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"All Is Well:" The Life of M.F.Maury

Speaker: Keith Gibson

 

Early on the morning of May 2nd, 1863 "Stonewall" Jackson was rapidly moving his troops along a narrow dirt road in order to turn the Union right flank engaged in the Battle of Chancellorsville. It is almost certain he did not notice the old brick farmhouse to the right of the road as he passed by. If it had been pointed out to him that he was passing the birthplace of Matthew Fontaine Maury, Jackson - VMI Professor of Natural Philosophy - would have immediately recognized the name as one of the leading men of science of his time. I first discovered the location years ago while following the route of Jackson's famous flank march. As I stood there, reflecting on the periwinkle covered brick ruins, I thought how close the course of these two great lives came, but never crossed--here along a dirt road in Spotsylvania County, or in the Physics lecture room of VMI.


Thomas Jefferson was in his second term as President when Matthew Maury was born on January 14, 1806. Four years later his father relocated the family to Tennessee. At the age of 12 the small boy fell 45 feet from the top of a tree. Nearly biting off his tongue and severely injuring his back, the doctor instructed the family that a full recovery would require complete rest for perhaps several years. Mr. Maury preferred that his son learn the backbreaking work of a farmer, but now arranged to send young Matt to school. This unexpected opportunity opened up the worlds of mathematics, astronomy and geography to the convalescing boy. His back would heal, but for the rest of his life, Maury would blame his diminutive 5 foot 6 inch stature on the fall.

 

Perhaps inspired to a life at sea from the stories told by his older brother, John, who had become a midshipman at age 13, the head strong Maury secretly arranged an appointment as a Midshipman himself. When the devastating news arrived that his older brother had died of disease while on duty, Matthew determined to take his brother's place in the Navy. Richard Maury would never agree to the decision of his 19 year-old son. Riding a borrowed horse, Matt left home to find his path in life.

 

On his way he visits cousins back in Spotsylvania -13 year-old Ann Hernon. Nine years later they marry.

 

In New York, August 1825, the new midshipman boarded his training ship-the USS Brandywine. Both the ship and Maury were new to naval service-this was the Brandywine's maiden voyage. She carried the Marquis de Lafayette back to France after his celebrated last visit to America. In fact, the Brandywine was named for the first Revolutionary War battle in which Lafayette had participated.

 

One year later Maury found himself on another historic cruise when the USS Vincennes became the first US Navy vessel to circumnavigate the globe. He was aware that he had entered the world traveled by Magellan, Drake, Vasco de Garna and Diaz. Unlike these earlier explorers, the young sailor would leave his mark not by discovering a new sea or a landmass, but by discovering the relationship between the two. His keen observations and unquenchable curiosity are revealed in his descriptive writings about the voyage aboard the Vincennes:

 

"If you stand in the public square of the city of Quito (Peru) you can see eleven snowcapped volcanoes all at once. One of these, Chimborazo, is so lofty that it can be seen by moonlight at a distance of ninety miles. Cotopaxi, a near neighbor, is the grandest of all volcanoes. Its terrific eruptions sound like the discharge of the largest cannons, and have been heard at a distance of 100 miles."

 

It was at this time that Maury first realized the disadvantage that American Naval officers suffered by not having a school from which to learn the rudiments of their craft. The Army had established West Point almost 20 years earlier in 1809. Maury began to lobby the tradition bound Navy to change its training methods. The opinionated young officer did not always find a welcome ear. Indeed, through out his career, Maury's outspoken positions coupled with the international praise for this relatively junior officer created jealousy and contempt from some high placed Washington associates. Among them: Congressman Stephen Mallory, SEC of War Jefferson Davis and Smithsonian Institution's Superintendent Joseph Henry.

 

Lieutenant Maury returned to Spotsylvania County in 1835 to wed his cousin Ann. The next year Maury published his first book: A New Theoretical and Practical Treatise on Navigation. When the U.S Naval Academy was finally established ten years later, Maury's volume would be one of the first textbooks.

 

As Maury's scientific mind began to attract attention and recognition, for the second time a near fatal accident would change the course of his life. He was riding atop a crowded stagecoach in the middle of the night, when the coach overturned. Maury's right leg was gushed. The Secretary of the Navy found him unfit for further sea duty. The young officer was appointed Superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Records, in Washington. In time the Depot would be renamed the US Naval Observatory. It was a disappointing turn of events; as far as he was concerned his career had ended. Maury was 36 years old.

 

Lt. Maury discovered a wealth of neglected information in the ship's logs stored at the Observatory. In 1843 he gave his first paper on the Gulf Stream as it was revealed in the Logs. "There are rivers in the sea." Maury proclaimed, "They are of such magnitude that the mightiest streams of the land are rivulets compared to them. They are of either warm or cold water while their banks and beds are water of the opposite temperature. For thousands of miles they move through their liquid channels unmixed with the confining waters. They are the horizontal movements called currents." With the logs as his starting point, Maury directed that every navy vessel be equipped with special charts and logs with which to record information in a standardized way. As information began to flow into Maury's Washington office, it became clear that the "paths in the sea" could be located, charted and mastered.

 

By 1855, Maury's charts were in general use. His work was quickly adopted by the captains of new Clipper Ships designed for speed. Voyages from New York to San Francisco that had previously taken 180 days could now be made in as few as 100 days! The impact on international commerce was immediate and astronomical. Maury was praised by every seafaring nation on the globe. He had become the "Pathfinder of the Seas."

 

While his team of assistants worked on charting the oceans, Maury started in a new direction: the heavens. He now set out to record a standardized base knowledge of every visible star, with particular emphasis on those used for navigation. Of course, navigators had used stars for centuries. Maury's contribution was to create a uniform record. This project, by its nature, would never be completed (it still is not today) but over the next ten years, Maury would catalog over 100,000 stars!

 

Now well known for his work with currents, winds, and star catalogs, Maury curiosity turned to the ocean floor. He became convinced that a practical route could be found on which to lay a telegraph cable connecting the Old World with the New. In 1849 Congress approved a project to explore such a route. Maury solicited the aid of a young naval officer named John Mercer Brooke who had invented a deep-sea sounding device. (Years later the two men would share lecture rooms at VMI.) Maury and Brooke charted the ocean floor from Newfoundland to Ireland on what Maury called the 'Telegraphic Plateau." -a relatively shallow and flat section of ocean floor. It was here that Cyrus Fields would ultimately lay the transoceanic cable twenty years later. In a second way, Matthew Maury's genius had made the globe virtually smaller.

 

The "Pathfinder of the Seas" never forgot about his family origins as farmers. As early as 1851 he became their advocate, calling for standardized global weather observations. Like the ocean currents, weather patterns did not recognize national boarders. In 1855 Maury helped organize a conference in Brussels to discuss this international effort. "The ocean of air," he said, "like the ocean of water, is never at rest." It took the United States Government forty more years before the National Weather Bureau was created.

 

Near the end of May, 1861, Maury dressed in his finest uniform (complete with his almost never used sword) and called upon President Lincoln at the White House. The Virginian felt compelled to stress his opinion that a request for troops would push Virginia into the Confederacy. After the cordial but brief meeting, Maury returned to the Observatory, removed his sword and placed it in the corner of the room. Seated at his well-worn desk, Maury wrote his letter of resignation from the US Navy on April 20, 1861. His native state had left the Union three days earlier. Maury left the office in which he had revolutionized the way we view the natural world. He left his sword resting in the corner.

 

The Grand Duke of Russia sent an invitation Maury to come to his country as the head of scientific research. Maury responded with an explanation not unlike that shared by many Virginians of the time: "The path of duty and of honor is plain..." he wrote, "The state of Virginia gave me birth; within her borders ... my children are planting their vine and fig trees. In her bosom are the graves of my fathers." Maury, like Lee and Jackson, cast his lot with his native state.

 

At the beginning of the Civil War the American sailing trade had been using Maury's charts and sailing instructions for 14 years. American trade ships had eclipsed the merchant fleets of Great Britain. During those 14 years, world wide trade had increased 300%-- and 70% of that went into American holds. The Confederacy and Great Britain found a common interest in seeing the Union fleet removed from the seas.

 

Two of Maury's old Washington enemies now served as high Confederate officials: Jefferson Davis was President of the new country and Stephen Mallory was Secretary of the Navy. Tending his services to the Confederate Navy, Maury was frustrated when Secretary Mallory was slow to appoint him to a post Maury felt commensurate with his talents.

 

True to his character, Maury remained as outspoken as ever. He vocally insisted that the resources of the confederacy did not allow it to build a navy comparable to that of the north. The renowned scientist recommended a defense technically demanding and socially questionable. Maury called for harbor defenses based upon electrically detonated submerged mines or "torpedoes" as he called them. While many around him declared that mines constituted "ineffectual and unlawful warfare," Maury led the research and early development efforts in the first offensive and defensive deployment of mines. One of his early experiments took place in the family bathtub of their Richmond home. A surprise detonation left the bathtub and the room in shambles. Mrs. Maury forbade any further testing in the house.

 

Maury arranged a full-scale test of his device in the James River in view of the Capital of the Confederacy. The Governor, Secretary of the Navy Mallory and the Congressional Committee of Naval Affairs gathered along the bank on a sultry mid-June day and waited. Maury and his oldest son rowed out into the center of the river, placed the torpedo near the target ship unrolled a rope lanyard and backed off. Reaching a safe distance, Maury gave the order to his son to pull the rope. "Up went a column of water ... twenty feet" remembered the ecstatic young boy. The officials on the bank exploded with applause. At last the "Pathfinder" was appointed Chief of Sea-Coast and Harbor Defenses.

 

Maury immediately began to plan to detonate his torpedo under an enemy target. Five likely candidates lay at anchor in Hampton Roads. On Friday, 5 July, Maury and a small crew arrived at the Roads in view of the LISS Minnesota and the Roanoke. On Sunday, under cover of darkness, Maury led a tiny flotilla of five skiffs into the still waters. Each boat carried a torpedo and 180 feet of lanyard. The plan was to connect two torpedoes with a length of line and allow the tide to carry them across the enemy's bow. The current would sweep the torpedoes into the sides of the ship and the resulting strain on the joining line would trigger the detonation.

 

"The night was still, clear, calm and lovely," Maury recorded. "Thatcher's Comet was flaming in the sky. We steered by it, pulling along in the plan of its splendid trail. All the noise and turmoil of the enemy's camp and fleet was hushed. They had no guard boast of any sort, and as with muffled oars we began to near them, we heard 'seven bells' strike."

 

The little fleet of skiffs had rowed 3 miles. After placing the torpedoes, they pulled away and waited for the explosions. Only the ship's bells disturbed the silence of the night. The torpedoes did not detonate. When the mines were discovered two weeks later and examined, it was discovered that the powder was completely wet. The wooden casks had leaked. Maury took some solace from the fact that they had successfully placed the mines without detection. Once the technical issues were resolved, the mines would prove their efficacy.

 

Maury realized that floating mechanically detonated torpedoes was not efficient. His real interest was in developing electrically detonated "submerged batteries" of torpedoes. This technique would allow observers from the river bank to detonate certain or all mines in a battery at the precise time to do maximum damage to an approaching vessel.

 

Ultimately, more Union ships would be sent to the bottom by Confederate torpedoes than by all the Confederate warships combined. A total of fifty ships were sunk by mines during the course of the war including 4 monitors.

 

Secretary Mallory realized that the South could not build the steam powered cruisers needed by his navy-but Great Britain could. Sensing that English merchantmen might welcome the prospects of reducing their Union competition, Mallory sent Commander James Bulloch to Liverpool in 1861 to arrange for the construction of what would become the CSS Alabama and Florida.

 

Of course, England's declaration of neutrality prohibited it from building ships for the Confederacy, or the Union for that matter. The work must proceed in secret.

 

Maury grew increasingly frustrated and depressed with what he considered the wasting of his significant talents. SEC Mallory decided that everyone might be happier with Maury out of the country, so he arranged to send "the Pathfinder" to London. Here, he was to supplement the efforts of Bullock in getting ships built for confederate service. Ostensibly, Maury would be on a mission to further the study of submerged torpedoes and procure supplies for building the mines.

 

Maury left his family in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and sailed with his 13 year-old son on the curiously named steamer Harold out of Charleston harbor on the rainy night of October 9, 1862. The captain of the vessel lost his bearings during a gale. On the sixth day of what should have been a three day cruise, the befuddled captain came to Maury and stated that a most curious event had occurred: he had sailed right over the spot in the ocean where Bermuda should be but the island was no longer there! Maury told the embarrassed captain that once night fell he would shoot the stars and provide correct navigation. By 11:00 PM the great navigator handed the captain a set of directions with the proclamation that they should see Port Hamilton Light by 2:00am. Everyone except a confident Maury remained on deck to see if the prediction came to pass. Just after 2:00arn the harbor light was spotted exactly when and where Maury said it should be.

 

Arriving in Liverpool on 23 November, Maury went directly to London to take up residence at 10 Sackville St. He quickly found that living in London on his Confederate salary would be a challenge. The frugal scientist left his street level apartment and moved to the cheaper third floor.

 

Within a month of his arrival, a lengthy letter written by Maury was published in the London Times. The letter was the first of a series of writings assuring the English people of ultimate Confederate independence. The letter revealed another reason for Maury's dispatch to England: the internationally renowned and respected scientist was to pursue quiet diplomatic efforts to have the Confederacy officially recognized. Writing to his wife on his 57th birthday, 14 January, 1863, Maury stated that "I have been in conversation for the last two hours with an M.P. about recognition. He came to talk about it."

 

Maury, however, was not optimistic regarding British recognition. He wrote, "Many of our friends here have mistaken British admiration of Southern "pluck" and newspaper spite at Yankee insolence as Southern sympathy. No such thing. There is no love for the South here. In its American policy the British government fairly represents the British people."

 

Maury went on to point out three major factors mitigating against British recognition: 1. The very real Union threat of dire consequences in the event of recognition; 2. War speculators, of whom Maury thought there were too many, had nothing to gain with the return of peace, and 3, in the decade preceding the war, over 1.5 million Brits had immigrated to the United States--- mainly in what was now Union states.

 

Maury concluded that "the sympathy here for us is mostly confined to the upper classes and this sympathy is in the main more apparent than real... We are gaining ground here... but before we can expect any aid or comfort, we must show our ability to get along without it."

 

By March 1863, Maury attempted to demonstrate the prowess of the South by clandestinely arranging the purchase of a cruiser. The 550 ton ship was launched under the name Japan. A crew of about 50 British sailors was signed on from Liverpool with the understanding that the maiden voyage would be to Singapore. Japan steamed across the English Channel to the French port of Ushant where she was outfitted as a Confederate man-of-war. Re-named the CSS Georgia, she captured nine merchant prizes worth over $400,000. In addition, Maury purchased the aging 500 ton Victor from the Royal Navy. Re-named the CSS Rappahannock, US officials in France forced a neutral hand and the Rappahannock was not allowed to be outfitted.

 

Maury continued his diplomatic work through the Southern Independence Association of Manchester and the London Society for Promoting the Cessation of Hostilities in America. This latter organization put together a petition to present to Prime Minister Palmerston encouraging the role of Great Britain to bring an end to hostilities in America. Lord Palmerston received Maury and the Society's committee in July of 1864 but gave no hope for intervention.

 

Maury now turned renewed attention to refining his electric torpedoes. Conferring with Professor Charles Wheatstone, Maury sent several shipments of supplies and instructions for the use of torpedoes back to the failing Confederacy.

 

As the end neared, Maury must have reflected on the irony of his life's work. For almost two decades prior to the war he had charted the oceans and plotted international sea lanes. All the work had been done to improve the safety and efficiency of sea travel-to save the lives of seamen and the cargo they carried. Over the last four years his charts had been used to destroy over 237 American vessels of commerce. Seven years after the war, the US held Great Britain responsible for building the ships that led to such devastation. Britain agreed to pay a reparation sum of $15,500,000.

 

On the first day of May 1865 Maury was informed that General Lee had surrendered three weeks earlier. The following day the Pathfinder boarded a ship bound to his native Virginia. It was not until he reached Havana on May 22nd that he learned of Lincoln's assassination and the complete end of the Confederacy. Maury had good reason to think he would not receive the same surrender terms offered Lee and other top Confederate officials. He had served the Confederacy in a quasi-diplomatic role on foreign soil, a category exempt from amnesty. It seemed prudent not to return to Virginia, at least for now.

 

Instead, Maury accepted a position offered to him by the Emperor of Mexico, Maximilian. The Emperor appointed Maury as the Imperial Commissioner of Colonization and Director of the Astronomical Observatory. It was not a good sign for the future of the colonization effort when Mrs. Maury refused to leave Virginia and head south to Mexico City! The best efforts of the skillful wordsmith could not persuade his beloved Ann from her native soil. Indeed, Maury's stay in Mexico would only last nine months as the fragile French Colonial government unraveled.

 

Mrs. Maury was persuaded, however, to bring the family to England, and Maury left Mexico in March 1866 for a reunion with his wife and children after four years of separation. The family moved into a house at 30 Harley Street, Cavendish Square, London. Maury noted that Ann's hair was still a beautiful auburn while his had turned white since their last embrace. "This is not my papa!," exclaimed the youngest daughter, "This is an old man with a white beard!"

 

The next two years were happily spent in London. Maury began work on a geography text for school children. He briefly offered an international school for the use of marine and land torpedoes. He particularly enjoyed demonstrating his electric torpedoes, much to Mrs. Maury's dismay.

 

All of Maury's research and discovery had been done while serving in the US Navy, that is, as a federal employee. Personally, he had not financially benefited from his work that had made great fortunes for those engaged in commerce and communication. It was appropriate, then, on 5 June 1866, when several European nations and foreign businessmen held a banquet in his honor at the Willis Rooms (here in London). In attendance were former Confederate General P G. T Beauregard, physicist John Tyndall, Royal Geographer Alexander Johnston, shipbuilder and MP John Laird and MP A. J. Beresford Hope. Drying the evening, Maury was presented a gift of $15,000.00 (over $166,000 in 2002 economy).

 

By 1868 the family could finally begin to make plans to return to their native Virginia. Considering numerous offers from universities around the country (and several foreign positions) Maury accepted an offer from the Virginia Military Institute as Professor of Physics and Superintendent of the Physical Survey of Virginia.

 

One last honor remained for Maury in the country that had become his second home: on 28 May 1868 Maury received a Doctor of Laws Degree from Cambridge University. Three days later the Maury family sailed for Virginia.

 

Arriving at VMI in September, the Maury family moved into VMI faculty quarters overlooking the Parade Ground. The next four years brought peace for the Maury family after so many years of struggle and uncertainty. Maury sent two of his daughters to New York to buy a Steinway piano for their new home. The house and the piano remain in Lexington today.

 

Professor Maury used his cadet students to help compile the data for the state physical survey, a project never before undertaken. Once completed, the survey became the document by which the state developed its natural resources in the post war economy. It was a particularly gratifying and important undertaking for which Maury was uniquely suited.

 

Maury continued an amazing and exhausting public speaking schedule which took him on long journeys throughout the country. Offers continued to come in from other universities: the University of Virginia attempted to lure him away from VMI; St Johns College offered $3,000; the University of Alabama offered $5,000. But the Maury family was at home in Lexington.

 

By 1871 the Pathfinder's geography textbooks, which he had started writing while living in London, were being used in more than five thousand schools in the United States. In that year alone, Maury's book royalties exceeded $30,000. (an astounding $400,000 in today's economy).

 

The leaves had turned golden in the fall of 1872 when Maury returned from one of his speaking trips to his VMI home. In his matter-of-fact way, Maury met Ann at the front door and quietly stated, "My Dear, I am come home to die." As he had been correct in so many predictions in the past, so he was correct this time. Over the next four months he prepared for the end. By late January 1873, death was dosing on he old sailor. He told his physician not call on him any more. "Leave me to the Great Physician," he said.

 

Maury's bed was positioned so that he could watch the stars from his window. One evening, as Venus ascended the heavens, Maury called his wife of 38 years to his side. Pointing to the bright planet, Maury said, "You see Venus? I have always wanted to go there. When I leave you here, that is the first place I'm going to visit!"

 

A light snow covered the Parade Ground as the Maury children came to say goodbye. At his request, they gathered around his bed and sang How firm a Foundation. "Do I seem to drag my anchors?" the old seaman asked his son, Richard.

 

"They are sure and steadfast," came the reply.

 

The man who had revolutionized international travel and changed the way we view the world spoke his final words, words of an old seaman turning over the watch to his relief:

 

"All is well." "All is well." "All is well."

 

It was Saturday, half past twelve, the first day of February 1873.

 

Maury had arranged every detail of his funeral-he was to be buried in Richmond's famed Hollywood Cemetery overlooking the James River and his body was to be carried through the mountain pass of the North River known as Goshen while the Rhododendron was in bloom. I should say he planned every detail except for the date of death-he died in mid winter and the Rhododendron does not bloom until June. So, on February 5th, Matthew Fontaine Maury's body was temporarily placed in a crypt only 15 feet from the grave of "Stonewall" Jackson. Their paths in life complete, one last time in death the course of these two great Virginians once again drew close.

 

Maury was one of the most brilliant scientists of his century. His accomplishments brought worldwide acclaim in a way seldom enjoyed by an American of his time. The Czar of Russia knighted him; Gold medals honoring him were struck in Austria, Sweden, Holland, France and Germany. Over twenty honorary degrees were conferred upon him. He had attained the rank of Commodore, US Navy. Of all these worldwide accolades and titles, one captures the long and productive life better that any other. You see, in the Maury house, everyone had a nickname. Maury gave each child a pet name: "Sit Sing", "Brave", "Tots", "Davy Jones", "Nannie Curley." It was the children who gave their papa the name for which all yet today remember him - "Pathfinder of the Seas."

 

After his talk, Keith was asked the following questions.

 

Why isn't Maury better known?

He was a great Virginian, equal to Lee and Jackson but he was not a battlefield commander. All his efforts were detached. When the histories were written, he just was not written into them. Maury was very self-confident and this made him some enemies during and after the war.

 

Where did he stand on the post-war Confederate mythology?

He had no interest in talking sides. In 1868, Lee came to see him at the VMI, but Maury stands behind him in the post war rebuilding of Virginia.

 

He went from USN Lieutenant to CSN Commodore?

In the 1850's he was still a Lieutenant due mainly to his land-based work. When he offered his services to the CSN, he was appointed Commodore.

 

What was his status at the end of the war?

He applied directly to Johnson for a parole as he was concerned about his status. In 1861 he was marked as a deserter as his resignation was not accepted.

 

Did he have any link with the Hunley?

Not that we know, although we are aware that he endorsed the submarine idea. . He was interested in mine technology from early 1861 and he just wanted to help the war effort. He concentrated on the "electrical discharge" idea.

 

Keith Gibson is Executive Director of Museum Programs and Architectural Historian for the Virginia Military Institute and is responsible for the operation and development of the VMI Museum in Lexington, and the New Market Battlefield State Historical Park, Virginia.

 

Keith Gibson received his bachelorís degree in Civil Engineering from the VMI in 1977 then served as a Naval Officer. He returned to VMI as Curator of Exhibits for the VMI Museum. His graduate studies were in Museum Studies and Early American History, he interned in 1983 at Strawbery Banke, Museum, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He was the founding director of the McBride Museum at the New Mexico Military Institute in 1984.

 

Colonel Gibson has worked as a consultant on documentary, historical, television, and feature films including God and Generals (2001/2), Sommersby (1992), Gettysburg (1992), The Smithsonian's Civil War (1990present) and Dress Gray (1985) to name but a few.

 

Keith Gibson is the author of The VMI Spirit: A Portrait of VMI and contributing author to Crowd of Honorable Youths (1989), to name but two of his books, and he has written numerous articles and book reviews on the Civil War era and VMI.

 

An advocate of battlefield and civil war site preservation, Colonel Gibson has appeared on public television and public radio programs in support of historic preservation. He was instrumental in the development of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District and Commission Act passed by Congress in 1996.

 

Colonel Gibson is active in professional organizations, including the American Association of Museums and the Virginia Association of Museums; he is a board member of the Historic Lexington Foundation, the Center for the Study of the Civil War and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. He is a former vice president of the Rockbridge Civil War Round Table, and was twice president of the Rockbridge Historical Society and is also a Colonel in the Virginia Militia.