The story of a surprising recovery of Civil War artifacts
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.
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.
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.”
ONCE THE SHIPWRECK WAS DISCOVERED, ARTIFACTS CAME TOGETHER LIKE PUZZLE
PIECES, BUILDING A STORY OF AMERICAN CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS THAT WOULD HAVE OTHERWISE REMAINED ONE OF THE BEST KEPT SECRETS IN WARTIME 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.
This model of the Maple Leaf resides in a permanent exhibition at the Museum of Science and Histor y in Jacksonville.
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 items gave insight into soldiers everyday regimens, even revealing which hygiene products were used. 5 Many of the items found were engraved, sentimental pieces for soldiers who earned items in battle. 6 A variety of pipes were brought to surface during the excavation of the ship. 7 Soldiers would carry canteens of fresh water as they went away on mission.
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 buttons, bibles, scissors and sewing material.