AS A UNION ARMY
By James W. Towart and Col. J. V. Witt, USA Ret.
Contact James W. Towart
The first inspection of the wreck of the Maple
Leaf occurred later in the day of the sinking when Captain Dale and members
of the crew visited the site on board the USS Norwich. Dale's assessment
was that the vessel and cargo were a total loss and did not see how they could
be saved. The next day Captain Pliny Bryan, who had set the mine that sank the
ship, visited the wreck. He reported that she was greatly damaged by the
explosion and proceeded to set a fire that burned the saloon deck structure to
the water line.
A week later, on April 9 Brigadier General John P. Hatch, the commanding officer of the Military District of Florida wrote to General John W. Turner, Chief of staff of the Army's Department of the South as follows:
A steamer goes up today to the wreck of the Maple Leaf. An effort will be made to recover some of her equipment, anchors, & etc.47
By June of 1864 two other steamers had been lost to Confederate mines which prompted a letter on the 9th from Brigadier General William Birney, then in command in Jacksonville to Captain W. L. Burger the assistant adjutant general:
A few wreckers with their apparatus and machinery can raise all that is valuable in the Maple Leaf, the General Hunter, and the Harriet A. Weed. Are there not some at Charleston? 48
Whether in response to this letter or some other authority, a contract to salvage the General Hunter was negotiated between Colonel George D. Wise of the Army and the New York firm of Johnson & Higgins and signed on October 26, 1864. The terms of the contract provided for a 50-50 split of the value of the ship as determined in advance of salvage by two appraisers, one appointed by each side.
On May 30, 1865 the two appraisers John H. Mars, Chief Marine Engineer, for the U.S. Army Department of the South and Captain Orlando Bennett for Johnson & Higgins, submitted a valuation of $48,000 for the General Hunter. While Capt. Bennett was in Jacksonville for the appraisal he was also working on the Maple Leaf. The following excerpt is from a letter dated April 7, 1865 from the Lt. Commander James Stillwell of the USS Ottowa to Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren:
Mr. Bennett has commenced on the sunken steamer Maple Leaf, but as yet with little success.
The Johnson & Higgins salvage crew were operational in Jacksonville at that time because they had raised the sunken Confederate steamer St. Marys from the St. Johns River and delivered it to the Army at the city dock on April 11, 1865 and they delivered the General Hunter on June 22.
The wrecks of the Maple Leaf and General Hunter have been described as close abreast, only 60 feet apart by one account. While the crew was salvaging the Hunter, the question arises, why not raise the Maple Leaf at the same time? No answer has been found, but it appears that the main reason was that the damage to the Maple Leaf was much more severe, both from the location of the explosion and from the fire.
The decision to not raise the Maple Leaf appears to have been correct in light of the bizarre events surrounding the salvage of the Hunter. On September 7, 1865 Col. Wise, who was signatory to the contract with Johnson & Higgins, wrote a letter in which he challenged the agreed appraisal of $48,000 as excessive and set in motion an attempt to get a new appraisal. While this was going on the ship was sold on December 14, 1865 for $24,000 and Johnson & Higgins promptly demanded that sum as payment under the contract. The army continued to unilaterally attempt to change the contract appraisal until the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, decided to overrule his subordinates on July 17, 1866 and ordered the payment of the full amount to Johnson & Higgins. The Army not only received no money from the salvage they also lost the considerable sums spent on repairing the ship.
The next reference to the Maple Leaf is a letter from John Driggs of the Customs House in Jacksonville dated August29, 1870 responding to a query from the Secretary of Treasury, George S. Boutwell, on the status of six wrecked vessels in the district. Driggs wrote:
2. Side wheel Steamboat Maple Leaf sunk by torpedo near Mandarin Point 15 mile above Jacksonville was a U.S. transport - sunk in mid channel and remains in the same condition as sunk - her walking beam is visible - was a Canada Boat and old - 2 cylinder boilers - sunk in 1864. This vessel should certainly be removed as she lays directly in the channel where the river is 4-5 mile wide - and is a dangerous obstacle to navigation - if by any cause the gallows frame should fall, there would be a great probability of the loss of some of our river steamers, in a fog or of a dark night.
From this description it appears that no significant salvage effort had been made on the Maple Leaf. By contrast Mr. Driggs records salvage efforts on other local wrecks, as excerpted below:
and machinery taken out - part of hull of no value....
6....Alice Price....--Machinery taken out - nothing but valueless hull remaining.
1....Columbine....- her upper works have been burned off- and such machinery as could be picked off, has been carried away - she now lays in low water - her hull is thought to be good - how much machinery may be left cannot learn - is considered worth raising.
Out of a total of eight steamships sunk in the Nassau/St. Johns Rivers in 1864 the Maple Leaf is the only one on which no salvage effort is recorded by 1870.
A month later in September 1870, the Treasury Department placed an advertisement in the Florida Times-Union for the sale of six wrecks including the Maple Leaf.49 There were apparently no bids received in response to this ad at the time. However, a letter dated June 27, 1872 from the firm of S. V. White Banker of New York City was received by George S. Boutwell, Secretary of the Treasury, inquiring on the specifics of "the U.S. Gunboat Maple Leaf wrecked in the St. Johns River. I am informed by the U.S. Collector in Jacksonville that said wreck was offered for sale some time ago and no bids were received for her....". No response to this query has been found.
Then, in 1873 the Secretary of the Treasury received another letter, this one from Waldo Blossom of Boston, Mass. dated April 13:
I noticed on a trip to the St. Johns River, Florida where the old Maple Leaf one of Government Boats that was sunk by a torpedo in 1864 has lain in the channel of the St. Johns River where it is I am informed fast filling up and making a bar which will soon (obstruct?) the navigation of the River. I suppose that there is quite an amount of Old Iron which is good for nothing but Old Iron as I am engaged in purchasing Old Iron I will give good bond to clear out the Old Wreck. And will pay Government every dollar over and above it cost me to raise the Wreck for the Old Iron. Will you please inform me of the likely disposition you think of making of the wreck.
In this case, as with the 1872 letter, no action appears to have resulted from it. However, the Secretary of the Treasury received another letter in September of 1873 from a George E. Chase writing from Bath, Maine as follows:
Would an bid of twenty-five dollars apiece to be received by Government for the following named vessels U. S. S. Columbine burned and sunk at "Horse Landing" on the St. Johns River, Fla. machinery and boiler have been removed. Steamer Maple Leaf sunk in the same River by a torpedo. Both of them destroyed during the war. These steamers were advertised for sale in Nov. 1870 and no bids were made. If any bid would be received I would remove them without any expense to the Government. My residence is in Fla.
A contract of sale was negotiated in November and executed on December 11, 1873 when Chase paid $50.00 for the two wrecks and posted a $2,000 bond which he would forfeit if the wrecks were not removed by December 1878.
Mr. Chase did not fulfill the terms of his agreement because less than three years into his five year contract term the Treasury entertained another offer to buy the wreck of the Maple Leaf. Mr. O. E. Matlley of Norfolk, Virginia made a proposal to then Secretary of the Treasury, M. Morrill in October 1876 to buy the wreck for $25.00 and a contract of sale was executed on January 23, 1877 with the proviso that "said wreck to be removed so as not to obstruct navigation".
The Maple Leaf remained in the channel despite the foregoing efforts to remove it. In the meanwhile responsibility for the wreck was transferred to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. On September 1, 1882 the United States Engineer Office in New York advertised for proposals to remove the wreck of the Maple Leaf to a depth of eighteen feet.50 The advertisement described the wreck as follows:
The wreck lies about 500 yards from the eastern side of the channel and is marked by a cluster of piles placed near its bow, and a red day beacon a sort distance to the west, and slightly to the stern of it. At present there is a depth of 3 feet over the shoalist part.
Three bidders responded to the advertisement and Roderick G. Ross of Fernandina, was awarded the contract for $3800 on October 31, 1882. 51 On March 13, 1883 First Lieutenant William Russell of U. S. Engineer Office in Jacksonville, Florida issued his report on the job. Work began on February 7, 1883 using a flat boat with steam hoister and two divers and attendants and two extra hands on the lighter. The divers found "that nearly the whole wreck was below the required depth and the contractor had only remove the wheels, hog and gallows frames and shaft." Work was finished on March 2. Russell noted "the work was promptly and satisfactorily performed except some delay caused by trouble obtaining explosives".
Notably absent from the report was the presence of the massive steam engine. It appears that the engine may have been removed by either Mr. Chase or Mr. Matley.
Despite the efforts of Mr. Ross an obstruction was found over the wreck in 1888. It was described in a report to the Chief of Army Engineers as:
It extended to within 3 feet of the surface and appears to be an iron frame of some kind, about 15 feet long and 1 foot wide and 17 feet high. It is probably a portion of the wreck of the Maple Leaf.
Mr. Ross was again the successful bidder to clear the obstacle and was awarded the contract for the sum of $250 in late 1888 or early 1889. 52 The engineer reported that:
An old pile, supposed to be from the former beacon, an iron pipe, and what seemed to be a piece of deck house frame were discovered extending above the plane 18 feet below mean low water, to which the wreck had been removed. All were removed.
So, twenty five years after the sinking the last remains of the superstructure of the Maple Leaf was removed leaving the hull and main deck essentially intact in the muddy bottom of the river.
Notes on sources and references
All the documents from which the foregoing Section was prepared are in the Maple Leaf Archives (in copy form).
James W. Towart
January 18, 1996