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Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation

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In a rousing account of one of the critical turning points in American history, Through the Perilous Fight tells the gripping story of the burning of Washington and the improbable last stand at Baltimore that helped save the nation and inspired its National Anthem.

In the summer of 1814, the United States of America teetered on the brink of disaster. The war it had declared against Great Britain two years earlier appeared headed toward inglorious American defeat. The young nation’s most implacable nemesis, the ruthless British Admiral George Cockburn, launched an invasion of Washington in a daring attempt to decapitate the government and crush the American spirit. The British succeeded spectacularly, burning down most of the city’s landmarks—including the White House and the Capitol—and driving President James Madison from the area. As looters ransacked federal buildings and panic gripped the citizens of Washington, beleaguered American forces were forced to regroup for a last-ditch defense of Baltimore. The outcome of that “perilous fight” would help change the outcome of the war—and with it, the fate of the fledgling American republic.

In a fast-paced, character-driven narrative, Steve Vogel tells the story of this titanic struggle from the perspective of both sides. Like an epic novel, Through the Perilous Fight abounds with heroes, villains, and astounding feats of derring-do. The vindictive Cockburn emerges from these pages as a pioneer in the art of total warfare, ordering his men to “knock down, burn, and destroy” everything in their path. While President Madison dithers on how to protect the capital, Secretary of State James Monroe personally organizes the American defenses, with disastrous results. Meanwhile, a prominent Washington lawyer named Francis Scott Key embarks on a mission of mercy to negotiate the release of an American prisoner. His journey will place him with the British fleet during the climactic Battle for Baltimore, and culminate in the creation of one of the most enduring compositions in the annals of patriotic song: “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, the burning of Washington was a devastating national tragedy that ultimately united America and renewed its sense of purpose. Through the Perilous Fight combines bravura storytelling with brilliantly rendered character sketches to recreate the thrilling six-week period when Americans rallied from the ashes to overcome their oldest adversary—and win themselves a new birth of freedom.

Praise for Through the Perilous Fight

“Very fine storytelling, impeccably researched . . . brings to life the fraught events of 1814 with compelling and convincing vigor.”—Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of An Army at Dawnp>“Probably the best piece of military history that I have read or reviewed in the past five years. . . . This well-researched and superbly written history has all the trappings of a good novel. . . . No one who hears the national anthem at a ballgame will ever think of it the same way after reading this book.”—Gary Anderson, The Washington Times

“[Steve] Vogel does a superb job. . . . [A] fast-paced narrative with lively vignettes.”—Joyce Appleby, The Washington Post

“Before 9/11 was 1814, the year the enemy burned the nation’s capital. . . . A splendid account of the uncertainty, the peril, and the valor of those days.”—Richard Brookhiser, author of James Madison

“A swift, vibrant account of the accidents, intricacies and insanities of war.”Kirkus Reviews

560 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2013

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About the author

Steve Vogel

3 books4 followers
Steve Vogel is a veteran military reporter for "The Washington Post." His coverage of the war in Afghanistan was part of a package of "Washington Post "stories selected as a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize. He covered the September 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon and subsequently reported in-depth on the victims of the attack and the building's reconstruction. The winner of several journalism awards, Vogel covered the war in Iraq and the first Gulf War, as well as U.S. military operations in Rwanda, Somalia, and the Balkans. A graduate of the College of William and Mary, he received a master's degree in international public policy from the Paul H. Nitze Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 54 reviews
Profile Image for Mary Louise Clifford.
Author 30 books4 followers
August 7, 2013
This very absorbing history of the War of 1812 is an excellent read, giving a day-to-day description of the British campaign in the Chesapeake Bay, the fall of Washington, and the defense of Baltimore. Francis Scott Key, who wrote the "Star Spangled Banner," appears throughout, practicing law and living in Georgetown on the bank above the Potomac River.

Because little was done to defend Washington, the British had little difficulty attacking and taking the city. They were less successful in their attack on Baltimore, both because the locals threw up extensive defenses and because the three British commanders couldn't agree on what to do next.

This is an excellent presentation of a period we don't study in any depth in school history classes.
659 reviews10 followers
June 28, 2014
The War of 1812 is a segment of our history mostly remembered for the Star Spangled Banner and the Battle of New Orleans. Behind the color and the music it was a time of mortal danger for our then still young republic. “Through the Perilous Fight” is the story of that time when the Chesapeake was invaded, the White House and other government buildings in Washington burned and the surge was stopped at Fort McHenry under the stars of Old Glory.

Although it was a time are country was in great danger, as the subtitle suggests, it was six weeks that saved the nation. The cast of characters is epic: Adm. Sir George Cockburn who, well burned hatred into the heart of the nation he sought to break; James Monroe, the Secretary of State who wanted to be a soldier in the worst way and was. Francis Scott Key, the lawyer-poet who penned a national anthem in a burst of patriotic eloquence; James Madison, the president run out of his mansion and capital who recovered to secure his place as the president who rallied his country to a new level of unity and Dolly, his socialite wife who save General Washington’s portrait before fleeing before the British.

The book gives the background to the war, its causes, Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights, its first rounds, standoffs along the Niagara and Detroit fronts and the shifting of the offensive to Britain when the defeat of Napoleon permitted the transfer of battle hardened units to America.

The focus of this work is the Cockburn campaign of 1813-1814 that was intended to draw American forces from Canada and bring down the government, neither of which succeeded, and to show the dangers of attacking the lion of Britain, in which a measure of success was achieved. The first year consisted of raids against Bay side towns. 1814 saw the establishment of the Colonial Marines, consisting of slaves who responded to offers of freedom to those who fled to the British.

Author Steve Vogel does an excellent job of telling the day by day story of the march and attack on Washington. He tells of the uncertainty of the British moves and goals, the disorganized American defenses in contrast to the proficient of the Colonial Marine attacks and torching of federal buildings, allegedly in retaliation for the American burning and looting of York, capital of Upper Canada. Vogel points out how even in their mayhem, the British showed restraint. Only government buildings were destroyed while private property was protected, even to the point of preservation of the patent office due to the privately owned models stored there. Treasures were burnt, and small souvenirs taken but looting was not permitted.

The burning of Washington was the high point of the British invasion. The feeble defense of the capitol was redeemed in the stiff resistance in Baltimore. Organized by regulars and militia the tide receded when Fort McHenry’s banner was seen in the dawn’s early light.

On these pages the reader learns of the six weeks that saved the nation when, just the government American experiment was about to falter, British offensives were stopped at Plattsburgh, New York, Baltimore and New Orleans. “Through the Perilous Fight” provides a survey course on the War of 1812 but focuses on the part of most interest to Americans. Whether you have a general understanding of the War and want to know about its end or read this as a stand-alone history this is a read you will appreciate.
Profile Image for Jerome Otte.
1,763 reviews
December 12, 2014
The Washington-Baltimore campaign is probably the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to the War of 1812, which still remains obscure nevertheless. This isn't the only good book on the campaign (Charles Muller's was great, Walter Lord's remains a classic, and I have yet to read Peter Snow and Anthony Pitch's works on it), but it is definitely worth a read.

By 1814, the war was going badly for the Americans. The British, tired of defending Canada from ill-conceived and poorly executed American invasions, decided to take the fight to the Americans and end the war quickly. Admiral George Cockburn was dispatched to the Chesapeake to wreak havoc and destroy America's will to continue the war. Similar to what they had done during the Revolutionary War (to George Washington's protests), the British again issued a proclamation declaring that they would offer freedom to any slaves that reached their lines.

In the meantime, Secretary of War George Armstrong denied that Washington was in any danger, despite having seen British ships enter the Patuxent. He also failed to stockpile military supplies, as directed by President Madison. As the British invasion got under way, Cochrane inexplicably ordered Ross and Cockburn back to their ships, an order they decided to ignore. In the meantime secretary of state Madison demonstrated his ineptitude as a scout and the US commanders at Baltimore feuded over who was in charge. While the lifting of the Star-Spangled banner at Fort McHenry proved a memorable event (one of the few parts of the war that would be remembered) , the actual defense of the fort was lousy. British ships were well out of range for the fort's gunners, who ended up firing only to keep up morale. In the meantime Francis Scott Key, who had opposed the war, composed a poem based on an English drinking song.

In all, an excellent work of popular history.
Profile Image for Dave.
38 reviews
July 22, 2014
In his latest book, Through the Perilous Fight, veteran Washington Post journalist Steve Vogel examines the turbulent period surrounding the burning of Washington, DC, by the British army during the War of 1812. Although largely an overlooked segment of American history, the conflict nevertheless produced a number of iconic American moments such as the aforementioned razing of the newly constructed capital, Dolley Madison protecting the portrait of George Washington, and of course the Star-Spangled Banner. With a spectacular level of detail derived from an obviously exhaustive study of primary and secondary sources, Vogel painstakingly presents the circumstances surrounding these events in an easy-to-read narrative that follows both the British and American forces (land and sea) as they maneuver throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. Politics, including the diplomatic efforts in Ghent to end the war, and the privations of the citizenry are also given an in-depth look, while other significant events of the war - The battles of Lake Erie, Plattsburgh, and the invasion of Canada, for example - are mentioned in relation to the effect they had on the East Coast situation. Quite the page-turner (an uncommon trait among studies of military history), Through the Perilous Fight is a must-read for anyone having an interest in learning more about a time when The United States almost ceased to exist.
Profile Image for Juli.
68 reviews4 followers
November 17, 2014
Excellent book! I read this book knowing almost nothing about the War of 1812, except that it happened. This book almost reads like a fiction book with characters I got to know and exciting events taking place. It was clearly written and I feel like I got a real sense of what the people went through who were living at that time. I am shocked and amazed at what they had to live through and I am in awe of the the courage and strength shown by men such as Francis Scott Key. Now that I have read this book, I see these people not just as names from history, but as real men who really mattered in the history of our country. I received this book as a First Reads winner on Goodreads.
Profile Image for Gerry Connolly.
540 reviews22 followers
September 1, 2018
In Through the Perilous Fight Steve Vogel takes us through six weeks in 1814 during which the US very existence seemed in doubt. British sackings of Havre de Grace and other Chesapeake towns culminated in the capture and burning of Washington. All seemed lost until the British reversal in Baltimore and defeats in Plattsburgh and on Lake Champlain. Ironically America’s most crushing defeat of British forces by Jackson in New Orleans occurred after the treaty of Ghent ended the war. Vogel highlights Francis Scott Key’s poem that only became the national anthem in 1931.
Profile Image for Fredrick Danysh.
6,844 reviews162 followers
November 5, 2016
Through the Perilous Fights documents the war between England and the fledgling United Staes in 1814. There is wonderful background and insight in the lives of Francis Scott Keyes who wrote what would become the USA's national anthem and British Admiral Cockburn who laid waste to much of Maryland coastal regions as well as burning the White House. The lives of other people are also highlighted. This is a good read on the War of 1812 and is well documented.
Profile Image for Tom Sakell.
31 reviews
June 5, 2013
Am reading. Vogel's best yet. Am at the battle of Bladensburg and trying to figure out how this ends.
515 reviews220 followers
November 16, 2013
Interesting to read how the Americans kept blundering and allowed the British to ruin Washington D.C. but the narrative gets lost in a morass of details.
465 reviews4 followers
September 5, 2018
I purchased this book because I lived in D.C. and Baltimore over several years, and a friend's elderly Italian aunt lived in the Bladensburg area and made divine ravioli there. This book covers the final weeks of the (forgotten) War of 1812, which saw D.C., President James Madison and the United States devastated by the torching of the Capitol and the White House. Yes, Dolley Madison is here shoving silver where she can before leaving and making sure the George Washington portrait is safe. If you don't like military or battlefield histories, read this book anyway! Peppered with fascinating mini biographies of Admiral Cockburn, "Ross of Bladensburg," and many others with the always formidable Francis Scott Key the alpha and omega of the book. With the climactic siege of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor and eagle eyed Key peering through the dawns early light, the writing and the publication of The Star Spangled Banner takes center stage, and this book then has a relevance to our day unseen at publication time. (The additional stanzas are truly awful.) A rich and colorful telling of an ignored time in our national history, written in a handy day by day account. VERY ENJOYED! And I learned much about an are I love. (Great maps, too.)
Profile Image for Len.
76 reviews4 followers
December 23, 2018
This is a thoroughly researched account of the events leading up to the Battle of Baltimore at Fort McHenry in 1814. The success by the American troops here against the powerful British military, both army and navy,served as the definitive end to the struggle that started with the Revolutionary War. As the title suggests, this book also reflects on what inspired Francis Scott Key to write what has become our National Anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner". I highly recommend this book to students of American history and to Marylanders who will appreciate the role their ancestors played in U.S. history.
Profile Image for Marie Carmean.
350 reviews2 followers
November 3, 2019
This history of the War of 1812 was stunningly written by Steve Vogel. Every aspect of the perilous time was explained in detail, and all of the "players" on both sides were remarkably outlined. The book carried me along and I enjoyed the journey very much. I especially enjoyed learning more about Francis Scott Key and the creation of The Star Spangled Banner. In this time of great dissension in our country it was interesting to read about the dissension during this time of trial and to discover how the war brought us together in national pride and strength of purpose in the development of our ideals. Highly recommended reading!
Profile Image for Bonnie_blu.
881 reviews21 followers
November 24, 2017
This is an excellent examination of the events surrounding the writing of "The Star Spangled Banner." I did not remember much about the War of 1812, and was fascinated by the characters described by Vogel. The author clearly shows how much acrimony remained after the Revolutionary War between America and England. In many ways, The War of 1812 was a second Revolutionary War, and the existence of the United States was seriously in peril. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in American history, English history, or the history of "The Star Spangled Banner."
Profile Image for Kathryn.
Author 7 books261 followers
September 5, 2019
I have a nephew who has repeatedly teased me about writing Women Heroes of the War of 1812 because I've written similar titles on other wars. I think part of his humor is the general lack of interest in that war, sandwiched as it is between two conflicts that engender far more interest. But while reading this book I nearly felt compelled to take the suggestion seriously. The war was that important and Vogel, a master storyteller and detailed historian, brings it to life quite brilliantly.
Profile Image for Hank Pharis.
1,591 reviews26 followers
December 21, 2019
(NOTE: I'm stingy with stars. For me 2 stars means a good book or a B. 3 stars means a very good book or a B+. 4 stars means an outstanding book or an A {only about 5% of the books I read merit 4 stars}. 5 stars means an all time favorite or an A+ {Only one of 400 or 500 books rates this!).

I had only a vague memory of Washington D.C. being set on fire until I read this description of very sobering events. I never dreamed that almost all of DC was burnt to the ground during the War of 1812.
Profile Image for Kim  Dennis.
943 reviews5 followers
February 5, 2023
I found this book absolutely fascinating. I have so many places marked for things that I want to put into my notes at school. I loved learning about WHY Francis Scott Key needed to secure the release of Dr. Beanes in the first place. I'd half wondered why he was on a British ship, but never thought much about it. There were a lot of other holes in my knowledge about the time period before the burning of D.C. and then between then and the Battle of Fort McHenry. So loved it!
Profile Image for Erica.
91 reviews4 followers
May 30, 2019
I am trying to read books that I normally do not read and military non-fiction is included. I could not finish this book because it was so dry & detailed. I wanted to read it after I visited Fort McHenry but should have chosen a different book about the War of 1812.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
135 reviews16 followers
June 18, 2019
This is such a wonderful and well written book that really can be read by anyone with an interest in the subject. I can't reccomend this enough as a valuable resource for understanding the final year of the War of 1812.
632 reviews
February 22, 2021
This one barely kept my interest. I am not sure if it was the way it was put together or just the information it contained, but it was really a slog. I just turned out to not care very much about what happened after all.
Profile Image for Erin Miller.
Author 1 book5 followers
September 25, 2022
This was well-written and impressively researched. The cast of characters were really brought to life and their personalities were solidly established. The time period is not my cup of tea, but I learned a lot and am glad I read it.
84 reviews
April 2, 2018
This book did a good job of balancing thorough historical storytelling with interesting facts and a dynamic narrative which made it both informative and fairly easy to read.
14 reviews
December 31, 2019
A very informative book about a forgotten conflict. Brings it home and shows how close the US to becoming a very different nation. Well researched
Profile Image for J.S..
Author 1 book54 followers
October 7, 2016
"They will be driven to become soldiers"

August 24, 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington D.C. by the British. It's an event remembered by few, and yet out of it came our most enduring symbols of America… and perhaps much more.

Most historians (or at least those histories I've read*) treat the War of 1812 almost as an extension of the Revolutionary War. But Steve Vogel takes a slightly different approach and emphasizes the more immediate causes, namely the impressments of American sailors by the British into the Royal Navy, and the opportunistic invasion of Canada by American forces. Britain was fighting France at the time, and when they began to run low of manpower they simply grabbed Americans on merchant vessels under the guise that they were still British 'citizens.' To combat this violation of rights, America attacked Britain along the Canadian border, believing that the Canadians would willingly and enthusiastically join the U.S. The timing seemed ideal - Britain was distracted with the war against France - but the Canadians fought back. Using the American attacks as justification, the British navy sailed into Chesapeake Bay and burned many towns, culminating in the conquest and burning of government buildings in Washington, including the president's house and the Capitol.

Vogel carefully weaves the story of Francis Scott Key, an attorney, into the greater history. Key was sent as a delegate to win the release of an American who had been captured by the British. Admiral Cochrane agreed to release him, but not until after the planned destruction of Baltimore. Key ended up being an eye-witness to the bombardment of Fort McHenry from the middle of the British fleet. Fortunately, American militias were in a better state of readiness this time, and the British were driven back. Upon seeing the American flag still flying the next morning, Key came up with the words to "The Star Spangled Banner," which prompted a greater pride in the American flag and was eventually adopted as the national anthem.

Vogel does an excellent job in telling the story of the battles for Washington and Baltimore. Key is never the central figure of the narrative, which focuses more on the actual leaders, but his part in it provides an element anyone who has stood to sing the national anthem can identify with. I'm not sure that the point of the subtitle - "Six Weeks that Saved the Nation" - is explicitly proven, but it certainly proved as a wake-up call to the new nation and drove certain changes that helped to strengthen it. And Vogel tells the story in a rousing and uplifting way. His descriptions of the battles are exciting, and you get a good feeling for the personalities involved in the events. There's a good deal of well-researched information in this book and it's an exciting read. (I received this book from the GoodReads "FirstReads" program. I am not obligated to offer a positive review, but honestly enjoyed the book!)

*I also recommend the following books that deal with the War of 1812:
Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815 by Stephen Budiansky
Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy by Ian W. Toll
Profile Image for Steve.
60 reviews3 followers
August 6, 2014
I received this book through a Goodreads give away.

The book covers in detail the period from the beginning of August 1814 through the defense of Baltimore which was in the middle of September. The defense of Baltimore inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the "Star Spangled Banner" and therefore the reasoning behind the title of the book.

The book is broken up into short chapters that follow chronologically through each of the days describing events as witnessed by both the American and the British. This book doesn't cover the entire conflict of the War of 1812 but mostly tells the events around the burning of Washington DC and other Chesapeake Bay towns and then culminates with the defense of Baltimore. Brief insights are given as to events in the northeast and Canada and the book ends with the results of the American victory at New Orleans.

I thought the book was well written overall and it wasn't until the last chapter and the epilogue that I felt it got a little dry, but then again, all the excitement was over. This was my first book on the War of 1812 and I think it did a decent job of providing back ground to the lead up to the war and briefly discusses the Treaty of Ghent signed at the start of 1815, just 3-4 months after it appeared that Great Britain was on the verge of victory over the still young American experiment in liberty. When negotiations for peace were starting in August of 1814 at the urging of the Americans, the Americans did not have much to bargain with. That all changed after Baltimore, as well as the victory on Lake Champlain and Plattsburgh, New York. The victory at New Orleans sealed the deal and allowed for a status quo treaty.
Profile Image for Doug Bright.
25 reviews2 followers
January 7, 2015
Tucked between the American Revolution and The Civil War, the war of 1812 seems to occupy a forgotten drawer in American History. It's a somewhat eclectic event to Americans, a shadow of the Napoleonic wars occurring simultaneously in Europe, the US Army history deems it a " tie". The American somewhat, incomprehensible invasion of Canada, Indian ambushes contrasting with European linear battles and naval actions, the war can be confusing to follow, and it was, even for the participants. The wars decisive battle in New Orleans, whose 200th anniversary is this week, came after the peace treaty had been signed. The author of, what would become " The Star-Spangled Banner" actually opposed the war.
Yet in the summer of 1814, it's capital burned, it's government in flight from the British "Invincibles" and nothing but some hastily formed militia standing in their way, the adolescent republic's very life hung in the balance. If you are curious about the events of the war that gave us our national anthem and read only one book on the war, this should be the one. It covers the decisive six weeks from the burning of Washington to the battles for Baltimore. You will come away with a new deep appreciation of those events, from the fog of history will be seen: "By the dawn's early light."
Profile Image for John Behle.
220 reviews22 followers
August 9, 2013
More than a war book, more than a history book, this well researched, cross referenced work is an action portrait of people's lives. Steve Vogel presents the trials, the personalities, the loves, the losses of 40 days in 1814.

The War of 1812 is little known to many, outside of the story of The Star Spangled Banner. We live about 45 minutes from Fort McHenry, Baltimore, and visit there every couple of years. The storied flag is lovingly presented at the Smithsonian, after a many year restoration.

To be sure, Britain sorely ached to give the upstart rebel United States a mighty slap. The chapter describing the arson of the President's House stings like the British intended.

The logistics, the follies, the miscommunications of this war and how America hung in the balance provides the canvas that Vogel then paints upon. The heated decisions, the sought glory, the wanton bloodshed and waste, the timeless courage soar through this gripping read.
17 reviews
July 2, 2014
Steve Vogel has written a rousing tale that brings to light what a precarious thing the founding of the United States was. By weaving together events during the summer of 1814 and the few months that followed, he manages to convey how a few minor changes could have spelled disaster and possible disintegration to a young republic. By following a small group of people ranging from heroic citizens, to James Madison who defiently refused to abuse executive authority, the author reminds us how precious this republic is and how we must always be on watch for threats, both foreign and domestic, to safegaurd the great experiment that is the United States of America. Great as a tale of adventure and useful as a history about the people and events that contributed to the writing of what became our national anthem Vogel gave me a new appreciation for the real meaning of the words of the Star- Spangled Banner.
132 reviews
December 5, 2016
OK, I admit it, I really didn't know anything about the war of 1812, the burning of the White House by the British or the attack on Fort McHenry when Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner. This book explains it all. I never knew how close the Federal Government came to falling, that James Madison was on the run how Francis Scott Key came to be in a position to see the British bombard Fort McHenry. This is an excellent read and you will learn a lot about the formative years of our great nation and just how precarious our future was.

I must admit that the reason I read this book was because I had just finished reading Alexander Hamilton and realized that there were some terrific people that played an important role in the founding of our nation and I have to learn more about them. I think Andrew Jackson is next on my reading list.
Profile Image for Studebhawk.
267 reviews2 followers
March 21, 2014
As a native born Baltimore resident,I wanted to give this book a chance. The war of 1812 is very much a forgotten war. I don't recall any teaching of this war while I was in the city public schools.
I am very glad that I gave this author a chance.
I was drawn to the excellent reviews upon publication and the celebration in Baltimore of the War of 1812 anniversary.
Impressive research,well documented by notes,the author tells a story of heroes and villains all wrapped up in a very good read.

Bonus: For Baltimore natives the fun is reading about people that have streets named after them in Baltimore to this day.

Additional bonus: While in Baltimore, do visit Fort McHenry.
The National Park Service does a great job with the fort tour.
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