The Battle of Lake Erie was fought on September 10, 1813; the extraordinary lead-up to the battle is part of what makes it so significant and exciting.

Our story begins a year and a quarter earlier, just three weeks after war was declared on June 18, 1812. Slightly less than two thousand US ground troops under the command of William Hull invaded Canada but failed to capture the British fleet moored in Malden, their Canadian home port on the northwestern end of Lake Erie. When the Indians and British sent in their reinforcement troops, the American troops retreated back to Fort Detroit and thinking they were out numbered and about to be slaughtered, surrender without a shot being fired. Missing the support from Fort Detroit, other American frontier forts and significant areas to the west were also lost. Upon hearing this     news, Congress fell back upon “Plan B”: i.e., build (and pay for) America’s first naval fleet of wooden warships from forests that lined Lake Erie’s southern shores, and then engage the British in a naval battle on Lake Erie.

When General William Hull surrendered Fort Detroit to the British in July 1812, Daniel Dobbins hid neck deep under a half sunken gunboat to avoid capture. Dobbins was the experienced captain of the merchant ship Salina, trading in furs and other goods; he often traveled between Lake Huron and his homeport on Lake Erie. Under the cover of darkness, Dobbins swam to a passing Frenchman in a canoe and was rescued. Eventually, after sailing a boatload of sick and wounded soldiers back to Cleveland, he made his way to Washington, D.C., to give eyewitness testimony to Congress about the surrender of Detroit and other losses suffered in the Upper Lakes region. After hearing Dobbins’ testimony, Congress decided that his extensive knowledge of the Great Lakes coastline qualified him to select the location for the new shipyard. As a reward for his heroism, on September 16, 1812, he was appointed Sailingmaster in the United States Navy in charge of the soon-to-be Presque Ile, Erie, shipyards.

Building The Fleet

In 1812, Erie, Pennsylvania, was in a remote wilderness area without roads, shipbuilders, manufacturing, iron nails, rope, canvas, or cannons. The drinking water was contaminated with yellow fever and the only real resource was green wood forests.  In spite of these facts, the Navy Department decided to build gunboats in Erie and assigned the task to Sailingmaster Daniel Dobbins. So remote from the normal manufacturing centers was the Erie outpost that a blacksmith had to make the axes and adzes before woodsman could fell the first trees to begin building the ships.

“The total process by which the resources of a nation – material and
human- are mobilized and directed toward the accomplishment of a military end,”  is called “The Logistics” (Rosenberg, 2).

Some historians say that from a logistical point of view, building the fleet was an even greater accomplishment than winning the battle. Dobbins and his men labored through the harsh winter and soon discovered that very few gunboats could be built with the resources provided by Washington politicians or the Department of the Navy. Dobbins’ mathematical abilities and experience as a merchant captain made him invaluable in terms of acquiring supplies and developing new wilderness transportation routes, but he was without a compass when it came to navigating navy politics. In the beginning of January 1813, for example,  he wrote to Lieutenant Jesse D. Elliot, in Buffalo, New York, requesting aid.  Not only did Elliot flatly refuse to give assistance, but he also undermined the Erie operation by writing negative letters to Congress in an attempt to move the shipyards to his own command in Buffalo, New York.

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Fleet size is expanded, Perry appointed

Congress, however, remained optimistic about the Erie shipbuilding, and by the middle of January, it was decided that gunboats would not be enough to defeat the large British navy ships. Isaac Chauncey, the US Commander, hired Henry Eckford, a noted naval architect and builder from New York, to travel to Erie and modify plans for the gunboats under construction.  He was also ordered to draw new plans for two additional brigs capable of fighting Britain’s largest 20-cannon warships and yet navigate in shallow waters. “A rough rule of thumb for gauging the timber needed to build a late eighteenth-century warship was an acre of oak forest per cannon.  Tall, knot-free pine for masts and spars had become hard to find in Western Europe, and it was for these that royal shipwrights turned to North America. [A tree knot is where a limb grows. To make an  80-100’ knot-free mast, the tree must be so tall and straight that its first branches start 80-100’ above the ground]. They looked at the New World and saw a navy in the trees.  Up until a hundred and fifty years ago, a forest of straight, sturdy pine was as valuable as an oil field or uranium mine today; it was a critical source of energy (i.e., sail power) without which a nation could not fully realize its commercial or military ambitions” (Vaillant, 54).

The complex shipbuilding and sailing operation at Erie had grown beyond Dobbins’ knowledge, and Chauncey knew it. He recommended that Oliver Hazard Perry be appointed Commodore of building and all future naval operations.

Although he was only 27, Perry had had thirteen years of experience as a sailor doing everything from fighting battles in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, to superintending the construction of gunboats, to training sailors in Newport, Rhode Island. Compared to the Atlantic Ocean, Lake Erie was a pond; but ever anxious to serve, Perry traveled in the middle of winter by horse drawn sled, mail coach, and foot to meet with Chauncey at Sacketts Harbor, New York.  Perry stayed for two weeks as Chauncey informed him about the Great Lakes military situation; he then traveled the last hundred miles to Erie over the frozen lake. After receiving Dobbins’ somber assessment of the apparently overwhelming logistical problems, Perry took action.  He went to Pittsburgh and elsewhere attempting to add to Dobbins’ list of manufacturing companies capable of producing heavy rope, anchors, cannons and the other necessary supplies. In the months that followed, Perry found ways to prioritize construction standards, turn farmers into sailors, extract logistical support from Washington, build tactical support from commanders and generals at both ends of Lake Erie, weaken the enemy’s supply routes, and then engineer the lifting of newly constructed brigs over an impassable sandbar. He accomplished all of this while being harassed by the persistent hounds of the British navy patrol boats that maintained constant surveillance on Lake Erie and blockaded the harbors.

The map of alliances

If you picture Lake Erie as the bottom half of a semicircle with the Canadian border as the diameter, Buffalo NY. is located near the east end of the diameter; Sacketts Harbor lies slightly east of Buffalo; and Fort George is across Lake Ontario a little to the northeast of Buffalo. Fort Erie, Canada (not to be confused with Erie, Pennsylvania,) is slightly northwest of Buffalo; Fort Detroit is on the western end of the diameter, and the British shipyards at Malden, Canada, are a little northeast of Detroit. The shipyards at Erie, Pennsylvania, are one third the distance from Buffalo and two thirds from Detroit, measured on the lower circumference line. The British fleet controlled all of the water inside the semicircle and everything above the diameter line. Try to keep this semicircular map in mind as you read on.

Building alliances

Perry realized that he could not build the fleet and conduct battle against the British without building productive alliances with the commanding officers at both ends of Lake Erie -- Commodore Isaac Chauncey and General William Henry Harrison.  To gain their confidence and support, he “volunteered” without pay to superintend landing operations in the battles that eventually made these officers famous.  To become familiar with local waterways for the landing operations, he not only studied the charts, but he personally sounded depths in a rowboat the night before a battle. He had to decide on the safest way for American ships to navigate harbors and land troops, horses, artillery and supplies in shallow waters.  He had to provide a cover of artillery protection, which inevitably meant coming under fire himself. Perry’s commitment started long before a battle with meetings to discuss and plan the operation. He would then return to Erie and continue his fleet building operations until asked to return and superintend naval troop deployments and artillery cover. In exchange for Perry’s hard, dangerous work, Chauncey and Harrison were able to reallocate logistical support; men and materials back to the shipbuilding at Erie.

To backtrack a bit, in February 1813, Isaac Chauncey had been instrumental in securing Perry’s appointment as commander at Erie.  Perry acknowledged that favor by sending him 150 of his specially trained sailors from Newport, Rhode Island and then visiting Chauncey at Sacketts Harbor where he spent several weeks being appraised of the dynamics of the Great Lakes region and strategizing about Chauncey’s proposed attack on Fort George.

Three months later, in May, when Chauncey and General Henry Dearborn were ready to attack Fort George, they called upon Perry, who sailed with Dobbins from Erie, Pennsylvania, all the way up to Buffalo, New York. Dobbins remained there to acquire building materials and troop supplies, while Perry went on alone to volunteer (without pay) to “superintend the landing” and provide artillery protection for 500-1,500 troops. At one point, Perry’s naval bombardment protected the landing troops from ambush. It is said that Perry based his landing plans on those of Sir Ralph Abercrombie, who defeated the French in Egypt at Aboukir in 1801” (Dillon, 88).

The victory at Fort George had a positive domino effect for the Americans.  Within 48 hours, the British decided that rather than surrender, they would blow up their own ammunitions at neighboring Fort Erie, Canada. This instantly cut the British naval ammunition supply line to Malden and all points west.

The capture of Fort Erie also liberated five American vessels that were being held hostage at Black Rock by the British long guns. These five vessels were slated to make up 35% of Perry’s new fleet. Within two weeks after the fall of Fort Erie, Perry had these boats hauled upstream by 200 men with teams of oxen. He then had them renovated and loaded with the building supplies that Dobbins had amassed. Under cover of night and fog, Perry commanded the five vessels safely past the British patrol boats, back to the precarious safety of his Erie shipyards. No longer needing as many troops to defend their position, Chauncey was able to reassign 55 seamen for Perry to take back to Erie. Chauncey also immediately wrote to his superior, the Secretary of the Navy in Washington, noting that Perry needed at least 680 men but had only 120. He recommended that the Secretary make Erie an urgent priority. “I have much pleasure in acknowledging the great assistance which I received from him in arranging and superintending the debarkation of the troops. He was present at every point where he could be useful, under showers of musketry, but fortunately escaped unhurt.” Winfield Scott, who commanded Dearborn’s troops, said it was as if Perry were a “stranger to fear.”

Perry’s second major alliance was with General William Henry Harrison. In August, after Perry had engineered his ships over the sandbar and two weeks before the Battle of Lake Erie, Perry sailed to Sandusky to strategize with General Harrison about a land battle that would take place weeks after Perry had won his naval engagement.  During this visit, to better research the coastline, Perry defiantly sailed from Sandusky along the coast and up the Detroit River toward the British naval shipyards at Malden, Canada, harassing the British navy by coming so close. This so impressed Harrison that he immediately reciprocated by reassigning 150 men to Perry including the Kentucky sharpshooters who would play such an important part in Perry’s forthcoming battle.

After Perry’s victory in the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, his first communication was his famously understated executive summary to Harrison, We have met  the enemy and they are ours…”  It took Perry about two weeks to arrange for burial of the dead, medical treatment for the sick and wounded, assignment of prisoners, and deployment of the captured fleet. Then, on September 27, he sailed back, returned the troops Harrison had lent him and proceeded to “superintend the landing” of General Harrison’s 3,500 troops with sixteen war vessels and one hundred landing craft in the Battle of Thames. Once the landing operation was completed, Perry joined the ground operation by carrying messages on horseback; the British and Tacumseth were overwhelmingly defeated.

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It can be fairly stated that Perry’s involvement in the Battle of Lake Erie essentially included nine "campaigns", with major responsibilities for the following:
(1) Capturing Fort George
(2) Destroying the British ammunitions at Fort Erie
(3) Rescuing five vessels from Black Rock
(4) Building of the fleet at Erie
(5) Getting the brigs over the sandbar
(6) Controlling Lake Erie for August
(7) Planning the invasion of Thames
(8) Winning the September Battle of Lake Erie
(9) Winning the Battle of Thames with Harrison

Crossing the Sandbar

Once the brigs were completed, Perry faced a problem:  How could he launch two 260-ton vessels that needed nine feet of water to float in when they had to cross a sandbar where the water level was only four feet deep? Captain Robert Barclay, commander of the British fleet, considered the problem so insurmountable that he decided he didn’t need to risk sending men at night to find and burn Perry’s fleet; he was sure he could just wait until Perry’s newly built ships were dragged out of hiding and stuck in the sandbar, where the British ships’ cannons would destroy them like sitting ducks.

Perry, however, had other intentions.  He had learned a nautical maneuver from his father who, in turn, had learned it from the Dutch.  It was used for “for stranings in Dutch polders”-- i.e., when ships were stranded in shallow water. He directed Navy shipbuilder Noah Brown’s foreman, Sidney Wright, “…to build four twenty-ton boxlike scows, called camels. These were rectangular, watertight barges, 50’ long, 10’ wide and 8’ deep, shaped so that one curving side would fit snugly around the hull of a brig. Perry ordered the scows sunk in place; they were then lashed to spars [long poles that passed entirely] through the Lawrence via its gun ports. When Perry gave the command to start the pumps [to empty the water out of the scows,] the emptied camels floated the brig about three feet – far from enough. The men hauled valiantly at tow cables until they broke and Perry added on a kedge anchor. He then realized that one of the spars had given way, slackening the lashings and allowing the brig to slump in her cradle.  The spars were replaced and the operation was started again. Before reflooding the camels, Perry added additional blocks [to get more lift from their flotation.] As the pumps started again, the great pontoons wrenched the keel free from the grasp of the sand. Foot by foot [of distance, inch by inch of depth,] the men towed the buoyant Lawrence until she slid into deep water on the morning of August 4. Even Mead’s quarrelsome militiamen had pitched in to help the soaked and exhausted sailors and workmen; their extra muscle power did the job.” (Dillon).

While his shipbuilders were making the camels, Perry was also defending his men against possible attack by stationing “one gunboat anchored just inside the shoal to protect the brigs when they should be on the bar. He hoisted out the Lawrence’s unloaded guns, except for a few light pieces for a last minute defense, and placed them on timbers on the beach. Nearby was his ace in the hole, a battery of three of his long twelve-pounders, ready for Barclay”(Dillon).

High-Stakes Bluffing

“…The brig Lawrence cleared for action as her sister-ship, the Niagara, lined up to take her turn on the bar. It was then that the watch sang out the words Perry dreaded to hear—“SAIL-HO!!” …Barclay’s squadron [was sailing] for Erie with a fair breeze as the Niagara was hung up on the sandbar.  But at 11:00 am, Perry ordered her released from the grip of the camels and she swung freely around her hook (anchor) in deep water. There was no time to rearm her, of course. [Because he was not yet ready to fight, Perry realized that he would have to bluff.]  Like the good sailor he was, he checked the wind and found that it had shifted around to the west. This brought the bows of his vessels toward the open lake. He knew that it would appear to Barclay’s lookouts that the flotilla was making for open water. To make his ruse more effective, he sic’d Lieutenant John Packett and the Ariel, all 110 tons of her [rather small] on the British fleet. He then sent Champlin and the Scorpion tagging after her. They dashed directly at Barclay’s squadron, opening fire with their long-range guns. …To add to the show for Barclay’s benefit, [Perry] had his drummer beat to quarters on his flagship…Perry’s diversion worked beautifully.  Barclay drew off, then made sail for Malden, Canada” (Dillon, 108-109).

There are leaders who achieve great things with vast amounts of money, forced labor, intimidation or threats. Perry was a leader who achieved great things by inspiring, by example, by forming alliances, and by genius.

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How Tall Ships do battle

The battle plan formation between these two fleets of tall ships resembles two football teams facing one another at the line of scrimmage. Think of the ships and brigs as 180-490 ton centers flanked by smaller but speedier guards, tackles and ends (60-115 ton schooners and sloops.) Now separate the lines by a mile, and that’s where the battle begins.

The side whose cannons shoot the farthest has an initial advantage even over an enemy that has a bigger fleet, because they can destroy ship after ship before the enemy can get into shooting range. To overcome this advantage, the enemy tries to rush in as fast as possible. However, if either side allows the ships in its line to get too far apart, then two or more of the enemy’s ships can gang up on one ship and destroy it. The 28-year old Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry was at a disadvantage because his guns did not measure up to the British cannons’ range. Perry also knew that the new British ships’ “skins” or hulls had been built with wood that was a foot thick and that it would take double loaded cannons to blast through them. In contrast, Perry’s brigs had skins that were only two inches thick and were penetrable by musket balls. 

The wind provides a common engine for both sides and any change in the strength or direction of the wind will have an unpredictable, even chaotic, effect on the outcome. Given the limitations of communicating with flags and “speaking trumpets” (and without the convenience of cell phones!) the most reliable way to pass commands down the line of ships was for an officer to jump into a rowboat, “pull to” the next closest ship on his team, and yell when he got close enough to be heard.  This was, however, a time consuming and perilous procedure.

The Battle of Lake Erie

Keeping the previous game plan  (“How Tall Ships Do Battle”) in mind, one can begin to understand the importance of Perry’s order that “…commanding officers are particularly enjoined to pay attention in preserving their station in the line and, in all cases, to stay as near the Lawrence as possible.” At 5:00 am on September 10, 1813, with only a light wind to power them, Perry and his fleet sailed westward, and just before high noon they engaged the British flotilla.  Once the battle started, however, Elliot, who was in command of the US brig Niagara, disobeyed orders by staying back and heading in a direction that took him out of close action and also caused the four boats behind Elliot’s to become detached. The result was that five of Perry’s fleet were suddenly out of the battle. This allowed all the British long-range guns to focus their attack on Perry’s flagship the US brig Lawrence. From a mile away, their longer, lethally accurate cannons began raining death and destruction. So viciously was the Lawrence attacked, that huge splinters of wood flew everywhere like javelins, and while Perry conversed with John Brooks, his lieutenant in charge of the Marines, a cannonball struck Brooks in the hip, throwing him clear across the ship. Although he pleaded to be shot, no one had the heart to do it, and he died in agony below deck.

Lawrence Detail by Thomas Birch.

In another incident, Perry was assisting a gun captain who was suddenly torn in two by a 24-pound cannonball.  In a letter, Perry wrote that  “…every brace and bowline being soon shot away, she [the Lawrence] became unmanageable…in this condition, she sustained the action upwards of two hours within canister distance, until every gun [20] was rendered useless, and the greater part of her crew either killed or wounded.” Other accounts indicate that cannon balls shot into one side of the ship passed through the inside and came out the other side. With the Lawrence virtually blown apart and only nineteen of 124 men alive and unhurt , Perry lowered the battle flag that commemorated his friend Captain Lawrence’s dying words “Don’t Give up The Ship,” and with death defying courage, boarded one of the Lawrence’s few remaining rowboats. There is speculation that the romantic image of Perry standing in the boat may in fact be accurate: a hole had been shot through the boat just above the water line, and he may have stood, leaning to the other side, to keep the hole out of the water.

Perry Transfers to the Niagara and Does Battle

Perry Transfers by Thomas Birch.

With a flintlock pistol in his belt, his sword by his side, and four of his surviving men as crew, Perry enjoined his men to row for a half-mile, amidst a hail of cannon and grape shot, back to the Niagara. Once aboard, Perry immediately took command away from Elliot and sent him in the rowboat to relay Perry’s command to bring all the gunboats back into close action against the enemy. Then, as Perry raised his battle flag the wind changed direction, the breeze “freshened,” and Perry, exhibiting brilliant strategic leadership in the face of almost certain defeat, abruptly turned the Niagara ninety degrees. Holding his fire, he sailed right into the middle of the British line of battle. In less than fifteen minutes, Perry was able to spring his trap and achieved the ultimate goal in any naval battle: he “crossed the T” by passing the Niagara’s broadsides between two facing British ships, minimizing their ability to fire at him while raking broadsides at [the enemy’s] two ships from either side of his own."(

This is the pivotal moment that Julian O. Davidson’s painting shows us so well. The warring ships are "at half pistol shot distance apart," as Perry's log indicates. His cannons are "double loaded" and blasting out of both sides of the Niagara, attacking four opponents at once. We see Kentucky sharpshooters shooting rifles from their positions in the sails, killing anything that moved on the enemy decks. Perry’s blue and white pennant reading "Don't give up the Ship" is flying, and we see clearly that Perry has caused the British Queen Charlotte and the Detroit to collide by blocking their wind and shooting down a topsail stay. The few small British gunboats that tried to flee were soon overtaken and the entire British squadron surrendered in a mere twenty minutes. Perry then took possession of his prize ships, confined all prisoners under strong guard, and ordered his men to secure the broken masts and repair the holes in hulls to prevent them from sinking. An exhausted but elated Perry wrote his famous executive summery of the battle on the back of an old envelope and relayed the message to General Harrison: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.  Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and a sloop.”

Perry's Victory in the Battle of Lake Erie, by Julian Davidson
Photo ©1993 Maritime Collectors

Perry’s note gives new meaning to the word “met,” but stays on point. As fiercely as Perry fought, once victorious, he honored the egalitarian protocols of surrender and prisoners rights. He shared what meager medical treatment was available and refused to allow prisoners to be abused, regardless of nationality, color or gender. He ordered that graves to be dug for officers who had been killed and that the dead enlisted men be buried at sea. The British officers were allowed to keep their weapons. A British officer wrote, “The conduct of Perry was magnanimous, every kindness being shown to the wounded and prisoners, and it made a deep impression in his favor on all our hearts. He showed himself as humane toward the fallen as he had shown himself brave.”

In winning the battle, Perry secured control of the entire Great Lakes region, and stories of his death defying courage, leadership and humanity won the hearts, minds and imagination of the American people for a century afterward. He was the peoples’ hero, and they named villages and towns in his honor. The significance of the victory went beyond American shores. Never before had Britain lost an entire fleet in battle, and the impact echoed around the world. When Britain lost Lake Erie her “World Crown” came tumbling down. “Britannia ruled the waves”… no more.

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Boxing Sports Analogy

Titles and Crowns tumble down

In many ways Joe Lewis and Mohamed Ali are to American boxing as Oliver Perry, in the Battle of Lake Erie, is to the War of 1812. The significance of Lewis’ and Ali’s victories went beyond boxing, and Perry’s victory had consequences that went beyond Lake Erie. Like Ali, Perry took a severe beating from an opponent whose ships had longer arms and pounded him nearly to death for two hours from a mile away. Like Ali, Perry’s strength was fighting in close with double-loaded shorter cannons. With his ship nearly blown apart and 80% of the crew killed or wounded, Perry miraculously survived unhurt.  He proceeded to take four men along with his battle flag,“Don’t give up the ship,” in a small boat. Rowing half a mile through cannon and grape, they finally reached the brig Niagara, which was captained by Perry’s untrustworthy second-in-command, Elliot, who had disobeyed Perry’s original order and was barely engaged in the battle. Perry took command of the brig and sent Eliot adrift to bring up the detachment, Fortunately, before the bell ended the round, the wind changed direction slightly, enabling Perry to parry by abruptly turning the ship 90 degrees. He then performed some fancy footwork while signaling his men to hold their fire, dancing between enemy vessels until he was within half a pistol range. Once in close, just as Ali would explode with amazing power and speed, Perry double-loaded his cannons and gave orders to fire at four ships at once, from both sides of the Niagara joined by Kentucky sharpshooters stationed in the rigging.  They attacked with such precision and power that within fifteen minutes the paralyzed British fleet surrendered.  Like Ali and Joe Louis, Perry won a victory that echoed around the world.

Bibliography: As Reference On Wikipedia

Beman, L.S. Julian O. Davidson (1853-1894): American Marine Artist.  New City, NY: Historical Society of Rockland County. 1986.

Dillon, R. We Have Met the Enemy: Oliver Hazard Perry: Wilderness Commodore. NY: McGraw Hill. 1978.

Ernst, R.E. Map of the Battle of Lake Erie.  Lakeside, Ohio. 1972.

Important American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture of the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries.  NY: Christies, Manson, and Woods International, Inc. 1992.

Lossing, B. Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812.  NY: 1868, pp.524-527.  Quoted in Important American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture of the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries.  NY: Christies, Manson and Woods International, Inc. 1992.

“Niagara.” Pamphlet published by the Flagship Niagara, Erie, Pennsylvania. 1990.

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. United States Brig Niagara Restoration. 1988.

Rosenberg, M. The Building of Perry’s Fleet on Lake Erie: 1812 – 1813. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. 1997.

Seitz, R. and B. Pennsylvania’s Historic Places. Intercourse, PA: Good Books. 1989.

Vaillant, J. The Golden Spruce. NY: W.W. Norton & Company. 2005.

Wilmerding, J. American Marine Painting, Second Edition.  NY: Harry Abrams. 1987.

Log of the Battle of Lake Erie

Perry's Luck

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