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Leading up to American National Anthem

The ship battles that inspired it


Continued from privious page:

Vermonters are undergoing a change of heart now that the war has
been carried to their doorstep. Farmers who once sat out the war
in opposition to the Hawks in Washington are abandoning their
fields, heading for the lake by the hundreds, climbing aboard any
vessel that will transport them quickly to Plattsburgh.
     Jonathan Blaisdell is so eager to get at the British that he
and two companions decide to ride their horses across a low
sandbar to the island of South Hero in the lake. From there they
plan to catch a boat to Plattsburgh. They are almost drowned in
the attempt and end up, soaking wet, at Fox's Tavern on the
Vermont shore.
     More Vermonters crowd in, also intent on crossing. Two hours
pass; the moon rises, encouraging another attempt. One hundred
volunteers, strung out in a long line across the shallows,
finally reach the island. The following day a sloop carries them
to the scene of the action.
     Until this week, Vermonters have cared so little about the
war that they have not hesitated to continue the border smuggling
that has been their livelihood - not just the usual livestock,
cheese, fish, grain, tobacco, and potash but also the actual
materials of war. Only the vigilance of Macdonough's fleet has
prevented the British from equipping Confiance with spars, masts,
naval stores, and caulking towed up the lake as recently as July
by resourceful Vermont entrepreneurs.
     Prevost's incursion has done what George Izard's troops
could not accomplish: it has turned the Vermonters into patriots
and war hawks. Within three days, twenty-five hundred volunteers
flock to the colours to be greeted personally by the new
commander at Plattsburgh, Brigadier-General Alexander Macomb. In
an inspired gesture, he pins an evergreen bough in the hat of
their leader, Samuel Strong -a symbol of the zeal of his Green
Mountain Boys.
     Macomb has need of these citizen soldiers. Since the
unexpected departure of Major-General Izard and his four thousand
regulars, the safety of the fort has depended on fewer than three
thousand troops of whom about half are effective soldiers, the
remainder either sick or untrained. On a man-to-man basis, the
British outnumber the Americans more than three to one, but even
that ratio is deceptive. Prevost has the cream of Wellington's
army; Macomb's best soldier is no better than Prevost's worst.
The leading citizens of Plattsburgh have little faith in Macomb's
ragtag army. They want him to retire gracefully to spare a wanton
sacrifice of lives. Macomb has no such intention. If worst comes
to worst, he intends to blow up the town. Most of the inhabitants
have already fled.
     Prevost's decision to wait for the fleet gives Macomb a week
in which to strengthen his defences, gather reinforcements, and
raise the morale of his small, largely untrained army. His three
major redoubts are positioned in a triangle on the heights of a
small peninsula that stretches like a fat thumb between the lake
and the Saranac River. Each is protected by ditches, palisades,
     Like Scott, Brown, and Izard, Macomb belongs to a younger
generation of general officers, the new team thrown up by the war
that will reshape the American army in the years to come. He is a
chubby thirty-two, big chested, plump cheeked, blue eyed,
bursting with health and good nature-the kind of man who will
always seem younger than his years. The son of a Detroit fur
merchant, raised in the shadow of an army camp, dandled on the
knees of officers during his childhood, he is all soldier. Now he
labours under extraordinary difficulties.
     But Macomb intends to do his duty, and to that duty he
brings an imaginative mind and a sensitive understanding of
leadership. He is a strong believer in the military virtues of
deception, intelligence, and morale. He may be short on manpower
but he is long on acumen.
     He makes it a point to issue arms and ammunition personally
to the young volunteers crowding into the village, to address
them in groups, thanking them for their esprit, and to advise
them to act in small bands as partisans.
     He goes out of his way to deceive Prevost. He never mounts a
guard without parading all of his troops to give an impression of
great numbers. He burns the buildings in front of the forts to
clear the ground and reveal any potential assault force. In the
glow of these fires, he marches platoons of reserves as if they
were reinforcements. In spite of the rain he keeps a third of his
regular force on the parapets each night.
     Macomb is aware that spies are operating among his troops,
passing as militia volunteers. He spreads the word that George
Izard's army is within hailing distance and that he now has ten
thousand militia under his command with an additional ten
thousand on the way, then watches with satisfaction as the bogus
soldiers steal across the Saranac bridge at night, carrying the
news to Prevost.

     He intends to get the most out of his small force. Even the
sick are put to work manning two six-pounders at the makeshift
hospital on Crab Island. Meanwhile, Macomb gives instructions to
mask the roads leading to the river by planting pine trees on
them and covering the bare areas with leaves, at the same time
opening the entrances to old, unused roads. By these methods, he
hopes the advancing British may lose their way.
     The British, however, are confident of victory. On the
tenth, Prevost again calls Major-General Robinson to his quarters
to advise him that the fleet will be up with the first fair wind
and that he must keep his brigade at the ready to ford the river
and attack the three American redoubts. Robinson has only one
request: he must be at the fords by daybreak, not a second later.
To this the Governor General agrees.
     At Putnam Lawrence's occupied house near the lake, a group
of British officers are celebrating the morrow's victory.
Soldiers roll up casks and barrels, stand them on end, lay boards
across to make a table. The casks are brimming with wine and
Jamaica rum. The table is laid with linen, china, glass, silver.
The British toast the capture of Plattsburgh and victory over the
American fleet.
     Plattsburgh, someone is heard to say, will make quite a nice
breakfast in the morning.

CHAZY, LAKE CHAMPLAIN, New York, September 10, 1814

     Captain George Downie, commander of the British squadron, is
irritated beyond measure by the persistent entreaties of Sir
George Prevost. Since the British army reached Plattsburgh, the
Governor General has been bombarding him with letters, each
touchier than the last, urging him to move the fleet up the lake
so that he can launch his assault on the American bastions.
"I need not dwell with you upon the Evils resulting to both
services from  delay," Prevost wrote on September q, adding that
he has directed an officer of the Provincial Cavalry to remain at
Downie's headquarters until the fleet moves. Even though the
fleet was not ready, Downie tried that very day to get under way,
only to be forced back by adverse winds.
     Now he holds a more insulting letter from Prevost. It seems
to hint that Downie has been deceiving him about the weather:
I ascribe the disappointment I have experienced to the
unfortunate change of wind, & shall rejoice to learn that my
reasonable expectations have been frustrated by no other cause.
Reasonable expectations! Prevost's phrase stings Downie. All
expectations have been unreasonable. He has been in charge of the
fleet for no more than a week, does not know the lake, does not
know the men, is unfamiliar with the strategic situation. His
flagship, the frigate Confiance, is scarcely in fighting trim.
Twenty-five carpenters are still on board fitting her with
belaying pins, cleats, breaching blocks. There has been no time
to scrape the green planks of her decks free of oozing tar. The
firing mechanisms for her long cannon have not arrived; her
gunners will have to make do with carronade locks. She is still
taking on newly arrived marines and soldiers: there has been no
time for the officers to be able to recognize, much less know,
the men who will serve under them.
     This last-minute scramble means that there will be no time
for a shakedown cruise. The big frigate will go into action with
a strange crew who have scarcely had a chance to fire her guns or
hoist her sails. Yet it could all have been avoided if Sir James
Yeo-or Prevost-had not been obsessed with the shipbuilding war on
Lake Ontario. Not until Macdonough's Saratoga appeared on the
lake in late May did the British commanders wake up to their
peril. Now they are paying for their inattention.
     Downie shares his disgust over Prevost's letter with his
second-incommand, Captain Daniel Pring, whom he has just replaced
as senior commander on the lake.
"I will not write any more letters," he declares to Pring. "This
letter does not deserve an answer but I will convince him that
the naval force will not be backward in their share of the
     In short, goaded by Prevost, he will not wait for the enemy
to emerge from the safe harbour at Plattsburgh to meet him on the
open lake. He will chance a direct bows-on attack against
Macdonough's anchored fleet.
     Downie is prepared to attempt this dangerous action only
because Prevost has told him that he will launch his land assault
at the same time. Once the shore batteries have been stormed and
taken, Downie believes, Macdonough will be in peril. With the
captured guns turned on him he will have to quit his anchorage
and, during the confusion, the British will have the advantage.

     At midnight, the wind switches to the northeast. Downie
weighs anchor, and the fleet slips southward toward Plattsburgh
Bay carrying one thousand men, including the riggers and
outfitters still straining to complete their work.
     At five, the fleet reaches Cumberland Head. Here Downie
scales his guns-clears out the bores, which have never been
fired, with blank cartridges. This is the signal, pre-arranged
with Prevost, to announce his arrival and to co-ordinate a
simultaneous attack by the land forces.
     In the hazy dawn, Downie boards his gig, nudges it around
the point, and examines the American fleet through his glass.
Macdonough's four large vessels are strung out in fine across the
bay, with the gunboats in support -the twenty-gun brig Eagle at
the northernmost end, followed by the larger Saratoga, twenty-six
guns, the schooner Ticonderoga, seven guns, and the sloop Preble,
seven guns, at the rear. With twenty-seven long cannon and ten
heavy carronades, Downie's Confiance is more than a match for
Macdonough's flagship. On the other hand, the combined batteries
of Saratoga and Eagle can hurl a heavier weight of metal than can
Downie's two largest vessels, Confiance and Linnet, the latter a
brig of sixteen guns under Captain Pring.
     With this in mind, Downie plans his attack. Confiance will
take on the American flagship Saratoga, first passing Eagle and
delivering a broadside, then turning hard a-port to anchor
directly across the bows of Macdonough's ship. Linnet, supported
by the sloop Chubb, will engage Eagle. In this way the two
largest American vessels will be under fire from three of the
British. The fourth and smallest British vessel, the sloop Finch,
and eleven gunboats will hit the American rear, boarding the
former steamer Ticonderoga and at the same time attacking the
little Preble.
     Back on his flagship, Downie calls his officers to a
conference, outlines his strategy, and speaks a few words of
encouragement to the ship's company:

"Now, my lads, there are the American ships and batteries. At the
same moment we attack the ships our army are to storm the
batteries. And, mind, don't let us be behind."

     They answer with a cheer.
     At almost the same time, Macdonough's men kneel on the deck
of Saratoga as their commander reads a short prayer:

"Thou givest not always the battle to the strong, but canst save
by many or by few - hear us, Thy poor servants, imploring Thy
help that Thou wouldst be a defence unto us against the face of
the enemy. Make it clear that Thou art our Saviour and Mighty
Deliverer, through Jesus Christ, our Lord."

     From the mast of the flagship, Macdonough's signal reminds
his men why they are fighting: Impressed seamen call on every man
to do his duty.
     In that message there is unconscious irony. It is well that
Macdonough is not a party to the peace talks at Ghent where both
the British and American negotiators have already decided to toss
the whole bitter matter of impressment into the dustbin.
     As the British fleet turns into line abreast, a silence
falls over the bay. It is not broken until the ships come within
range. Eagle hurls the first shot at Downie's Confiance, which
has moved into the van. The ball splashes well short of its
objective. Linnet, passing the American flagship en route to its
target, fires a broadside that does little damage except to
shatter a crate containing a fighting gamecock. The rooster flies
into the rigging, crowing wildly, a touch of bravado that raises
a cheer from Saratoga's crew.
     Downie, gazing anxiously at the headland, wonders to James
Robertson, his First Officer, why Prevost has not commenced his
attack. On Saratoga, Macdonough personally sights a long
twentyfour and fires the first shot at his opponent's flagship.
The heavy ball strikes the tall frigate near the hawse hole and
tears its way the full length of the deck, killing and wounding
several of Downie's crew and demolishing the wheel.
     Now the action becomes general. Grey smoke pours from the
guns, cannonballs ricochet across the glassy waters of the bay,
chain-shot tears through the rigging. Through this maelstrom,
Confiance sails toward her objective, sheets tattered, hawsers
shredded, two anchors shot away. But the wind is erratic, and
Downie realizes he cannot cross the head of the American line as
he had hoped. He is forced to anchor more than three hundred
yards from Macdonough's Saratoga - a manoeuvre he executes with
great coolness under the other's hammering fire -but in doing so
he loses two port anchors and fouls the kedge anchors at his
stern. That will cost Confiance dear.
     Downie's guns have not yet fired. His long twenty-fours have
been carefully wedged with quoins for point-blank fire and
double-shotted for maximum effect. Now, at a signal, a sheet of
flame erupts from the British flagship, and more than seven
hundred pounds of cast iron strike Saratoga. The effect is
terrible. The American frigate shivers from round top to hull, as
if from a violent attack of ague. Macdonough sees half his crew
hurled flat on the deck. Forty are killed or wounded; the
scuppers are running with blood. The Commodore's right-hand man,
Lieutenant Peter Gamble, is among the dead, killed instantly
while on his knees, sighting the bow gun.
     Saratoga replies to Confiance, broadside for broadside. As
George Downie stands behind one of his long twenty-fours,
commanding the action, an enemy ball strikes the muzzle, knocking
the gun off its carriage and thrusting it back into the
commander's midriff. Downie falls dead, his watch flattened, his
skin unbroken. For the British, it is a critical loss.
     Linnet and Chubb have moved up to support Confiance in her
battle with the two big American vessels. But a series of
withering broadsides from Eagle so badly cripples Chubb that with
half her crew casualties, her sails in tatters, her boom shaft
and halyards wrecked, her hammock netting ablaze, her commander
wounded, and only six men left on deck, she drifts helplessly and
finally strikes her colours.
     At the end of the line, Finch and the British gunboats are
attacking the schooner Ticonderoga and the little sloop Preble.
The latter wilts under the onslaught, cuts her cable, and drifts
out of action. But only four of the British gunboats remain to do
battle. The rest flee the action, their militia crews cowering in
the bottoms under a shower of grape and musket fire, while the
commander of the flotilla bolts to the hospital tender, remaining
there until the end of the battle, eventually evading court
martial only by escaping while en route to trial.
     Ticonderoga wards off Finch, which is raking her from the
stern, but is herself in trouble, taking water, her pumps
struggling to keep up with the inflow. Finch's commander,
Lieutenant William Hicks, brandishing a cutlass to bring the
terrified pilot into fine, tries to wear the British sloop in the
light erratic wind and finds himself stuck fast on a reef near
Crab Island, where he fights a brief engagement with the invalids
manning their six-pounders. He, too, is out of action.
     The four remaining British gunboats, sweeps thrashing the
water, come within a boathook of Ticonderoga. Her commander,
Lieutenant Stephen Cassin, a commodore's son, coolly walks the
taffrail amid a shower of shot, directing his men to ward off the
boarders. His second-in-command is cut in two by a cannonball and
hurled into the lake. A sixteen-year-old midshipman, Hiram
Paulding-a future rearadmiral-mans the guns, finds the slow match
useless, and repeats Barclay's action on Erie by discharging his
pistol into the powder holes. In between the cannon blasts he
continues to fire the pistol at the British, still vainly trying
to scramble aboard.
     But the main battle is at the head of the fine between the
American Saratoga and Eagle and the British Confiance and Linnet.
Eagle, with most of her starboard guns rendered useless, cuts her
cable and changes position to bring her port broadside into
action. In doing so she positions herself to threaten Confiance
but leaves Macdonough's flagship exposed to Linnet's raking
     Linnet's cannons batter Saratoga's long guns into silence.
All but one of Macdonough's carronades have been dismounted in
the action or wrecked by overzealous crews who overload in the
absence of experienced officers. Hardly a man on either flagship
has escaped injury. Macdonough is lucky. As he bends over a gun
to sight it, a spanker boom, sliced in two by cannon fire, knocks
him briefly insensible. A little later he suffers a grislier
mishap: the head of his gun captain, torn off by British
round-shot, comes hurtling across the deck, strikes him in the
midriff, knocking him into the scuppers. He is winded but
     Now the naval bolt on Saratoga's last carronade breaks,
throwing the heavy gun off its carriage and hurling it down the
hatch. Macdonough is in trouble. He has no guns left on the
starboard side and only one officer. In most situations this
would be enough to force him to strike his colours, but
Macdonough has prepared for such an emergency. He turns to the
complicated series of spring cables, hawsers, and kedge anchors
that will allow him to wind his ship: to swing it end for end so
that he can bring the seventeen guns on his port side - none of
which has been fired - to bear upon his opponent.
     It is a difficult and awkward manoeuvre, requiring careful
timing and skill - a knowledge of when to raise one anchor, when
to drop another. Now it must be done under the hazard of enemy
     Fortunately that fire has slackened, for the British ships
too are in a bad way, and the guns of Confiance are firing too
high. The seamen, new to the frigate, to each other, and to their
officers, have had no gun drill. The cannon have been set for
point-blank range, but at each blast they leap up on their
carriages. The quoins, which are supposed to wedge them in place,
are loosened, causing the muzzles to edge up. As a result, more
damage is done to hammocks, halyards, spars, and pine trees on
the shore than to the opposing vessels.
     Macdonough manages to wind his ship half-way round until she
is at right angles to her former position. There she sticks,
stern facing Linnet's broadside. The British brig rakes the
battered American flagship and the line of sweating seamen
straining at the hawser. A splinter strikes the Commodore's
sailing master, Peter Brum, as he runs forward to oversee the
manoeuvre. It slices through his uniform, barely touching the
skin but stripping him of his clothing. Naked, he continues his
     Slowly, Brum and Macdonough get the ship turning again until
the first of her portside carronades comes into play against
Confiance. The gun crews go to work as the frigate continues her
half circle and, one by one, the heavy guns open fire.
     On Confiance, Downie's young successor, James Robertson, is
attempting the same manoeuvre but with less success. His frigate
is in terrible shape, her masts like bunches of matches, her
sails like bundles of rags, her rigging, spars, and hull
shattered. Almost half her crew are out of action. The wife of
the flagship's steward, in the act of binding a wounded seaman's
leg, is struck by a ball that tears through the side of the ship,
carries away her breasts, and flings her corpse across the
vessel. One of Nelson's veterans aboard Confiance is heard to
remark that compared to this action, Trafalgar was a mere
fleabite. The ship's carpenter has already plugged sixteen holes
below the waterline, but a great seven-foot gash in her hull,
where a plank has been torn away, cannot be mended. To keep her
from sinking it has been necessary to run in all the guns on the
port side-most are useless anyway-and double shot those on the
starboard to keep the holes above the water.
     Because her anchors have been torn away it is almost
impossible for Robertson to duplicate Macdonough's manoeuvre, but
he is trying, swinging the frigate by putting a new spring on the
bow cable - a daring feat under fire. Half-way round, she sticks
fast at right angles to her enemy, Saratoga, whose newly freed
guns can rake her from bowsprit to taffrail. At this point,
Robertson's crewmen refuse to do more. Why should they? they ask.
Most of the British gunboats have not entered the battle. And
where is the promised army support? Not a musket, not a cannon
has been heard on the land side. Reluctantly, Robertson hauls
down his colours.
     Linnet, under Daniel Pring, fights on for fifteen minutes
more - the water rising so quickly in her lower deck that the
wounded must be lifted onto chests and tables-then she, too,
surrenders. Hicks, aboard Finch, stuck on a shoal, sees the flags
go down and follows suit. Only the gunboats escape. The battle,
which has lasted for two hours and twenty minutes, is over.
The senior British officers join Robertson and proceed to
Saracoga to surrender their swords. As they step aboard,
Macdonough meets them, bows. Holding their caps in their left
hands and their swords by the blades, they advance, bowing, and
present their weapons. Macdonough bows once more.
     "Gentlemen, return your swords into your scabbards and wear
them," he says. "You are worthy of them." He takes Robertson by
the arm and walks the deck with his prisoners.
     A twenty-one-year old Vermont farmboy, Samuel Shether
Phelps, seeing the engagement has ended, takes a rowboat, pulls
for Saracoga, climbs onto the deck, almost slips in the blood,
picks his way between the wounded and dead. Years later, when he
is a state senator, he will be able to tell his children that the
man he saw walking the deck, cap pulled low over his eyes, face
and hands black with powder and smoke, was Commodore Thomas
Macdonough, the legendary hero of the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay.

PLATTSBURGH, LAKE CHAMPLAIN, New York, September  11, 1814

     Major-General Frederick Philipse Robinson has been up since
before dawn, fidgeting over the tardiness of his
commander-in-chief. His task is to lead two brigades across the
Saranac and then to assault the heights with artillery support.
His men should have been at the ford by daybreak; Prevost has
promised him that. But the order has not come and now it is
almost eight. Why the delay?
     Prevost heard from Downie as early as 3:30 A.M. that the
fleet was on its way, but the men are not yet in motion; instead,
they have been told to cook breakfast. Something else troubles
Robinson: the heaviest artillery has not yet arrived, nor are
there batteries in place to receive the big guns. They cannot
possibly be put in action before late morning.
     From Cumberland Head Robinson hears the distant boom of
cannon: Downie is scaling his guns, the signal that he is about
to attack. An order comes from Prevost to attend at headquarters.
The meeting takes an hour as Prevost reviews his plans. As
Robinson turns to leave, the Governor General looks at his watch.

     "It is now nine o'clock," he says. "March off at ten."
     Clearly, Prevost expects the sea battle to go on all day.
But as the two brigades move off in full view of the contest,
Preble, Finch, and Chubb are already out of action. On Robinson's
left, Major-General Brisbane leads his brigade against the lower
bridge, his flank protected by the water. Robinson's force heads
for Pike's ford.
     After a mile and a half, the troops are faced by a
bewildering pattern of cart tracks leading into a thick wood. The
army halts as the guides argue over the route. Finally the force
retraces its steps and after an hour's delay arrives at the
river. Macomb's deception has paid dividends.
     From the bay comes the sound of cheering. A victory? By
whom? Robinson dispatches an aide to find out. Meanwhile, he
orders his men to rush the Saranac. They race down the bank and
splash across the shallow ford in the face of heavy fire from
four hundred American riflemen concealed on the far shore. The
defenders scatter as the brigades form on the far side in perfect
order. As Robinson rides forward to give orders for the attack,
his aide returns with a message from Baynes, the adjutan-general:

"I am directed to inform you that the "Confiance" and the brig
having struck their colours in consequence of the frigate having
grounded, it will no longer be prudent to persevere in the
service committed to your charge, and it is therefore the orders
of the Commander of the Forces that you will immediately return
with the troops under your command."

     Robinson and his fellow general Manley Power are
thunderstruck and chagrined, but they give the order to retire.
Major-General Brisbane tells Prevost that he will carry the forts
in twenty minutes if given permission, but Prevost will not grant
it. He knows that even if he does seize the redoubts he cannot
hold the ground while the lake remains under American control.
     With the American militia rushing to the colours and
reinforcements on the way, the enemy can sail down Champlain and
cut off his rear. The roads are in dreadful condition, winter is
approaching, his lines of supply and communication are stretched
     Prevost has also intercepted a letter from a Vermont colonel
to Macomb announcing that the recalcitrant governor of that
state, Martin Chittenden, is marching from St.Alban's with ten
thousand volunteers, that five thousand more are on their way
from St.Lawrence County, New York, and four thousand from
Washington County. Almost twenty thousand men! Prevost sees
himself surrounded by a guerrilla army of aroused civilians
lurking in the woods, blocking the roads, stealing into his camp
under cover of night, demoralizing his men, scorching the earth,
murdering stragglers. What he does not know is that the letter is
a fake. Macomb has outwitted him by an old ruse. Has Prevost
forgotten that Brock used an identical forgery to convince Hull,
at Detroit, that he was surrounded by thousands of Indians?

     The Governor General moves his army back so swiftly that it
reaches Chazy before Macomb realizes his adversaries have
     He cannot know it, but even at this moment the British are
facing another setback at Baltimore. Here, in a vain attack, Ross
meets his death and a poetic young lawyer named Francis Scott
Key, watching the rockets' red glare over the embattled Fort
McHenry, is moved to compose a national anthem for his country to
celebrate the sight of the Stars and Stripes flying bravely in
the dawn's early light to signal British defeat.

     Robinson is sick at heart over Prevost's "precipitate and
disgraceful" move back to Canada. "Everything I see and hear is
discouraging," he writes to a friend. "This is no field for a
military man above the rank of a colonel of riflemen ... This
country can never again afford such an opportunity, nothing but a
defensive war can or ought to be attempted here, and you will
find that the expectations of His Majesty's ministers and the
people of England will be utterly destroyed in this quarter."

     And, he might add, across the channel in the Belgian city of
Ghent, where the news from Lake Champlain will have its own
effect on the long-drawn-out negotiations for peace.


And that is one of the great ship battles that was going on at
the same time as the Baltimore ship battle that was also taking
place, and the inspiration for what became the American National

Those two ship battles were won by the Americans, if anything can
really be called a victory in the back-and-forth war that gained
no ground for either side, and indeed cost so much death,
heartache, sorrow, and destruction, because of stupid moves by
both sides, from leaders with vain and proud minds, that often
bordered on lunacy.

Keith Hunt

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