In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Remembering the Maple Leaf

Apart from being April Fool's Day, today is the 145th anniversary of the sinking of the Union army troop transport Maple Leaf (April 1, 1864), by a Confederate mine floating in the St. Johns River near Jacksonville, Florida.

A 181-foot long side-wheel steamer, the Maple Leaf had been in federal service for more than two years, after an distinguished 11-year career hauling freight and ferrying passengers--often on special excursions, complete with dancing and a shipboard band--from Rochester, New York to points on both sides of Lake Ontario. After less than a year carrying soldiers, equipment, and supplies along various stretches of the Atlantic coast, she was hijacked by a desperate group of Confederate army prisoners off the coast of Virginia, who paddled her lifeboats to shore and then led Union cavalry detachments on a celebrated chase through the dense wilderness before reaching the safety of Richmond.

Shaking off this embarrassing episode, the Maple Leaf operated in support of the siege of Charleston and, a few months later, ferried Union Gen. Truman Seymour to Jacksonville, Florida to launch an expedition to seal off that state's supplies from the rest of the Confederacy. That effort came to grief on February 20, 1864 at the Battle of Olustee west of Jacksonville, and a few days after that the Maple Leaf brought Union reinforcements to the city, including the 112th New York Volunteer Infantry, a regiment from Chautauqua County, New York not far from the Maple Leaf's former home port in Rochester. In late March the Maple Leaf returned to Jacksonville loaded with equipment belonging to the 112th and her sister regiments. After a quick trip up the St. Johns to Palatka, the ship was returning to Jacksonville when she struck the mine about 4 a.m. near Mandarin Point, and sank to her wheelhouse in a matter of minutes. The mine had been placed by Confederate troops under the command of ace intelligence agent Capt. E. Pliny Bryan, sent from Charleston by Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard to hamper Union river traffic in Florida. The sinking of the Maple Leaf was the opening salvo in what turned out to be a short, intense "war" on the St. Johns that cost several more Union boats and crews.

That wasn't the end of the story, however. In the 1980s and 90s a group of amateur historians and divers located the long-submerged hull of the Maple Leaf off Mandarin Point in the St. Johns, and recovered from her thousands of artifacts including camp and mess equipment, canteens, belt plates and buckles, cartridge boxes, knapsacks and haversacks, gum blankets, buttons, dress swords, medical supplies, musical instruments, smoking pipes, twists of tobacco, toothbrushes, razors, and even sea shells and other souvenirs apparently collected by the 112th's men during their long service on the Atlantic shore in South Carolina. Much of this treasure-trove is now on display in the Jacksonville Museum of Science and History (MOSH). According to Edwin C. Bearss, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service, "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 ever found and probably will remain so."

This writer 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 years later lived just a few miles from the Maple Leaf's pre-war home at the Port of Rochester. My parents now live in Mandarin, Florida, near the spot in the St. Johns River where the Maple Leaf sank. My mother grew up in Jacksonville, and is the great-great-granddaughter of a lieutenant in the 8th Florida Infantry. I'm planning to visit Jacksonville in April, and the Maple Leaf exhibit at JMOSH is definitely on the itinerary! I'll bring back pictures and other choice tidbits to share.

To read the Maple Leaf story in more detail, see my full article at Military History Online. To read all about her pre-Civil War history and the remarkable story of her location and recovery, see the Maple Leaf Shipwreck site, put together by the men who brought her back to life.

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