history


By the middle of the eighteenth century, Charleston was one of the most heavily fortified communities in North America. The town’s urban defenses didn’t appear all at once, however.  They accumulated over multiple decades and successive eras of warfare with our Spanish and French neighbors.  The government campaign to fortify Charleston commenced early in the town’s history, but precisely how early is a bit fuzzy.  Today we’ll focus on the present town’s first few years and ask—how prepared were Charlestonians of the 1680s to defend their little town? The answer just might surprise you.

If you were to travel back in time to visit downtown Charleston at any point between 1704 and 1784, you would find an urban landscape dominated by a network of walls, moats, drawbridges, and cannon that encircled the town—effectively creating what we might call a “walled city.”  Because of ongoing tensions with our Spanish and French neighbors, and Charleston’s relative isolation within the broader landscape of British North America, South Carolina’s early government channeled the modern equivalent of billions of dollars into the construction and maintenance of defensive fortifications that were intended to protect our colonial capital in case of an attack launched by our enemy neighbors.  These fortifications saw little action over the years, and very few of the town’s cannon were ever fired in its defense, but these facts demonstrate that they had fulfilled their purpose.  Charleston’s collective fortifications, which expanded dramatically between 1704 and the 1770s, served as an effective deterrent to anyone contemplating a hostile invasion of one of the richest seaports in colonial North America.  The town’s defensive works were expanded further during our War of Independence in the late 1770s, but they took a significant beating during the protracted and ultimately successful British siege in the spring of 1780.

The colonial community of “Charles Town” was incorporated as “Charleston” in 1783, just after the conclusion of the American Revolution, and the new city and state governments worked together in the post-war years to accomplish a major undertaking—the demilitarization of urban Charleston.  Since that time, visitors have found a civilian city, the landscape of which bears few visible remnants of the colonial-era fortifications.  The early works were effectively demolished and scraped off the face of the earth in the post-Revolutionary decade, after which even locals began to forget about Charleston’s former existence as a “walled city.”  To some, those early defensive works might have seemed like quaint examples of our community’s naïve, colonial infancy.  Few people in the nineteenth century harbored any nostalgic feelings for our early fortifications as the town expanded and became increasingly “modern.”  That sentiment began to change at the turn of the twenty-first century, however, when some people in the community began to realize that the quickening pace of development in urban Charleston was literally churning up physical remnants the city’s militarized past.  Opportunities to study these remnants were at hand and would likely continue in coming years, so a call to arms was sounded.  In 2005, a group of advocates including preservationists, archaeologists, historians, and educators convinced the City of Charleston to create the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force.  Since that time, this volunteer group has worked rather quietly to advocate for the study, preservation, and interpretation of the physical remnants of the colonial-era fortifications that remain below our collective feet in the landscape of urban Charleston.

As a member of this Task Force for the past fourteen years, I have been actively collecting and studying the documentary evidence related the construction and maintenance of defensive fortifications about the peninsular city of Charleston.  This research began with a series of very simple questions: Who paid for these fortifications?  Who was responsible for the construction, maintenance, and demolition of these works?  Are there any surviving records of that activity?  The answers to such questions are both simple and painfully complicated.  The provincial government of early South Carolina ordered and paid for the fortifications.  The government, principally the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly, appointed and hired agents to superintend the construction and maintenance of various fortifications over a period of about a century.  These agents periodically reported their activities and submitted invoices to the government, and the legislature periodically surveyed the fortifications as the treat of foreign invasion waxed and waned.  Over the years, I have made a systematic sweep through the surviving records of South Carolina’s colonial government, now housed at our state’s Department of Archives and History in Columbia, and collected more than two thousand pages of single-spaced notes relating to the fortifications of urban Charleston.  In short, there is very robust paper trail for the government’s efforts to defend its colonial capital, but the documentary evidence of this activity is incomplete and inconsistent.  Some projects and eras, such as the works constructed during the mid-1750s, are remarkably well documented, while the paper trail for others—especially the earliest fortifications—is practically non-existent.  To address these documentary shortcomings, and to better understand the context in which these fortifications were built, I’ve had to spend a lot of time studying the history of European military architecture and the international political climate that motivated the government of early South Carolina to expend precious resources on the defense of its capital.

Today’s program represents the beginning of a series of essays in which I’ll attempt to distill and narrate the century-long story of the urban fortifications of colonial Charleston.  After years of collecting information and trying to interpret the data, it’s time to start committing my conclusions to (virtual) paper and share them with the public.  I’ll begin this effort today by focusing specifically on the early 1680s, and in the coming months I’ll periodically roll out additional essays with lots of illustrations.  A few years from now, I’ll gather these essays together and publish them as a proper book.  If additional evidence—documentary or physical—rises to the surface during this process, I’ll have a chance to revise my conclusions and improve the story before handing this project over to the next generation of historians.  Ok, enough of the prelude, let’s get to the main event. . . .

This story continues at the Charleston Time Machine.

For the first century of its existence, the urban landscape of Charleston was dominated by an evolving ring of fortifications designed to protect the city against potential invasion by Spanish, French, and later British forces.  Our provincial legislature repeatedly devoted large sums of tax revenue for the construction and repair of walls, moats, bastions, and related works, resulting in what was undoubtedly the largest public works program in colonial South Carolina.  Despite the impressive scale of this work, however, Charleston’s modern streetscape reveals scarcely any physical trace of those early fortifications.  If the city once bristled with cannon, walls, moats, and drawbridges, how and when were such features scoured from the historical landscape?

Many of the details concerning the demilitarization of urban Charleston can be found in the public records created in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolutionary War.  Although incomplete, these records provide sufficient information to construct a robust outline of the decisions, issues, and events that took place between 1783 and 1789 and resulted in a dramatic alteration of Charleston’s urban landscape.  During this brief period, both state and city governments worked in tandem to survey, dismantle, and sell the accumulated urban fortifications.  The evidence of this cautious transition from defensive stronghold to peaceful commercial port provides two principal lessons for modern historians to consider.  On the local scale, the demolition of Charleston’s urban fortifications produced some of the most valuable documentary evidence of their dimensions, composition, and location.  On the national scale, this story presents a local example of the larger American struggle to chart a new civic course in the tumultuous environment of the Age of Revolution.

This story continues at the Charleston Time Machine.

This map of Charleston, surveyed in 1788 and published in 1790, was made shortly after the demilitarization of the city. Craven Bastion, located at the foot of the creek that would soon become Market Street, is the sole remaining fortification depicted on this map.

On a quiet morning three hundred and ten years ago, in September 1706, five French warships sailed into Charleston harbor carrying a thousand French, Spanish, and Native American warriors.  Their mission, sanctioned by King Louis the 14th of France, was to destroy Charleston and to force the English to abandon the young colony of South Carolina.

Detail of an illustration from P. C. Coker's book, Charleston's Maritime Heritage, 1670-1865

Detail of an illustration from P. C. Coker’s book, Charleston’s Maritime Heritage, 1670-1865

Our colonial militia bravely resisted, however, and over a period of two weeks these international forces clashed in a number of skirmishes, from the Charleston peninsula, to James Island, Hobcaw Point, Shem Creek, all the way to Sewee Bay.  In the end, the South Carolina militia was victorious, and the surviving French and Spanish forces retreated in humiliation.

For several generations after the invasion of 1706, this dramatic episode was remembered in our community as a major turning point in the preservation of South Carolina. As part of the larger international struggle for empire in North America, the failed French and Spanish attempt to destroy Charleston helped to ensure that English (later British) settlers would continue to dominate the mainland.

Unfortunately, the story of the 1706 invasion is unfamiliar to most South Carolinians today.  The Mayor’s Walled City Task Force, as part of its efforts to promote knowledge of Charleston’s colonial-era fortifications, would like to increase public awareness of this awesome episode.  We think it’s an exciting story of action and international intrigue that every Sandlapper should know, and we’re inviting the public to a free program titled

Invasion 1706: South Carolina

vs. France and Spain

  • Wednesday, 21 September at 6 p.m., Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, Charleston SC 29401

Questions? Drop me a line at butlern[at]ccpl.org or call 843–805–6968 for more information.

The accumulated fortifications that surrounded urban Charleston in the spring of 1780 proved insufficient to withstand a powerful British siege, and the town ultimately surrendered to the invading army on the twelfth day of May.  The details of that long, bloody siege have been discussed by many historians (most ably in Carl Borick’s 2003 book, A Gallant Defense), but the relative calm that settled over the Charleston after the surrender has received far less attention.  During that period of two years, seven months, and two days, the denizens of urban Charleston lived under a repressive yet oddly conscientious shadow of British martial law.  Those who publicly pledged loyalty to the Crown enjoyed greater personal and commercial freedoms, of course, while those who scorned the occupying power enjoyed few liberties and lived under the eyes of constant surveillance.

1780_Investiture_Charleston

The Investiture of Charleston, S.C.,” a ca. 1780 British map now among the collections of the U.S. Library of Congress

Carl Borick’s 2012 book, Relieve Us of this Burden, provides a much-needed examination of the British treatment of American prisoners of war following the capture of Charleston.  But what about the lives of the town’s civilian population? The British military authorities created a “Board of Police” to administer the town, a system that actually marked an improvement over the old Provincial government’s relatively negligent rule of unincorporated Charles-Town.  Commissioners were appointed to oversee the markets, interments, streets and address numbers, and civil suits.  For many loyalist citizens, the town was running smoother than ever and business opportunities were ample.  For most rebels, however, the two-and-a-half year occupation reinforced their anger and fueled their desire to push their enemy out of South Carolina.  The British intended used the capture of Charleston as an example to pacify the rest of the state into submission, but their gross mismanagement of the situation ultimately gave strength to the American resistance.

If you’d like to learn more about this unsung episode in South Carolina history,  please join me for a new lecture titled

The British Occupation of Charleston, 1780–1782

  • Wednesday, 13 April 2015 at 6 p.m., at Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401. 

For more information, please contact Dr. Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.

In past programs we’ve discussed the histories of the most prominent features of Charleston’s early fortifications, such as Granville Bastion, Craven Bastion, and the Half-Moon Battery. Numerous details regarding these works can be found among the surviving records of South Carolina colonial General Assembly and other archival sources, so we know a good bit about their design, location, and demolition.

For the next program, however, I’m going to attempt to tell the story of the lesser-known bastions of the walled city; specifically, the bastions named Ashley, Carteret, and Colleton, as well as the enigmatic structure known as Blake’s Bastion or Blake’s Battery. These structures existed contemporaneously with the aforementioned bastions, during the early years of the eighteenth century, but relatively little is known about them. For a variety of reasons, these lesser bastions merited less attention from the denizens of early Charleston, and thus it’s now difficult for us to tell their stories. The following is a brief summary of what I’ve been able to learn by reading all of the surviving journals of our colonial government.

When credible intelligence of a Spanish plan to invade Charleston reached the South Carolina General Assembly in December 1703, the town’s fortifications consisted of an unfinished brick “fortress” at the south end of [East] Bay Street, a recently finished brick “Half-Moon Battery” at the east end of Broad Street, and a brick wall along the waterfront connecting the fortress and the battery. The assembly voted to begin immediately the construction of fortifications around the most defensible part of the town (roughly 62 acres of high land between Vanderhorst Creek to the south and Daniel’s Creek to the north), by means of a chain of bastions and redans (also called “salient angles”) connected by an earthen wall (or “entrenchment”) and surrounded by a moat. These works, which were “largely perfected” by October 1704, transformed urban Charleston into a “walled city” and endured for nearly three decades.

The corners of the trapezoid-shaped walled city were protected by diamond-shaped works called bastions, each of which was named for one of the Lords Proprietors who owned the Carolina colony. The brick “fortress” at the southeast corner was named Granville Bastion, while the new brick work at the northeast corner was named Craven Bastion. These large structures were maintained and used into the 1780s, and consequently we know a good bit about their history. The other bastions didn’t last nearly as long, and we know far less about them.

A close-up view of the map of Charles Town published in 1711 by Edward Crisp, highlighting the

A close-up view of the map of Charles Town published in 1711 by Edward Crisp, highlighting the “lesser-known” bastions.

Colleton Bastion, the southwest corner of the walled city, stood approximately on the site now occupied by the First Scots (Presbyterian) Church at the southwest corner of Tradd and Meeting Streets. It was constructed and armed in 1704, but its cannon were removed to the “curtain line” along East Bay Street sometime between November 1721 and November 1723. No descriptions of its appearance or dimensions are known to exist. Colleton Bastion was gone by the spring of 1733, when the newly formed Presbyterian congregation purchased the site and began building their first church.

Carteret Bastion formed the northwest corner of the town wall, but its precise location is a bit of a mystery. It probably stood somewhere very near the northwest corner of Meeting Street and Horlbeck Alley/Cumberland Street, but we’re not yet sure. The matter is complicated by the fact that the northward trajectory of Meeting Street was altered slightly in the years immediately after the bastion was removed. Archaeological testing in the early 1980s and early 2000s eliminated the southwest and southeast corners as possible sites of this bastion, and anecdotal evidence suggests that at least part of it may have covered the northeast corner of that intersection. Like Colleton Bastion, we know that Carteret Bastion was armed and ready by late 1704, but by December 1723 its cannon had been removed to augment the arsenal at Craven Bastion. Similarly, we know nothing about the appearance or dimensions of Carteret Bastion.

Ashley Bastion stood due west of Granville Bastion, and may have originally been intended to form the southwest corner of a square “fortress” planned in 1696–97. Its shape is unclear in the “Crisp Map” of 1711, but in Col. John Herbert’s “Ichnography or Plann of the Fortifications of Charlestown,” drawn on 21 October 1721 (now among the records of the National Archive of the United Kingdom), Ashley Bastion is drawn as a hexagonal structure of indistinct size. Although its placement between Granville Bastion and Colleton Bastion may seem irrational, we know Ashley Bastion stood on the west side of a creek or inlet and swamp, and thus its location enhanced the security of the town’s southern side. Beyond these facts, we know little about the size, construction, or precise location of Ashley Bastion. Like the other lesser bastions, it had been stripped of its armaments (and probably demolished) by December 1723.

Blake’s Bastion, also called Blake’s Battery, was not technically a bastion. Rather, it was a “V”-shaped detached work, like a fleche, placed a short distance due south of Granville Bastion. Due to the sparse number of surviving documentary references to its existence, however, it is unclear whether Blake’s Battery was built before or after the construction of its neighboring bastion. Tactically, the purpose of this work was no doubt to defend the mouth of the small creek or inlet that ran between Granville Bastion and Ashley Bastion. Although we know nothing about its size or precise location, we know that Blake’s Battery was built at least partly of brick. In December 1712, when work commenced on the construction of “the new brick church” that became St. Philip’s Church, the South Carolina General Assembly (who funded the church) ordered Col. William Rhett to oversee the removal of “the bricks that compose the battery called Blakes Battery” to the site of the new church. After that reference, Blake’s Battery disappears from the historical record.

If you’d like to learn more about these long-forgotten fortifications, and perhaps help me puzzle through the documentary evidence, please join me for an illustrated lecture titled:

“The Lesser-Known Bastions of Early Charleston”

Wednesday, August 12th 2015 at 6 p.m.

Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401

For more information, please contact Dr. Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.

Johnson’s Ravelin, also known as Johnson’s Cover’d Half Moon, was a man-made triangular island (of sorts) that guarded the only land entrance into Charleston for approximately thirty years.  Designed in December 1703 and dismantled in the early 1730s, this important defensive work was once a major landmark of our city’s built environment.  Today, however, it’s completely unfamiliar to most of the residents and tourists who pass over its remnants at the modern intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets.

The history of Johnson’s Ravelin begins in December 1703, when Governor Nathaniel Johnson called an emergency session of the South Carolina General Assembly in Charleston.  Credible intelligence had just been received, the governor informed the legislators, that Spanish forces were massing at Havana and St. Augustine for an invasion of South Carolina, and immediate action was required to prepare an adequate defense of the colony.  After discussions and debates, the legislature voted to fund a new system of fortifications to surround the highest, driest land in the capital, Charles Town, with a new system of fortifications.  Two French Huguenot refugees were summoned to design the enceinte and to lay out the walls and moats that would encircle the town for the next three decades.

One of the most impressive features of the 62-acre trapezoid enceinte of Charleston was the ravelin, a detached work designed to guard the only landward entrance to the town.  This feature was not a local invention, of course, but rather a standard component of European-style fortifications that was described and illustrated in every military textbook of the late seventeenth century.  French engineers under Louis XIV were among the best and most prolific practitioners of fortification construction during that era, and so it is telling that the English government of early South Carolina turned to French civilian immigrants for advice in this moment of military crisis.  The English borrowed the French term ravelin, but occasionally they used an English equivalent phrase “covered half-moon,” so-called because this feature allows musketeers (that’s the correct term) to “cover” or defend a semicircular sweep of land in front of the town gate.

By October 1704, Governor Johnson reported to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina that the new works around Charleston were “nearly perfected.”  The earliest known illustration of the enceinte of Charleston appears in map published in London in 1711, the so-called “Crisp Map.”  The two images below are details from that map.  The first shows an extreme close-up of the ravelin with features labled “H,” “I,” and “K” (remember that the letters “I” and “J” were interchangeable at this time), while the second image shows the accompanying explanation of those three features.

1711_Crisp_ravelin
1711_Crisp_caption_detail

As you can see, the ravelin or “cover’d Half Moon” named for Governor Johnson included not one, but two drawbridges leading to the town gate.  Persons traveling to Charleston from the country came southward down the “broad path” (King Street) to the site of the modern intersection of King and Queen Streets, then turned to the southeast and approached the ravelin.  The first drawbridge “in ye Half Moon” (letter K) stretched along a northwest-southeast trajectory, perpendicular to the ravelin’s outer moat.  Having crossed over that bridge onto the ravelin proper (letter I), one then turned approximately 45 degrees to face due east and then crossed over a second drawbridge “in ye Line” (letter H) and passed through (or under) the gateway into the intersection of Meeting and Broad Streets.

These drawbridges, or at least the outer one, were still present and being repaired in the late 1720s, despite an often-cited but inaccurate notation found on a 1739 map of Charleston stating that the town’s early fortifications were removed in 1717.  In reality, the ravelin and its associated features were dismantled in the early 1730s, though the exact date is lost among some missing legislative records of that era.  It was during the early 1730s that the physical limits of the town began to expand rapidly, as a truce reigned between Britain and Spain and South Carolina—now finally a “Royal” colony—settled into a brief era of peace and prosperity.

The obsolete ravelin was soon forgotten, but remnants of its moat continued to linger for many years. Shortly after the 1743 completion of the provincial armory, near the southwest corner of Broad and Meeting Streets, the keepers of the public arms complained that the building’s proximity to an adjacent “pond” was causing the weapons to rust and decay. There was no natural “pond” at this site, however; the water was simply a vestige of the old moat. A similar problem was found a decade later at the northwest corner of Broad and Meeting Streets, where the South Carolina government planned to build its state house (now the Charleston County Historic Courthouse). The commissioners appointed to construct the state house objected to that site, noting in the spring of 1752 that “the ground is so loose and full of quick-sands, as to render it insufficient to support the weight intended to be laid upon it.” That site had once been high, dry ground, but the former moat surrounding the ravelin had compromised the integrity of the soil.

In the image below, I’ve taken a 1995 HABS photograph of the intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets and drawn heavy red lines to indicate the approximate location of the moat surrounding Johnson’s Ravelin.  The placement of these lines is not entirely hypothetical; rather, they are based on eighteenth-century documentary descriptions and archaeological evidence from the late 1990s.
1995_HABS_&_ravelin

While the old State House / Charleston County Courthouse was undergoing massive renovations in 1999, workers found the buried remains of several large cedar posts that once supported the outer drawbridge (marked “K” in the Crisp Map above). In addition, archaeologists studying the courtyard immediately north of the courthouse found evidence of the moat on the east and northwest edges of their excavations. By combining these physical clues with local documentary evidence and illustrations taken from published fortification textbooks, we can begin to reconstruct the appearance of Johnson’s Ravelin in the early eighteenth century. It’s a work in progress, but if you’d like to learn more about this topic, please join me for a lecture titled:

“Johnson’s Ravelin: Charleston’s First Town Gate”

Wednesday, May 27th 2015 at 6 p.m.

2nd Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, please contact Dr. Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.

IMG_3941

Today’s archaeology at the southeast corner of King and South Battery Streets focused on one specific feature that is visible at the surface of the ground: the point at which the composition of the sea wall under investigation transitions from brick to stone. We dug on both sides of the wall in search of clues that might help us determine the vintage of the materials and the sequence of construction. Based on what we’ve seen over these two days, it appears that most of our target, the 1769 sea wall, was rebuilt during multiple repair episodes in the first half of the 19th century, and the original construction materials (brick and Bermuda stone) were deconstructed and recycled as fill behind the rebuilt wall.

In response to Robert Behre’s article in today’s edition of the Post and Courier, a number of local residents and tourists stopped by the dig site to peer into the past and ask questions. As always, it was a pleasure to share our discoveries, theories, and enthusiasm for urban archaeology.

The point at which the brick  wall transitions into a stone wall.

The point at which the brick wall transitions into a stone wall.

We commenced digging approximately 40 feet east of King Street, on the south side (water side) of the sea wall. As we learned yesterday, there is a large concrete utility chase in this area running parallel to our wall, so we knew we would only be able to excavate to a depth of two or three feet. Approximately two feet below the surface, we encountered the concrete chase and began to clean the wall for a better view. As you can see in the photo,  some masons in the past took a certain amount of care to fit and mortar irregularly shaped stones into the jagged edge of the brick work. Both of these elements, however, appear to represent nineteenth century repairs. The appearance and size of the bricks, combined with the color and composition of the mortar, suggest that these materials replaced the eighteenth-century bricks and mortar that originally composed the wall. As mentioned in yesterday’s posting, we also know that repairs to this wall were done with stone after 1811. But which came first—the brick repairs seen here, or the stone repairs? That’s a question that will require further digging through the surviving newspapers and other documentary records.

A view of the south side of the wall at the brick-stone interface.

A view of the south side of the wall at the brick-stone interface.

A view of the north side of the wall adjacent to the brick-stone interface.

A view of the north side of the wall adjacent to the brick-stone interface.

 

Unable to dig deeper on the south side of the wall, we turned our attention to its north side to see if there might be other clues to help decipher the brick-stone intersection. Behind (north 0f) the wall we found the same mix of fill materials as yesterday; that is, ballast stone, eighteenth-century brick bats, and a large quantity of fragmented Bermuda stone. We remain in awe of the prevalence of Bermuda stone concentrated in this small area. Whether or not the wall we’re investigating represents work completed in 1769 or extensive repairs in the 1830s, the profusion of otherwise-rare Bermuda stone at this location confirms that we’re in the right place and, at the very least, seeing the city’s attempts to maintain a very useful piece of colonial waterfront infrastructure. Like yesterday’s work, today’s study of the back fill area yielded a number of ceramic fragments that continue to indicate that this site was heavily disturbed during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Looking east at the backfill behind the sea wall (at right), showing the loose and consolidated sections of rubble materials.

Looking east at the back fill behind the sea wall (at right), showing the loose and consolidated sections of rubble materials.

In today’s case, however, we observed a difference in the nature of the fill behind the wall. Careful hand-troweling through the rubble revealed that a reasonably discrete portion of the fill was slathered in mortar, as if in an attempt to create a unified body. The extent and purpose of this mortar-bound fill is unclear, but we have a theory. The consolidated section in question is perpendicular to the wall, and perhaps was intended to act as a buttress or “counterfort” to stabilize the wall against the opposing force of the tides.

Speaking of the tides, today’s downward digging once again found water just a few feet below the surface, and it’s hard to forget that the Ashley River is just a stone’s throw away from our site. And so, hemmed in by modern utilities, streetscapes, and seeping tidal waters, we closed up our units and now begin the work of analyzing the data.

The Mayor’s Walled City Task Force extends its collective thanks to the City of Charleston (especially the Stormwater Services and Parks Departments), Clemson University, the Charleston Museum, the College of Charleston, the Charleston County Public Library, the Post and Courier, and every one who visited the site, for helping to make this brief but very productive collaborative venture a success. Our goal is to pursue and to share knowledge in an effort to increase public understanding and appreciation of Charleston’s history, and I think we’re right on target.

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