AS A UNION ARMY
By James W. Towart and Col. J. V. Witt, USA Ret.
Contact James W. Towart
About four in the morning of Friday, April 1, 1864, the steamer Maple Leaf, a U.S. Army transport, was about to meet its ultimate destiny twelve miles south of its destination, Jacksonville, Florida. The engine of the Maple Leaf was chugging slowly, her paddle wheels softly thrashing the water. In the pilot house, looking carefully ahead, were Romeo Murray a local black man who was piloting the ship, and wheelman Sam Jones. The faces of the men were dimly illuminated by the shrouded light from the binnacle. The rest of the ship was in complete darkness. Below them on the saloon deck, Frank Dale, the second mate, a 19-year-old son of Captain Henry Dale, was standing watch. Captain Dale was asleep in his cabin on that deck. On that clear, moonlit night, Pilot Romeo Murray could see his next landmark two miles to the north. The river ahead of the vessel was so light and calm that he could have seen "Anything as big as my hat on the water." Frank Dale left the foredeck and entered the saloon cabin, closed the door behind him and went to wake up his relief on deck watch, First Mate Charles Farnham.
As Dale walked toward Farnham's cabin, a Confederate mine, then called a torpedo, exploded near the keel, about thirty feet from the bow of the Maple Leaf with a "tremendous crash and a heavy report." Murray and Jones were lifted off their feet by the force of the explosion and struck their heads on the roof of the pilot house. Then, the deck beneath them gave way as the upper portion of the vessel sagged, her back broken. The Maple Leaf was doomed. The end was marked by the incessant screaming of the ship's steam whistle, which had been set off when the pilot house tilted forward.
The blast woke Chief Engineer Sam Johnson, who pulled on his clothes as he ran out of his cabin onto the main deck. Looking forward, Johnson saw that the ship was "smashed like an old building kicked over." Glancing through the engine room door, he saw that the boiler fires had already been extinguished by the inrushing water and the firemen were gone. Johnson made straight for the lifeboats on the hurricane deck.
Captain Dale and Farnham met in the saloon, where the air was filled with the pungent odor of black powder smoke. Dale asked how deep the water was and Farnham went off to find the lead line to make a sounding. But feeling the ship "bring up on the bottom," he made for the boats on the hurricane deck where he again met Dale, who ordered him to cut the line to the blaring whistle that was almost certainly going to attract the unwanted attention of a Confederate boarding party.
Chief Engineer Johnson took charge of lowering the port lifeboat, assisted by Murray and Jones. Second Mate Dale was working to lower the starboard boat, and he was soon joined in that effort by Johnson. A third boat in the stern of the Maple Leaf was launched by the time Farnham returned from cutting the whistle line. In short order, 58 passengers and crewmen were loaded into the lifeboats. In Captain Dale's words, the prompt evacuation of the ship was "the better part of valor." At 4:30 A.M., the boats headed for Jacksonville1. (See Appendix A.) Eight people remained aboard - four Confederate prisoners, who were refused places on the lifeboats, and four black crewmen who were killed in the forecastle by the blast of the mine.2
The lifeboats arrived in Jacksonville about 8:00 A.M. On hearing of the loss of the Maple Leaf the USS Norwich, a Navy gunboat commanded by Frank B. Miriam, was ordered to the scene of the wreck. At 10:00 A.M., the Norwich got under way with the officers and several crewmen of the Maple Leaf aboard. Shortly after noon, general quarters were sounded aboard the Norwich and a ten-inch shell was fired at the western shoreline of the St. Johns River, which was controlled by Confederate forces. At 1I P.M. as the Norwich approached the wreck, another shell was fired at the bank and she headed into the wind and dropped anchor. Two boats were launched from the Norwich. One of them took the Maple Leaf crew to the sunken ship to survey the extent of the damage and to attempt to recover personal property. The other boat took sailors to pick up the four Confederate prisoners who were left on board.
Maple Leaf engineer Sam Johnson reported that he had found the water about three feet deep in the saloon and that he broke through the saloon deck to get to his trunk which was in his cabin on the main deck. He said the floors and bows were working loose in the water. The outcome of the survey of the Maple Leaf's condition was summarized by Captain Dale: "I consider the vessel and cargo a total loss and do not see how they can be saved." 3 At 6:00 P.M. the Maple Leaf crew members reboarded the Norwich and she set sail for Jacksonville.4
When the Confederate leaders received news about the sinking, they sent an expedition to McIntosh's Point on the west bank of the St. Johns River opposite the wreck. It was composed of 120 men of the First Georgia Regulars commanded by Captain Grieve and a section of artillery led by Lieutenant Gamble.5 At dawn on Saturday, April 2, the Confederate artillery fired a few shots at the Maple Leaf to warn the Federals that they were there.6 Then, Captain E. Pliny Bryan, who had been in command of the detail that had placed the mines in the river on the night of Wednesday, March 30, boarded the vessel with two men. After inspecting the ship, he set her on fire, burning the saloon to the water line. In his report, Captain Bryan wrote:
She apparently was greatly damaged by the explosion. A few mattresses, sofas, wash bowls, and other unimportant articles were left in the upper cabin. From her length, width, size and general appearance I suppose her to be a first class vessel.7
By James W. Towart, Jan 26, 1996
End Editing 06/17/04 KVH
The Maple Leaf. Copyright 1993 by St. Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc. Contact