The story of a sur­pris­ing re­cov­ery of Civil War ar­ti­facts

Times of the Islands - - Departments - BY ME­LANIE PA­GAN

Se­crets Sub­merged

Noth­ing stays hid­den for­ever, no mat­ter how deep it’s buried. Some se­crets grow in value over time, much like in the case of the Maple Leaf. At the time this Civil War trans­port ves­sel sank, it did not seem to have much sig­nif­i­cance. There were few fa­tal­i­ties, and the ship it­self was not part of any ma­jor bat­tles. It wasn’t un­til more than 100 years later, af­ter the Maple Leaf sank to the bot­tom of the St. Johns River in Jack­sonville, Fla., that it proved to con­tain an in­valu­able cul­tural les­son. Once the ship­wreck was dis­cov­ered, ar­ti­facts came to­gether like puzzle pieces, build­ing a story of Amer­i­can Civil War Union soldiers that would have other­wise re­mained one of the best kept se­crets in war­time his­tory.

Fateful Demise

The night of April 1, 1864 was a sound one for ship­mates aboard the

Maple Leaf. Soldiers were trav­el­ing through the St. Johns River on or­ders to re­turn to Jack­sonville from Palatka. Calm waves rocked four freed slaves work­ing as crew­men to sleep in the front deck, while oth­ers qui­etly passed time. Ac­cord­ing to ship cap­tain Henry W. Dale, no signs in­di­cated any­thing strange.

“I saw lights go­ing up the river and com­ing down, but nei­ther saw nor heard any­thing un­usual to ex­cite at­ten­tion,” Capt. Dale said in an of­fi­cial tes­ti­mony the day af­ter the ship sank. He added of the cir­cum­stances: “I do not know how it might have been in the day time, but I do not see how in the night we could have done any bet­ter.”

At 4 a. m., a well- planted trap struck the ves­sel as swift as an ea­gle with force de­struc­tive as pierc­ing talons. It had col­lided with a tor­pedo ( now known as a land mine), packed to its rim with 70 pounds of small- grain can­non pow­der and placed in the river by Con­fed­er­ate forces. The pow­er­ful blast ig­nited the fore­cas­tle, and the con­voy scat­tered fran­ti­cally for safety.

“Most of the people on the boat were mid- ship. They got thrown around pretty good, but were able to get boats down from the top of the Maple Leaf and get into them. If you were in the fore­front, you would have been in se­ri­ous trou­ble,” says am­a­teur his­to­rian Thomas Flem­ing. He is right. The four men sleep­ing in the front of the deck lost their lives that night. Though oth­ers were saved by lifeboats, pounds of cargo help­lessly de­scended

to the black and lonely bot­tom of the river, never to be found again. Un­til it was re­dis­cov­ered 124 years later.

Hid­den Trea­sure

Dr. Keith Vaughn Hol­land, D. D. S., an avid scuba diver, was re­search­ing Jack­sonville ship­wrecks when he came across the Maple Leaf. At the time, he could only ac­cess lit­tle in­for­ma­tion.

“I knew it still ex­isted, and there was no mod­ern day dredg­ing. I was never able to find out more about it be­cause it was not an army ship,” says Hol­land about the Maple Leaf. What Hol­land did find af­ter por­ing over ar­chives was enough to in­trigue him. In 1988, af­ter a se­ries of le­gal bat­tles and ar­du­ous at­tempts at lo­cat­ing wreck­age buried un­der 8 feet of mud in com­plete dark­ness, he gath­ered a team ( St. Johns Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Ex­pe­di­tions, Inc.) and led a se­ries of ex­ca­va­tions. In all, the team re­cov­ered one ton of cargo that had been wait­ing for them in an anaer­o­bic state, mirac­u­lously free from de­cay.

“We re­cov­ered many per­sonal ar­ti­facts from flutes and drum­sticks to clothes, but­tons and china,” re­calls Hol­land. “We be­gan to learn about the recre­ational things soldiers did.”

Signs of Life

The cul­tural ar­ti­facts not only re­vealed things Union troops val­ued enough to carry with them, but ac­tiv­i­ties that filled up their days spent on mis­sion. Ac­cord­ing to ev­i­dence col­lected by Hol­land, soldiers would raid aban­doned houses in the Con­fed­er­ate coun­try­side along Charleston, S. C., for win­dow­panes, door­knobs and loot to re­mind them of their trav­els. Like vis­i­tors of Sani­bel Is­land, found cargo also showed that soldiers would col­lect shells along the wa­ter.

“There were letters from people talk­ing about go­ing out af­ter low- tide and col­lect­ing shells. Some would get up ev­ery morn­ing and col­lect them, says Hol­land. “They had boxes care­fully pack­aged to put up on their man­tels one day.”

Hol­land re­mains mod­est about his dis­cov­er­ies, but Civil War en­thu­si­asts like Flem­ing un­der­stand just how es­sen­tial the find­ings were in or­der to learn about soldiers from that pe­riod.

“There’s a great deal of equip­ment that was saved that doesn’t or­di­nar­ily sur­vive well,” Flem­ing says. “Maple

Leaf sink­ing en­abled preser­va­tion of store­house ar­ti­facts that prob­a­bly would not have sur­vived the 19th century. It’s a ben­e­fi­cial byprod­uct to his­tory.”



The Time is Now

Por­tions of the load can be found at the Mu­seum of Sci­ence and His­tory and the Man­darin Mu­seum, both lo­cated in Jack­sonville. April 1 marks the 150th an­niver­sary of the ves­sel’s demise, a date the Man­darin Mu­seum plans to honor with an ex­pan­sion of their Maple

Leaf ex­hi­bi­tion that re­veals never- be­for­e­seen ar­ti­facts.

“The cel­e­bra­tion won’t be so much of the bat­tle or about the Con­fed­er­ate’s vic­tory, but it will be about the cul­ture of the time pe­riod that was ex­posed by the Maple Leaf,” says Man­darin Mu­seum as­so­ciate Sandy Ar­pen. “We are cel­e­brat­ing the team who brought the ship to life.”

In 1994, the ship­wreck site was de­clared a Na­tional His­toric Land­mark. Al­though Hol­land brought a mag­ni­tude of cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance from the Civil War to life, there is still tons of trea­sure that has yet to be found. But Hol­land says he won’t be the one to ex­plore the area any fur­ther.

“I’m not cham­pi­oning that any­more. I’m too old,” he says. “It took quite a bit of my life­time to do what we did. I’m cer­tain some­one else will some day.” At this time, no other ex­ca­va­tions have been made.

1 Re­cov­ered ar­ti­facts helped his­to­ri­ans learn what soldiers’ cloth­ing dur­ing the Civil War looked like. 2 A num­ber of mu­si­cal in­stru­ments were re­cov­ered from the ship. 3 Army belt buck­les were of­ten en­graved with United States ini­tials. 4 Re­cov­ered...

This model of the Maple Leaf re­sides in a per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mu­seum of Sci­ence and His­tor y in Jack­sonville.

Clock­wise from bot­tom l eft: A wa­ter­color sim­u­la­tion of the Maple Leaf; Union troops would raid houses near F olly Is­land, S. C., to col­lect fine china and glass­ware; dur­ing the ex­ca­va­tion, the St. Johns Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Ex­pe­di­tions, Inc. team re­cov­ered...

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