Union Army

The Maple Leaf Expedition

By Kathleen Strelow

I’ve always had a fascination with shipwreck expeditions, and when the Titanic exhibit came to Chicago I ended up seeing it three times. Visiting the Civil War Museum last summer, I was excited to find a traveling exhibit of the Maple Leaf expedition.

Originally used in Canada as a pleasure excursion vessel, the Maple Leaf was eventually purchased by the Union Army for use in the Civil War. It was sunk by a Confederate torpedo in the St. John’s River near Jacksonville, Florida on April 1, 1864. It was one of the largest ships sunk during the war.

The torpedoes, like the one that sunk the Maple Leaf, were made out of small tar-coated wooden beer kegs that floated just under the water so they could not be seen.

Keith Holland and the St. John’s Archaeological Expedition, Inc. rediscovered and partially excavated the Maple Leaf in 1984.

It wasn’t until 1992 that the St. John’s Archaeological Expedition, Inc. entered a cooperative agreement with the East Carolina University Program in Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology to conduct a three-year investigation of the Maple Leaf site. There were 667 dives and 617 dedicated hours in the 1992 excavation alone.

There were some amazing artifacts on display from the Maple Leaf exhibit, including a bayonet, pistol cleaning rod, drum stick, a U.S. Army belt buckle, a fountain pen and brass ink well, as well as William Potter’s swords.

Due to the ship sinking so quickly, and because of the type of muddy sediment that covered the wreck, the artifacts have been kept in good condition.

This artifact collection was donated to the state of Florida, and is curated by the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research.