Recently, four statues of Confederates were removed from city property in Richmond, Virginia. Three of the individuals represented by the statues were well know — Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and the Confederate generals, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart. The fourth statue, of Confederate naval officer, Matthew Fontaine Maury is less well known.
In the 1850s, as an oceanographer and a US naval officer, Maury developed a series of wind and tide charts, using data from thousands of ship’s logs, that significantly improved passage times for many sailing ships. He was something of a hero to many ship owners, captains, and sailors.
With the advent of the Civil War, Maury joined the Confederate Navy and went to England to help arrange the acquisition of ships for the Confederacy. He also developed mines to sink US Navy ships. In the 1860s, many considered him to be a traitor. Who was Matthew Fontaine Maury? Was he a hero, a traitor, or perhaps both?
Maury joined the US Navy at 19. When a stagecoach accident injured one of his legs, making him unfit for sea duty, he studied navigation, meteorology, winds, and currents, ultimately becoming the Superintendent of the United States Naval Observatory and head of the Depot of Charts and Instruments.
In 1847, Lieutenant Maury published his first Wind and Current Charts of the North Atlantic, and by 1848 he completed Wind and Current Charts of the South Atlantic, the North and South Pacific and the Indian Ocean. They created a sensation in the shipping industry. With Maury’s Wind and Current Charts, the captains of clipper ships could cut days and weeks off their transits across oceans.
In The Clipper Ship Era – An Epitome of Famous American and British Clipper Ships, Their Owners, Builders, Commanders, and Crews, 1843-1869, Arthur Clarke, writes:
Sea-captains of all nations regarded Lieutenant Maury as a wise counsellor and faithful friend, while France, Holland, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Portugal, and Sardinia, all either conferred upon him orders of knighthood or struck medals in his honor.
If Maury’s career had ended there his legacy would be secure and non-controversial.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Maury resigned from the US Navy and joined the Confederates. He traveled to Great Britain, Ireland, and France and helped acquire the CSS Georgia for the Confederacy. He also worked as an inventor to develop naval mines, then called torpedoes. He, in particular, developed mines with electric firing mechanisms. Maury’s mines were increasingly deadly.
Maury’s eldest son, Richard Lancelot Maury, wrote about his father’s work in 1901:
TORPEDOES as effective weapons in actual war were first utilized by the Confederate navy, and Captain Matthew F. Maury introduced them into that service, and continually improved and perfected their use until they had become the mighty engine of modern warfare and revolutionized the art of coast and harbour defense.
He, it was, who in 1861 mined James River, who, in person commanded the first attack with torpedoes upon the Federal fleet in Hampton Roads, and it was the development and improvement of this plan of defense which held the enemy’s ship throughout the South at bay, and caused the loss of fifty-eight of the ships, and the Secretary of the United States Navy to report to Congress in 1865 that the Confederates had destroyed with their torpedoes more vessels than were lost from all other causes combined.
When the Civil War ended, Maury went to Mexico and attempted to set up a Confederate colony under Emperor Maximilian, but the plan failed. He eventually returned to Virginia and taught meteorology at Virginia Military Institute.
Maury’s statue, erected in 1929, was created by Richmond sculptor Frederick William Sievers, who also made the Jackson monument. His statue, along with those of Jackson, Stuart, and Davis was intended to glorify the “Lost Cause” mythology, portraying the Confederacy’s cause as noble and promoting white supremacy.
Thanks to W.H. Bunting for contributing to this post.