A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury/Chapter 10

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Exploration of the Amazon by Captain Herndon—Loss of the 'Central America'—Maury's official report of the shipwreck, and the death of her gallant commander—Monument to Herndon at Annapolis—Maury's Steam Lanes—Present of $5,000 and a service of plate from the merchants and underwriters of New York—Part of an address to the University of Virginia.

In consequence of his Inca Papers, and because of Maury's urgency on the subject, the Navy Department organized an exploring expedition for the Amazon and its tributaries, and placed it under the command of Lieut. William Lewis Herndon, U.S.N., who on his return from South American wrote a most instructive and valuable book, entitled, "Exploration of the Valley of the The Amazon".

This gallant officer whom Maury loved with a love "passing that of a woman" went down with his ship, the unfortunate 'Central America' in a storm off Cape Hatteras in 1857.

He lost his life in his devotion to duty, and while saving the women and children and passengers entrusted to his care. Maury being ordered by the Secretary of the Navy to prepare a report of the loss of this brave officer and his ship, wrote as follows:—

U.S. National Observatory, Washington, D.C.
Sir, Oct.19th, 1857

On the 12th day of Sept. last, at sea, the U.S. mail steamship, 'Central America,' with the California mails, many of the passengers and crew, and a large amount of treasure on board, foundered in a gale of wind.

The law requires the vessels of this line to be commanded by officers of the Navy, and Commander William Lewis Herndon had this one. He went down with his ship, leaving a glowing example of devotion to duty, Christian conduct, and true heroism.

All hopes of his having been picked up by some passing vessel have vanished. The survivors of the wreck have made their statements of the gale, the sinking of the ship, and their rescue. These have gone the rounds of the newspaper press, and we are probably possessed of all the particulars concerning that awful catastrophe that the public will ever know.

The department has already been informed officially of this wreck and disaster—how nobly Herndon stood to his post and gloriously perished—how the women and children were all saved, and how he did all that man could do, or officer should, to save his ship and crew also. But the particulars have been given to the department only in the perishable form of the newspaper records.

As a tribute to his memory, as material for history, as an heirloom in the nave, and a legacy to his country, I desire to place on record in the department this simple writing as a memorial of him.

We were intimates; I have known him from his boyhood; he was my kinsman and my wife's brother. The ties of consanguinity, as well as our professional avocations, brought us frequently and much together; we were close friends.

Under these circumstances, I ask your leave to file a report of that gale and his loss. I am to embody in it a simple narrative of incident derived from statements which the survivors from the wreck have made either publicly, through the prints of the day, or privately to his family and friends. These incidents, in the silent influence of the lessons they teach, constitute an inheritance of rare value to his country men; they are the heirlooms of which I spoke, and will, I am persuaded, be productive of much good to the service. The 'Central America,' at the time of her loss, was bound from Aspinwall, via Havana to New York. She had on board, as nearly as has been ascertained, about two millions in gold, and 474 passengers, besides a crew, all told, of 101 souls—total, 575.

She touched at Havana on the 7th Sept. last, and put to sea again at nine o'clock on the morning of the 8th. The ship was apparently in good order, the time seemed propitious, and all hands were in fine health and spirits, for the prospects of a safe and speedy passage home were very cheering. The breeze was from the trade winds quarter at N.E.; but at midnight on the 9th it freshened to a gale, which continued to increase till the forenoon of Friday, Sept. 11th, when it blew up with great violence from N.N.E.

Up to this time the ship behaved admirably; nothing had occurred worthy of note, or in any way calculated to excite suspicions of her prowess, until the forenoon of that day, when it was discovered that she had sprung a leak. The sea was running high; the ship was very much heeled over on her starboard side, and laboured heavily; the leak was so large, that by 1 P.M. the water had risen high enough to extinguish the fires on one side, and stop the engine.

Baling gangs were set to work, the passengers cheerfully assisting, and all hands were sent over on the windward side to trim ship. Being relieved, in a measure, she righted, and the fires were relighted; but there was a very heavy sea on, and, in spite of pumps and baling gangs with their buckets, whips, and barrels, the water gained upon them, until it reached the furnaces and extinguished the fires again, never to be rekindled. This was Friday.

The ship was now at the mercy of the waves, and was wallowing in the trough of the sea like a log. She was a side wheel steamer, with not a little top hamper, and therefore an ugly thing to manage in such a situation. The storm-spencer had been blown away, and the fore-yard was cut down during the night. Attempts were made to get the ship before the wind, but no canvas was stout enough to stand the raging of the storm. After the head sails had been blown away, the Captain ordered the clews of the fore sail to be lashed down to the deck, thinking to hoist the yard up only a little way, show canvas, and get her off; but by the time the yard was well clear of the bulwarks, the sail was taken right out of the bolt ropes, so great was the force of the wind, and such the fury of the gale.

The fore mast was then cut away; the fore yard was converted into a drag and got overboard; bits of canvas also were spread in the rigging aft, hoping by these expedients, as a last resort, to bring the ship head to wind; but all to no purpose—she refused to come.

Crew and passengers worked manfully, pumping and baling all Friday afternoon and night, and when day dawned upon them, the violence of the storm was still increasing.

All that energy, professional skill, and seamanship could do to weather the storm and save the ship had been done. The tempest was still raging, resources were exhausted, the working parties were fagged out, and the Captain foresaw that his ship must go down.

Still there was some cause for hope: he might save life, even if he lost ship, mails, and treasure. He was in a frequented area of the ocean, and a passing vessel might come to the rescue of crew and passengers if they could manage to keep the ship afloat till the gale abated. He encouraged them with this hope, and asked for a rally. They responded with cheers. The lady passengers also offered to help, and the men went to work with a will, whipping up water by the barrelful to the steady measure of the sailors' working song.

The flag was hoisted union down, so that every vessel as she hove in sight might know they were in distress and wanted help.

Under this rally of crew and passengers they gained on the water for a little while; but they were worn out with the trial of the last night and day—they had not the strength to keep it under.

Finally, about noon of Saturday the 12th, the gale began to abate and the sky to brighten. A vessel hove in sight, saw the signal of distress, ran down to the steamer, was hailed, answered, and was asked for help; she could give none, and kept on her course.

At about 2 p.m. the brig 'Marine', Captain Burt, of Boston, bound from the West Indies to N.Y., heard minute-guns, and saw the steamer's signals of distress. She ran down to the sinking ship, and though very much crippled herself by the gale, promised to lay by. She passed under the steamer's stern, spoke, rounded to, and kept her word.

The steamer's boats were ordered to be lowered—the 'Marine' had none that could live in such a sea.

Now came another trying time: the boat-scenes of the steamer 'Arctic' had made a deep impression upon Herndon's mind; they now crowded into remembrance. Who of his crew should be selected to man the boats? Would they desert him when they got off from the ship in the boats? There were some who he knew would not.

It was not an occasion when the word might be passed for volunteers for it was the post of safety, not of danger, but nevertheless of great trust, that was to be filled. The Captain wanted trusty men. The crew of such a vessel is not very permanent as to its personnel, therefore he felt at a loss, for there was still a man wanting for Black—the boatswain's boat. A sailor, perceiving the Captain's dilemma, stepped up and modestly offered to go.

He had not, it may be supposed, been long in the ship, for Herndon evidently did not know him well, and replied, in his mild and gentle way, "I wonder if I can trust you?"

The sailor instinctively understood this call for a shibboleth, and simply said "I have hands that are hard to row, and a heart that is soft to feel." This was enough. He went, and was true; not a boat deserted that ship.

All the women and children were first sent to the brig, and every one arrived there in safety. Each boat made two loads to the brig, carrying in all 100 persons.

By this time night was setting in. The brig had drifted to leeward, several miles away from the steamer, and was so crippled that she could not beat up to her again.

Black's (the boatswain) boat alone returned the second time. Her gallant crew had been buffeting with the storm two days and nights without rest, and with little or no food. The boat itself had been badly stove while alongside with the last load of passengers. She was so much knocked to pieces as to be really unserviceable, nor could she have held another person. Still those brave seamen, inspired by the conduct and true to the trust reposed in them by their Captain, did not hesitate to leave the brig again, and pull back through the dark for miles, across an angry sea, that they might join him in his sinking ship, and take their chances with the rest.

Let us not call this rash, idle, or vain; it was conduct the most loyal, noble, and true. The names of this brave crew have not been given; otherwise I would suggest the propriety of making some formal acknowledgment of the high appreciation in which such devotion to duty and such conduct are; held by the department.

During the lowering of the boats and the embarkation women and children, there was as much discipline preserved among the crew of that ship, and as much order observed among her passengers, as was ever witnessed on board the best-regulated man-of-war.

The law requires every commander in the navy himself a good example of virtue and patriotism; to show in himself a good example of virtue and never was example more nobly set forth or beautifully followed. Captain Herndon, by those noble traits which have so endeared his memory to the hearts of his countrymen, had won the respect and admiration of the crew and passengers of that ship in such a degree as to acquire an influence over them that was marvellous in its effects. The women felt its force. Calm and resolute themselves, they encouraged and cheered the men at the pumps and in the gangways; and finally, to Herndon's last appeal for one more effort, they rose superior to their sex, and proposed to go on the deck themselves, and, with fair hands and feeble arms, do man's work in battling with the tempest.

There were many touching incidents of the most heroic personal devotion to duty, and to him, during that terrific storm. Even after the ship had gone down and the men were left in the water, clinging to whatever they could lay hands on, offices of knightly courtesy were passed among them.

As one of the last boats was about to leave the ship, her commander gave his watch to a passenger with the request that it might be delivered to his wife. He wished to charge him with a message for her also, but his utterance was choked. Tell her——." Unable to proceed, he bent down his head and buried his face in his hands for a moment as if in prayer, for he was a devout man and a Christian.

In that moment, brief as it was, he endured the great agony; but it was over now. His crowning thoughts no doubt had been of friends and home—a beloved wife and lovely daughter[1] dependent upon him alone for support. God and his country would care for them now. He had resolved to go down with his ship.

Calm and collected, he rose up from that short but mighty struggle with renewed vigour, and went with encouraging looks about the duties of the ship as before. He ordered the hurricane deck to be cut away and rafts to be made. The life preservers were also brought up and distributed to all who would wear them. Night was setting in, and he directed Frazer, the second officer, to take charge of the arm chest and send up a rocket every half hour.

Van Rennselaer, his first officer, was also by him. Herndon has spoken of him to me in terms of esteem and admiration, and Van Rennselaer proved himself worthy of the last of these commendations.

Side by side they stood at their post, and perished together with their harness on.

After the boat which bore Mr. Payne,—to whom Herndon had entrusted his watch—had shoved off, the Captain went to his stateroom and put on his uniform. The gold band around his cap was concealed by the oil silk covering which he usually wore over it. He took the covering off, and threw it on the floor; then, walking out, he took his stand on the wheelhouse, holding on to the iron railing with his left hand. A rocket was set off, the ship fetched her last lurch, and as she went down he uncovered.

A cry arose from the sea, but not from his lips. The waves had closed about him, and the curtain of night was drawn over one of the most sublime moral spectacles that the sea ever saw. Just before the steamer went down, a row-boat was heard approaching. Herndon hailed her; it was the boatswain's boat, rowed by "hard hands and gentle hearts," returning approaching from on board the brig to report her disabled condition. If she came alongside she would be engulfed with the sinking ship. Herndon ordered her to keep off. She did so, and was saved. This, so far as I have been able to learn, was his last order. Forgetful of self, mindful of others, his life was beautiful to the last, and in his death he has added a new glory to the annals of the sea.

Forty-nine of the passengers and crew were picked up, on the water that night and the next morning, by the Norwegian bark 'Ellen,' and brought safely into Norfolk. On the ninth day after the wreck, the English brig 'Mary' picked up three others, who had drifted about 450 miles with the Gulf Stream. Total saved, 152.

It does not appear certain that Captain Herndon was seen or heard after the ship went down, by any of those who survived the wreck. Mr. Childs, one of the passengers, thinks he conversed with him in the water only a little while before he himself was picked up but Herndon was small of stature, of delicate frame and constitution, and by no means in robust health. He was already suffering from the incessant labour and exposure of the last two days and that long Friday night. His fatigue must have been great, and when the waves closed over his ship he was in all probability much exhausted to struggle.

Everything that could be done by the best sea-captain to save his ship was done to save this one. Brave hearts and strong arms were on board. There was no lack of skill or of courage. Order and discipline were preserved to the last; and she went down under conduct that fills the heart with too unutterable admiration.

Herndon was in the forty-fourth year of his age. He was born in Fredericksburg, Va. He was the son of the late Dabney Herndon of that place, and was the fifth of seven children—five sons and two daughters, of whom Mrs. Maury is the elder. Lewis Herndon was left early an orphan, and entered the navy at the age of fifteen. Affectionate in disposition, soft and gentle in his manners, he won the love and esteem of his associates, and became a favourite throughout the service. None knew him better or loved him more than,

M. F. Maury, Lieutenant U.S.N.
To Hon. Isaac Toncey,
Secretary of the Navy,

There is a handsome monument elected to his memory in the parade ground of the Naval School at Annapolis, Md., on which is recorded the manner of his death, to the end that the future heroes of our service may read thereof and do likewise.

In 1855 Maury published a chart with two lanes laid down, each 25 miles broad, for the use of steamers going and returning across the Atlantic, by following which they avoid the danger of the frequent collisions which were then taking place with other steamers, sailing-vessels, and icebergs particularly amid the dense fogs which hang perpetually over the banks of Newfoundland.

The Montgomery Advertiser and Gazette, of May 20th, 1855 thus noticed the new chart:—


"This present enterprise is to suggest a method by which collisions between steamers plying between this country and Europe may be avoided.

"To accomplish this, Lieutenant Maury proposes a double track, and lays down a sailing route, or routes, by which it can be done. 'If steamers,' says Maury, 'would agree to follow two such routes, I think that I could lay them off so as to have them quite separate, except at the two ends, without materially lengthening the passage either way.'

"Circulars have been sent out with a view to gain the object contemplated. We agree with Professor De Bow's view—that Lieutenant Maury is certainly entitled to the rank of one of the greatest public benefactors of the age."[2]

These charts were generally adopted by the larger steamship companies, and in consequence of their satisfaction therewith, and the shortening of the routes everywhere by Maury's Sailing Directions and Wind and Current Charts, he was presented by the merchants and underwriters of New York with $5000 in gold and a handsome service of silver. This was in 1855.

In the same year, Maury delivered an address before the literary societies at the University of Virginia, of which the following are extracts:—


"In entering upon your duties as a citizen, recollect your excellent training here: it has given you many advantages; therefore, do not neglect to lay down rules of conduct by which they may be most improved.

"Whatever may be the degree of success that I have met with in life, I attribute it, in a great measure, to the adoption of such rules. One was, never to let the mind be idle for the want of useful occupation, but always to have in reserve subjects of thought or study for the leisure moments and the quiet hours of the night. When you read a book, let it be with the view to special information.

"The habits of mind to be thus attained are good, and the information useful.

"It is surprising how difficult one who attempts to follow this rule finds it at first to provide himself with subjects for thought—to think of something that he does not know.

In our ignorance our horizon is very contracted: mists, clouds, and darkness hang upon it, and self fills almost the entire view around, above, and below to the utmost verge. But as we study the laws of nature, and begin to understand about our own ignorance, we find light breaking through, the horizon expanding, and self getting smaller and smaller.

"It is like climbing a mountain: every fact or fresh discovery is a step upward with an enlargement of the view, until the unknown and the mysterious become boundless—self infinitely small; and then the conviction comes upon us with a mighty force, that we know nothing—that human knowledge is only a longing desire.

"The impression is very common, that when a young man leaves college he has finished his education; but do not, when you return home, crowned with the honours of these schools though you be, give in to this notion even for a moment; it is another of those mischievous popular fallacies that you should guard against. Here you have been disciplining the mind, training the thoughts, and laying off the fields in which they may be usefully employed. You have finished nothing here; you have only been clearing away rubbish and preparing the foundations; and notwithstanding that you have been under the eyes of the best masters, and have laid your foundations of the best materials and in the most scholarly manner, yet, like the foundations for any other superstructure, unless built upon, they will soon grow weak and be frittered away.

"If you cease to study now, you will soon forget all you have learned here.

"Movement, progress, is a law of the physical world; here rest and decay are correlative terms. The stars cannot stand still and keep their places; a planet by going back would be hurled into destruction, and even the plant of the earth that ceases to grow straightway withers and dies. And so it is in the moral world: the progress of man must be upwards and onward, or downward and backward. His mind cannot stand still. There is no such thing as a stationary condition for the human understanding. To stand still is death; to go backwards is worse.

"With the advantages of the good training which you have received here, yon cannot go amiss for subjects of study and improvement. The rock at your feet, the plant in every walk yon tread, the air that surrounds you, the insect that flits across your path, the stars that look down upon you, are all suggestive of knowledge. They abound in subjects which it is good for clear heads and sound minds to study and investigate.

"When the Spirit of God first moved on the face of the waters, the physical forces that produce the works of nature were brought into play. The wonders, the harmonies, and the beauties of creation are but the display of these forces. As exhibited in the aspects of nature, they are never-ceasingly instructive. In the silent hours of the night you may learn excellent lessons from them by watching the 'hosts of heaven.' I sometimes do this through the telescope; and of all the wonders and beauties that are revealed by this instrument, the simple passage of a star across the meridian is to me the most grand and imposing: it is exquisite—it is sublime! At the dead of night, when the noise of the city is hushed in sleep, and all is still, I sometimes go over alone to the Observatory to revel in this glorious spectacle. The assistants, wearied with watching, have retired to rest, and there is not a sound to be heard in the building save the dead-beat escapement of the clock, telling the footsteps of time in his ceaseless round. I take up the ephemeris, and find, by calculation made years ago, that a star which I have never seen will, when the hand of that clock points to a certain instant of time, enter the field of the telescope, flit across the meridian, and disappear. The instrument is set, and as the moment draws near, the stillness becomes more and more impressive. At last I look—it is glorious! A pure bright star is marching through the field to the music of the spheres; and at the very instant predicted, even to the fraction of a second, it stalks across the wire and is gone. The song that was sung by the morning stars has been felt, and the heart, swelling with emotions too deep for the organs of speech, almost bursts with the unutterable anthem.

"The machinery by which the forces of the universe are regulated and controlled is exquisite; and if it be instructive to study the mechanism of a watch, or profitable to understand the principles of the steam-engine, the contrivances of man's puny intellect, how much more profitable and instructive must it be to look out upon the broad face of nature and study that machinery which was planned and arranged in the perfection of wisdom!

"If you be at first a little sceptical as to this order and arrangement, taking the harmonies of nature for discord, you will soon feel satisfied that the machinery of the universe—that mechanism which gives nature her powers to act—is, in all its parts, the expression of one thought, as much so as the works of a watch are of one design; that the same hand which weighed the earth and gave gravitation its force, adjusted the fibres of the little snowdrop and proportioned their strength.

"The forces displayed in the blade of grass, in the wing of the bird, and in the flaming path of the comet as it whirls around the sun, are all adjusted with equal nicety and care. Chance has nothing to do with the works of nature; yet there are many of her operations which, upon partial study only, do look like the results of accident. Botanists tell us of some: they say that certain plants have not the power of scattering their pollen—it is glutinous, and will not fly with the wind—but as the insects come to suck the flower it adheres to them; they, lighting on other blossoms, deposit there in the right place for germination; nay, students of these things go so far as to say that the fig-crop of Smyrna, which alone supports thousands of human beings, could not be brought forth if a certain little insect were to fail, regularly and at the right time, to perform certain offices for this plant. But are not insects as well as plants agents and instruments of the Creator? Have they not their appointed offices to perform in the economy of the universe? And has the insect any more ability to resist the power of instinct than a good seed in good ground has to resist the forces of germination?

"In studying the works of nature, therefore, discard the idea that they are the results of chance or accident. In the mind of the truth-loving, knowledge-seeking student, the coming of the gall-fly in due season to minister to the fig-tree of Smyrna and make it bear fruit for hungry thousands, is no more the work of chance than it was by chance that the raven carried 'bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening, to the prophet at the brook.'"

  1. This daughter became the wife of Chester A. Arthur, subsequently President of the United States
  2. See 'Ville du Havre' disaster in 1874. The London Times, in speaking of the loss of this ship remarked—"If she had followed Maury's steam lanes, this terrible loss of life and ship would have been avoided."