By Jon Wilson
I. The Beginning
A glistening moon lit the water of the St. Johns River as a Union steamship stealthily pushed toward Jacksonville in the early morning hours of April 1, 1864. The Maple Leaf was a spacious side-wheeler, 181 feet long and 25 wide, and on this quiet night it carried passengers, crew, Confederate prisoners, and a massive shipment of military equipment and soldiers’ personal belongings. Yet the heavy vessel moved smoothly through the water, its paddles making only a soothing whish. Then an explosion tore the night apart.
Contemporary Paintings of the Maple Leaf Steamship. Courtesy of Mapleleafshipwreck.com.
The blast ripped a hole in the ship’s hull and collapsed the decks. A torrent of water rushed in and drowned the boiler fires. In two minutes the ship settled—leaving only the top of the wheelhouse and part of a smokestack visible above the water. A stench of black powder fouled the air. A jammed steam whistle shrieked. Fifty-eight passengers jumped onto the lifeboats. The ship slipped down into the murky depths of the St. Johns with eight people still aboard: four Confederate prisoners who were not allowed on the lifeboats and four crewmen killed in the blast. The lifeboats took the survivors to safety in Jacksonville; the Confederate prisoners were rescued later.
“The Steamer Maple Leaf Blown Up by a Torpedo,” blared the headline in the New York Times. The device that blew up the Maple Leaf would be called a mine today. It was a keg-like contraption holding 70 pounds of small-grain cannon powder—one of a dozen that Florida’s Confederates had planted in the St. Johns to disrupt Union boat traffic, prevent the resupply of Yankee garrisons, and discourage raids on river towns.
The Steamer Maple Leaf Blown Up by a Torpedo New York Times, April 1, 1864
The story of the Maple Leaf was largely forgotten as the Civil War marched on to its grisly end. For the next 120 years the ship lay under 20 feet of water and a protective blanket of mud. But in 1984 amateur historians, led by Keith V. Holland of Jacksonville, found the site of the wreck. After a few years of research and legal work, they sent in divers who discovered the ship’s hull. And within a few years this once-forgotten Civil War casualty became famous.
The river-bottom mud covering the wreck all those years had acted as a preservative, protecting the ship and its contents from the destructive forces of time. Its cargo was discovered to be the most important cache of Civil War artifacts ever found.
The Maple Leaf Dive Team (above right): Steve Michaelis, Larry Tipping, Chris Manley, and Keith Holland.
Divers salvaged nearly 3,000 items, among them mess plates, pails, pans, camp stoves, and field desks; toothbrushes, inkwells, dominoes, and daguerreotypes; twists of tobacco, fifes, flutes, and a clarinet; sea shell collections and ornate dishware likely looted from plantations. The Maple Leaf was delivering the material to soldiers who were encamped elsewhere and not aboard the vessel.
The wreck of the Maple Leaf is unsurpassed as a source for Civil War material culture Edwin C. Bearss, Former Chief Historian National Park Service
“The wreck of the Maple Leaf is unsurpassed as a source for Civil War material culture,” wrote Edwin C. Bearss, former chief historian of the National Park Service. “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…Considered among Florida shipwrecks, Maple Leaf is probably the best preserved site in Florida.”
II. The Maple Leaf Video
The Maple Leaf Video was produced by Bill Dudley with special guest Keith Holland, St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc. and Robert A. Taylor, Professor of Humanities and Communication, Florida History of Technology.