MAKING OF THE MAPLE LEAF
Stowed in her cargo holds on the night of the explosion was the baggage and camp equipage of three Union Army infantry regiments, the 112th New York, the 169th New York and the 13th Indiana, which together formed Foster’s Brigade. In addition to their personal belongings the baggage contains civilian artifacts acquired by the soldiers during their campaigns in Virginia and South Carolina. Research indicates that some of these items may have been removed from abandoned houses on Johns Island, S.C. a few days before the soldiers left for Jacksonville.
SINKING OFF MANDARIN POINT
April 1, 1864 3:59 A.M., the air was thick with the perfume of thousands of orange blossoms floating across the water from the small village of Mandarin. The water was calm as the side-wheel steamboat Maple Leaf cut through the dark waters of the St. Johns River, waters made blacker by the night.
Romeo Murray, the highly regarded African-American river pilot, felt comfortable knowing that Mandarin Point was to the starboard (right) and Jacksonville, his destination, was less than fifteen miles ahead. It had been a quiet trip from Palatka, only sixty winding river miles south of Mandarin. There was, after all, a war going on and he had earlier carried 87 horses and a Union cavalry unit south through Confederate territory, but at night the waters were safe from the shelling of rebel shore batteries.
Before they knew what happened, the passengers were thrown into the air and deafened by the explosion. Was it a boiler explosion, a common occurrence on a steamship? No, the Maple Leaf had struck a new weapon in the Civil War, a submarine torpedo. We know it today as a mine. Along with eleven others it had been planted the night before by Confederates, including CSA Lt. Joshua O’Hern, who was also the Sheriff of Clay County. It was moored in the river channel just below the surface, unseen in the dark water in the night.
The Maple Leaf sank quickly in twenty feet of water. Fifty eight passengers and the crew climbed into three lifeboats with only the clothes on their backs and rowed off to Jacksonville, fifteen miles away. Four African-American crewmen were killed in the forecastle by the explosion, and four Confederate prisoners were left behind, perched on the hurricane deck which was above water, because there was not room for them in their life boats.
The captain and some of the ship’s officers returned to the wreck later that day on a Navy gunboat to survey the damage and retrieve what little they could of their belongings. The crew of the gunboat removed the prisoners from the wreck. The next day the Rebel soldiers who had mined the river boarded the Maple Leaf and set fire to the part of it that was above water.
The wreck remained in the channel, a hazard to navigation for twenty five years, until the upper decks were finally cleared away in 1889.
DISCOVERY AND EXCAVATION OF THE WRECK
In the early 1980s, a Jacksonville dentist and adventurer, Dr. Keith Holland, developed an interest in finding and retrieving the Maple Leaf. By studying a 100-year-old river chart and comparing it to modern charts Holland and friends found where the wreckage should be. After days of searching they found what should be the remains of the Maple Leaf and soon realized it was under five feet of organic silt.
At this point the prospect of salvage and ownership and property rights had to be settled. Both the State of Florida and the United States had claims to the wreckage. Holland formed a company, St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions Inc. (SJAEI) to salvage the ship. After almost two years of negotiating, a deal was struck giving the federal government 20% and the salvagers 80% of what was found. SJAEI subsequently relinquished its rights to the artifacts in order to keep the entire collection intact. The collection of artifacts was given to and remains with the Florida Division of Historical Resources in Tallahassee. In 2015, most of the collection that belonged to the federal government was removed from the state of Florida for possible display at the future National Museum of the U.S. Army in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.
Next was the decision of how to proceed with the salvage and conservation of the artifacts. Modern techniques were used to label and preserve their finds for the benefit of future generations. Over a ten-day period in 1989, over 3000 objects were recovered from the shipwreck site and they all had to be handled properly to preserve them.
Conservation of the items retrieved from the sunken Maple Leaf was a problem. Wood and leather objects had been well preserved under water for over 100 years. The waters of the St. Johns River are full of plant matter, which slowly deteriorates. Oxygen is necessary for deterioration and since there is so much organic matter on the riverbed there is little to no oxygen left to decompose parts of the Maple Leaf. Once taken to the surface and to a source of abundant oxygen, materials start to deteriorate quickly. Holland and crew learned how to safely preserve their precious finds. They learned to treat materials with chemicals, freeze drying and electrical currents to stop oxidation.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SITE
Because of the amount and variety of items that were on-board, this shipwreck site is considered a cultural treasure chest. According to Edwin C. Bearss, former Chief Historian of the United States Department of Interior, National Park Service:
“The wreck of the Maple Leaf is unsurpassed as a source for Civil War material culture. The site combines one of the largest ships sunk during the war, carrying all the worldly goods of more than a thousand soldiers, with a river bottom environment that perfectly preserved the ship and cargo. It is the most important repository of Civil War artifacts ever found and probably will remain so.”
On October 12, 1994, the shipwreck site was designated as a National Historic Landmark, the first historic site with this designation in all of Duval County. Of the thousands of artifacts that were recovered from the wreck and preserved, some are on display at the Mandarin Museum and the Museum of Science and History in Jacksonville.
In 2015, it was discovered that cable had been placed near or on the Maple Leaf site. This event is currently being investigated.
MORE ON THE MAPLE LEAF
· The Maple Leaf: A Civil War Shipwreck, Florida Humanities Council video with Dr. Keith Holland
· The Tide: The Thrill of Discovery, First Coast Magazine feature on the excavation and dive team
· Gone but not Forgotten, Jacksonville Magazine feature with Keith Holland
· A Perfect Preservation, Folio Weekly Magazine feature with Keith Holland
· Sinking of the Steamship Maple Leaf, Florida Frontiers Radio program with Keith Holland
· The Civil War in Florida, Florida Frontiers TV episode with Keith Holland
· The Maple Leaf: Time Capsule of the Civil War, FOX30 “Cover Story” (1993)
· Civil War Shipwreck on the St. Johns River, St. Johns River Alliance video on the Mandarin Museum’s 150th-anniversary exhibit
· Maple Leaf’s connection to Palatka, Dr. James Neale for Putnam County Schools
· Maple Leaf: Time Capsule of the Civil War, National Museum of the United States Army site
· ‘Time capsule’ of Civil War soldiers’ lives heads to planned national museum, Florida Times-Union article on the National Museum of the U.S. Army’s exhibition
· Maple Leaf Shipwreck, Keith Holland’s site