A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury/Chapter 13

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Breaking out of the civil war—Maury's letter to Bishop Otey—His Appeals to the (Governors of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware—Letters to Mr. Hasbrouck of Newburgh—Lincoln's Proclamation calling on Virginia to furnish troops to subjugate S. Carolina—Reply of Virginia—Maury resigns his commission and leaves Washington—Offers from the Grand Duke Constantine and from France—Maury's reply—Defence of Maury decision in letters to a friend—Maury appointed Chief of the Sea-coast, Harbour, and River Defences in the South.

We have now followed the subject of this biography to the period when he had reached the highest point of his worldly prosperity. The National Observatory, under his able management, was daily increasing in usefulness; from nothing it had sprung into an institution of the first rank. An important astronomical work, on which he had been long engaged, entitled 'Astronomical Observations, Cataloguing the Stars' was progressing satisfactorily; other projects which he had devised for the advancement of science seemed on the point of realization, when the great storm of civil war burst upon him in the midst of his useful labours.

Maury made earnest efforts to avert war, maintain peace, and insure to the South her equal rights in the Union* He addressed pathetic appeals to the Governors of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware, "to stand in the breach and stop this fratricidal strife."

To Governor Packer, of Pennsylvania he wrote:—

Dear Sir, Observatory, Washington, Jan. 3rd, 1860.

When the affairs of a nation are disturbed, quiet people, however humble their station, may be justified in stepping a little out of their usual way. In all exertions of duty, something is to be hazarded; and I am sure you have only time to hear what I wish to write—none to listen to apologies for venturing to write you this letter. You recollect that, in the nullification times of South Carolina, Virginia stepped forward as mediator, and sent her commissioners to that State with the happiest results. But we are now in the midst of a crisis, more alarming to the peace and integrity of the Union than those memorable times. We have the people, in no less than seven of those States, assembling, or preparing to assemble, in their sovereign capacity to decide, in the most solemn manner known to them, whether they will remain in the Union or no. The most remarkable feature in the whole case is, it appears to me, this—that here we have a national family of States that have lived together in unity for nearly three-score years and ten, and that a portion of them are preparing to dissolve these family ties and break up the Union, because—because of what, sir? Ask legislators, ask governors, ask whom you will, and there are as many opinions as to the causes of discontent and the measures of redress, as there are leaves in the forest. At no time have the people of any one of the discontented States, acting in their sovereign capacity, even authorized a remonstrance to be made to their sister States of the North against their course of action. We have heard a great deal of this from politicians, partisans and others, but if the people of any one of the Southern States, acting in their sovereign capacity, have ever remonstrated with the people of the Northern States as to the causes of dissatisfaction and complaint, and thus laid the matter formally before you of the North, I cannot call it to mind. Neither has any Northern State so much as inquired of the people of any Southern State, either as to the cause of their offence, or as to the terms and conditions upon which they would be willing to remain in the Union. It does appear to me that iii and out of Congress we are all at sea with the troubles that are upon us; that the people, and the people alone, are capable of extricating us. You, my dear sir, and your State—not Congress—have it in your power to bring the people into the "fair way" of doing this. This brings me to the point of my letter—then why will not the great State of Pennsylvania step forth as mediator between the sections? Authorize your commissioner to pledge the faith of this State, that their ultimatum shall not only be laid before the people of the keystone State, assembled likewise in their sovereign capacity, but that she will recommend it to her sister States of the North, for like action on their part, and so let the people, and not the politicians, decide whether this Union is to be broken up.

I am sanguine enough to believe that the great body of the Southern people entertain opinions, sentiments, and feelings in Conformity with my own in this matter. With distinguished consideration, I have the honour to be,

Respectfully, &c.,
M. F. Maury.

To His Excellency Gov. Wm. F. Packer,
Harrisburg, Pa.


To Judge J. S. Black, of Penn., he also writes:—

Dear Judge, Observatory, Jan. 3rd, 1860.

I have an abiding faith that if we can draw a proposition from the people of any one of the Southern States before things get too far, all may yet be well.

If you think with me, please lend a hand to stir up Pennsylvania to mediate, and send a commissioner for the purpose.

In haste, yours truly,
M. F. Maury.


To a Friend in Newburgh.

Right in the middle of the Atlantic,
On board steamer 'New York,'

My dear H., December 7th, 1860.

I sailed from New York 28th Oct, arrived in London 14th Nov., left again Nov. 27th, and sailed from Southampton Nov. 28th, having accomplished the immediate object of my visit, which was to copyright the new edition of the 'Physical Geography of the Sea, and its Meteorology' This is almost a new work. In England, I have dedicated it to Lord Wrottesley, who has assisted the cause (of meteorology) so much; and in the U. S., I have dedicated it to Wm. C. Hasbrouck, of Newburgh, who has been such a good and true friend to the author from early youth till now.

Till now! Do we belong to the same country yet, Hasbrouck? A queer question to ask, you will say; but you must recollect that I left home before the elections—have not seen a Southern paper since; and the latest accounts I have seen from the U. S. are contained in the New York Herald of the 13th, 14th, and 15th of last month—over three weeks ago! The people of South Carolina and C. have been more precipitate than I anticipated; and now, my friend, unless you good men of the North and South will bestir yourselves, and take matters into your own hands, and out of those of the politicians, I fear me—I fear me, we shall not be long of one country!. . .

I was very much engaged while in London with the business that took me there. I received much consideration, and was brought into social intercourse with the best people of the realm, all of which was very charming, but, after all, not worth the absence from my dear home, the sweet wife and dear children with which each of us is blessed, and which makes home the sweetest place on the face of this earth. Good-bye.

M. F. Maury.

Dear H., Observatory, March 4th, 1861.

. . . . The new President is now on his way to the capitol, and the Express reports "All Quiet," as I took it for granted it would be. I have no idea of any disturbance, or any attempt even at a plot. Of course, you will see the Inaugural as soon, if not sooner, than I shall, for, having the telegraph, Mr. Lincoln may literally speak his polyglot through tongues of fire. Officers of the Army and Navy—should war come between the sections—will have a hard time; and, indeed, who will not? No military man can permit himself to accept service with a mental reservation.[1] All who are foes of his flag, and whom his country considers enemies of hers, are enemies of his; therefore, if we have war between the sections, every man who continues in "Uncle Sam's" service, is, in good faith, bound to fight his own, if his own be on the other side. The line of duty, therefore, is to me clear—each one to follow his own State, if his own State goes to war; if not, he may remain to help on the work of reunion.

If there be no war between the sections, we must hoist the flag of re-annexation, to carry the elections of '64 upon that issue, bring back the seceding States, and be happier and greater, and more glorious than ever. As soon as the smoke clears away, you will see that all the old party lines have been rubbed out....

Virginia is not at all ready to go out of this Union; and she is not going out for anything that is likely to occur short of coercion—such is my opinion....

M. F. Maury.

Dear H., Observatory, April 10th, 1861.

Civil war is like a conflagration! There is no telling when or where it will stop, as long as there is fuel to feed it. So I have been thinking it might be as well to have that thing that "pestered me so" back again, or in some other shape. Pray tell me what you think, and what you advise, and if, without inconvenience, you could realise for me, and when.... You know that in civil war men become fiends, and there is no telling where our divisions will end. As for me, I am getting old; my life is not worth much now at any rate, and if I do get knocked over, I would like to have my little savings and scrapings where wife and children could get them. Help me think how to arrange them.

I cannot tell you anything about public affairs, except what you see in the papers. But if war come, sure enough with all its horrors—as I fear it will, and that right soon—I suppose that its seat will be not far from this place.

I have no idea of what Va. will do. If "the Convention" pass a secession ordinance, it does not follow that the people will ratify it; but there is no such thing as speaking with confidence about the matter—we must wait and see, when the people have recovered from the stirring events of the last few days.

. . . . I am trying to get up an expedition to the South Pole, and getting nautical monograph No. 3 ready for the press.

My love to dear Maria and all the ladies.



It is not within the province of this biography to discuss at length the merits of the questions then at issue But to understand the motives which influenced Maury's course, and to make them clear—particularly to such of our readers as may not be residents of the United States—it will be necessary to give a brief glance at the history of the country before the war of 1776, in which we separated ourselves from England. The thirteen colonies covering our Atlantic front were dependent upon the mother country alone. Each colony was ruled by a governor appointed by the Crown, together with a representative body, after the fashion of a parliament, of rather ill-defined local powers. So far as their political relations were concerned, these infant States were absolutely independent of each other, though bound together by ties of kindred, neighbourhood, and preservation from the dangers which threatened them—dangers from the Indian, and dangers from the French, who were enclosing them by a cordon of forts along their whole western frontier, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, to make good their claim to the great valley of the Mississippi. The rupture with England came: each colony elected a governor, from among its own people, to succeed his royal predecessor, and became an independent Republic. To carry on the war, these thirteen States formed a provisional Union; and after their independence of England had been secured, and each State individually recognised by her as an independent power, the draft of the present Constitution was prepared, and submitted to the States for consideration.

In the whole of that period there was not a hint or a doubt of the right of any one State to refuse to enter the Union thus proposed; and some States did not enter it for two years after its adoption by the rest.

For the first quarter of a century, the Union was considered quite in the light of an experiment, the feelings of patriotism in the people clustering entirely around the original unit. So strong was the feeling of jealousy against the plan of Union, that, but for the immense influence of Washington, it is very doubtful whether all the States ever would have adopted it. The States delegated to the central government certain specified functions, retaining their political organization to administer upon local affairs.

Fourscore years had passed, and the issue between the Northern and Southern States culminated in secession. Whatever the merits of the controversy may have been, in point of fact those States had resumed their sovereignty. Was the fealty of a citizen due to his State, or to the creation of the State from which she had withdrawn? This was the question Maury was now called upon to decide for himself.

He had been opposed to the dissolution of the Union, feeling it to be, in the time and manner, an unwise step—remaining where he was would bring the rich harvest of fame and wealth, whose seeds he had so wisely sown—the new Confederacy could offer him no personal advantages; and yet, believing as he did, that his duty was to his State, he hesitated not a moment to espouse her cause.[2]

On the 15th of April, 1861, Mr. Lincoln issued a proclamation calling on Virginia to furnish 75,000 troops to subjugate South Carolina, and force her back into the Union. Virginia's immediate response was an ordinance of secession, and a call upon her sons in the Federal Service to rally to her support. Maury responded to this call on the 20th, and resigned his commission in the United States Navy and went to Richmond, where he was immediately appointed one of a Council of three, the other two being Judge Allen, Chief Justice of the State, and General F. S. Smith, (of the Virginia Military Institute), to advise with the Governor, Letcher, as to the best and quickest way of arming and protecting the State.

When he resigned and came to Richmond, nothing had been offered him by the Confederacy, and both the President and Ms Secretary of the Navy were unfriendly to him. He was opposed to the war, a peace-loving man, a student, and a philosopher; but when Virginia called, he turned his back upon his congenial scientific labours, upon all the plans that he had organized for the good of mankind, and upon his splendid discoveries and achievements, born of his genius, developed by his original mind, children of his own creation—all were sacrificed to the inexorable law of duty.

Who but one who sympathised with him, and worked with him, can tell the throes of his mighty heart at this, his greatest, noblest act of self-sacrifice!

"It is related of Socrates, that when his last hour had come, and one of his young disciples brought him the cup of hemlock, the young man covered his face with his mantle, weeping as he presented it, and, falling on his knees, he buried his face on the couch where his dear master sat awaiting his death When Maury determined to leave the service of the United States, he bade his secretary (Mr. Thomas Harrison), write his resignation. That true and loyal heart, which had served and loved him for almost twenty years, and whose fluent pen had rendered him such willing service, refused its office now; and/ presenting the unfinished paper with one hand, he covered his eyes with the other, and exclaimed, with a choking voice and gathering tears, 'I cannot write it, sir!' He knew it was the death-warrant to his scientific life—the cup of hemlock that would paralyse and kill him in his pursuit after the knowledge of nature and of nature's laws."[3]

When it became known in Europe that he had resigned his place in the Federal Service, he was solicited to become the guest of Russia in the following letter from the Grand Duke Constantine, Grand Admiral of Russia, and brother to the Czar.

St. Petersburg,
My dear Captain Maury, July 27th, 1861 (August 8th).

The news of your having left a service which is so much indebted to your great and successful labours, has made a very painful impression on me and my companions-in-arms. Your indefatigable researches have unveiled the great laws which rule the winds and currents of the ocean, and have placed your name amongst those which will ever be mentioned with feelings of gratitude and respect, not only by professional men, but by all those who pride themselves in the great and noble attainments of the human race.

That your name is well-known in Russia I need scarcely add, and though "barbarians" as we are still sometimes called, we have been taught to honour in your person disinterested and eminent services to science and mankind. Sincerely deploring the inactivity into which the present political whirlpool in your country has plunged you, I deem myself called upon to invite you to take up your residence in this country, where you may in peace continue your favourite and useful occupations.

Your position here will be a perfectly independent one; you will be bound by no conditions or engagements; and you will always be at liberty to steer home across the ocean in the event of your not preferring to cast anchor in our remote corner of the Baltic.

As regards your material welfare, I beg to assure you that everything will be done by me to make your new home comfortable and agreeable; whilst at the same time, the necessary means will be offered you to enable you to continue your scientific pursuits in the way you have been accustomed to.

I shall now be awaiting your reply, hoping to have the pleasure of seeing here so distinguished an officer, whose personal acquaintance it has always been my desire to make, and whom Russia will be proud to welcome on her soil.

Believe me, my dear Captain Maury,

Your sincere well-wisher,

Grand Admiral of Russia.


Maury replied to this invitation by pleading the call of duty, which weighed with him more than personal advantage.

Admiral, Richmond Va., October 29th, 1861.

Your letter reached me only a few days ago; it filled me with emotion. In it I am offered the hospitalities of a great and powerful Empire, with the Grand Admiral of its fleets for patron and friend. Inducements are held out such as none but the most magnanimous of princes could offer, and such as nothing but a stern sense of duty may withstand.

A home in the bosom of my family on the banks of the Neva, where, in the midst of books and surrounded by friends, I am, without care for the morrow, to have the most princely means and facilities for prosecuting those studies, and continuing those philosophical labours in which I take most delight: all the advantages that I enjoyed in Washington are, with a larger discretion, to be offered me in Russia.

Surely a more flattering invitation could not be uttered! Certainly it could not reach a more grateful heart. I have slept upon it. It is becoming that I should be candid, and in a few words frankly state the circumstances by which I find myself surrounded. The State of Virginia gave me birth; within her borders, among many kind friends, the nearest of kin, and troops of excellent neighbours, my children are planting their vine and fig-tree. In her green bosom are the graves of my fathers; the political whirlpool from which your kind forethought sought to rescue me has already plunged her into a fierce and bloody war.

In 1788, when this State accepted the Federal Constitution and entered the American Union, she did so with the formal declaration that she reserved to herself the right to withdraw from it for cause, and resume those powers and attributes of sovereignty which she had never ceded away, but only delegated for certain definite and specified purposes.

When the President elect commenced to set at naught the very objects of the Constitution, and without authority of law proceeded to issue his proclamation of 15th April last,[4] Virginia, in the exercise of that reserved right, decided that the time had come when her safety, her dignity, and honour required her to resume those "delegated" powers and withdraw from the Union. She did so; she then straightway called upon her sons in the Federal Service to retire therefrom and come to her aid.

This call found me in the midst of those quiet physical researches at the Observatory in Washington which I am now, with so much delicacy of thought and goodness of heart, invited to resume in Russia. Having been brought up in the school of States-rights, where we had for masters the greatest statesmen of America, and among them Mr. Madison, the wisest of them all, I could not, and did not hesitate; I recognised this call, considered it mandatory, and, formally renouncing all allegiance to the broken Union, hastened over to the South side of the Potomac, there to renew to Fatherland those vows of fealty, service, and devotion! which the State of Virginia had permitted me to pledge to the Federal Union so long only as, by serving it, I might serve her.

Thus my sword has been tendered to her cause, and the tender has been accepted. Her soil is invaded, the enemy is actually at her gates; and here I am contending, as the fathers of the Republic did, for the right of self-government, and those very principles for the maintenance of which Washington fought when this, his native State, was a colony of Great Britain. The path of duty and of honour is therefore plain.

By following it with the devotion and loyalty of a true sailor, I shall, I am persuaded, have the glorious and proud recompense that is contained in the "well done" of the Grand Admiral of Russia and his noble companions-in-arms.

When the invader is expelled, and as soon thereafter as the State will grant me leave, I promise myself the pleasure of a trip across the Atlantic, and shall hasten to Russia, that I may there in person, on the banks of the Neva, have the honour and the pleasure of expressing to her Grand Admiral the sentiments of respect and esteem with which his oft-repeated acts of kindness, and the generous encouragement that he has afforded me in the pursuits of science, have inspired his

Obedient servant,
M. F. Maury, Commander C. S. Navy,

To H. I. H. The Grand Duke Constantine,
Grand Admiral of Russia,
St. Petersburg.

He also declined a similar invitation from France,[5] because Virginia wanted him. These letters were brought to Richmond, under a flag of truce, by the Russian Minister, Baron Stacle; and the French Minister, accompanied by the Prussian Envoy, Baron Gerolt, who came, they said, in person to pay their respects and make their adieus to the "philosopher and man of science, who had given up all, everything he had save honour, at the call of his native State in her trouble."

On the breaking out of the war, when Maury moved all his family away from Washington, his affectionate kinsman, John Minor, offered his home in Fredericksburg as an asylum to the refugees. Maury responded to this invitation gratefully as follows:—

Dear John, Richmond, April 28th, 1861.

Bless your heart for offering us shelter in these times I[6] There is no telling when we shall all be together again. I have written to my wife to accept your kind offer, until we can find out where we are to go. . . .

. . . . My office here, you know, is only advisory.
In haste my love, yours truly,
M. F. Maury.

To William C. H., of Newburgh.

Dear H, Richmond, Va., April 29th, 1861.

When your letter reached me, I was just leaving Washington. I left my beautiful home there with a heart full and eyes overflowing on the 20th.

My little money "pesters me" mightily. Pray help me, my friend, to put money-matters in a better train.... But consider your discretion ample to do the best you can, and to act as you do for yourself were you going to make such a transfer; only don't go beyond the means in your hands, for I cannot meet pressing necessities here. Will you not let me make over to you out and out my St. Paul property? When peace comes—which God grant may be soon!—I can relieve you of taxes. Kiss my Maria for me.

Your friend always,
M. F. Maury.

To the same.

Richmond, May 6th, 1861.

I snatched time Saturday night to run up to Fredericksburg to see my family, who are all there except Betty, who is still in Washington—Dick, who is here—and Dave, who is at the University.

I asked John Herndon to make a deed in your favour of all my Minnesota property. If I retain it, it will, I fear, be confiscated; so if I am to lose it, I would rather you should have it than the State.... The mails here are so very uncertain now that I am afraid to trust anything like money through them.... I reckon you can reach me through Maury Bros., N. Y., should the terrible war, which now appears to be imminent, prove a reality. Of the funds in your hands, you might as well reserve say $60 for taxes next year.... Now, my friend, act as though you were acting for yourself.... My most affectionate love and solicitude for Maria, and love also to all of your dear household.

My friend, yours truly,
M. F. Maury.

To the same.

Council Chamber, Richmond, May 11th, 1861.

Yours of the 8th, with enclosures, came to hand last night. It gives expression to those deep and abiding sentiments of friendship and affection which I knew were in your heart. Nevertheless, your utterance of them is very gratifying. These are difficulties which you and I have had no part in making, and the estrangements which they are destined to create have no business to come between you and me, or yours and mine.... The President refuses to accept my resignation. The object of this will be plain enough to you. But in such a cause the halter has no more terror than the bullet. Death is death. Our cause is just, and we enter the contest in.... armour. However, I am indisposed to enter into any discussion with my friends on the other side. I grant them sincere; but I cannot but lament, in the depths of my heart and in excruciating agony, that their delusion is such as to have already allowed the establishment of a military despotism. I am sorry I have said so much; but it is done.

My most tender love for Maria and for you and yours.

M. F. Maury.


To the same.


I wrote you in full this morning about the thirteen St. Paul mortgages. . . . There is nothing like excitement here. All of us are of one mind—very cool, very determined; no desire for a conflict. We are on the defensive. We have nothing to fight the North about; but if the North wants a fight, it can have it. We are ready; but the North must come to us for it.

From all I see in the public journals here, we have no idea, and never had any idea of attacking Washington, or of invading any Northern right, or Northern soil.

M. F. Maury.


To the same.

My dear Friend, Richmond, May 12th, 1861.

I only saw last night the remarks of the Boston Traveller about Lieutenant Maury's treachery, his desertion, removing of buoys. It's all a lie! I resigned and left the Observatory on Saturday the 20th ult. I worked as hard and as faithfully for "Uncle Sam" up to three o'clock of that day as I ever did, and at three o'clock I turned everything—all the public property and records of the office—regularly over to Lieutenant Whiting, the proper officer in charge. I left in press, 'Nautical Monograph, No. 3'—one of the most valuable contributions that I have ever made to navigation; and just as I left it, it is now in course of publication there, though I shall probably not have an opportunity of reading proof, and cannot tell what errors or alterations may appear. I have lost none of my interest in these enchanting fields of physical research which I have revelled in there for near twenty years. I am here to war, not against science, but against the oppressor, and for my fatherland. As for "the buoys," I touched them not! But I am here to defend the right, and will do all and everything to discomfit the enemy that is consistent with civilised and honourable warfare. A price has been set on my head in Boston. I thank them for the honour; for I do not forget that in other days a price was set upon the heads of the best men of that State, and the cause in which I fight is far more righteous than that which moved those great and good men to take up arms against their mother-country.

Yours most affectionately,
M. F. Maury.

Dear H., Richmond, Va., May 13th, 1861.

. . . . To show how I still delight in striving to do good in all proper ways, even to those who are enemies in war, but nevertheless friends in science, I enclose a bulletin of the International Exhibition for 1862, London. I am now engaged, snatching odds and ends of time, in replying to the Commissioners, and in putting the people of the Northern States in the way of an opportunity of exhibiting their handiwork there.

M. F. Maury.

Dear H., Richmond, June 10th, 1861.

Betty and party passed safely through the lines, and arrived in Fredericksburg last week, I have just returned from the sweet old Burg. She told mc all about your trip to Washington. It was a touching act of friendship which moved you to think even of a visit to Richmond. I have, you may be sure, my friend, weighed the matter well.[7]

You do not see, and at present cannot, I fear, understand our Clause in its true bearings. Holy and just it is, as human cause can be, and one for which we are all ready to lay down life and sacrifice everything. I will not discuss it with you, because I might in some way wound your or Maria's sensibilities; but, my friend, believe me, my sleep is sweet, like that which the poet gives Richmond on the battle-field.

Your friend,
M. F. Maury.


On the 10th of June, 1861, the Governor's Advisory Council was abolished, and, on the same day, Maury was appointed Chief of the Sea-coast, Harbour, and River Defences of the South. In this post he assisted in fitting out the 'Virginia' or 'Merrimac' for her short but destructive career. He also invented a most formidable torpedo to be used both for harbour and land defence, besides contributing in other ways to the protection of the Southern sea-board.

  1. This in answer to Mr. H.'s plea that he might remain in the service, and not be forced to fight the South.
  2. For Maury's views on this subject, expressed in his own words, see Appendix, "Vindication of the South and of Virginia."
  3. Mary H. Maury.
  4. Calling on Va. to furnish 76,000 troops to force South Carolina back into the Union.
  5. This letter has been lost.
  6. He could not take refuge at Farleyvale (his son-in-law Corbin's residence), because it was too near the Potomac, and would soon be close to the enemy's lines. In fact, it was used soon afterwards as a Federal Colonel's head-quarters, and Mrs. Corbin joined her mother and sisters, and herself became a refugee.
  7. He intended to come on to Richmond and try to convince Maury that he ought not to give up all for Va., but return to the Federal service.