Scale model of Maple Leaf at the Mandarin Museum & Historical Society
The night was still and silent. Experienced river pilot—and freedman—Romeo Murray knew every curve of the St. Johns River. A former slave of Zephaniah Kingsley, Murray had been piloting riverboats for the Union Army since 1862. The dark waters lapped methodically against the steamboat’s hull as it journeyed northward from Palatka to Jacksonville in the early morning hours of April 1, 1864.
A deafening explosion reverberated through the darkness at 3:59 a.m., impacting the ship’s bow and dooming the 180-foot vessel to a watery grave. Only four men perished, yet far more than a chartered steamer was lost.
Twelve miles away, three thousand Union soldiers from the 112th New York, the 169th New York and the 13th Indiana awaited their baggage and camp equipage in Jacksonville. Shipped in from Folly Island, South Carolina, as reinforcements following the Union defeat at the Battle of Olustee, their wait would be eternal.
Within the Maple Leaf’s hull lay a pristine time capsule of personal effects preserved in anaerobic conditions under eight feet of mud and approximately 24 feet of water. April 1 marks the 155th anniversary of the sinking by Confederate mine (submarine torpedo) just off Mandarin Point. The world’s most significant collection of Civil War artifacts remains entombed beneath the murky St. Johns River, largely forgotten.
Jacksonville native Keith Holland had never heard of the Maple Leaf as a school boy—at least as far as he recalls. He admittedly hated studying history in school. Now a dentist, Holland’s passion for Jacksonville’s Civil War heritage happened quite accidentally. Saltwater diving with his brother-in-law off Myrtle Beach in the early 1980s inspired Holland to find and dive a shipwreck near Jacksonville. He began making an inventory of area shipwrecks and the name “Maple Leaf” came up time and again.
Research was cumbersome before the Age of Internet, so Holland—who was also busy growing his dental practice—hired National Archives researcher Connie Potter to help him. Years passed without tangible results. Finally, Potter happened upon a thick file in the archive’s judicial branch. It was dedicated to the Maple Leaf.
“What had happened was the Maple Leaf turned out to be a privately owned charter vessel for the United States government,” Holland told Folio Weekly. “When it sank, because of a war risk,...
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