On Friday April 1, 1864, on a moonlit night, the Union steamship Maple Leaf headed back to Jacksonville after dropping off men, horses, and supplies in Palatka. At 4 A.M., she was sunk by a Confederate torpedo in the St. Johns River just off Mandarin Point. And thus starts 150 years of fascination about this beautiful ship, her crew, her cargo, her mission, and the stories that are held deep in the mud of the St. Johns.
In 1984, Dr. Keith Holland was a young dentist who also liked to dive. The Maple Leaf captured his interest to the point of founding the St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc., locating the wreckage, and directing and participating in underwater exploration and artifact recovery that took years. Thousands of artifacts were brought to the surface and preserved for future generations to learn about life and culture in Civil War America. The Chief Historian of the National Park Service at the time stated that the wreck of the Maple Leaf “is the most important repository of Civil War artifacts ever found and probably will remain so.” From that day forward, this National Historic Landmark became part of the history of Mandarin!
During the 150th anniversary exhibit, opened in 2014, we honored the ship, her men, those who recovered her artifacts and brought her stories to life for us all. The displayed artifacts remain on loan from the Florida Division of Historical Resources and include government-issued items, personal items from the cargo of three Union regiments, and items taken from deserted plantation homes in South Carolina.
Dr. Keith Holland’s “Maple Leaf – An Extraordinary American Civil War Shipwreck” is the authoritative book on about the ship, her missions, and the efforts to recover her cargo. Out of print for twenty years, it has been reprinted for 150th anniversary. It is a must read for any person who wants to learn all they can about this national Civil War era treasure and how it came to be available for us to view. It may be purchased at the museum.