other entries this week from Georgia follow Sherman’s March to the Sea in the fall of 1864.  A marker near Monticello notes the Left Wing’s crossing of the Ocmulgee River, on November 18.  The wings of the army converged at Milledgeville a few days later.   Confederate defenders delayed the march for three days at the Oconee River, November 23-25.   But after the Right Wing crossed at Ball’s Ford, the march continued to Irwin’s Crossroads.

Bollinger Mill, near Burfordville, Missouri was damaged by combatants during the Civil War.  The coming of war caused a pause in construction of the adjacent bridge.

– A plaque at the Western Maryland Station in Gettysburg notes the arrival of Abraham Lincoln, November 18, 1863, to speak at the National Cemetery dedication.

– A stone marker near Sumter, South Carolina notes the site of the battle of Dingles Mill, April 9, 1865.

– Two new Tennessee Civil War Trails markers from Russellville, Tennessee.   General Longstreet maintained a headquarters there while operating against Knoxville.  The congregation of the Bethesda Presbyterian Church split over the war, eventually forcing its closure.

– General John H. Morgan established a headquarters in McMinnville, Tennessee shortly before launching his raid to Ohio in 1863.

– A new Hunter Mill Road marker in Fairfax County, Virginia.  This one a county marker at the southern end of the road.

– Three new markers, replacing the older interpretive markers, at Chatham, outside Fredericksburg, Virginia – Beleaguered Town, Bombardment, and A Changed Landscape.

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Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove Battlefield Guide

Usually I prepare for a battlefield visit with some “read a-heads” both to refresh my knowledge and to seek out new aspects of the campaigns.  I’ll add to that any tour maps, plots and waypoints for associated sites off the beaten path, and of course a trip plan for the driving part of the tour.

For my recent “trans-Mississppi” visit, I was a bit pressed on time.  Since I’d grown up out that way, visited those battlefields many times before, and been reading about the battles since I was hub-high to a regulation 6-pdr carriage, I cut my preparations short.  Boldly, I chose to go with one guidebook:  Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide, from the Hallowed Ground battlefield guide series.   My faith in that single work for preparation was vindicated during two solid days of battlefield stomping.

The co-authors – Earl J. Hess, Richard W. Hatcher III, William Garret Piston, and William L. Shea – have all produced, in recent years, important works on these three battles.  (Piston and Hatcher covered Wilson’s Creek; Hess and Shea co-wrote on Pea Ridge; and Shea independently wrote on Prairie Grove.)  Beyond that, I’ve heard each speak on the battles before.  In fact I’ve surveyed one of Piston’s Civil War classes and attended one of his tours of Wilson’s Creek.  I had high expectations about the content of the guide, and was not disappointed.

To be honest, this is not a guide for three battles, but rather three full campaign guides in one cover.  In some regards when first taking up the guide, I felt the sections were somewhat “digests” of the larger works.  Not a knock, but rather refreshing that I had a “field reference” every bit as authoritative as the three larger volumes –  summaries of three full campaign histories in a handy paperback.

The book follows the same format as other Hallowed Ground works.  If you are not familiar, the book presents a tour for each battlefield.  The tour stops are broken down in a logical order, not necessarily the order of events or the order of the park driving tour.  The narrative for each stop includes clear directions, orientation to the site, explanation of the events, analysis, and additional vignettes adding to the story.   My one complaint with the series in general is the maps.  While sufficient for field work, I’ve been spoiled with the full color, high quality maps from the “map-books” and the Civil War Preservation Trust’s site.

A concern I had was the fusing of three battles, from separate campaigns, into one book.  Well, this is a guide book, not a narrative, so some jumps are expected.  But I found the introductory sections for each campaign made up for that.  Such was handy when traveling between the battlefields, linking the towns and place-names passed along the roads to the historical events.   Since all three campaigns were tied to the Wire Road, the inclusion of a section discussing (and offering additional tour stops) the road further aided my understanding of the road network and terrain.

Touring Wilson’s Creek, the guide took me well off the tour road on the excellent trail system inside that park.  The guide did not take as much advantage of Pea Ridge’s trail system, but made up with an eleven stop tour outside the battlefield (which I could not completely tour due to time constraints).  The Prairie Grove section completely covered that battlefield and offered nine more campaign stops.  Finally the last section covers the Wire Road from Springfield to Fort Smith.  In all these sections could easily stand alone in a single guidebook.

I’d spent many weekend days in graduate school pacing out Wilson’s Creek.  I’ve camped on the ground at Prairie Grove during reenactments.  And I’ve tramped about Pea Ridge as a boy scout.  But I must admit, this Battlefield Guide offered a number of new perspectives and more than a handful of previously unseen locations.  It will be in my kit bag for the next (hopefully not so far off this time) trip back to those Trans-Mississippi battlefields.

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A Study of Initiative: Prairie Grove December 7, 1862

As you may have guessed, I excelled somewhat in the formal professional military history classes while in the Army.  Often in my zeal to impress, I’d pick obscure (to the audience) battles to reference when asked for examples.  Visiting Prairie Grove last week, I had flash backs to a paper written about initiative as a principle of war.

Initiative, on the battlefield, is to present a series of threats to the enemy which they must respond to.  Initiative is not just bold aggressive moves.  It can, contrary to some notions, include occupying and fortifying a key terrain feature.  To “take the initiative” a commander changes the current state of affairs in such a way that his opponent must respond in a somewhat predictable manner.  (And conversely to “lose the initiative” is to alter the current state in a way that gives the opponent more options.)

The American Civil War is filled with great examples of initiative applied in tactical, operational, and strategic contexts.  Think of Chancellorsville and Joe Hooker at first “taking” then “losing” the initiative.  The word initiative rolls off the tongue when discussing Jackson’s ’62 Valley Campaign.   And you cannot discuss either Grant or Lee without saying a paragraph or two about initiative.

Another less cited example of initiative played on the stage of northwest Arkansas in the late fall of 1862.  In November of that year, Brigadier General John M. Schofield split his Army of the Frontier with one division forward near Fayetteville, Arkansas under Brigadier General James G. Blunt and the remainder at Springfield, Missouri under Brigadier General James Totten.  In the last week of November, Schofield took ill and command temporarily fell to Blunt.  Logically, Blunt should have returned to Springfield, suspending operations for the winter.  But he didn’t.

Hearing Confederates were massing forces near the village of Cane Hill, Arkansas, Blunt marched 35 miles southwest to strike Confederate General John S. Marmaduke on November 28.  As result of the all day fight, Blunt was exposed deep in enemy country, but he was also in a position that General Thomas C. Hindman, overall Confederate commander, could not ignore.

Hindman tried to seize the initiative for himself, moving behind Blunt, figuring to defeat Blunt then any reinforcements sent in piecemeal fashion.  Hindman outnumbered his adversary on paper, and intended to translate that into a stunning victory.  But Hindman had not closed all options to his enemy, and did not fully gain the initiative.

From Cane Hill, Blunt sent orders to Totten on December 2: “… I desire you to move as much of your force as possible, especially the infantry, to my support as I do not intend to leave this position without a fight.  You should move by forced marches via Fayetteville….” [Official Records, Series I, Volume 22, Part I, Serial 32, page 805].

But Totten didn’t receive the message.  He too was on leave (something in the water I guess), but his replacement General Francis J. Herron, responded adding, “Will keep you well posted of my movements.”   [OR, Serial 32, page 807] Something every commander loves to hear.   And Herron didn’t just move, he moved with all haste.  In a march that would make the Stonewall Brigade wince, Herron covered over 100 miles in three days (in December, in the mountains, during some of the shortest days of the year).

Herron’s arrival near Fayetteville changed the game.  The initiative balance had teetered between the two sides, now tipped firmly to the Federals.  Hindman picked a good ridge line on which to defend astride the main road through the area and began consolidating his command – at an area known locally as Prairie Grove.  However, his posture left open maneuver room for the Federal commands.  Maneuver, of course translates into options.

On the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1862 (history has a funny way of hitting some dates over and over, you know), Herron encountered Hindman’s defenses.  Herron interpreted that to be only a portion of the Confederate force, and attempted to push through to Blunt.  After two organized assaults, Herron’s command was for the most part spent.  However, his artillery kept the Confederates at bay.

Realizing Hindman had slipped by him, on the morning of the 7th Blunt fell back north to Rhea’s Mill, about five miles from Herron’s position.  There, Blunt changed his direction, “…when I heard the discharge of artillery in a northeast direction, and immediately moved rapidly, with the Second and Third Brigades, in the direction of the firing….” [OR, Serial 32, page 74].   Or in more romantic form, he “moved to the sound of the guns!”

When Blunt’s division arrived on the field in the afternoon, the Federals still held the initiative, partly due to artillery superiority.  Blunt launched an attack on the left flank of the Confederate defense at about two in the afternoon.  Stubborn defense, and the early December sunset, checked Blunt’s attack.  While tactically both sides were at a stalemate, operationally Hindman had shot his wad.  The Confederates began a retreat that night (and used the cover of a truce in part to gain further distance from pursuit).   A costly battle, certainly one of the bloodiest in the Trans-Mississippi theater, Prairie Grove tipped the operational and strategic initiative to the Federals.

Three times in the campaign, Blunt could have fallen back citing caution, and history would not have judged him wrong.  Yet three times he chose to act in a way that would force his adversary to choose particular courses of action, and keep them reacting.  Not all of Blunt’s actions were the mark of a great commander, but his use of the initiative was remarkable.  I would argue that Blunt shaped the situation, through his own actions and orders, to make it predictable.

A co-worker of mine from years past often said, “Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb, if you can predict how that limb is going to break.”  Perhaps that is the kind of logic that passed through Blunt’s mind on those fall days of 1862.

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12-pdr Field Howitzer Model 1838

For me, an attraction of the “western” Civil War battlefields is encountering rare or at least uncommon artillery pieces.  Last week I was able to examine not one but two 12-pdr Field Howitzers of Model 1838 pattern.

Wilsons Creek 105
12-pdr Model 1838, Ames Reg #13, Wilson's Creek NBP

The example at Wilson’s Creek is the Visitor Center.  Lighting prevented a quality photo of the markings, but my notes verify this as registry number 13 from N.P. Ames, produced in 1840.    I’ve mentioned the type in a post last December covering the early 12-pdr Field Howitzers (those preceding the familiar Model 1841).

I was able to check another Ames Model 1838 at Pea Ridge in more detail.

pea ridge 091
12-pdr Model 1838, Ames Reg #15, Pea Ridge NMP

The main difference between the Model 1838, its predecessor the Model 1835 and the Model 1841 was the length of the piece.  The Model 1838 was four inches shorter than the other models.  This is not easily determined without measurements.  The distance between the muzzle and chase ring is perhaps an inch shorter than the other models.

pea ridge 095
Muzzle and Chase Ring of Model 1838

The easiest for a field observer to pick out is the weight, if the stampings are visible.

pea ridge 097
Breech of Model 1838 - Markings, Vent, and Lockpiece Mount

The registry number (15), weight (691 pounds), and inspector (J.W.R. – John Wolfe Ripley) appear on the upper breech face.  Model 1841 howitzers weighed about 85 to 90 pounds more.

Note the multiple threaded holes around the vent.  I am told these are definitely mounting points for a lockpiece.  In brief, this was a firing mechanism similar to that used on naval guns of the period, using a primer placed over the vent.

Cyrus Alger and N.P. Ames produced 21 Model 1838 howitzers between 1838 and 1840 (nine of which survive).  For all practical purposes, the type was simply an evolutionary step, if not misstep, towards the Model 1841.

Next time you see a 12-pdr on the battlefield that looks smaller than usual, check the weight stamps.  You may have found a Model 1838.

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HMDB Civil War Updates – Week of September 6

Forty-eight additions to the Civil War category at the Historical Marker Database this week, from Civil War related sites in Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Indiana, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin.  Here’s the list:

– A marker in Florence, Alabama notes the narrow escape, in December 1864 of the Army of Tennessee from the Hood’s disastrous Middle Tennessee campaign.

– The Central Bank in Montgomery, Alabama supported the Confederacy during the war, and was bankrupt in the end.

– More markers in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  The Chabannes-Sealy House was used as a stable by Federal forces in April 1865.  The Jemison House was home to Robert Jemison, politician who initially opposed secession (although he later served in the Confederate congress).

Eleven entries this week covering the battlefield in Prairie Grove, Arkansas.  More to follow next week, matched into a tour by markers (and eventually a trip report).

– Guarded by Dahlgren Boat Howitzers, a memorial in New Haven, Connecticut honors the 9th Connecticut Infantry.

– A stone marker in Rochester, Indiana commemorates the Underground Railroad network which operated in the community through the end of the Civil War.

Twenty entries cover the Wilson’s Creek (or if you prefer, Oak Hills) Battlefield, fought on August 10, 1861, outside Springfield, Missouri.   I’ll back the marker entries up with a tour report shortly.

– Another Springfield, Missouri entry notes Zagonyi’s Charge, one of the often overlooked sites in the Southwest Missouri city.

– In Tabernacle, New Jersey, the home of Gilbert W. Knight, of the 23rd New Jersey Volunteers, is preserved.

Reconciliation Plaza at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York highlights the role of Academy graduates in the war.

– Revolutionary War era cannons in Edenton, North Carolina served the Confederacy, briefly.  The state purchased the guns in France in 1778, and in 1861 the old guns were pressed into service defending Edenton.  Federals spiked and damaged the guns to render them useless for military purposes.

– A plaque in Salisbury, North Carolina notes the location of 18 burial trenches used when the Confederate prison camp was in operation there.

– A marker in Carlisle, Pennsylvania notes that alumni of Dickinson College included eleven Federal and one Confederate generals.

– A Lincoln Highway marker in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania notes the passing of the Confederate Army moving toward Gettysburg in 1863 and the burning of the town in July 1864.

– A state marker near Boca Chica, Texas notes the last battle of the war at Palmito Ranch, which as any Civil War trivia buff recalls was  a Confederate victory.

– A veterans memorial in Copperton, Utah notes Civil War veterans buried in the Bingham City Cemetery.

– A plaque in Alexandria, Virginia notes the birthplace of Confederate General Montgomery Corse.

– A county marker in Annandale, Virginia details an attack on the Federal garrison by Mosby’s Partisan Rangers in August 1864.

– Another replacement marker for the Richmond Battlefields, this one discussing Fort Harrison and the 1864 campaign around Richmond.

– Fredericksburg Battlefield also has “refreshed” historical markers.  Entries this week include one orienting visitors at Chatham.

– A memorial in Oshkosh, Wisconsin notes Camp Bragg, where the 21st and 23rd Wisconsin formed before moving off to war.

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