By Brett Nolan
Last month, we learned about the last voyage of the Union steamship “Maple Leaf.” For nearly 125 years, the “Maple Leaf” was just a story lingering in the depths of Father Time’s mind.
By 1984, Dr. Keith Holland, a local Jacksonville dentist, and the St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc., located what was left of the “Maple Leaf,” confirming the contents inside the vessel’s hull in near excellent condition. With the technology of yesteryear, Holland used navigational river charts from 1884 and layered them with modern day maps. He was able to use his findings to begin years of legal negotiations — including filing a lawsuit against the United States — finally receiving access into the ship’s muddy hull.
Beneath the pitch-black, tannin river water, lights were useless. Divers could not see their hands in front of them. While not even 30 feet below the surface, diving to the boat was not a hard task, but scary would be an understatement. They were the first human contact the ship had longed for since the Union boots paraded her decks to and fro, loading the 800,000 pounds of luggage in preparation for her terminal voyage. By 1994, the St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc. concluded expeditions to the wreckage and the site received National Historic Landmark status. By then, more than 6,500 artifacts had been excavated from the muck; however, this representative sample was only a mere 0.01 percent of what was in the cargo hold.
The tragedy of the Union Transport Ship “Maple Leaf,” though small in the scheme of the battle amid the North and South, paints a picture of the cultural significance behind the life of a soldier during the Civil War. It tells the stories of men who have lost their voices to history, those who never wrote letters or journals — but the contents in their trunks talked to us. The artifacts detail what troops valued enough to take with them on the battlefield, things looted out of abandoned plantation homes — fine china, window panes, door knobs — even seashells collected along the shore of Folly Island to take home to their families as souvenirs (some never imagined traveling that far south had it not been for the call for service). Ambrotypes depicting loved ones, musical instruments, ceremonial military items, pipes and buttons — thousands of things still sit in the river waiting for their chance to see the light again. The “Maple Leaf” provides a world of cultural artifacts that are imperative to understanding the history of one of the darkest times in America.
You can view about 70 of these recovered “Maple Leaf” artifacts on any Saturday at the Mandarin Museum in Walter Jones Historical Park, 11964 Mandarin Road. And, you may actually meet and talk with Dr. Holland and his team of divers on the third Saturday of most months from 12 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Brett Nolan is a volunteer with the Mandarin Museum & Historical Society. Visit www.mandarinmuseum.net for more information about Mandarin’s history and schedules.
Photo courtesy of Keith Holland.
Lee Manley and Keith Holland examining a recovered “Maple Leaf” artifact.