Ocean Pathfinder Maury Swamped by Culture Wave

Lt. M.F. Maury in 1853

Today we get the attempted cancellation of Matthew Fontaine Maury, one of the world’s greatest oceanographers. Having had his memory preserved on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, and having served the Confederate States Navy, any scientific contributions he made before or after the war are hereby nullified, despite worldwide acclaim. The crane is at his statue as I write.

I was going to write my own summary, but the irony of finding a glowing account of his life on the PBS website was too rich.  For far more detail, there is this on Wikipedia, until they come for that, too.  The Wikipedia article does get into his views on slavery, and his idea to settle parts of the Amazon with American slaveholders and their property. His postwar views, if amended, are not mentioned.

UPDATE: A writer at Virginia Mercury adds this report Maury remained unreconstructed and unrepentant in the immediate aftermath. 

Here’s the PBS report on this man who clearly must be erased from memory:

A Naval officer and pioneer in the emerging field of oceanography, Matthew Fontaine Maury was nicknamed the “Pathfinder of the Seas.” Maury gave crucial support to Cyrus Field and the idea of a transatlantic cable by showing Field the route that a cable could take across the ocean.

Circling the Globe
Raised in Tennessee, Maury yearned to follow in his brother’s footsteps and join the Navy. In 1825, at the age of 19, he received a midshipman’s commission with the help of Sam Houston. Maury spent much of the next nine years at sea, participating in three extended voyages including the first circling of the globe by a U.S. Navy vessel. Dissatisfied with current naval books on navigation, Maury set about to improve them, and his A New Theoretical and Practical Treatise on Navigation was published in 1836.

Observer of the Oceans
Badly injured in a stagecoach accident in 1839, Maury could no longer serve at sea, so he was assigned to run first the Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments, where he found a repository of ships’ logs from every Navy voyage; and then the newly-formed United States Naval Observatory. Maury would head the Observatory from 1844 to 1861, spending his time charting the winds and currents of the world’s oceans and publishing the first Wind and Current Charts in 1847. As Maury had noted after an earlier voyage, “The calm belts of the sea, like mountains on the land, stand mightily in the way of the voyager. Like mountains on the land, they have their passes and their gaps.” His charts showed mariners where to find those passes and gaps, and Maury was able to plot a course that reduced the time for a sea voyage from New York to San Francisco by 47 days.

The Telegraph Plateau
In 1853 Maury served as the American representative to an international maritime conference in Brussels that developed uniform meteorological standards. That summer the captain of the U.S.S. Dolphin, Lieutenant Otway Henry Berryman, conducted a series of deep-sea soundings from Newfoundland to Ireland. In February 1854 Maury was composing a letter to the Secretary of the Navy with the results of the soundings when he received a communication from Field, asking about the feasibility of a transatlantic cable. Maury sent Field a copy of his letter, which stated in part that the soundings had revealed the existence of a plateau “which seems to have been placed there especially for the purpose of holding the wires of a submarine telegraph, and of keeping them out of harm’s way.” This geological formation, which Maury dubbed the “telegraph plateau,” would prove the ideal route for Field’s cable.

Oceanography and Lecture Tours
Maury published his The Physical Geography of the Sea, the first American oceanography textbook, in 1855. Like other scientists of the time, he turned to lecturing to supplement his income, describing one such 1858 tour in letters home to his wife. Maury estimated he had covered 1,844 miles in 12 November days and made $540; tickets to his lectures sold for 50 cents and he candidly admitted, “Am afraid of empty benches.” Ever the geographer, Maury instructed his children to find his location on a map “and trace me from place to place.”

Confederate Agent
Growing sectional tensions in America began to occupy more and more of Maury’s attention, and while returning from a trip to England in December 1860, he wrote his daughter, “I fear the Union is gone.” When war came, Maury resigned from the Navy and accepted a post with the Confederacy, serving as its agent in London. He lived in England for a number of years after the war, eventually returning to America and serving as professor of meteorology at Virginia Military Institute. Maury died in 1873, having been knighted for his accomplishments by four foreign governments. Four Navy ships would also bear his name.

I’ve always felt a small connection because I lived for more than two years on an idyllic bend in the Maury River outside Lexington, tubing and fishing it regularly. That name will be changed soon, I’m sure. No trace can remain.


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48 responses to “Ocean Pathfinder Maury Swamped by Culture Wave

  1. We have reached the point where the totality of a person’s life is immaterial. It is only that they owned slaves or were on the wrong side of the Civil War. Last week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal pointing out that there were a lot of sinners in the Bible and they went on to become saints.
    Mob rule eradicates any sense of proportion.

  2. Off with his head!

  3. It’s sad how folks are looking only at the one period of the lives of those who past generations honored. We all have been the best of ourselves and the worst of ourselves. I wonder whether those who are crying for the removal of statues have even taken the time to learn about those who are represented there?

  4. The Maury is a favorite paddling river upstream of Lexington. Maury was born in Spotsylvania and we have some things named after him and some memorials.


    Maury was not without controversy hand some serious run-ins with the scientific community and there is some thinking that he he joined the Confederacy to get out of Washington:

    “He believed (incorrectly) that variations in salinity were more important than variations in temperature in causing currents, and he was also the principal exponent of the idea that the sea around the North Pole is free of ice.

    Maury’s failure to revise his theories in the light of criticism and new evidence, and his aggressive promotion in Congress of his own brand of science, brought him increasingly into conflict with the leaders of the growing American scientific community. At first Maury was given the place that his position in Washington merited. He was one of the founders of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which in 1849 formed one committee to urge more funds for Maury’s charts and appointed. Maury himself to several others. But in 1851, when a cmmittee was formad to organize the land meteorology of North America, Maury was not appointed. His claim that he should organize observations on land as he had on the ocean was a threat to the network established by Joseph Henry at the Smithsonian Institution, and in the presidential address to the A.A.A.S. in that year Alexander Dallas Bache spoke of the dangers to American science “from a modified charlatanism, which makes merit in one subject an excuse for asking authority in others, or in all”


    • Probably would have been a climate denier, too. Those kind of scientific disputes are the key to the whole process, Larry! Most of his honors came after the war, so his reputation must have remained intact.

  5. So this guy Maury was a Richmonder, right? Like Robert E Lee was a Richmonder, right? Like Stonewall Jackson was a Richmonder, right? Like Jefferson Davis was a Richmonder, right?

    What is Richmond trying to celebrate with these statues – it’s certainly not Richmond. The only statue of a Richmonder is Arthur Ashe and erecting that statue was an embarrassing fiasco. Side note: Ashe was also the only winner.

    What is Richmond’s message? Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy so the city will celebrate the Confederacy? It sure seems that way. Here’s a news flash for upper crust Richmonders – the vast majority of Americans see no reason to celebrate the Confederacy. Obviously, black Americans see no reason to celebrate those who would have perpetuated their enslavement. But beyond that – a lot of white Americans (like me) who had forefathers that went to war to put down a treasonous insurrection see no reason to celebrate the traitors who started a war that killed more Americans than any other war in US history.

    What is the message that Richmond is trying to send with these statues of non-Richmonders? That the Confederacy was good? A noble undertaking? A sadly “lost cause”?

    Why is this guy Maury relevant to Richmond? Why not a statue of Jaques Cousteau?

    Here’s a dose of reality from yet another “Yankee” who grew up in Northern (occupied) Virginia:

    1. The Confederacy was an immoral, treasonous, traitorous plot against the United States with a primary goal of preserving the horrendous practice of slavery.

    2. The Confederacy lost. In fact, it got its ass handed to it ultimately surrendering unconditionally.

    3. The “heroes” depicted in statue form in Richmond are not Richmond natives. The only thing they have in common is that they were affiliated with the Confederacy.

    4. To the vast majority of Virginians and Americans Richmond’s glorification of the Confederacy is an embarrassment.

    It’s time for Richmond to grow up and move on. Find something else to celebrate besides the Confederacy. If you want to celebrate Virginia then get working on statues of Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Matt Ridgeway. If you want to celebrate Richmond then build statues of Tom Wolfe, Warren Beatty, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson …

    But ENOUGH ALREADY with the worship of the Confederacy.

    • DJ very probably channels much of NoVa citizens thinking about this issue.

      Older White Virginians, Richmonders are shocked and really mad that the public-square world they have lived in – is being dismantled.

      Folks who live in NoVa see Richmond as an anachronism and an anathema, NOT”southern heritage” and those who have lived there for decades take umbrage to that view.

      It is time to change – it’s past time – the opportunity was there to do it gracefully over decades but it was not taken and now polite “asks” are no longer.

      • As ye sow, so shall ye reap. I’m not going to defend the generals, but happy to note that a VIRGINIAN with a worldwide reputation as a scientific pioneer is being removed along with them, so let’s mention him one last time. Had he merely served the Confederate navy, he would not be so remembered.

        • There is more than one statue/memorial to Maury – I’m betting most of them survive.

          • Steve Haner

            As they say in bridge, double.

          • Steve, I understand what “double” means in bridge. Not sure what you are intending to “double” here. But then again, I didn’t sleep well last night, so my brain is not working very well. And did you mean to say you were happy that Maury’s statute was being removed? In context of your comment, that part didn’t exactly flow. It was sorta like, “It is quicker to New York or by bus.” 😉

          • Steve Haner

            Double as in he won’t make his bid. He’s overly optimistic. Probably too obscure.

        • The problem is that all the big statues seem to have one thing in common – they were Confederates. It’s a shame that Richmond didn’t erect statues that honored all kinds of Virginians, including a few Confederates. Get started now on Russell Wilson.

          • I’ll disagree with you on Russell Wilson. I do not think statues of sports figures should be publicly funded.

            But then again, there are a lot of publicly-funded things that I don’t think should be publicly funded, so I’m probably in the minority.

          • yeah, I’m not sure of entertainers and sports figures unless maybe they are favorite sons or some such… approval of community, etc.

            Typically – folks that have made genuine humanitarian contributions or similar or memorials to groups of people who have made contributions.

            We have in Fredericksburg – the Lloyd Moss Free Clinic and it’s housed in the Carl D. Silver clinic. Certainty fitting for their names to be used that way, cannot imagine anyone or any group opposing.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      You wish has been granted Mr. DJ. Now what?

    • Just so you know, Don, there is a statue of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Also, there is also a statue of Maggie Walker in Richmond. My favorite statue in the city is the Civil Rights Memorial in Capitol Square, with likenesses of Barbara Johns, Oliver Hill, and Spotswood Robinson. So, there is some progress.

      • Even Lincoln down at Tredegar.

      • But, God willing, there will NEVER be a statue of Warren Beatty… anywhere… I think he is a simply awful actor…

        Ella Fitzgerald on the other hand? Wow, what a voice. There is a statue of her – in Yonkers, where she spent a good portion of her childhood. This seems appropriate since although she was born in Newport News, her family moved to New York when she was two.

        I was just listening to her the other day. Last week I watched the movie “New Orleans” on TCM, which prompted me to dust off my Billie Holiday records, which led to breaking out some Louis Armstrong recordings, which led to breaking out some Ella Fitzgerald recordings…. Such good music.

      • Good. Keep building statues of famous Virginians and move from “confederate history city” to “Virginia History City”. Until that happens the over-emphasis on Confederates is going to justifiably upset some people. I nominate Matt Ridgeway and Chesty Puller.

        • James Wyatt Whitehead V

          Nobody is coming back to Richmond to enjoy history anytime soon, maybe for a generation. That is the price that will be paid for what is happening. Ridgway is out. One of the leaders of the occupation of the Philippines in the 1930s. Also one of the “Wise Men” who pushed Johnson to expand the Vietnam War. Puller is out. His hero was Stonewall Jackson. His grandfather was KIA riding with JEB Stuart at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford.

    • Well, it is the state capital… so that’s where you put things.

      Kinda like DC is where you put the National Zoo, and the National Aquarium, and… oh no, wait.

  6. that thing on Monument Avenue is a monstrosity anyhow… someone had to be smoking something when they commissioned it…

    • And he’s an art critic! So much to offer….

      • oh, not just me and not sure it’s “art”….at least in the conventional sense:

        ” Monument Avenue is famous for its statues of Confederate leaders. Lee, Stuart and Jackson sit atop their steeds. Davis gazes on foot upon Richmond.

        But the fifth Rebel – the man with the world above his shoulders – is an oddball.

        Yes, he was an officer in the Confederate navy during the Civil War. But Matthew Fontaine Maury – the “Pathfinder of the Seas” – was better known for his work in oceanography and other sciences before the Civil War.

        The statue at Monument and Belmont avenues in the Museum District reflects those achievements. Under a stormy globe, Maury is surrounded by fish, birds, bats and other creatures.

        “It was so different from the others on Monument Avenue,” said John Grady of Fairfax County, who came across the Maury monument almost by accident years ago. Grady later wrote the biography, “Matthew Fontaine Maury, Father of Oceanography.”

        Indeed, Richmond sculptor Frederick William Sievers’ design was a radical departure from the conventional military theme of his Stonewall Jackson statue.

        Shortly before the Maury monument’s unveiling in 1929, Sievers shared with the RTD his mindset about the new work: “The whole idea may be termed an allegory of the sphere of Maury’s mind, which was nothing less than the entire universe.”

        In representing a storm on land and sea, Sievers said he uses fish to symbolize general marine investigation, while shells denote mapping the sea floor. Swallows and bats represent the air by day and night. The globe symbolizes geography, and wind suggests meteorology. He said the humans are looking forward, with hope, for Maury’s help.

        Maury holds sea charts and a compass, and he “is portrayed in a reminiscent attitude, listening to the voice of the storm,” the sculptor said.

        In a book about Monument Avenue, author Matthew Mace Barbee wrote that the Maury monument was “remarkably modern. … Sievers’ design not only emphasized the global importance of Maury’s penetrating knowledge, it marked an important break from the visual rhetorics of the Lost Cause” – a school of thought that glorified the Confederacy.”

        • Why not Richard Byrd?

          • Nope. I heard he once said something bad… about… someone… some time… 😉

            Of course, if he does get a statue it cannot be in Richmond because he was from Winchester…

        • James Wyatt Whitehead V

          Maury was born in Spotsylvania. If you drive the Jackson Flank March Route on the Chancellorsville Battlefield you will pass a small monument (shhhh don’t tell the Yankees) in his honor. It is near Catherine’s Furnace where the Yankees blew a chance to stop Stonewall Jackson from his epic flank march to the rear of Maj. Gen. Oliver “Oh No” Howard’s command.

  7. Move it to the Naval Observatory.

    Too bad, there was a time in the last 10 years when a case could have been made to save some statues while bargaining from a winning position was possible.

    But nooooo.

    • Opposing the confederate statues has merit. That is an issue primarily in the states of the old confederacy.

      Opposing all the works, all of the great men and women and all of the institutions and legacies, like the American Constitution, of Western civilization does not.

      That is the approach being pressed all over the United States by the products of most of our colleges and universities, dominated by the left since their takeover in the 60’s. Most members of that mob are white, often trust fund babies. I have a couple in my extended family. They are willfully blind to the value of the heritage they reject.

      Those of us who saw it happening knew and discussed what was coming, but were unable to stop it. We now reap the whirlwind. The violence threatens the safety of all.

      I think there will be a big, not yet understood backlash at the voting booths in the fall. We’ll see.

  8. FYI, to return to a topic from yesterday, Chapter 119 of the 1890 Acts of Assembly offered legal protection to the Confederate monument in downtown Alexandria, at Prince and Washington streets. So that was also repealed by the 2020 legislation. That one is gone already, right? (Thank you to the unnamed soul who sent me a photocopy…)

    You are correct, Nancy, an opening was there and obvious after 2017, but nobody had any guts. Ironically, the new practice of using the Lee Monument as a canvas for slide projection shows how that sought after “context” could have been provided and the statue be even more of an educational tool.

  9. Nice post about Maury, Steve. I knew about him generally, but not all those details. It is too bad the memorial to him was placed on Monument Avenue, thereby linking him to the generals. His role in the war was largely tangential. Maybe his statue can be transferred to the VMI campus, where he did teach for a few years. However, it probably would be more appropriate at the Naval Observatory, as Nancy suggested.

    I marvel at how people like him, with no formal education, were able to make such important advances in scientific fields.

    I have always thought Lexington would be the ideal place to live in Virginia. And you were thre for two years, living next to the Maury River? You must have been possessed by some evil spell for you to have left.

    • Hmmm. Annapolis doesn’t offer a formal education? 🙂 Yes, it was nice, and the honeymoon period of our marriage, but a chance to return to the main newsroom in the big city of Big Lick drew me away. We thought about retiring there. Looking better all the time. From this desk I can see a painting of Main Street looking toward VMI, and another one of House Mountain.

      RTD online also reports removal of two small monuments built around cannon barrels that simply marked the site of the city’s fortifications. There is another one of those up Brook Road, which I guess will also disappear. But erasing history is not the goal….Civil War? Never happened.

      • “Civil War? Never happened.”

        What’s that old saying about history and someone being doomed to repeat something?

        Oh, never mind, it was most likely uttered by some old dead European guy anyway, so it’s not worth remembering…

      • While reading one of your posts on reporting and newspapers it reminded me of something a British friend of ours said at dinner in Dallas during a discussion of news in America and Europe.

        It was prompted by coverage in the Dallas Morning News ( Snooze).

        “In Europe, international news is what people are doing in other lands. In America, international news is what Americans are doing in other lands. In Dallas, international news is how the Cowboys did in Washington yesterday.”

      • I misunderstood your post and did not realize he went to Annapolis.

    • I believe that Lexington is indeed the #1 place to retire in Virginia. It is relatively inexpensive for what’s there. The two colleges provide a wealth of culture. There is a “downtown” life. It is a short drive to a clear ton of activities, vineyards, state parks, etc. There is more than adequate medical services available. The list goes on.

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