Maple Leaf Significance
On April 1, 1864, the side wheel paddle steamer Maple Leaf struck a Confederate torpedo in the Saint Johns River and sank. Constructed in Kingston, Ontario, in 1851, the ship was under lease to the Union Army as a transport vessel. Four crew members were killed in the action and the personal effects of three Union regiments went to the bottom. The strong local Confederate presence made salvage operation hazardous and the ship and cargo were never recovered. Today these artifacts represent an unprecedented collection of material culture from the Civil War that may exist nowhere else.
In 1984, Saint Johns Archaeological Expeditions, Inc. discovered the Maple Leaf and subsequent site investigations confirmed the vessel's identity and the excellent condition of the cargo preserved inside. The ensuing project received enormous interest and enthusiastic support from the public and generated grant money from city and state sources. It also melded public and private sector interest into a continuing cooperative scientific archaeological investigation.
The Maple Leaf contains a unique legacy from the past and arguably meets every criteria of National Register significance. The National Park Service is currently preparing a National Historic Landmark Nomination for the Maple Leaf as part of the Maritime Heritage of the United States National Historic Landmark Theme Study. Site importance can be viewed from two different perspectives; Civil War history and maritime heritage. The cargo preserves a material record of the American Civil War and those who fought in it. Systematic archaeological investigation of the site can provide the opportunity to examine aspects of the conflict that do not survive in written form. The vessel carried the personal belongings and camp equipment of three Union regiments, sutler stores, and the headquarters equipment of General Robert Foster. Now the materials lay undisturbed in excellent condition and can be traced to their original owners. They offer insight on historical, sociological, anthropological, and material culture questions regarding the Civil War and the mid-nineteenth century. Nearly all of the Civil War artifacts in museums and collections today are isolated objects, small collections gathered from many different places, or surplus material never used during the war. These collections do not have the historical context of the Maple Leaf cargo. Recovery of these materials will provide the first opportunity to study a large collection with archaeological and historical integrity.
In addition, the surviving structural and machinery remains of the Maple Leaf represent marine technology and commercial interest on the Great Lakes during the mid-nineteenth century. Maple Leaf operated during a period of phenomenal economic growth, population expansion, and technological advances in transportation and manufacturing. The hull can provide information on marine architecture, engineering, construction techniques, and internal arrangements including cabin space and cargo stowage methods. She represented the typical vessel type that carried a major share of passenger traffic and package freight on the Great Lakes.
The Maple Leaf engaged in this trade for eleven years, becoming an important steam vessel based in Rochester, New York. This made her critically important to the economic welfare of the city's commercial trade. At the beginning of the Civil War, the Federal government used a large number of merchant vessels to blockade the southern coast and operate as transports. In 1862 the Maple Leaf was sold to American investors and moved to the east coast for use as a transport. Her service paralleled that of many civilian vessels used by the military during the conflict. A Confederate torpedo ended the career of the vessel but created a significant historical and archaeological repository.