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Civil War shipwreck artifacts come to Dunedin Historical Museum

Published Aug. 30, 2012

DUNEDIN

It was 1864 and the moon was full when the Maple Leaf steamed down the St. Johns River carrying Union troops and equipment to Jacksonville. Lurking in the murky waters below: a dozen mines or "torpedoes" made from wooden kegs filled with 70 pounds of black powder.

When the transport vessel struck one, the explosion ripped apart the ship and killed four soldiers. The vessel sank and with it thousands of artifacts to be preserved in a muddy tomb for discovery 120 years later.

Now some of those artifacts can be seen at the Dunedin Historical Museum as part of a traveling exhibit called "The Maple Leaf: An American Civil War Shipwreck." The exhibit is on loan from the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee.

"What is unique about this shipwreck is that there were over 6,000 artifacts found, giving us a time capsule from the Civil War era," said Vinnie Luisi, executive director of the museum. "It helps us understand what a Union soldier's life was like."

The large amount of civilian items found shows that widespread looting took place around the Union camps, he said.

Among the items in the traveling exhibit are a fountain pen and inkwell, a toothbrush — sans the bristles — a medicine bottle, a dinner plate in an Asian pattern and Union Army uniform buttons. More artifacts will be added in mid September.

The Maple Leaf was built in 1851 and originally used as a Canadian pleasure excursion ship. The shipwreck was partially mined by Keith Holland and the St. Johns Archaeological Expedition Inc. in 1984, but only about 5 percent of the ship's cargo has been salvaged so far. Some seven feet of mud and 20 feet of water entomb the wreckage about 12 miles south of downtown Jacksonville.

A reproduction of the torpedo that sank the Maple Leaf is also on display. Developed by the secret Confederate Torpedo Service, the underwater mines were at the time a new kind of weaponry — one that would revolutionize maritime strategies and ultimately sink or damage 43 federal vessels during the Civil War.

Other related exhibits at the museum focus on Florida and Tampa Bay's role in the war. The displays include original and reproduction Civil War uniforms and artifacts. Children and adults can try on the reproduction clothing and handle artifacts soldiers used for everyday camp life.

"These hands-on activities are part of a traveling exhibit that will go to classrooms upon request," Luisi said.

Overall, the exhibition is a teaching tool for those of any age who want to learn more about the War Between the States and Florida's role.

"Florida may not have had a Battle of Gettysburg," Luisi said, "but it was important for the Confederacy — as a source of food supplies like beef and salt, railroading and transportation along the St. Johns River."

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