The Battle of Valcour Island

BattleOfValcourIsland_watercolor
Watercolor painting (circa 1925) of the 1776 Battle of Valcour Island. Source: National Archives of Canada

Until the early decades of the 20th century saw wide-spread construction of roads in North America, water provided ready-made highways. Lake Champlain formed 125 miles of one such 350-mile-long artery through the wilderness that lay between the Atlantic Ocean at New York City and the St. Lawrence River at Montreal. In the spring of 1776, the Americans commanded the lake with four small armed vessels captured a year earlier. Lacking any shipping, the British and Germans pursuing the shattered American army retreating from the disastrous Canadian campaign could not continue up the lake.[1] With control of the water highway as the prize, an arms race began that would last until October.

In order to retain control, the Americans began to build ships at Skenesborough (Whitehall, NY)—the head of the lake. Under the command of Benedict Arnold. workmen constructed the ships out of green lumber and sent them down the lake to Mount Independence and Ticonderoga to be completed with supplies, cannons, and crews. In mid-August, the fleet began cruising several miles to the north. By the end of summer, the army had built a cutter from timbers captured at St. Johns, four row galleys over 70 feet in length, and eight 50-foot gunboats (also called gondolas). The fleet ultimately consisted of seventeen vessels of various sizes and armaments.

The American fleet at the time of the Valcour Island battle.[2]

NAME

TYPE

ARMAMENT

CREW

Royal Savage Schooner six 6-pounders; four 4-pounders; twelve 1-pound swivels[3]

60

Revenge Schooner eight 4s; ten 1s

35

Liberty (at Ti loading supplies) Schooner two 4s; six 2s; six 1s

35

Enterprise (served as hospital ship) Sloop ten 4s; twelve 1s

50

Lee Cutter one 12; one 9; four 4s; six 1s

45

Trumbull Galley one 18; one 12; two 9s; two 6s; two 4s; ten 1s

76

Washington Galley one 18; three 12s; four 6s; ten 1s

76

Congress Galley two 18s; two 12s; four 6s; ten 1s

76

Gates (being rigged at Mt. Independence) Galley two 18s; two 12s; four 4s; ten 1s

76

Philadelphia Gunboat one 12; two 9s; eight 1s

  45[4]

New York Gunboat one 9; two 6s

45

New Jersey Gunboat one 12; two 9s

45

Connecticut Gunboat one 12; two 9s; eight 1s

45

Providence Gunboat three 9s; seven 1s

45

New Haven Gunboat one 12; two 9s; eight 1s

45

Spitfire Gunboat three 9s; four 1s

45

Boston Gunboat one 12; two 9s; eight 1s

45

Total: 17 Vessels (15 at Valcour) Total Weight of Armament: 841 pounds (729 at Valcour: heavy guns = 616 pounds; swivels = 113 pounds.)

Total: 865

 

The effort suffered from severe shortages. Only a limited number of qualified carpenters, blacksmiths, and shipwrights could be cajoled to work in the shipyard. When joining the fleet, many ships did not have full rigging and all had to make use of old and inferior armament.[5] Worse yet, with few sailors available, crews had to be filled out with inexperienced landsmen. Shortly after Arnold left the shipyard to command the fleet, he wrote to General Horatio Gates: “We have a wretched motley crew in the fleet, the marines the refuse of every regiment, and the seamen, few of them ever wet with salt water.”[6] Against ships and sailors of arguably the most powerful navy in the world, Arnold had to go into battle with green ships and greener men.

Intent on seizing control of the lake, the British built their fleet in a shipyard at St. Johns, Quebec—the foot of the lake. Anticipating that Champlain would be the scene of naval action, the Admiralty had ingeniously constructed ten gunboats as kits in England to be assembled in Canada under the direction of naval Lieutenant John Schank.[7] Added to similar vessels built locally, the British had up to twenty-seven gunboats mounting a single cannon or howitzer. They also brought thirty longboats from the St. Lawrence River fleet and mounted a cannon in four of them. Expecting to have to fight on land as well, the carpenters produced as many as 450 flat-bottomed transports each capable of carrying 30-40 infantry and supplies. Many featured a square bow designed to allow for the landing of the men.[8]

Victory would require larger ships, however. Unlike the Americans who built most of their ships out of standing timber in the area around their shipyard, the British constructed only the massive radeau Thunderer entirely at their yard.[9] Instead, Schank and the commander of the St. Lawrence fleet, Captain Charles Douglas, had four of Douglas’s large vessels partially disassembled and dragged up the Richelieu, over or around twelve miles of rapids and shallows at Chambly, to St. Johns for reassembly.

The British fleet at the Battle of Valcour Island.[10]

NAME

TYPE

ARMAMENT

Inflexible Ship sixteen 12-pounders; two 9-pounders
Carleton Schooner twelve 6s
Maria Schooner fourteen 6s
Loyal Convert Gondola six 9s; one 24
Thunderer Radeau six 24s; eight 12s; two 8-inch howitzers
unnamed Gondola unknown
4 unnamed Longboat one 3 each
at least 22 boats carrying one gun (3 with German gunners) Gunboat seven 6s, nine 12s, two 24s, two 5½- inch howitzers, two 8-inch howitzers
Total: 32 Vessels Minimum Total Weight of Armament: 894 pounds + 4 howitzers + numerous swivels

 

Construction delayed the British advance until 4 October but the fleet had everything in its favor. It featured larger ships with better sailing qualities as well as newer, larger, and more numerous guns. In addition, experienced Royal Navy officers and seamen crewed the vessels while well-practiced British and German artillery crews manned the artillery. Veteran Captain Thomas Pringle commanded from the Maria accompanied by Governor-General Carleton. The move up the lake would be in two parts. The lead element would include the warships with about 1,000 regulars and 650 Indians and Canadians following in bateaus and canoes. The main body of the army—about 7,000 men—remained behind at Pointe au Feu.

Neither Arnold nor Gates expected the British to come onto the lake this late in the season. Living on ships amplified the shortages of clothing and supplies so Arnold planned to move the fleet south in mid-October. Nevertheless, he still made preparations to repel an attack.[11] He knew his fleet could not meet the enemy on open waters and had to find some way of limiting their advantages. He chose to do so by placing his ships in a line across the narrow strait between the New York shore and an island named Valcour about half way between Crown Point and St. Johns. As well as providing protection from the blustery north winds, the island shielded the fleet from British view until they had sailed past the island whereupon they would have trouble sailing back against the wind. Lastly, the narrow strait would limit how many ships the British could employ at one time.

ValcourIslandMap1776DetailOn the morning of October 11, Arnold’s plan began just as he had hoped. Desirous of battle, he ordered the gallies and Royal Savage under way to sail out into view of the British fleet while the rest of the fleet remained at anchor.[12] The British apparently thought they caught the Americans trying to escape: “One of their vessels perceived us only a little before we came abreast of the Island, and our van got to the southward of it in time enough to stop them just as they were making off.”[13] They could not have known that the other ships had remained anchored in line of battle.

Unfortunately for the Americans, they lost the Royal Savage very early in the action. Being a poor sailer with an inexperienced crew, she missed stays several times while attempting to tack against the wind. Around 11:00, still unable to move back to the fleet, she came under fire and ran aground on the southwest corner of the island. As the crew attempted to abandon her, a British boarding party captured twenty men and turned the guns on the rest of the American fleet. In turn, the boarders soon found themselves under considerable fire and abandoned the ship.

Watching that action, Carleton and Pringle realized they could not easily get any of the larger ships into the action. The fight rested on the gunboats. Even without the larger ships, however, they provided enough firepower for Arnold to become concerned. Around half-past twelve, the Carleton came up before a favorable breeze and “the engagement became general and very warm. Some of the enemy’s ships and all their gondolas beat and rowed to within musket-shot of us [300 yards]. They continued a very hot fire with round and grape shot.”[14]

The two fleets battled through the day. Each of the British gunboats carried fifty rounds of solid and grape shot into battle and they had to be resupplied having used up their initial quantity.[15] The Inflexible finally came up and engaged the Americans with several broadsides but, around 5 o’clock, the British “thought it proper to retire about six or seven hundred yards distance, and continued to fire until dark.”[16] Captain Georg Pausch, commanding the German gunboats, wrote that, “The cannon of the Rebels were well served; for, as I saw afterwards, our ships were pretty well mended and patched up with boards and stoppers.” The Carleton had been hit so many times that it could not move on her own and had to be towed back. One of the German gunboats blew up when a round hit their magazine.[17] The British fleet had suffered around sixty dead and wounded.[18]

As much damage as the Americans did to the British fleet, the more experienced British and German gunners firing considerable quantities of shot from larger cannons inflicted greater damage on the Americans: “The Congress and Washington have suffered greatly … The New York lost all her officers except her Captain. The Philadelphia was hulled in so many places that she sank about an hour after the engagement was over. … The whole killed and wounded amounted to about sixty.”[19] Not all the casualties resulted from enemy fire. One of the officers killed on the New York and an unknown number of enlisted men died when a cannon burst, probably the result of double-charging with powder and/or shot.[20]

With the coming of darkness and the end of the day’s fighting, Arnold met with General Waterbury and Colonel Wigglesworth: “It was thought prudent to Retire to Crown Point, every Vessells Ammunition being Nearly three fourths spent, & the Enemies greatly Superior to us in Ships, & Men.”[21] Two possible routes existed for the escape— out the south end of the strait or  around the north end of the island into the main channel of the lake and then south. Both routes presented their own set of challenges. Either way, they would have to slip through the British fleet but a significant difference lay in the course to navigate. Out the south end, the ships would follow a nearly straight course with only a narrow shelf of shallows along the shore that quickly dropped off to deep water. Moving north meant steering a line of ships through a narrow curving course between the island, the mainland, and barely submerged shoals—all in virtually total darkness. Any illumination on the ships would be seen by the British fleet or the loyalists and Indians that had landed on the island.

It is telling that no primary source has been found that mentions Arnold considering the northern route. It seems that it went without saying the escape would be to the south. Once darkness had set in, the Americans moved off along the New York shore with muffled sweeps (the long oars on each ship) and a shrouded lantern in the stern to guide the following ship. The adrenalin level of those men must have been quite high for some time as they slowly and quietly made their way past the British blockade. Once in the clear, all felt “great reason to return our humble thanks to Almighty God for preserving and delivering so many of us from our more than savage enemies.”[22]

Three factors enabled the escape. First and foremost, the British probably did not expect an attempt at escape and, although they certainly knew of both escape routes, it appears they did little to thwart either one. Carleton wrote that the fleet anchored in a line to the south of the Americans but does not note how tight a line they formed. He goes on to say that they “found means to escape us unobserved by any of our guard boats or cruisers.”[23] His use of the terms “guard boats or cruisers” indicates the line had gaps which had to be watched over by stationary or moving boats both of which are considerably less effective than a tight line. The northern route posed a particular problem for the British. Clearly, they did not have enough ships to completely seal off the four miles between opposite shores of the lake but, Pringle did have one or two ships anchored east of the island.[24] Interestingly, eight months after the battle, three officers charged Pringle with negligence in preventing the escape. If their letter is to be believed, the British blockade did not have much organization with ships scattered south of the island and well away from the New York shore. Whatever positioning had been ordered by Pringle, the Americans must have seen an opening in the fading light and quickly decided to take advantage of it.

In addition to gaps in the blockade, two factors would have impaired the vision of the British watchmen. While there is some reference to cloudy weather with squalls, the night would have been quite dark even with clear skies. With the moon just hours from its new phase, the only natural light came from the stars, inadequate to illuminate anything against the black backdrop of the Adirondack mountains.[25] Further, Carleton ordered the Royal Savage burned and with “her ammunition, blowing up, caused a fine fire lasting all night.”[26] The sight not only provided a distraction for the British but also prevented their eyes from becoming dark adapted. With those conditions, they probably would not have been able to see the American ships even if they looked right at them.

By morning, much of the American fleet had stopped to perform repairs at Schuyler’s Island eight miles south. A few had moved further south. Two of the heavily damaged gunboats, Spitfire and New Jersey, had to be abandoned. With first light, the British looked in jaw-dropping disbelief at an empty expanse where they expected to see the remnants of the American fleet. Carleton gave the Americans credit for “the real dilligence used by the enemy in getting away from us.”[27] The British fleet soon set off in pursuit but, the wind being out of the south, they had to “give over the chase for the present. The enemy has however been retarded as well as us.”[28]

Conditions changed dramatically on the 13th. The wind near Valcour came around to the northeast and the British set sail. They soon claimed the abandoned New Jersey but the Spitfire had already sunk.[29] The Americans, however, still had a southerly breeze. and had to row putting three men to a sweep. The wind change eventually reached the Americans but the far better sailing British ships caught up with straggling Washington five miles below Split Rock.[30] She surrendered after receiving several broadsides. The crew of the Lee ran her aground and abandoned her. After a two-hour running battle up the east side of the lake, Arnold took four gunboats and the Congress into Ferris Bay nine miles above Split Rock and, with flags flying, set fire to them. Arnold, his men, and some local settlers escaped overland to Crown Point.[31]

That action proved to be the last of the Battle of Valcour Island. The remainder of the American fleet had made enough progress that the British could not catch them but the Americans had suffered a major defeat. Scores of men had died, suffered wounds, or been captured. Out of the fleet of fifteen vessels, only four—Revenge, Enterprise, Trumbull, and New York—escaped. Nearly 130 valuable cannons had been lost. While Arnold’s plan had begun perfectly on the 11th, it did not end that way on the 13th.

Following the battle, the Americans abandoned Crown Point and the British immediately took over the post. On the 15th, Carleton sent several boats under a flag to Ticonderoga carrying 104 prisoners released on their honor not to rejoin the army (a common practice).[32] When greeted by Johnathan Trumbull (who later gained notoriety as an artist), they reported being treated very well and that Carleton “pitied them as deluded subjects.”[33] Trumbull felt the treatment had “made a very dangerous impression” and immediately reported it to Gates without allowing the prisoners to land. Fearing the stories would soften the army’s view of the enemy, Gates did not allow them to land at Ti and promptly ordered them to continue on to Skenesborough and home.[34]

In spite of Carleton’s generosity and somewhat sympathetic feelings towards the enemy (an attitude that shortly led, in part, to his recall), the Americans feared an attack and worked feverishly to strengthen their defenses at Mount Independence and Ticonderoga. Additional units arrived and by late October around 10,000 men manned the positions. In a probe of the American defenses, around two dozen boats landed troops at Three Mile Point (so-called for being that distance north of Ticonderoga) but vigorous artillery fire from the forward redoubts prompted the British to return to Crown Point. Carleton’s troops continued some patrolling and taking soundings of the lake but, by early November, with cold weather arriving and facing a large entrenched force, they returned to Canada having accomplished their goal of gaining control of the lake. The British would retain control until the end of the war.

For the Americans, there is a silver lining to the dark story. The arms race had cost the British a campaign season. Considering the dilapidated condition of the army that retreated out of Canada that spring, the king’s forces might well have been able to move all the way to Albany and possibly beyond if not for the efforts surrounding that little collection of ships. The three months of delay allowed the American army to compose itself and gain strength. It would be next summer before another force moved south out of Canada full of confidence but, like Arnold’s fleet, Burgoyne’s army would suffer a severe thrashing.

 


[1] Lake Champlain flows north so heading south is “up.”

[2] Information drawn from the “Townsend Document” (dated October 22, 1776) in the collections of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. Courtesy of John Townsend.

[3] Swivels are small cannons mounted in a Y-shaped bracket with the tail inserted into a hole in a base—in this case, the upper rails of a ship.

[4] The crew for the Philadelphia should have been 45 but the only known roll lists 44 (Philip Lundeberg, The Gunboat Philadelphia and the Defense of Lake Champlain [Vergennes, VT: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 1995], 19). It is unlikely any of the ships had full crews at the time of the battle. Arnold repeatedly asked for more men and had to send several sick men back to the hospital.

[5] For example, the 12-pounder in the bow of the Philadelphia is a “finbanker” cast in Sweden in the late 17th century (John Raymond Bratten, “The Continental Gondola Philadelphia” [PhD. diss., Texas A&M University, 1997], 181-2).

[6] Benedict Arnold to Horatio Gates, 21 Sept. 1776, in Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1972), 6:884.

[7] Julius Friedrich Wasmus, An Eyewitness Account of the American Revolution and New England Life: The Journal of J.F. Wasmus, German Company Surgeon, 1776-1783, trans. Helga Doblin, ed. Mary C. Lynn, Contributions in Military Studies, Number 106 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), 25.

[8] James Hadden, Hadden’s Journal and Orderly Books: A Journal Kept in Canada and Upon Burgoyne’s Campaign in 1776 and 1777, ed. Horatio Rogers (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1884), 169-71.

[9] A radeau is a flat-bottomed barge with sloping sides and mounting heavy guns. While they often could be moved by either sails or sweeps (long oars), the Thunderer apparently could not be rowed. Rather, on days with unfavorable or no winds an anchor would be dropped out ahead of the ship and the cable then drawn in thereby moving the ship forward (Georg Pausch, Journal of Captain Pausch, Chief of the Hanau Artillery During the Burgoyne Campaign, trans. William L. Stone, “Munsell’s Historical Series,” No. 14 [Albany, NY: Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1886], 77).

[10] Compiled from “Force On the Lake Tolerably Exact, on Septr 18th. 1776, in ”Naval Documents, 5:883-4; Naval Documents, 6:951; and Douglas Cubbison, “The Artillery never gained more Honour:” The British Artillery in the 1776 Valcour Island and 1777 Saratoga Campaigns (Fleischmanns, New York: Purple Mountain Press, 2007), 54-65. Sources vary on the number of gunboats with twenty-two seeming to be the most accurate. For a detailed discussion of the gunboats, see Cubbison, 54-7.

[11] Benedict Arnold to Horatio Gates, 7 Oct. 1776, in “Bulletin of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum” I (1938) 36.

[12] Benedict Arnold to Horatio Gates, Schuyler’s Island, 12 Oct., 1776, in Naval Documents, 6:1235-7.

[13] Guy Carleton to John Burgoyne, Valcour Island, 12 & 14 Oct. 1776, in Naval Documents, 6:1272-4.

[14] Arnold to Gates, 12 Oct. 1776.

[15] Hadden, Journal, 23-4.

[16] Arnold to Gates, 12 Oct. 1776.

[17] Pausch, Journal, 82.

[18] William Digby, The British Invasion from the North. The Campaigns of Generals Carleton and Burgoyne from Canada, 1776-1777, With the Journal of Lieut. William Digby, of the 53D, or Shropshire Regiment of Foot, ed. James Phinney Baxter, “Munsell’s Historical Series,” No. 16 (Albany, NY: Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1887), 166.

[19] Arnold to Gates, 12 Oct. 1776. Both sides estimated their casualties at the same figure. Crews under Lorenzo Hagglund recovered the Philadelphia in 1935. It spent several years on display on the lake and now rests in the Smithsonian.

[20] Jonas Holden pension application, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application Files, National Archives and Records Administration, RG15, M804, Roll 1306. The bursting cannon wounded Holden in his right arm and side. He is buried in the Doty Cemetery in Wallingford, VT, the author’s home town.

During the 1999 and 2000 archaeological explorations of the Valcour battle site, divers found pieces of a cannon that had apparently exploded. This is likely the gun Holden wrote about.

[21] Arnold to Gates, 12 Oct. 1776

[22] Arnold to Gates, 12 Oct. 1776.

[23] Guy Carleton to General John Burgoyne, Valcour Island, 12-14 Oct. 1776, Sir Frederick Haldimand: Unpublished Papers and Correspondence 1758-84 (London: World Microfilms Publications, n.d., microfilm), reel 15, 21699:198.

[24] Lieutenants Schank, Starke, and Longcroft to Captain Thomas Pringle, 8 June 1777, in Naval Documents, 6:49-51.

[25] Samuel Stearns et al., The North-American’s almanack, and gentleman’s and lady’s diary, for the year of our Lord Christ, 1776 … (Worcester, Massachusetts, 1776), n.p.

[26] Pausch, Journal, 85. A team led by Lorenzo Hagglund salvaged the remnants of the Royal Savage in 1934.

[27] Carleton to Burgoyne.

[28] Carleton to Burgoyne.

[29] In 1997, a side-scan sonar survey of the lake bottom located an interesting object in very deep water. Specialist divers from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum verified it as a gunboat. With the fate of the rest of Arnold’s vessels known, the wreck is considered to be the Spitfire. Sitting upright and lacking her guns, it is speculated that the crew may have thrown them overboard to lighten the ship.

[30] Benedict Arnold to Philip Schuyler, 15 Oct. 1776, in Naval Documents, 6:1276..

[31] Arnold to Schuyler, 15 Oct. 1776.

[32] Lewis Beebe, “Journal of Dr. Lewis Beebe,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, LIX (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1935), 354.

[33] William Smith, in Naval Documents, 6:1436.

[34] Johnathan Trumbull, The Autobiography of Colonel John Trumbull, ed. Theodore Sizer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), 32-34.

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8 Comments

  • The Battle of Valcour Island is one of those small Revolutionary War engagements, the effect of which far exceeds the cost in men and materiel, as the author points out. It also portrays the tactical skills of Arnold, his courage and his ability to lead. Today, the Island looks much like it did in 1776 and from a boat in the strait looking north and south, one can see just how clever Arnold was in using lines of sight to hide from the British ships sailing south. Very enjoyable article.

  • While it is not (to my knowledge) documented in the official reports of the action, there’s long been a legend that the British pursuit of the Americans back up the lake was further slowed when they stopped to fire on a rock that looked to them like an American ship.

    Given that I know folks who have recovered cannonballs from the lakefloor around that island (still known sardonically as Carleton’s Prize), and that rust (presumably from embedded shot) can still be seen staining its cliffs, I am inclined to give credence to this legend, and it formed the genesis of my novel, The Prize. 🙂

  • A well written article on one of the most important aspects of the 1775 Canadian theater campaign. I believe the Valcour battle was the only naval engagement between American and British fleets in the revolution. Other naval actions were between French, Spanish and British fleets or individual ship battles principally American privateers praying on British shipping.

    In addition, after this battle the British maintained uncontested control of Lake Champlain throughout the remainder of the war. This forced Vermont residents to flee south or to the east side of the Green Mountains for protection.

  • Mike, did you ever hear of a ship called “the Reddo?” It is in a pension record I am transcribing. It was on Lake Champlain in the late fall of 1777 and according to this pensioner carried 250 prisoners from Mt. Independence north to St. Jean.

    • phil…is it possible that the “Reddo” might have been simply “radeau”…not a vessel name but just the description of the type of gunboat (“…flat-bottomed, nearly flat-sided, square-bowed, ketch-rigged boat, much like a modern-day barge with two masts.”

      from “Benedict Arnold’s Navy” by James L. Nelson, 2006, McGraw Hill.

      “Woody” Burgener

    • Greetings Phil,

      As you know by now from earlier messages, the ship referred to is a radeau named “Thunderer” (a larger version of the one in Lake George that your friend dove on). Capt. Lutwidge of the “Carleton” in a letter to Gov. Gen. Carleton in early Nov., 1777, says the “Thunderer” had sailed to St. Johns with ordnance stores and as many sick as she could carry. She may have carried prisoners, as well, but 250 seems quite high considering she’s already loaded with freight, crew, and sick. The figure may refer to a number of trips but, that summer the Brits had several ships at Ti and Crown Point with a couple carrying provisions, messages, etc., between there and St. Johns. I doubt they used the “Thunderer” in that capacity as she had downright horrible sailing characteristics. Being flat-bottomed with minimal keel, square-ended, and square-rigged, it went in whatever direction the wind blew. It really served not as a warship but a floating artillery park. I suspect most of the prisoners went on one or more of the other ships.

      • Thanks Mike, I may not get into that kind of detail on the story, but I may.. There are many tiny holes in his memory, but it is compelling nevertheless, especially after his escape. Drop me an e-mail (you have my card), but I do not have yours… and I will explain. — Meanwhile I well let the readers wait until the article is posted to the JAR.

  • Hey Woody! Thanks for the reply. I got a couple of others off-line. Yes, you are correct. I had a disconnect between the vessel and the name. One of my late childhood best friends was an avid diver and had dived on the radeau that was found sunk in Lake George. We had talked about it just before he passed away.

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