By Brett Nolan
Life froze at Mandarin Point on April 1, 1864, and now, wrenched in the depths of the murky St. Johns River, rests the world’s largest known repository of Civil War artifacts known. This month we dive into the history behind the Maple Leaf before she reached her watery grave. Part 2 will follow in May.
Built in Kingston, Ontario, for a Canadian shipping firm, the Maple Leaf was constructed in 1851. She ferried passengers and mail across Lake Ontario until 1855, when her owners sold her to a New York joint stock company due to financial snags. The ship was in her prime. Receiving daily news coverage for arrival and departure times, the Maple Leaf provided far more than practical transportation between Canadian and American ports. For just 75 cents, passengers could partake in “moonlight excursions,” where a band was always on board to “enliven the party.” Folks would dance and enjoy the scenic waters on the open lake before returning to port around midnight. In September 1860, the Maple Leaf led two special excursions from Rochester to see the Prince of Wales and his Royal entourage traveling on the steamer Kingston.
However, with the railroad industry increasing and hostilities of the American Civil War fast encroaching, the Maple Leaf’s business as a luxury excursion steamboat was ending. In fact, on her last Fourth of July trip, many Canadian sympathizers of the Confederate cause would lob sticks at the ship’s band when they started playing “Yankee Doodle” instead of “Dixie.” By 1862, the ship was sold to new owners in Boston who then leased her to the federal government, where she joined the ranks as a United States Army transport ship.
The Maple Leaf conducted routine services of ferrying troops, equipment, and supplies along the Atlantic coast, occasionally transporting Confederate prisoners of war. In June 1863, she was relocating 97 Confederate officers to detention at Fort Delaware. When the prisoners caught wind that the guards’ muskets weren’t loaded, 12 of them overpowered the Yankee watchmen and escaped. Now hijacked, 70 Rebels made their way ashore via small boats on board, while 27 prisoners elected to remain behind. When the Union heard the news of this escape, an investigation took place; the blame fell on the lieutenant of the guard detachment for failure to assure the guards’ guns were loaded. At the direction of President Lincoln, the lieutenant was dismissed.
By February 1864, a brigade of soldiers composed of the 112th and 169th New York and 13th Indiana Volunteer Infantries were rushed to Florida to support the Union expedition. Soon the Union saw defeat at the Battle of Olustee, a day-long fight resulting in almost 3000 casualties — the largest battle in Florida during the Civil War. Camp equipage and personal belongings had been left behind in South Carolina, so on March 26, the Maple Leaf was tasked to retrieve it at Folly Island. This property filled the entire cargo hold of the ship and, after a stop at Hilton Head, she arrived in Jacksonville at 5 p.m. on March 30. Rather than unloading everything, the Maple Leaf was ordered to carry on immediately to Palatka to deliver Union cavalry, supplies and equipment. The ship departed for the 50-mile trip at 9 p.m., reaching its destination at 4 a.m. the following morning. By 11:15 p.m. that night, the ship set off for Jacksonville on what was to be her final journey.
(Note: The research collected for this article is from The Maple Leaf: An Extraordinary American Civil War Shipwreck by Dr. Keith Holland et.al.)
Brett Nolan is a volunteer with the Mandarin Museum & Historical Society. Visit www.mandarinmuseum.net for more information about Mandarin’s history.
Photo courtesy Mandarin Museum & Historical Society
Maple Leaf model located in Mandarin Museum.