by Ron Whittington
Dr. Keith Holland, who spearheaded the drive 30 years ago to retrieve Civil War artifacts from a sunken Union steamship in the St. Johns River, hopes the Maple Leaf Exhibit now on display at the Mandarin Museum and Cultural Society will lead to another excavation—though he admits it may not happen in his lifetime.
For Holland, a dentist and scuba diver who has become an expert on the Maple Leaf and her crew, curiosity in things buried deep in the river began at an early age.
“I remember being a little boy, about 10 or 11, sitting on the banks of the St. Johns River watching a dock being restored,” he says. “The pilings they brought up, at least those parts that were below the bottom of the river, looked like they were brand new. They were these huge cypress logs. I remember thinking about how many things were down there below the bottom of that river.”
When he was a young man and a certified scuba diver, Holland says he eventually grew tired of diving the area’s natural springs—which led him to a dive a wreck off of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“I found a few things and thought, ‘Maybe I’ll go back and do some research on the St. Johns.’”
In conducting his research, he identified any shipwrecks on the St. Johns River recorded in history books, eliminated any areas of the river where harbor improvements had been made (where ships and debris would have been removed or disturbed), and those wrecks that had already been recovered.
Once he identified the Maple Leaf, and realized that the area around Mandarin Point where it sank was a self-maintained channel in which the Army Corp of Engineers would never go, he had found his mark.
The ship was very different type of mark in the spring of 1864 as the American Civil War entered its fourth year—and improved weather meant there was military action on all fronts, including Northeast Florida.
The Maple Leaf had unloaded Union soldiers and horses in Palatka and was returning to Jacksonville before dawn on April 4 when it struck two Confederate mines in the St. Johns River. The explosion killed four crew members as the 181-foot-long steamship sank quickly, only to be buried by the sand and silt.
“The explosion was on the starboard side, and the pilot veered east hoping to get to the shallows,” Holland says. “The ship eventually settled on the bottom at 90 degrees to the ebb and flow of the current, which basically just heaved it over and wrenched it into the mud. I believe it was totally submerged within a month’s time, and I think that’s why the artifacts we found are in such good shape.”
Since the Maple Leaf was not owned by the Union, but leased from a commercial company, the government had no real interest in trying to raise and repair the ship. While it did hire a salvage company to retrieve some items, Holland says he doesn’t think much was removed from the wreck.
“That convinced me even more that there could be as much as 400 tons of material in the ship,” he says. “Even if some was removed, that leaves 200 tons. Also, it wasn’t like there was any gold bullion or anything worth real value inside it, but just a bunch of personal Yankee crap that nobody wanted at the time.”
It would be more than 100 years after the shipwreck that Holland would lead a team to unearth artifacts from the Maple Leaf.
“I got the idea in the early 1980s and that’s when I identified the wreck site, and in 1984 I made the announcement to the Jacksonville Historical Society,” he says.
Holland formed a commercial diving company and a conservancy before diving the wreck in 1988.
“We filed for a historic preservation grant with the state. When we didn’t get it, I decided that if the State of Florida didn’t want to do it, that’s fine…we’ll do it ourselves.” Eventually, the state caved, and Holland his team received a grant to help them with the operation.
At the peak of the project, there were seven trained commercial divers who dove the wreck in teams of two. It was slow going. After they removed more than eight feet of mud, the team identified a hole that, with a little help from a stainless steel saw, gave them entry, but divers had to feel around in total darkness, with obstructions above them, which increased risk. Five remained topside while the dive teams explored.
Holland’s expedition would eventually recover some 3,000 artifacts from the Maple Leaf, including a portion of the ship’s bow, leather belts, swords, and a rare rubber rain coat and hat that were preserved in the mud. The team abdicated 80 percent of the items to the state, which released about 100 to display at the Mandarin Museum through the rest of the year to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the incident.
Holland says only about .1 percent of the items were removed from the wreckage—which means that approximately 798,000 pounds of cultural material remains at the bottom of the river. But to him, the important thing is that the exhibit offers a glimpse into the present and, in some ways, the future.
“This is about the infantrymen, an entire brigade, and their equipment and personal affects tell a story that the descendants of those soldiers should see,” he says.
And he hopes there will be another exploration of the Maple Leaf someday.
“There could be corporate documents from the regimental headquarters, and with 3,000 people on the ship, who knows what you’ll find,” he says. “There might even be a letter in there from President Lincoln.”