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Civil War Articles
The Third Day at Gettysburg
Colonel Patrick O'Rorke
Stanley at Shiloh: A Improbable 'Indiana Jones'
Ringgold Cavalry in Alleghenies
Special Order 191: Ruse of War?
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The Maple Leaf Adventure
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Want of Nail: Confederate Ironclads
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Life and Death of the 10th NJ Inf
The Death of General Zook
Barrancas: The First Shots
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The Battle Rainbow
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Thomas Fleming Articles
The Maple Leaf Adventure

Recommended Reading


The Maple Leaf: An Extraordinary American Civil War Shipwreck


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The Maple Leaf Adventure

The Maple Leaf Adventure
A Florida Civil War Shipwreck Reveals Civilian and Soldier Life in the Mid-19th Century
by Thomas M. Fleming

Introduction

The sinking of the troop transport Maple Leaf on April 1, 1864, by a Confederate mine floating in the St. Johns River near Jacksonville, Florida, is an event unknown even to most people well-versed in the history of the American Civil War. It took place in a relative backwater of that conflict, resulted in comparatively few casualties, and determined the outcome of no major battle or campaign. Yet, a colorful story lies behind the Maple Leaf and the people she carried, on dinner cruises and later to war, in cool Northern waters and in warm Southern ones. It is a story of bustling commerce and small-town recreation in the mid-19th century Northeast, as well as of military daring, frustration, and suffering along the coasts and rivers of the rebellious Southeast. The story ties together the lives and fortunes of people from Canada, through upstate New York to the Midwest, and across the South from Virginia to Florida and beyond. The prodigious research and labor that uncovered this story, as well as the remarkable physical record that it produced, has left us with a vivid picture of life as it was lived by the ordinary soldier and civilian family a century and a half ago.[1]

The Life of a Steamer on Lake Ontario

The Maple Leaf's beginnings were about as far removed from Florida and war as they could be. She was constructed in Kingston, Ontario for a Canadian shipping firm and launched there in June, 1851. A wooden side-wheel steamer built to carry passengers, freight, and mail among the growing communities lining both sides of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, the Maple Leaf displaced 398 tons and was 181 feet long and 25 feet wide at the beam, and had a loaded draft of about 8 feet. The main deck was covered by a second or passenger deck for its entire length, which held a pilot house forward and a central "saloon" 130 feet long, surrounded by passenger staterooms. In the front of the saloon were the main dining room and officers' quarters, and on top of the saloon deck was a hurricane deck on which were stored the ship's lifeboats.[2]

Maple Leaf plied several different passenger and mail routes across and along the length of Lake Ontario during her first four years, but in April 1855, with her Canadian owners in severe financial straits, she was sold to a new joint stock company based in Rochester, New York. For the next seven years the Port of Rochester at Charlotte, New York, at the confluence of the Genesee River and Lake Ontario, was Maple Leaf's home. These were her greatest days as a lake steamer, and she would have "the attention of daily news coverage, announcing her every arrival and departure, and every detail of her career" during her following years on Lake Ontario.[3]

Several times a week, the Maple Leaf ferried passengers and freight between Rochester and Toronto, Cobourg, and other Canadian and American ports. But she provided far more than just practical transportation:

Among the most popular cruises from Rochester were the "moonlight excursions" scheduled about once a week during the warm summer seasons. The Maple Leaf would leave Charlotte about dusk, after the arrival of the train from the city. Cost of the excursion, including round trip train fare, was usually 75 cents. A "good band" was always on board "to enliven the party, and give an opportunity for dancing." After some three hours spent cruising about on the waters of the open lake, the Maple Leaf would head back to port where the excursionists could board the train for return to the city depot about midnight.[4]

When the Prince of Wales toured Canada in September, 1860, the Maple Leaf conducted two special excursions from Rochester to meet the Royal entourage on its voyage from Kingston to Toronto on the steamer Kingston--just a few weeks before Michael Corcoran and the 69th New York State Militia delighted Irishmen across America by refusing to parade before the Prince during his visit to New York City. Another popular trip for north shore Canadians was an excursion on the Maple Leaf to Niagara to see the celebrated Blondin perform on the tight rope high above Niagara Falls.[5]

The Maple Leaf Goes to War

But the glory days of steamboats on Lake Ontario were numbered. Competition from the railroads increased as lines were extended along the lake shore throughout the 1850s. By 1860 railroad competition and the economic panic of 1857 caused a major decline in lake commerce,[6] while the outbreak of civil war in the United States put a damper on excursion business. By 1862, business was poor and profits sparse, and the route to the north shore had become a problem because of the hostile attitudes of many Canadians sympathetic to the Confederate cause. Indeed, the Maple Leaf's last Fourth of July excursion to Cobourg was marred when rowdies on the dock pelted the ship's band with sticks after it started playing "Yankee Doodle" instead of "Dixie"; on its return to drop off Canadian passengers two days later, another such gang "threw eggs at the band, cheered for Jeff Davis and Beauregard and made themselves ridiculous generally, a cheap way they have of showing their sympathy with the rebellion."[7]

Under these conditions, Great Lakes ship owners were eager to accept the large amounts of cash being offered for their vessels by ship brokers looking to charter them to the federal government for use in the widening Civil War. The brokers, on the other hand, could easily afford to offer attractive sums, knowing what prices the government was willing to pay to obtain use of ships for hauling troops and supplies along the East Coast. The times finally caught up with the Maple Leaf in August 1862, when she was sold to a Boston firm and then chartered into United States service. Late in the evening of the 14th, after discharging passengers in Charlotte from her last excursion up the Lake shore, the Maple Leaf steamed quietly out of the Genesee forever. She made her way up the St. Lawrence River and then down the coast to Boston, where she was thoroughly overhauled. On September 8 she arrived at Fort Monroe on the Union-held Virginia coast, where she began her new life as a military transport.[9]

HIJACKED!

Most of the Maple Leaf's service along the Atlantic coast was routine, ferrying troops, equipment, and supplies between such places as Baltimore, Fort Monroe, Fort Delaware, Norfolk, and Folly Island, South Carolina. On occasion she also transported Confederate prisoners of war, and one such assignment proved anything but routine. On the afternoon of June 9, 1863, as the Maple Leaf was transporting 97 Confederate officers from Fort Monroe toward indefinite confinement at Fort Delaware, the prisoners--among whom was Captain Oliver J. Semmes, son of Raphael Semmes, commander of the famous commerce raider CSS Alabama -- hatched a plot among themselves to overpower the 12-man detachment guarding them and escape. They were encouraged in this plan upon discovering that the guards' muskets weren't loaded. At a given signal the prisoners subdued their guards, informed the Maple Leaf's captain that one of their number--a rebel gunboat commander--was now in charge, and told him to turn the vessel around and head south. After abandoning an idea to sail to Nassau due to a lack of coal and the risk of interception by federal blockading squadrons, the prisoners decided to make their way ashore and try to reach Confederate lines from there. Leaving behind 27 prisoners who elected to stay with the Maple Leaf, the remaining 70 took the Maple Leaf 's small boats and rowed to the North Carolina shore on or near Knott's Island, about 10 miles south of Cape Henry, Virginia.[10]

After their departure, the Maple Leaf returned immediately to Fort Monroe. The escape was reported to the acting fort commandant, who wired federal commanders in the area where the Rebel officers were thought to be, asking that cavalry be sent in pursuit. Not long after, Confederate Secretary of War James .A. Seddon sent a message to C.S.A. Gen. D.H. Hill, asking him to send a cavalry diversion to Camden County to help the prisoners avoid capture.[11] Meanwhile, the prisoners had travelled south down Knott's Island, where they were fed at the home of a rebel sympathizer, who then took them by boat accross Currituck Sound to the mainland. Eluding the federal cavalry pursuit, they broke into smaller groups and made their way through the woods and swamps with the help of rebel guerillas and sympathizers in the area. Finally meeting up in Weldon, North Carolina, they took a train back to Richmond on June 22, and after several days' rest there returned to their units.[12]

Upon his return the day after Maple Leaf landed at Fort Monroe, post commander Major General John A. Dix sent a message about the incident to General Henry W. Halleck, the Union army's general-in-chief in Washington.[13] A federal Army investigation subsequently determined that blame for the escape rested with the lieutenant of the guard detachment aboard Maple Leaf, for failure to assure that the guards' muskets were loaded, and he was administratively dismissed from the Army at the direction of President Lincoln.[14] Nevertheless, "[t]he 'Capture of the Maple Leaf' became one of the most oft-recited adventures of the war in Virginia."[15]

The Maple Leaf Meets the 112th New York

Two months after the embarrassing escape incident, the destiny of the Maple Leaf first became unhappily entwined with that of the 112th New York Volunteer Infantry, a regiment raised in the summer of 1862 in the wooded hills of Chautauqua County, New York, only about 100 miles southwest of the Maple Leaf's former home port in Rochester.[16] Among her passengers from Portsmouth, Virginia to Hilton Head, South Carolina in August 1863, in support of Major General Quincy Gillmore's siege of Charleston, were several companies from the 112th.[17] The boat and her crew did not make the most favorable impression on the men of the 112th, according to their chaplain:

On board the Maple Leaf , the only object, from the Captain down to the deck hands, seemed to be to make money out of the necessities of the Regiment. Men were charged five cents for the privilege of boiling their coffee, and officers the highest New York prices for board of the meanest sort; and this on board of a boat receiving an enormous sum from the government for transporting troops.[18]

As events would prove, this would not be the most unfortunate experience the men of the 112th would have with the ship that once plied the waters of Lake Ontario near their home.

The 112th's sojourn near Charleston over the following months was not a pleasant one. Camped on Folly Island between the Atlantic and the swamps of southeastern South Carolina, the men were dogged by oppressive heat, blowing sand, and voracious mosquitoes, and sought distraction from their suffering by combing the island's beaches in search of unusual and attractive seashells.[19]

Relief of sorts from their boredom came in an expedition to Johns Island, South Carolina in February 1864. Brigaded with the 169th New York Volunteers in a force under the command of Brigadier General Alexander Schimmelfennig, the operation's objective was to strike quickly across Johns Island and destroy the Savannah & Charleston Railroad bridge at Rantowle's Creek, an action which would threaten Charleston from the rear and cause the Confederates to withhold troops which might otherwise be sent to oppose General Truman Seymour's simultaneous expedition to Jacksonville, Florida. From February 7 to the 12th, the federal force marched across several islands, skirmishing with small detachments of Confederate defenders, and passed by or camped near as many 17 abandoned plantation houses. Along the way the men may have helped themselves to dishes, glasses, silver, fancy doorknobs, and other items from these homes, some of which had been imported from Europe and the Orient. Their diversionary object (if not the bridge's destruction) accomplished, the men returned to their Folly Island camp on the 12th.[20]

Invading Florida

The 112th's rest back at Folly, however, was brief. On February 22, orders were received to move to the Florida area of operations in support of General Seymour's expedition to seal off that state, and its supplies, from Confederate forces further north. The men of the 112th were not unhappy about leaving Folly Island; as one private ruefully declared, "Goodbye, old sand-patch, the fleas and mosquitoes and fiddlers are welcome to you."[21]

Meanwhile on February 7, just as the 112th and its brethren were beginning their diversionary move across Johns Island, the Maple Leaf was delivering General Seymour to Jacksonville to launch the main thrust of the expedition.[22] A force of about 5500 federal troops started inching its way west from Jacksonville on February 8, headed for the Suwannee River and perhaps even Tallahassee. On February 20, however, they collided with a well-prepared Confederate force of almost equal size about ten miles east of Lake City, near the railroad station at Olustee, under the command of Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan. After a day-long battle that cost them almost 2000 casualties, and a desperate rearguard stand by the 35th United States Colored Troops and the famous 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, the federals were forced to retreat back to Jacksonville.[23]

Hurriedly dispatched from Folly Island, the 112th disembarked at Jacksonville on February 25, five days after the Olustee debacle. The men were immediately put to work digging rifle pits and entrenchments outside the city, but the ensuing few weeks were otherwise pleasant for them after their previous South Carolina service. Cpl. Manhattan Pickett of Company B wrote home to his parents in Charlotte, New York--the Maple Leaf's former home port--that:

Jacksonville is quite a pretty place, or was. The town has been sadly disfigured by fire. The rebels burned all the mills, which were owned by Northern men, and in revenge, a Maine regiment set fire to the town and burned a number of buildings. This was in the spring of 1863. The weather here now is similar to June in Chautauqua. Oranges are plenty; peaches and cherries grow freely.[24]

It so happened that when the 112th and the rest of its brigade (the 169th New York and the 13th Indiana Volunteers) were rushed south to support General Seymour's Florida expedition, much of their camp equipage and personal baggage was left behind in South Carolina. On March 26, 1864, this property--along with thousands of dollars in sutler's stores--was loaded aboard the Maple Leaf at Folly Island. After a stop at Hilton Head, she turned south and arrived at Jacksonville about 5 p.m. on March 30. Her deck cargo, as well as 60 soldiers of the 112th who had stayed behind at Folly Island, came off the ship at this time. But the cargo in the holds, including the brigade's camp equipment and baggage, was not unloaded. Instead, the boat was ordered to proceed immediately further up the St. Johns River to Palatka, a little over 45 miles (as the crow flies) south, with a detachment of Massachusetts cavalry, its horses and equipment, and ten soldiers detailed from the 112th to guard the baggage and the stores in the cargo holds. The Maple Leaf left for Palatka at 9 p.m. in convoy with two other steamers, the General Hunter and Harriet Weed .[25]

The Sinking of the Maple Leaf

The convoy enjoyed a quiet trip up the St. Johns that night, but Confederate forces on the river's western bank were not sleeping. Perhaps even as the ships passed, a dozen "torpedoes" (what we would call "mines" today), each packed with 70 pounds of small-grain cannon powder, were being placed in the river off Mandarin Point, about 12 miles south of Jacksonville. The work was done by five soldiers from the Second Florida Battalion and Captain E. Pliny Bryan, an experienced intelligence operative detached for duty in Florida from General Pierre G.T. Beauregard's staff at Charleston.[26] The device consisted of a tar-coated wooden keg two feet long and a foot and a half in diameter, with six iron hoops around it and two solid wood cones a foot and a quarter high secured at each end of the keg to provide flotation. A brass fitting was screwed into the keg, which contained the trigger-plunger and the percussion cap to ignite the black powder in the keg.[27] The torpedoes were held in place by moorings just below the surface of the water where they were concealed from view.[28] The evident purpose of their placement was to disrupt Union army boat traffic on the St. Johns, thereby preventing reinforcement and supply of Federal outposts like that at Palatka, and discouraging Federal raids against river towns and plantations harboring Confederate troops and guerillas.[29]

The convoy from Jacksonville, including the Maple Leaf, arrived at Palatka about 4 a.m. on March 31 and discharged the cavalry detachment and supplies it had picked up in Jacksonville. As standing orders required night travel on the St. Johns, the Maple Leaf left for the return trip to Jacksonville at 11:15 p.m. without the General Hunter and Harriet Weed , which had been held in Palatka. Her holds were still full of equipment and property belonging to the 112th New York and the other regiments in its brigade, as well as the sutler's stores.[30]

It was a clear, moonlit night as the Maple Leaf wended its way north. The river was still and smooth, except for the boat's paddle wheels softly thrashing the water. About 4 a.m., as the pilot neared Mandarin Point and eased the boat toward the eastern side of the channel, she glided over or struck one of Captain Bryan's torpedoes. The device exploded with a tremendous roar near the keel, about 30 feet from the bow of the ship. The pilot and quartermaster were lifted off their feet by the force of the blast and struck their heads on the roof of the pilot house, which pitched forward and caused the ship's steam whistle to begin screaming incessantly. The air was filled with the stench of black powder smoke and the crack of breaking timbers. In less than two minutes the decks gave way, inrushing water extinguished the boiler fires, and the craft settled into the river bottom, with nothing but the top of her wheelhouse and part of the smokestack visible above the surface. All those aboard could do was man the lifeboats. In short order, 58 passengers and crewmen were loaded into the boats, which were headed for Jacksonville by 4:30 a.m. Eight people remained aboard: four Confederate prisoners who were refused places on the lifeboats, and four black crewmen who were killed in the forecastle by the blast of the torpedo.[31]

A Navy gunboat carrying officers from the Maple Leaf returned to the place of her sinking a few hours after the lifeboats arrived in Jacksonville. After examining what was left, they deemed the ship and all her cargo a total loss. The next day, Captain Bryan and his compatriots boarded what remained of the boat above the river's surface, and burned it to the water line.[32]

One can only imagine the dismay felt by the men of the 112th New York, 169th New York, and 13th Indiana back in Jacksonville, upon learning that all of their regimental property and many of their personal belongings now rested on the muddy bottom of the St. Johns River. Some men lost more than others, as one corporal of the 112th wryly observed in a letter home to his parents:

. . . all the baggage [was] lost. All the co. books of the regt & all of the officers clothing was lost. The 13 Ind sutler lost all his goods & 2000 dollars in money. All the tents for the brigade were lost. The most of my loss was a dress coat.[33]

The shattered remnants of the Maple Leaf , including her cargo of sutler's stores and equipment for three Union regiments, sat undisturbed on the bottom of the St. Johns River for 124 years. Most of it remains there to this day.

Resurrecting the Maple Leaf

But that isn't the end of the Maple Leaf story. In 1984, a group of amateur historians led by Dr. Keith V. Holland of Jacksonville located the site of the wreck at the bottom of the St. Johns. Soon after, the group formed a company, St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc.(SJAEI), to further research and develop the site, obtain the necessary legal authorizations, and work with various public authorities to determine the ownership and presentation of materials recovered. In 1988, after years of research, legal proceedings, and negotiations with state and federal agencies, divers finally entered the intact hull, located under 20 feet of water and 3 to 7 feet of mud, to remove a core sample of material. Nearly 3000 individual objects were brought to the surface in a much larger excavation the following year.[34]

What the searchers recovered was just a fraction of a treasure-trove of Civil War artifacts, remarkably well-preserved in anaerobic mud and tannin-suffused water, consisting of the equipment and belongings of officers and men in a brigade headquarters and three U.S. Army infantry regiments (the 112th New York Volunteers, the 169th New York Volunteers, and the 13th Indiana Infantry), as well as the stock of at least two sutlers.[30] Among the types of items recovered were:

  • Camp equipment: tents (including shelter halves); tent poles (including side and ridge poles); camp stoves; lanterns; shovels, axes, hatchets, hammers, and other camp tools; wooden matches; field desks
  • Mess equipment: mess plates, pails and pans; forks; spoons; and knives; tin cups; ladles; coffee pots
  • Accoutrements, clothing, and other issued items: canteens; belts; belt plates and buckles; cartridge boxes; cap pouches; knapsacks; haversacks; gum blankets; buttons (coat and shirt); shoes (and pieces of thereof)
  • Soldier's personal items: smoking pipes; twists of tobacco; toothbrushes; razors; shaving paste jars; shaving mirrors; combs (mustache, lice and hair) and hair brushes; shoe blacking; candles and candlesticks; pens, pencils, ink, and inkwells; dominoes; checker pieces; daguerreotypes; housewives (personal sewing kits)
  • Officer's items: spurs; officers' belts; wool sashes; boots; shoulder straps; dress swords; pocket watch
  • Medical supplies: medicine bottles; sponges; tourniquets; mortar and pestle; boxes of surgeon's supplies
  • Other items: musical instruments (fifes, flutes, a clarinet, a violin); scales and balances; funnels; wooden barrels.[36]
Also found in the Maple Leaf's holds were sea shells, apparently collected by the soldiers during their long service on the Atlantic shore in South Carolina.[37] Even more unusual were the numerous items of civilian (and sometimes ornate) dishware and cutlery found, including many plates, platters, serving bowls, pitchers, cups, and saucers, as well as fancy door knobs and window panes. The circumstances indicate that these items were looted from plantation homes during the brigade's expedition into the South Carolina interior.[38]

After completing site work in 1989, SJAEI spent two years developing a conservation laboratory to preserve the artifacts, with funding from the state of Florida and with the assistance of the East Carolina University Program in Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology, and the Jacksonville Museum of Science and History (MOSH). A permanent, interactive exhibit was opened at MOSH in 1991, featuring a large collection of artifacts recovered from the Maple Leaf, displays presenting the boat's history and the science involved in the artifacts' conservation, and a video documentary on the Maple Leaf Project.[39] A smaller, traveling version of the exhibit is maintained through the Museum of Florida History,[40] and recently appeared for several months at the Fenton History Center in Jamestown, Chautauqua County, New York--home of the 112th New York.

Conclusion

According to Edwin C. Bearss, former Chief Historian of the United States Department of Interior, National Park Service, "the Wreck of the Maple Leaf is unsurpassed as a source for Civil War material culture. 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. It is the most important repository of Civil War artifacts ever found and probably will remain so."[41]

From a broader perspective, perhaps the most striking thing about the Maple Leaf is how superb a vehicle she is for insight into the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans, at peace and in war, in the mid-19th century. The extensive record of her peacetime service reflects the important roles, commercial and recreational, she played in the daily lives of people on both sides of Lake Ontario. The record of her wartime service, both written and in the thousands of artifacts now recovered from her holds, shows us how the common soldier lived and suffered, and the remarkable exploits of which he was capable.

Show Footnotes and Bibliography

* * *

Copyright © 2007 Thomas M. Fleming.

Written by Thomas M. Fleming. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Thomas Fleming at:
tfleming@rochester.rr.com.

About the author:
Thomas Fleming is an attorney-editor for a major legal publishing company, but devotes most of his free time to reading, researching, writing, and--when the opportunity arises, teaching others--about history. A reenactor of the American Civil War with the 155th New York Volunteer Infantry and the Columbia Rifles, Mr. Fleming has several personal connections with the Maple Leaf story, having grown up in Western New York near the 112th NY’s home in Chautauqua County, and lived years later less than two miles from the Port of Rochester, where the Maple Leaf made its pre-war home. His parents now live in Mandarin, Florida, just a few miles east of the spot in the St. Johns River where the Maple Leaf sank. His mother grew up in Jacksonville, and is the great-great granddaughter of a lieutenant in the 8th Florida Infantry.

Published online: 02/25/2007.  Last updated: 09/09/2007.

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