By James W. Towart
Member, Board of Editor

    The Maple Leaf was built in Canada in 1851 for the Lake Ontario steamboat trade carrying passengers, freight and livestock. She was also a popular excursion steamer. She was employed in various facets of this trade until August, 1862 when she was sold to Boston ship owners who chartered her to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Department for use as an Army transport.

    Steamboats were an essential part of the 19th century American transportation system operating along the coastlines, and on the rivers great and small, and on the larger lakes. The Maple Leaf was one of the untold numbers of these mundane, everyday workhorse ships that comprised this basic mode of transportation. Most of these ships have been forgotten, as was the Maple Leaf lost in the distant haze of another time, another way of life. But for the Maple Leaf that was changed when Keith Holland found her wreck at the bottom of the murky waters of the St. Johns River in Northeast Florida.

    What Keith Holland found was the intact hull of one of these ordinary steamers with cargo holds filled with the personal belongings and camp equipment of three regiments of typical Civil War combat soldiers in an extraordinary state of preservation. The chapters comprising the first part of this book are the history of this ship, the soldiers whose baggage is on board, and an account of the struggle for control of the St. Johns River by Union and Confederate forces in which the Maple Leaf played a part.

    Assembling the history of the Maple Leaf has required researching 19th century documents long buried in the National Archives and libraries and the searching for contemporary personal accounts, memoirs, and newspaper articles. Documents relating to the history of an ordinary merchant transport, 3 even one involved in a war, are scarce. certainly so in comparison to warships. The Maple Lea!, however, is unique in this regard. Fortunately, several events in the Maple Leaf's history have left a paper trail that has saved her from historical oblivion and made this story possible. First, she became the darling of the city of Rochester, N.Y. during the Lake Ontario days, which resulted in extensive press coverage of her career there. Second, she was captured by Confederate prisoner-passengers in 1863, an event that was recorded by several of the participants. Third, she was the first steamboat to be blown up by a Confederate mine in Florida, which resulted in an Army Board of Survey examining and documenting the loss of the ship. And fourth, her Boston owners brought two lawsuits in the U.S. Court of Claims against the U.S. Government several years after the war that resulted in significant documents and depositions being assembled as evidence.

    The chapters in the first part of this book are intended to provide depth and breadth to the history of the Maple Leaf and the people associated with it so as to put it in the context of it's times. It is important in this regard that the Army Survey Report has survived with the fascinating testimony of the individuals involved at the time of the sinking. This document has been included in its entirety as a separate chapter.

    The history of the Maple Leaf included in these chapters reflects the material researched up to the time of the publication of this book. We believe that the history is essentially complete; however, there may yet be more that remains to be uncovered. For example, no research has been done into the lives of two of the important characters in the story, namely Charles Spear the principal owner of the Maple Leaf during it's army service, and Henry Dale who was Captain during that period. They were both Bostonians and research in that city may uncover documents that shed additional light on this history. One of them might be the log book or ship's diary of the Maple Leaf Furthermore, the publication of this book may result in readers' discovery of letters, diaries, memoirs or pictures relating to the history of the ship.

    Does the history of the Maple Leaf shed any new light on the traumatic national experience of the Civil War? Perhaps that question can best be answered by historians of that period. But the research into this history has revealed a great deal of detailed information about a typical Army transport steamer during the war. The records show that unarmed Army transports such as the Maple Leaf were totally under the control of the Army Quartermaster Department and were independent of the Navy. By contrast, jurisdictional disputes sometimes arose between the Army and Navy when it was proposed to mount naval artillery on a transport steamer. The kinds of detailed information revealed by this research are the contractual terms of hire including charter rates and insurance coverage and purchase options, the method of dispatching the ship from place to place, the composition of the ship's crew, the cost of operating the ship, including the salaries of the crew members and the profits generated by the owners. While there were probably differences between steamers as to the rate of charter hire, the evidence points to the Army's efforts by 1863 to standardize the terms of chartering transport vessels.

    Several recent favorable and timely circumstances contributed to the writing of the history of the ship. Gerald T. Girvin conveniently retired in 1991 just in time to commence his diligent research and writing of the chapter of the Maple Leaf's history prior to the Civil War. Col. Jerry V. Witt had retired from the U.S. Army and had recently completed the research and writing for his book Escape from the Maple Leaf which is due to be published this year. This work formed the basis of his description of this event, included in the chapter on the Maple Leaf in Army service. By another timely circumstance I was reading, for my personal interest, the historical archives at the St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc. at the time that it was decided to prepare this book. These files contained considerable documentation from the National Archives and the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion that had been assembled by Keith Holland during the prior several years. This material provided most of the information in the chapter on the history of the Maple Leaf in Army service.

    The Maple Leaf Project is also fortunate to have as contributors, Civil War historians who are acknowledged authorities in their fields, namely Richard A. Martin, authors of Chapter Two, D.K. Ryberg, author of Chapter Three, and Francis A. Lord, author of Chapter Nine.

    In addition to the significance of the history of the Maple Leaf and the artifacts contained in its cargo holds, the hull of the wreck itself offers considerable potential to contribute to the maritime history of the mid-nineteenth century. Detailed mapping of the exterior of the hull has already begun. But the most promise lies in the exploration of the engine room. This large space, roughly 70' long, 25' wide and 10' high, probably contains much of the ship's machinery, such as the steam engine, boilers and accessory machinery in a well-preserved state. If this proves to be the case, the depiction of this area would be an important addition to steamboat history.

    Now, in order to introduce the Maple Leaf properly, a short description of the ship is appropriate. Except for her machinery and fittings she was built of wood. She was 181' in length overall, her beam was 25', the depth of the cargo hold was 10 2', and she had a loaded draft of about 8'. The hull was divided into three sections, with the engine room in the center and cargo holds both forward and aft of it. She had three decks, the lowest being the main deck. It extended out over the hull from the bow and from the stern to meet the outside edges of the boxes around the paddle wheels. The forward part of the main deck was roofed by the saloon deck above, and its sides were enclosed. The deck structure midship probably contained the galley, a dining room and crew quarters. Aft of the deck structure the main deck was also roofed over by the saloon deck but was open at the sides. The main decks, fore and aft, were used to accommodate large numbers of passengers, livestock, and sundry deck-cargo. Above the main deck was the saloon deck on which the pilot house was located near the bow, and directly behind that, was the structure housing the main saloon which was flanked on both sides by passenger cabins. In the front of the saloon were the main dining room and officers' quarters. On top of the saloon deck was the hurricane deck on which were stored three of the ship's four lifeboats.

    No contemporary architectural drawings of the Maple Leaf have been found so the descriptions and renditions of the ship included in this book are largely based on a 1856 photograph, newspaper accounts, testimony of crew members at the Army Board of Survey, and measurements of the wreck by divers.


The Maple Leaf. Copyright 1993 by St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc. Contact Keith Holland