Matthew Maury, an avid oceanographer, was a noted marine scientist and captain. He claimed to be responsible for the discovery of underwater volcanoes, oceanic canyons and hydrothermal vent communities. Though some of the claims are questionable, he was a good scientist that took on a difficult job and rose to the challenge.

Matthew Maury’s legacy as a national treasure is complicated. He’s considered one of the world’s first research oceanographers, credited with the first accurate measurement of the Gulf Stream. His work also inspired the oceanographic research of his grandson, Matthew Fontaine Maury, the namesake of the nation’s premier meteorological command. But as the illustrious 19th-century Maury family has been reduced to two branches, their varied legacies have been overshadowed by this: Florence Maury, granddaughter of Matthew Fontaine Maury, is best known as a Nazi sympathizer who held a top-secret position in the U.S. government during World War II.

Scientist Matthew Maury revolutionized navigation methods, but his racial views have turned him into a scourge.

Matthew Maury, a world-renowned scientist and former United States Navy commander, lay on the deck of a blockade runner leaving Charleston, South Carolina, for England in October 1862, sextant in hand. Maury had fought with the Confederacy’s commanders about protecting the Confederate coastline after quitting his service to join the Confederacy. They had sent him to England, purportedly to search for ships, after finding him to be a thorn in their sides. Maury volunteered to design a route by the stars for the blockade runner’s captain, who had lost his way. Maury, 55, had not been at sea in almost two decades, but he was soon declaring a new route that would get the ship to Bermuda by 2 a.m. That hour passed, but Maury’s nautical navigation skills were confirmed when he arrived at the Bermuda coast within 10 minutes. He systematized the old, amorphous technique of crowd-sourcing logbook notes on winds, rain, currents, and even whale migrations throughout the course of his career, resulting in routes that reduced some trips by 30 days. That accomplishment paved the way for Maury’s next project: the National Weather Service. He developed underwater mines and torpedoes along the way, as well as assessing the possibility of installing transatlantic telegraph wire on the seabed. 

Matthew Fontaine Maury was the most colorful, talented, and dedicated to White supremacy person in the Confederacy. Maury was born into a family of Huguenots who arrived in Virginia in the early 1700s, and he spent most of his childhood in Franklin, Tennessee, where his slave-holding parents operated a not-so-successful farm. Maury, the seventh of nine children, followed in his older brother’s footsteps and joined the Navy. Despite his father’s concerns, he enlisted as a midshipman in 1825. He spent nine years at sea, traveling from Brazil to the Marquesas Islands and learning navigation, Spanish, and spherical geometry on the way. That career came to a screeching end in 1839. His right leg was shattered in a carriage accident in Virginia, barring him from maritime service.

Maury remained a lieutenant at half pay for the following few years. He made a name for himself as a journalist, writing anonymous and often caustic newspaper articles exposing Navy corruption. His comments drew enough official notice that he was assigned to manage the navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments, a Washington, DC-based organization that also served as the United States Naval Observatory, in 1842. Rivals believed Lt. Maury did not deserve the post because he lacked astronomy expertise, but he compensated with other talents, establishing an image as a man of science for the public good. Maury jumped right in, spending nights at the observatory, which was situated on a swampy stretch of Georgetown so infested with mosquitoes that he and his colleagues suffered from malaria on a regular basis. He also advocated for the establishment of the United States Naval Academy.

Ten naval nations gathered in Belgium in 1853 at Maury’s request for a meeting that resulted in an agreement that all parties would collect oceangoing data and communicate their findings with the US Naval Observatory in return for obtaining US ocean charts. The US would provide blank logbooks for recording the data, as well as empty bottles with blank logs corked inside that would be thrown overboard and recovered by passing boats and recorded as floating markers. Conference host Leopold I of Belgium praised the utilization of a ship as a “floating observatory, a temple of knowledge,” according to John Grady’s in-depth biography of Maury. More than 137,000 boats were collecting wind, rain, and current information by the late 1850s. Some commercial routes were significantly reduced as a result of the data, saving millions of dollars in shipping expenses. Maury suggested separate transatlantic maritime lanes for east and west traffic to assist captains avoid accidents at sea.

Maury was among the Navy commanders who were abruptly dismissed in 1856, perhaps as a result of competitors like Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution and Senator Stephen Mallory (D-Florida), who headed a naval affairs committee. Maury battled hard to save his commission, and he was successful. “The fundamental matter at stake is a sectional one; and with the South, it is a question of empire,” he wrote as the national divide over slavery deepened. Increase in number, increase in number, and fill the earth…” Maury envisioned America’s slaveholding empire extending not just into the American West but also into Cuba and Brazil, as did many Southerners. 

The Complicated Legacy of Matthew Maury, the ‘Scientist of the Seas’ The Atlantic and Indian Ocean wind patterns are shown in a 19th-century German chart based on Maury’s research. (Alamy Stock Photo/Paul Fearm)

Maury tendered his resignation and volunteered his services to the Confederacy after Virginia seceded in April 1861. Mallory, his adversary, was one of the group’s commanders. Maury experimented with electrically detonated torpedoes, and Confederate ships equipped with his innovations destroyed 55 Union ships attempting to blockade Confederate ports. In 1862, he went to England to cash in on his fame and, if possible, obtain ships for the Confederacy. Maury acquired a few ships and proceeded to develop explosives.

The remaining Confederate soldiers surrendered in November 1865. Maury contacted Emperor Ferdinand Maximilian in Mexico, now a man without a nation, and pitched a plan to recruit former Confederates and freed Blacks to create a slaveholding colony. His plan backfired. Maximilian was executed by the Mexican opposition in June 1867, by which time Maury had made his way to England. With his hatred towards ex-Confederates waning, he returned to the United States in 1870 and proceeded to work at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, the birthplace of Washington and Lee University, which Robert E. Lee ruled over until his death in 1870. Maury was assigned the task of assessing Virginia’s resources in order to reconstruct the damaged state. However, he did not live long, dying in 1873. 

Until then, Maury advocated for a large-scale collection of meteorological data—a database of patterns and predictions that would be as helpful to farmers as marine data had been to shippers. Around 1870, the telegraph was first used to gather and distribute weather reports. Maury’s works, like the National Weather Service, have survived him, notably his 1855 The Physical Geography of the Sea. The earth’s surface was compared to the bed of an unseen ocean of atmosphere in one famous phrase. (The book is said to have been used by Jules Verne.) Some questioned Maury’s scientific credentials since had woven his Christian ideas into his findings, producing a religio-mystical tone. “It is the girdling surrounding air that makes the entire universe kin,” he said. “…without atmosphere, the bald earth, as it rotated on its axis, would turn its tanned and weakened face to the full and unmitigated rays of the lord of the day,” he added. 

Maury was an appealing figure for proponents of the Lost Cause—the doctrine that envisioned a brave, chivalric South crushed by its industrial foe’s superior resources and military numbers—and an unrepentant White nationalist. His name may be seen on highways and schools across the United States, notably Maury Hall at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Elvira Worth Moffitt, a wealthy preservationist, spearheaded a lengthy effort to build a Maury monument on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. Maury was depicted as a careful navigator in “Pathfinder,” which was dedicated on Armistice Day in 1929 as a gesture toward peace. Maury’s unwavering devotion to extending slaveholding into the “American Mediterranean,” as he termed it, has tainted his scientific legacy. When Mayor Levar Stoney ordered the removal of Confederate monuments and emblems from perches around the city in the summer of 2023, “Pathfinder” was one of them.


The August 2023 edition of American History Magazine published this article. To subscribe, go to this link.

Matthew Maury was a famous American naval officer and explorer who contributed to marine science by discovering the Gulf Stream."}},{"@type":"Question","name":"What was Matthew Maurys greatest accomplishment?","acceptedAnswer":{"@type":"Answer","text":" Matthew Maurys greatest accomplishment was his invention of the printing press."}},{"@type":"Question","name":"What did Matthew Fontaine Maury?","acceptedAnswer":{"@type":"Answer","text":" Matthew Fontaine Maury was a naval officer who served in the American Civil War. He is best known for his work with the U.S. Navy and as an author of several books on navigation and oceanography."}}]}

Frequently Asked Questions

What were Matthew Maurys contributions to marine science?

Matthew Maury was a famous American naval officer and explorer who contributed to marine science by discovering the Gulf Stream.

What was Matthew Maurys greatest accomplishment?

Matthew Maurys greatest accomplishment was his invention of the printing press.

What did Matthew Fontaine Maury?

Matthew Fontaine Maury was a naval officer who served in the American Civil War. He is best known for his work with the U.S. Navy and as an author of several books on navigation and oceanography.

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