Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sinking of the Union transport steamer Maple Leaf

Alfred Waud sketch of torpedoed Union Steamers Maple Leaf and General Hunter on the St. Johns River, Florida. Source:  Library of Congress Civil War photo archives.

While Union Navy gunboats patrolled the St. Johns River in Florida, the Union Army largely got around Florida by leasing civilian steamers to transport their men, animals and equipment on the rivers and coastal waters. The U.S. Steamer Maple Leaf was leased by the Army in 1862. A sidewheel steamer built in Canada to transport people and freight, she headed south from Boston for service on the St. Johns River in Florida.
In March 1864, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, in charge of the coastal defenses of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, ordered Lt. Col. M.B. Harris  to Florida to plant torpedoes (what today we call mines) in the St. Johns River to try to deter Union military activities, which were growing increasingly common on the river. He was assisted by Capt. E.P. Bryan, already in Florida.
In late March, the Maple Leaf landed troops and supplies at Jacksonville, then took aboard a group of cavalry and headed upriver, where she landed them at Palatka. She departed to return to Jacksonville the evening of 31 March. Early on the morning of 1 April, the steamer struck one of 12 torpedoes placed near Mandarin Point by Harris and Bryan a couple days earlier. The steamer went down quickly, with four crewmen killed. Sixty three other passengers, including some civilians and women, evacuated from the steamer and made their way to Jacksonville in the ship’s boats. In addition to the loss of lives, the steamer also went down with most of the personal effects of three U.S. Army regiments, the 112th New York, 169th New York, and 13th Indiana.

Jacksonville dentist Dr. Keith Holland, born and raised in the city, always had an avid interest in the history of the Jacksonville area and the St. Johns River. He became particularly interested in the story of the Maple Leaf and in his spare time, researched the details of the sinking of the steamer (which included trips to Washington D.C). After much research, in June 1984 Keith and colleagues discovered what they were sure was the wreck of the Maple Leaf in the river bottom off Mandarin Point. Much of the wreck was buried under river sediment, and after obtaining some funding, and dealing with numerous permitting and legal issues, they began to excavate the wreck, which confirmed its identity as the Maple Leaf. Notably, their interest was not profit; nothing they brought up from the wreck was sold for personal gain. All material they recovered was turned over to the State of Florida after careful preservation work.

The wreck of the Maple Leaf turned out to be an immense treasure trove of artifacts and material detailing the personal lives of Civil War Army personnel. The material recovered from the wreck includes military equipage (weapons, uniform buttons, other gear), personal effects (smoking pipes, personal grooming and other items, bottles and flasks of various types), and items plundered from raids on southern plantations (fine china, silverware, etc.). Even “organic” items such as leather, paper, etc. have been recovered. The anaerobic (=no oxygen) conditions of the St. Johns River bottom was an ideal environment for the preservation of the artifacts. National Park Service historian Dr. Ed Bearss has noted, “The wreck of the Maple Leaf is unsurpassed as a source for Civil War material culture.    . . . It is the most important repository of Civil War artifacts every found, and probably will remain so.”

Many of the artifacts recovered from the wreck are archived in the Florida Museum of History in Tallahassee, but some of the artifacts, and a nice model and paintings of the Maple Leaf, are on display at the Mandarin Museum in south Jacksonville (website below). On April 4-5, the museum opened a special exhibit to observe the 150th Anniversary of the sinking of the transport. They also had Union and Confederate living history displays on the museum grounds for folks to learn about the lifestyles of these folks during the war. Contributing blogger Seaman Rob was there with his Navy camp and display to help educate folks about the role of the USN on the St. Johns River during the war.

Living history displays at the April 4-5 commemoration of the Maple Leaf. Small Navy camp in foreground; note hammock slung beneath the lean-to. Author's photo.
 The Mandarin Museum web site:

Maple Leaf shipwreck web site:


  1. Thank you very much Rob for your participation in our 150th Anniversary event and for sharing this with your readers. The Anniversary exhibit will be up through 2014 during museum hours and for scheduled tours. Our email is Sandy Arpen for Mandarin Museum & Historical Society

  2. This was a very interesting read. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this was the Union navy's involvement in the deep south -a fact not well known by many. How vital were the Union navy's maritime operations in the south to its overall war effort? Would losing a transport vessel, like the maple leaf, have been a major blow to its operations?