January 2003

Matthew Fontaine Maury - Scientist, Curmudgeon, Confederate

by Ted Fisher

Historical Background

The roots of the Fontaine and Maury families extend back to the Reformation in a France beset with religious turmoil between a Catholic majority and a Huguenot (Protestant) minority during the 16th and 17th centuries. The massacre in Wassy on March 1, 1562 ushered in the beginning of the first Wars of Religion which were instigated by Catherine de Medici, Queen of France who influenced 3 kings on the French throne. In 1663, during the reign of Charles IXth, Jean de la Fontaine and his wife (ancestors of Matthew Fontaine Maury) were murdered. On August 24th, 1672 occurred the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre which lasted up to 6 weeks during which 60,000- 100,000 Huguenots were killed. Henri IVth, tiring of the continuing religious strife, enacted the Edict of Nantes in 1599 which gave the Huguenots the right to practice their own religion freely and have places of worship.

Louis XIV, grandson of Henri IV believed in ONE KING, ONE LAW, ONE FAITH and step by step religious and civil liberties for Huguenots were withdrawn. By 1681, the "Dragonnades" were started at the order of Louis's Minister of War. The king's dragoons were quartered on the Huguenots property at the victims expense. The troops were encouraged to ill-treat, steal, beat and rape those on whom they were billeted to compel them to re-convert to Catholicism.

On October 18, 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes and replaced it with articles forbidding Protestants to worship, giving Protestant ministers 15 days to leave France or be sent to the gallows, prohibiting Huguenot schools, Compulsory baptism of all children and enforced Catholic education, confiscation of all goods of those leaving France and banishment of men to the galleys and women to the convict prisons for failure to adhere to the king's edict.

The Family

The result was a mass exodus of Huguenots from France to countries throughout Europe. The Rev. James Fontaine and his family fled to Dublin, Ireland, while the Maurys' resettled in Taunton, Somerset, England. Matthew Fontaine Maury's Great Great Grandparents united the two Huguenot families by the marriage of Matthew Maury to Mary Anne Fontaine on October 20, 1716 in Dublin. The married couple stayed in Dublin until sometime after the birth of their son James Maury on April 19, 1718 when they emigrated from Catholic Ireland to The Protestant Virginia Tidewater region.

James Maury, Matthew Fontaine Maury's Grandfather became an Episcopal Minister and a classical instructor of youth in Walker Parish, Albemarle County Virginia. Amongst his pupils were 3 presidents- Jefferson, Madison and Monroe and 5 signers of the Declaration of Independence. The reverend James Maury married Mary Walker on November 11, 1743.

Their son, Richard Maury, born May 18, 1766, married Diana Minor on January 18, 1792 and settled in Spotsylvania, Virginia. Diana Minor was descended from a settler who received a land grant from Charles ll. The union resulted in 9 children. Their 4th son, Matthew Fontaine Maury, was born January 14th, 1806, and named after his two paternal great-Grandfathers. When Matthew was 5, the family emigrated to Franklin, Tennessee where they cleared the land and farmed, in what today is called "Maury County". Tennessee in 1811 was a wilderness with only bridle paths and rough farm roads connecting the scattered settlers. The planter's life was self- sustaining, though the women occasionally visited a village to purchase ribbons and finery, and the men hunted to break the routine of home life. The Maury children were assembled morning and night to read the Psalter for the day. Young Matthew Maury passed his youth amidst the solitude and silence of the forests, broken up by cotton field farm work and raccoon or bear hunts with the negroes and hounds brought from Virginia. After an elementary education in the schools of the region he suffered an accident at age 12 when he fell 45 feet from a tree, bit his tongue almost off and injured his back making him unfit for farm work. To prepare the boy for adulthood, Richard Maury enrolled his son at Harpeth Academy where the boy excelled in academics.

Matthew Fontaine Maury idolized his older brother John Minor Maury who became a naval midshipman at 13, sailed to China, sailed on the frigate Essex with Porter and Farregut, fought the British on Lake Champlain and pirates in the West Indies. Unfortunately this distinguished young officer died of Yellow Fever in June 1824 and was buried at sea at the age of 31. John left 2 sons which Matthew assisted in raising. One was Dabney Herndon Maury who later attended West Point and became a Major General in the Confederate army. Nicknamed "Puss in Boots" because of his size, this nephew of Matthew Fontaine Maury became Commander of Mobile, one of the last Southern ports to fall in the Civil War.

In 1825, Congressman Sam Houston obtained a midshipman's warrant in the US Navy for Matthew. His father did not approve having lost one son to the sea and refused to give him any money to defray expenses of the journey East as well as a parting blessing. Undaunted, Matthew borrowed a horse from a neighbor and with $30.00 from tutoring students departed for Albemarle County Virginia where he was welcomed by his kin- the Herndons. There he sold the horse and sent the money to the owner on Tennessee. There also, he met Ann Hull Herndon, the cousin whom he was to wed nine years later.

Service Afloat

No naval academy was in existence in 1825, so young cadet's commenced at once the active duty of their profession. Much of a mid-shipman's duties were discussed in the previous release on James Dunwoody Bulloch. Maury was to excel in carrying out his duties regardless of difficulties and obstacles. He gained a reputation amongst his superiors for strict attention to his duties and as a result was often selected for special service. He often chalked diagrams in spherical trigonometry on the round shot in the quarterdeck racks so that he could study them while he paced back and forth on watch. Utilizing a Spanish book on Navigation and a Spanish dictionary, he gleaned what nautical information was contained therein.

His first ship was the frigate Brandywine on which he visited England, and the Mediterranean and which conveyed the Marquis de Lafayette back to France after his visit to the US in 1825. Both became friendly during the cruise. At this time Maury's pay as a midshipman was $19.00 per month, half of which he sent to one of his sisters.

He then transferred to the sloop of war Vincennes on a cruise around the world and found the accommodations much more favorable to study than the Brandywine. By the end of the voyage, Maury was ready to stand his examination for "Passed Midshipman" and also had prepared for publication a set of lunar tables. Despite his academic triumphs, Maury passed his examinations, 27th in a class of 40.

In 1831, Maury was appointed Master of the sloop of war Falmouth, which had been ordered to the Pacific squadron for a 4 year cruise. On the Falmouth, Maury had a cabin to himself and access to books- both his own and his messmates William Irving, brother of Washington Irving. His favorite author was Edgar Allen Poe.

Prior to leaving New York, Maury searched for reliable information on the winds and currents to be encountered and the best path for his ship to take. Little was available and Maury conceived the idea for his "Wind and Current Charts" which did so much for world commerce while enroute to Rio de Janiero. During the cruise, he also observed and studied the "Low Barometer" phenomenon off Cape Horn and wrote a paper on the subject which appeared in the American "Journal of Science". He also began to write a work on navigation.

Having transferred from the Falmouth to the Dolphin, Maury was First Lieutenant on that ship until he joined the frigate Potomac on which he returned to the US in 1834.

Maury returned to Fredericksburg, Virginia where he married his cousin Ann Hull Herndon on July 15, 1834. They were to have 9 children, one of which Lieutenant John Herndon "Davey" Maury, CSA, would be killed during the Civil War at Vicksburg.

Shortly after his marriage, Maury went to Philadelphia to get his work on navigation published. This was a bold step in that Maury was only a passed midshipman, but the book gained rapid favor with the higher command and became the standard navigation textbook for the US Navy.

Following the birth of his first daughter and the publication of his work on navigation, Maury applied for sea duty. A billet on a South Sea exploring expedition fell through and Maury was assigned to the duty f making surveys of Southern harbors, a duty which took more than a year.

Concerned with the health of his elderly parents in Tennessee, Maury took leave hoping to bring them back to Virginia. He was returning to New York in October 1839 and gave up his seat on the stagecoach to an elderly lady. While riding on top, he was thrown and his leg was broken at the knee. The leg was set by an incompetent surgeon, and he languished for 3 months in Somerset, Ohio. It was found necessary to break the leg over again and reset it without anesthesia.

By 1840, he believed himself recovered enough to resume his trip to New York to rejoin his ship, however he had to be driven by sleigh from Ohio across the Allegheny Mountains and the ship sailed without him.
The fracture of Maury's leg seriously affected his prospects in the Navy and there were grounds for his discharge from the Naval Service as he could no longer serve aboard ship with his disability. Never- the- less he applied for sea on crutches and was turned down due to his friend's intervention.

At this time, the Washington Intelligencer urged that Maury because of his publication of a series of papers entitled "Scraps From the Lucky Bag" in which he advocated Naval reform, as well as establishment of a Naval academy and suggested a Panama Canal which led to the Darien Expedition to Panama be made Secretary of the Navy. Maury declined the honor and was fortunate that other duties for his talents were found ashore in Washington.

Service Ashore/ International recognition

As with many twists of fate, Maury's injury put him in the right place at the right time. In 1842, he was appionted as Superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments(which included the Naval Observatory) for the Navy Department in Washington. An early frequent visitor was former president John Quincy Adams( founder of the observatory and considered the most intellegent president the US has ever had) who came to look at the stars while Maury charted them. It was here that Maury began to study the huge accumulation of ship's reports in the depot's archives which was to gain him international recognition and knighthood from 5 countries. From this information, he began to put together a global database on currents, winds and weather patterns. Maury published his own charts which quickly gained an international following.

In such demand were his ocean maps that he could hold them for ransom, not distributing them until ship's captains provided the most recent logs of their journeys.

In 1853, he was appointed as the US representative to the International Congress in Brussels. He urged the recording of oceanographic data aboard naval and merchant ships and soon his system of recording currents and winds was adopted world- wide. As a result, Maury even today is recognized as the father of modern oceanography.

Due to Maury's work, trips from Great Britain to Australia were reduced by 30 days and GB to Rio de Janiero bu 10 days. To further prove Maury's theories a clipper ship race from New York around the Horn to San Francisco lowered sailing time from 187 to 92 days.

Later in 1853, Maury began work to locate the best route for an underwater transatlantic cable. Using deep sea sounding apparatus designed at the Naval Observatory, Maury began to collect specimens from the ocean bottom. From his studies, he discovered the existance of a shallow underwater plateau across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland. In 1858, after serious consultation with Maury, American industrialist Cyrus Field and the British based Atlantic Telegraph Company laid the first transatlantic cable along this plateau.
In 1855 Maury published his greatest contribution to oceanography, a book called "The Physical Geography of the Seas". This book contained detailed information of the Gulf Stream, bathmetric maps with contours at depths exceeding 4.5 miles deep, and a wealth of information on currents and meteorology.

That same year, Maury fell under the scrutiny of the Naval Retiring Board, chaired by Senator Stephen Mallory which did not strike him from the navy list, but placed him in the reserve. This was not because of his bodily defect but because of his vocation. His great contribution to the Navy came from his scientific activity, not from service on the quarterdeck where his genius would have been wasted. At the express wish of the Naval Secretary, he retained the Superintendency of the Naval Observatory. Maury considered the decision an unbearable abuse and insult, and he let loose an angry campaign against the board and personally against Mallory using bitter and sour words.

Maury despite his many virtues had flaws in his nature that hindered people from reaching an understanding with him in his public and scientific life. He tended to think of nautical studies as his personal preserve. Because of this he fell out with scientist Alexander Dallas Bache, head of the Coast Survey and Bache's strong supporter Senator Jefferson Davis.

Maury also tended to consider opinions that disagreed with his as personal insults. Therefore, he nurtured an everlasting hatred against those who he felt had done him wrong including his future Confederate superiors- Mallory and Davis.

Additionally, it perhaps was his ongoing arguments for naval reform which further alienated senior officers and senators. However, through persuasive arguments and the help of Senator Sam Houston of Tennessee, Maury was re-instated in 1858 with the rank of commander and stayed until his resignation from the US Navy in 1861.

Service to the Confederacy

As did many southern officers, Maury disagreed with slavery and secession. However honor towards ones family and state was stronger than country and when Virginia seceeded after Lincoln's 1st call for troops, Maury resigned his commission on April 20, 1861. In a pique of revenge, the Federal government erased all remnants of Maury's existance within the national capitol. Maury was 55, and his international fame was such that both France and Russia immediately offered his a commission within their service. The tsar of Russiaeven sweetened the deal by offering Maury a state of the art laboratory in which to continue his work.

Maury declined the offers and instead accepted the rank of Commander in the Confederate Navy. His first assignment was to utilize his scientific expertise to develop torpedos (actually mines) for Southern harbors and rivers, s.thereby compensating somewhat for the South's lack of defensive shipping. Maury's initial prototype was 2 explosive charges connected with cable. The idea was to float these pairs of mines on the current where they would catch on a vessals bow, come together and explode. This concept was unsuccessful and the next infernal machine of destruction consisted of up to 200 lbs of explosives anchored to the bottom of the river, etc with a cable to the shore where it was hooked up to an electric battery. A soldier/ sailor, etc would set off the charge when a ship passed overhead. Upwards of 35 Federal ships were destroyed via this method during the war and the James river was so heavily mined that federal ships would not sail on that waterway until they came into possession of a map that accurately plotted the mines.

During this phase of Maury's Confederate Navy career, he again embarked on a criticism of the naval program and the higher echelon. Much of this was due to his malice toward Mallory head of the Naval Retirement Board in 1855 and now Confederate Secretary of the Navy. Davis now Confederate President too was low on Maury's hit parade since he had supported A scientific opponant. Maury was relieved from his duties developing torpedos and sent to Europe where officially it was felt that his international fame would benefit the Confederacy with regard to ship procurement, Foreign cooperation, as well as European mine development. It is my opinion that Maury was sent to Europe to get him out of the Confederacy and "shut him up".

Maury was able to get 2 ships for the Confederacy- the raiders CSS Georgia and CSS Rappahannock. The Georgia under the command of William Lewis Maury, Matthew's nephew was built on the Clyde in Scotland and managed one cruise on which it captured 9 Federal ships in 6 months. Upon returning to a French port, the Georgia was declared unfit for further sea duty. The CSS Rappahannock was a retired British Naval vessal which barely made it from England to France where it broke down and spent the remainder of the war as a Confederate store ship. The above illustrates how inadequate Maury was when compared to Bulloch in procuring ships. Unfortunately, Confederate Naval funds Bulloch could have put to better use wer diffused to various individuals (including Maury) to the detriment of the naval effort. The blame for this situation lies entirely with Mallory.

The Confederacy in hoping to gain French support rubber stamped Louis Napoleon's plans to put Hapsburg Maximillian of Austria on the Mexican throne and Maury was the chief negotiator. He promised Confederate support for the French effort and in the process became friendly with Maximillian. With the waning of Confederate fortunes, neither the Confederacy nor France were able to provide mutual support.
Upon landing at a Mexican port in 1865 with torpedo/ mine equipment for transshipment to the Confederacy, Maury found that the Confederacy was no more.

Post War Years

Maury felt that because of his activities in developing the electric torpedo/ mine and purchasing ships that he would be hung if he tried to return to the US. at the war's end. He therefore went to his friend Maximillian in Mexico and was appointed Imperial Commissioner  of Immigration. There he worked hard for homeless former Confederates and built the "New Virginia" and "Carlotta" colonies for confederados, a number of which immigrated there.
French troops in support of Maximillian were withdrawn when the US moved troops toward the border in support of the Monroe Doctrine. Maury was in England on business for Maximillian at the time. Without French support, Maximillian could no longer hold off the forces of Boneto Juarez (Juarestias). Maximillian was captured and shot. Thus ended Maury's dreams in Mexico.

Maury stayed in Europe teaching Physics to officers of various nations until 1868 when the new President pardoned all former Confederates. He returned to the US where he accepted a chair teaching Physics in V.M.I. at Lexington for the last 5 years of his life. During this period he served as a pallbearer at Robert E. Lee's funeral. Maury died February 1, 1873 and his remains were interred in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Va. A monument to Matthew Fontaine Maury was erected November 11, 1929.


Web- via www.Google.com
1. Matthew Fontaine Maury by William Maury Morris- 1996
2. All Hands- April 1998
3. Matthew Fontaine Maury Commander and Captain CSN- Navy Dept Library
4. The remarkable Ocean World- Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury
5. Pathfinder of the Seas- John Kirby
6. Cornell University Making of America- Matthew Fontaine Maury
7. Dabney H. Maury

Ancestral File- Family Search

1. "Gunsmoke Over the Atlantic- First Naval Actions of the Civil War" - Jack D Coombe, Bantem Books 2002
2. "By Sea and River" - Berm Anderson" - Da Capo Press, 1962
3. "The Confederate Navy - A Pictorial History" - Phillip Van Dorn Stern, Da Capo Press 1992
4. "Gray Raiders of the Sea" - Chester B Hearn, Louisiana State University Press 1996
5. "A History of the Confederate Navy" - Raimondo Luraghi, Naval Institute Press 1996