Friday, March 9, 2012

Courtesy of

On April 1, 1864, the Union steamship Maple Leaf was destroyed by a torpedo in the St. Johns River.  The blast killed four men and the ship sank quickly.  Though its sailing days were over, the Maple Leaf's destruction rendered the ship more significant from historical and archaeological perspectives.  The ill-fated steamship shines a spotlight on the significance of the St. Johns River in the Civil War struggle for Florida.  As a submerged site, the shipwreck provided a wealth of information for archaeologists to interpret, as well as prompting some innovative methods.

The Maple Leaf was actually the first of four Union vessels sunk by torpedo in the St. Johns in 1864.  These shocking attacks illuminate the significance of the St. Johns River itself during the war.  Early on, the Union took control of many of Florida's coastal areas, staging frequent attacks on port cities.  In spite of that strategy, much of Florida's center still belonged to the Confederacy; this allowed for transportation of salt, cattle, and other essential goods out of Florida to soldiers fighting in other parts of the country.  The St. Johns River provided critical access from the Union-controlled coast to inland areas, allowing federal troops to stage attacks on inland railways and armies.

The St. Johns River flows through northeast Florida, a major waterway inland from the coast. Courtesy of Google Maps.

The broad threat of Union access to Confederate strongholds was amplified by orders for General Pierre Beauregard to abandon his post at Camp Milton for more critical fronts in the war.  Among the orders he left behind for defense of the area were to lay torpedoes in the St. Johns.  The timing of Beauregard's orders proved fateful for the Maple Leaf; the torpedo that sank it had been placed only two days before the steamship's attempted return from Palatka.

 The damage could have been worse in terms of human cost, but things couldn't have gone much worse regarding the ship's cargo.  Nearly all of the ship's freight, almost 400 tons of soldiers' personal belongings and military effects, were lost, sinking with the ship.  However, that sad piece of the story is proved quite a boon for archaeologists, whose excavations in the early 90s revealed so much about the daily lives, needs, and activities of soldiers.

Conducting archaeology to retrieve those materials, though, proved an incredible challenge.  The St. Johns River is not known for clear waters--an abundance of tannins make it dark and very low visibility, if any.  When archaeologists from East Carolina University undertook fieldwork (along with a group of amateur archaeologists who had discovered the wreck), their first goal was to map the wreck.  This project took multiple field seasons, and for good reason.  To see anything under water required bringing down a ziploc bag full of clear water, holding it up to one's eyes, and aiming a flashlight through the back to the target area.  I got tired just describing that process!  What an ordeal.

Author's rendering of an underwater look at the Maple Leaf.

Preserving the artifacts was no less a challenge.  The site was chock-full of personal belongings--among them objects made from wood, leather, and paper.  When those organic materials are underwater and under the muck of the river, they're in what's called an anaerobic environment: no oxygen can get to them, slowing down their decay.  Once archaeologists bring them to the surface, they're exposed to sunlight and air, and often begin breaking down rapidly.

This wood-link adornment is one of many organic objects retrieved from the  Maple Leaf.

One of the first concerns any archaeologist has when considering site excavation is how and where to curate artifacts.  We have a responsibility to make sure that in discovering materials from the past we're not also destroying them.  So if we don't have measures in place to make sure they'll remain in the best possible shape, and if we don't have a safe place for them to be cared for, we don't have a dig.  These typical concerns became quite hefty to ECU and their team.  Excavation often was slowed by the need to keep up with conserving the artifacts that had been recovered.

Even objects like this powder flask need lots of love.

In the end, excavation provided insight to the lives of the soldiers whose belongings were lost.  Artifacts like the one shown above give a glimpse at how soldiers passed idle time, and maybe even how they could count the days.  They also started to make predictions about how cargo was loaded--whether by regiment or otherwise, and how the explosion would have affected site formation. 

Want to learn more about the Maple Leaf?  You can visit the Mandarin Museum at Walter Jones Historical Park, which has hands-on interpretation of the site and its excavation. 

Hands-on interpretation at the Mandarin Museum!

The shipwreck is also commemorated at two different locations in Jacksonville.  The first person to send me a photo proving you've visited one of these markers (I wanna see your smiling mug!) win a packet of FPAN swag!  One marker is shown below, and the other one's a bit tougher--it discusses use of torpedoes.

Courtesy of

To find more on the Maple Leaf online, see this site report and this account by Union military who were aboard the ship.

Did you know?

The Maple Leaf's first voyage into Florida carried soldiers to Jacksonville--the very same soldiers who took over Yellow Bluff, the site we explored last week!

The pilot of the Maple Leaf, Romeo Murray, was an African-American born on Fort George Island!

To explore more of Florida's Civil War sites download FPAN's new Destination Civil War app!

5 Responses so far.

  1. Debby says:

    By the way, ecu did not do the conserving of these artifacts. Lee Manley, and keith holland and myself of St. johns archaeological expeditions, inc. did it at keith hollands expense. We did receive one grant from the state which I helped to write that helped with the conservation. sjaei, inc. did the initial work and digs with the go ahead from jim miller state archaeologist. Ecu did two summers of digs which they mapped the hull. The ship had been previously mapped by sjaei.if u would like more info, I worked on the ML for 8 years as historian andd archaeologist.

  2. Debby says:

    Sarah, u sent a poster tube, but poster was not in it. :-( dont send again as it would cost u another 5 dollars. Donate the poster to a school. Please do contact me if u want the real story on the M I love to talk abt the dig. I did the 2 summers with ecu as well as worked at the conservation lab and cataloguing of all the artifacts. I miss it!
    Debby westerman

  3. Debby says:

    There was a beautiful canteen from the revolutionary war from the ship. It was a gift to a soldier from his grandfather. I think it had been handed down. there was an etched message on the side. It was not round or targeted. Wonderful condition. Cant remember the name on it.

  4. Debby says:
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
  5. Thanks for the details, Debby! I'd love for you to send me more info. Sounds like you've got the inside scoop!

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