By Brittany Cohill

Before the sun rose on the morning of April 1, 1864, an explosion lit Mandarin’s sky above the St. Johns River. Within minutes of the blast, the Union steamboat “Maple Leaf” sank more than 20 feet, coming to rest on the riverbed below. Unknown to the ship’s captain and crew, Confederate soldiers attached to the 2nd Battalion, Florida Infantry had deployed a series of 12 mines floating just below the surface across the narrow channel at Mandarin Point.
The U.S. Civil War had raged for three years by this time, and Florida was essential to the Confederates’ war effort as the supplier of beef, pork, salt, and cotton. Union incursions into Florida were aimed at cutting off these supply lines, and at various times since the war began, Union troops occupied Jacksonville. By February 1864, the Union permanently occupied the city and used it as a home base from which to control the St. Johns River, recruit Black men as soldiers, and launch westward advances into the interior.
Despite a Union defeat that same month at the Battle of Olustee in Baker County, the United States remained committed to Florida, permanently occupying Palatka in addition to Jacksonville. On March 31, 1864, the “Maple Leaf” docked in Palatka to offload 87 cavalry men and their horses. Later that night, the steamer started its return to Jacksonville to deliver the contents of its cargo hold — the personal belongings and military-issued equipment of several Union regiments.
Romeo Murray, a formerly enslaved man on the Kingsley Plantation and the “Maple Leaf’s” pilot, described the blast, “The river was still and perfectly smooth and I could see the shore well and make the channel easy … There was a loud noise right under the boat and the pilot house lifted right up. I was raised up and my head struck the top of the pilot house and I fell down and lost my cap. The floor sunk right down. When I got up, the wire had stretched and set the whistle blowing. I went out the starboard door and ran up the hog brace. I saw the second engineer forward and started for him supposing he went to let go the anchor. He said, ‘get water. ‘… The whole deck, the main deck and the hurricane deck were settled right down and the pilot house fell forward … The boat went right down head first.” The “Maple Leaf” was a total loss. Murray was one of 62 who survived the blast. Four other free-Black crewmen did not.
The ship’s cargo rested forgotten, undisturbed, and preserved in the mud for well over a century. In the 1980s, Dr. Keith Holland, a Jacksonville dentist and adventurer, assembled a team of amateur and professional marine archaeologists to dive the wreckage. They recovered nearly 3,000 objects, representing a small fraction of the still-submerged cargo.
The artifacts are now property of the State of Florida, with many on long-term loan to the Mandarin Museum for display in the newly expanded “Maple Leaf Shipwreck Gallery.” During this 160th anniversary, the community is invited to learn more through a visit to the Mandarin Museum. The exhibit is open every Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. On April 6 from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m., Dr. Keith Holland and his team of divers will be in the gallery for Meet the Divers. Admission to the museum and Meet the Divers is free. Visit for more information.

Photo courtesy Mandarin Museum
A museum patron checks out the Maple Leaf exhibit.

  • Support community journalism! Subscribe to the Mandarin Newsline today!