A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury/Chapter 16

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In England, 1866-68.

Maury's arrival in England—Meeting with his family—The Maury testimonial—Instructing French officers in defensive sea-mining at Paris—Maury's Electrical Torpedo School—Defence of Wurtemberg by electrical mines—Maury's memorandum on the use of electrical torpedoes—Writing class-books on geography—Visits to Nottingham and to Wrottesley Hall—Arrival of his daughter, Mrs. Corbin—Maury's love for his grandchild—He joins the Church and is confirmed with his children—Made LL.D. at Cambridge—Accepts appointment as Professor at the Virginia Military Institute—Returns to America—Occupations at Richmond.

Maury arrived in England—from Mexico—on the 29th of March, 1866. His wife and children had come from Birkenhead to meet him in London, and they were once more united at No. 30, Harley Street. But Maury was so completely altered by the sorrows, hardships, and anxieties of the years of separation, that none of his children knew him. His youngest daughter exclaimed when, he entered his wife's room—"This is not my papa! This is an old man with a white beard!" He had lost all his property in the States, and the failure of a banker caused him the further loss of all the money he had brought from Mexico.

The services of the great hydrographer to mankind were not, however, forgotten by his friends and his numerous admirers in Europe. A "Maury Testimonial" had been set on foot, and subscriptions to it were actively promoted by Commodore Jansen and by Dr. Tremlett, who visited Holland and Sweden for the purpose of making its object known. Naval and scientific men in England and other countries also came forward. On the 6th of June a banquet was given in his honour at Willis's Rooms, and the illustrious American was presented by Sir John Pakington,[1] who presided, with the "Maury Testimonial," consisting of a purse containing 3000 guineas in a handsome silver-gilt casket. Among the many distinguished men who were present on this occasion, were the Mexican, Danish, and Argentine Ministers; General Beauregard, of the Confederate Army; Earl Nelson; Admirals Sir John Hay, Halstead, and Young; Captain Cowper Coles, R.N.; General Sir Henry Lefroy, R.E.; Colonel Sir Henry James, of the Ordnance Survey; Commodore Jansen, of the Netherlands Navy; Admiral Boulaker, of the Russian Navy; Captain Klerker, of the Swedish Navy; Lord Richard Grosvenor, Mr. Beresford-Hope, M.P., Mr. Charles Babbage, General Walker, Professor Tyndall, Mr. J. Laird, M.P., the Rev. F. W. Tremlett, Honorary Secretary of the Testimonial Fund, the Hon. J. B. Vivian, and many others.

Almost immediately after his return to England, Maury set to work with his electrical torpedo; and during May and June he was in Paris, where he was employed by the Government of Napoleon III. His duty—for which he received suitable remuneration—was to instruct a board of French officers in his system of defensive sea-mining. He displayed before the Emperor the power and capabilities of the torpedoes which he had planted in the James River four years before. The French authorities were delighted. At St. Cloud, the Emperor himself made the circuit and exploded a torpedo, and Maury was invited to become a Frenchman, and accept service under Napoleon. "But," he wrote, "I would much rather find occupation in the civil avocations of Old England."

On his return to London, Maury opened a school of instruction in electric torpedoes, and Swedish, Dutch, and other officers went through his courses between June and August, 1866. For this work he was adequately remunerated by the different Governments whose officers received instruction.

The following letter on the subject was addressed to the Consul-General for Wurtemberg, on the 30th of June, 1866:—

Sir, 30, Harley St., June 30th, 1866.

In reference to our conversation this morning, concerning the electric torpedo as a means of defence in war, I beg leave to state that I introduced it, on the side of the South, in the late war in America, and that the Federal Secretary of the Navy in his last Report (Dec. 4th, 1865) states that in that war their navy lost more vessels by torpedoes than from all other causes whatever; that in 1862, I mined the James River with them; that they destroyed every Federal vessel that attempted to pass them, and kept that powerful fleet at bay during the siege of Richmond by General Grant; that since that time I have made the study of them a speciality, and by a course of investigation and experiment have made such improvements in their use and application, both by land and water, as to take away the superiority over the defence which rifled guns, hollow shot, and ironclads appear to have given to the attack. Confining my remarks to the land, it is in the power of the military engineer to mine the way before an invading army, and to spring volcanoes under its feet at will.

With small cost, and at short notice, the mountain-passes and strongholds of Wurtemberg may be so effectually defended from invasion and attack as to drive an enemy back, or keep him at bay. The operator need not be stationed near the scene; he may be at the distance of several miles when he discharges the exploding spark. He can explode by the same touch, and instantaneously, any number that may be required.

He can at any time send a telegraphic message through his wires, and feel that the powder is dry and assure himself that all is well.

I have demonstrated the principles of this new means of defence, to one of the most powerful nations of the world,[2] and it has been decided to introduce it there. I am now doing the same for others.

I have the honour to be, respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
M. F. Maury,
To tho Consul of H. M. the King of Wurtemberg.

A copy of the following paper was given to the Swedes, one to Russia, one to Holland, and one to France. All these powers, and others, had sent agents to be instructed in the use of the Maury electrical torpedo for harbour, coast, and land defence.

"July 28th, 1866.

"We have treated of the electrical torpedoes under water; before treating of them on the land, I beg to say a few words as to torpedo-boats and mechanical torpedoes, or those which explode by striking or catching against a vessel. The torpedo-boats used by the Confederates generally carried their torpedoes—say forty pounds of powder—at the end of a pole rigged out some twenty feet over the bow of the boat, and inclined downward so as to strike the enemy five or six feet at least below the water-line. Experiments showed that when the torpedo was exploded at three feet the men were liable to be blown out of the boat. In this plan the charge was ignited by the striking of the torpedo against the enemy, which set off a percussion, or broke a phial of acid, so arranged within as to ignite the charge. "A torpedo-boat of steel, 33 feet long, was built at Mobile and sent to Charleston by rail. She was intended to go under the water and to carry a crew of nine men—one to manage, the others to propel. Under favourable circumstances she was expected to go four knots and remain below thirty minutes, coming to the surface at pleasure. Her plan was to run under the vessel and tow the torpedo after her, which, on coming in contact with the side, would explode.

"Lieutenant Payne and eight others volunteered to attack the blockading fleet off Charleston with her. As they were just ready to put out, the swell of a passing steamer sunk her, and all hands, excepting Captain Payne, were lost. She was raised, and he volunteered again, when, by another similar mishap, she was swamped again, and all hands except himself and two others were drowned.

"She was raised again, and sent round into the smooth water of the Cooper River for experiments in diving and coming up again. Her commander was on her. Ho and eight others went down in her and were all drowned. She remained at the bottom several weeks, and then was raised and fitted up again, under the command of Lieutenant Dickson, of the Confederate army. With her he attacked and sunk the sloop-of-war 'Housatonic'; but neither he nor any of his daring companions were ever heard of again.[3]

"The best torpedo-boat, however, that was planned in the Confederacy, was a steam-gig built of steel, light and strong, calculated to hold five men, to go ten knots, and to carry coal enough, without provisions, for a night. Instead of carrying her torpedo—and she could carry several—at the end of a spar, she carried it over her bow. Her bowsprit was eight feet long, and so arranged, that when the enemy was struck it would come in against a spiral, thus acting as a buffer, and by firing a gun which would send a shaft, to which the torpedo was made fast by a cord several feet long, into the side of a ship. Thus, the torpedo would be left hanging; thence a cord or wire, some fifty or sixty feet long, with one end attached to the torpedo, the other to the boat, served to explode the charge as soon as the boat got out of the way, and brought it taut; the explosion being effected either by electricity or by the pulling of a trigger.

"The war ended before any of these boats were ready. They might answer very well against wooden ships. Another plan was prepared very early in the war, but was never tried. The torpedo was to be in the form of a fish, with its tail lashed to one side to serve as a rudder; it was to be towed astern by a long line in which were the conducting wires. Being thus towed by a swift steamer past the enemy, the effect was that the torpedo would be sheered off broad enough to strike, when it would be exploded by an electric discharge. I am not aware that any attempt was made to put this idea into practice.

"In July, 1861, the Federal fleet, then lying off Fortress Munroe, was attacked with floating torpedoes. They were in pairs, connected together by a span 500 feet long. The span was floated on the surface by corks; and the torpedo-barrels, containing 200 pounds of powder, also floated at the depth of twenty feet; empty barregas, painted lead-colour so as not readily to be seen, serving 'for the purpose. The span was connected with a trigger in the head of each barrel, so set and arranged that when the torpedo, being let go in a tideway under the bows and athwart the hawse had fouled, they would be drifted alongside, and in so drifting tauten the span and so set off the fuse, which was driven precisely as a 10" shot fuze, only it was calculated to burn 54", because it could not be known exactly in which part of the sweep along tide the strain would be sufficient to set off the trigger. The torpedoes were launched at three fine frigates, the 'Minnesota' the 'Roanoke' and the 'Cumberland' (the blockading fleet off the mouth of the James River).

"Finding that they all missed, I attributed it to the fact that such a fuse could not burn under a pressure of 20 feet of water. The conjecture was confirmed by experiment. The fuse could burn very surely at the depth of 15 feet—never at 20 feet.

"Some time afterwards those torpedoes were discovered by the enemy. Spans, barrels, and barregas were soon got up, and carried off as relics.

"The enemy prevented any further attack in this way by dropping the end of his lower studding-sail boom in the water every night, anchoring boats or beams ahead, &c. The first vessel destroyed by a torpedo was the 'Quaker City'—I think that was the name—in the Yazoo River. This torpedo was an old demi-john filled with powder, planted in the channel-way, and having a string attached to a friction-tube leading to the shore; the observer, with it in his hand, being concealed on the bank. She came; he pulled, and down she went.

"After this hasty sketch, I come to electrical torpedoes for guarding mountain-passes and roadways, &c., for the protection of strongholds, and the defence of fortified positions. Shells cast for the purpose should be used, but in an emergency tin canisters, or any other prefectly water-tight cases, will answer. I am not aware that electricity was used by either of the belligerents in the late American war for springing mines on land.

"The cases for land-torpedoes should be shells cast expressly for the purpose. The thickness of the shell being from one-fourth to an inch, and even more, or less, according to the size and the probable handling in transportation. "They should be spherical, only, instead of a hole for the fuse, as in a hollow shot, they should have a neck like a bottle, with a cap to screw over—not in—the neck. The case should be charged through the neck, and the wires let in through two holes, counter-sunk, diametrically opposite, the counter-sinking being for the purpose of receiving pitch or other resinous matter to keep the water out. The fuse, being adjusted to the wires, should be held in its place by a string through the neck, while the wires are drawn out taut and sealed within and without. Having proved the fuse, first fin and then drive in a wooden peg. Then fill the space between it and the screw-cap with red lead, and screw down tight so as to make it water-tight. Now secure the tails of the wires so that they will not be chafed or bruised, and the mine is ready to be packed for transportation. They are generally to be used in stone fugassees, the wire being buried at convenient depths, and all marks of fugassees and trenches removed as completely as possible. Any number, not exceeding twenty-five or thirty, may be arranged in a single circuit for the ebonite; but if the magnetic exploder of Wheattstone be preferred, and the ground be perfectly dry, hundreds may be planted in a ladder-circuit, which you have been handled.

"The operator may be at any distance from these mines when he explodes them, provided only he has established some mark or point which, on being reached by the enemy, should serve as his signal. The area of destruction of one fugassee, properly constructed, with a charge of twenty or twenty-five pounds of powder, may be assumed to be that of a circle seventy-five or eighty yards in diameter. Twenty mines would therefore serve for a mile. Several miles may be planted in a night, and the assailants may be enticed or invited out in the morning. Passes before an invading army may be mined in advance, and thus, if he cannot be destroyed, his progress may be so retarded by dummies or sham mines as almost literally to compel him to dig his way.

"The power to telegraph through these torpedoes is of little consequence, inasmuch as there need be but one station and one operator. Using the testing-fuse manufactured by Abel, and a weak voltaic current, the operator can at any time satisfy himself as to continuity. Thus bridges and gulfs or breaks are not required for the land as they are in sea-mining. Ebonite has the further advantage on land that it takes but a single wire.

"Forts may be protected against assault, and your own rifle-pits from occupation by an enemy, simply by a proper distribution of these new engines of war. They may be planted line within line, and one row above another, and so arranged that volcanoes may be sprung at will under the feet of assaulting columns.

"The only attempt that was made in the late American war to bring the electrical torpedo into play on the land, was made by the Confederates at Port Fisher, in 1865, just before its fall. The narrow land-spit over which the attacking party had to advance was mined. The officer in charge used the magneto exploder.

"But the mines would not go off, owing no doubt to defective arrangements, for the instrument was new to him, and he had not been posted up as to the virtues of the ladder-circuit. The instrument used on this occasion was just such a one as this before you. It was the first that had reached the Confederacy. Here is then a most striking illustration of the importance of previous study and drill in this new and important arm of defence."

Maury was also very fully occupied in the preparation of a series of geographical class-books for the use of schools. While he was in Paris he had received a letter from Mr. C. B. Richardson, a New York publisher, proposing that he should undertake this series; and a suitable arrangement having been made with him, Maury set to work on this new employment in good earnest. In August, 1866, he wrote: "I am hard at work on Geography No. I., ' Brave ' drawing the maps. Well, I could not wind up my career more usefully (and usefulness is both honour and glory) than by helping to shape the character and mould the destinies of the rising generation." In the following month the family moved into cheaper lodgings in Clarendon Terrace, where Maury continued to work hard at his Geography Series, receiving advice and assistance from his friend Jansen, and this work fully occupied him until the end of the year. In 1868, he was also writing a popular book on astronomy, which, however, has never been published. His industry at this tune, as throughout his useful life, was indefatigable. During September 1866, Maury and his daughters were at Nottingham, for the meeting of the British Association, where they received a hearty welcome and cordial hospitality; and they also paid a pleasant visit at Wrottesley Hall. "Brave" was pursuing his studies at the School of Mines.

At about this time Mr. Corbin lost his house at Farleyvale, near Fredericksburg by fire; and Maury asked his daughter, Mrs. Corbin, to join him in London. She came with her little girl; and while she was staying with her parents her eldest son was born—an Englishman, and duly registered as one. He was named, by his grandfather, John Herndon Maury, after the gallant young uncle who was lost at Vicksburg. This little boy afterwards became a great pet with his grandfather, and it was touching and lovely to see these two friends together. The child only survived his illustrious grandparent ten days. "Lovely and pleasant were their lives, and in death they were not divided." Although Maury had always been a devout Christian, it was not until this year that he became a regular member of the Church. He was confirmed, with his son Matthew ("Brave") and his young daughter Lucy, by Dr. Quintard, the Bishop of Tennessee, who was then in London attending the Pan-Anglican Assembly at Lambeth. The ceremony was performed in Dr. Tremlett's church at Belsize Park, and it was a beautiful and touching sight to behold that bald head bending in lowly adoration between the two glossy young brown ones he loved so dearly.

In 1868, the degree of LL.D. was conferred on Maury by the University of Cambridge, in recognition of his literary and scientific merits, and of his eminent service to mankind.

He went accompanied by his wife, his daughters Molly and Lucy, and the Rev. Mr. Tremlett. They were all guests of the Vice-Chancellor.

Alfred Tennyson received his degree on the same occasion, and so did Max Müller and Mr. Wright (translator of Egyptian manuscripts and hieroglyphics at the British Museum). There was a long oration, in high-sounding Latin, made by the Dean to the four newly-made "learned Doctors," each dressed in his University gown of bright red cloth lined with pink satin, and with their "mortar-boards" on their heads. Then the undergraduates, who filled the galleries, gave three cheers, and proceeded to make whatever remarks they chose in loud tones on the dress and deportment of the LL.D.'s, and of the audience generally, greatly to their embarrassment, of course. "You should take off your hat, old gentleman!" and "Did your mother forget to call you early?" &c.; one called for three cheers for "the girl with golden hair," and another professed loudly his admiration for "the girl with the blue bonnet," till all were more or less rapped over the knuckles.

The following is a translation of that part of the Latin oration which introduced Maury; it is followed by extracts from his daughter Molly's diary kept at the time:—


"I present to you Matthew Fontaine Maury, who while serving in the American Navy did not permit the clear edge of his mind to be dulled, or his ardour for study to be dissipated, by the variety of his professional labours, or by his continual change of place, but who, by the attentive observations of the course of the winds, the climate, the currents of the seas and oceans, acquired those materials for knowledge, which afterwards in leisure, while he presided over the Observatory at Washington, he systematized in charts and in a book—charts which are now in the hands of all seamen, and a book which has carried the fame of its author into the most distant countries of the earth. Nor is he merely a high authority in nautical science. He is also a pattern of noble manners and good morals, because in the guidance of his own life he has always shown himself a brave and good man. When that cruel civil war in America was imminent, this man did not hesitate to leave home and friends, a place of high honour and an office singularly adapted to his genius—to throw away, in one word, all the goods and gifts of fortune—that he might defend and sustain the cause which seemed to him the just one. * The victorious cause pleased the gods,* and now perhaps, as victorious causes will do, it pleases the majority of men, and yet no one can withhold his admiration from the man who, though numbered among the vanquished, held his faith pure and unblemished even at the price of poverty and exile."

". . . . When this address was finished, an official on the left of the Vice-Chancellor came down from the dais, and, taking papa by the left hand, led him up to the Vice-Chancellor, and introduced him in Latin. The latter, taking papa's right hand in his, held it while he welcomed him, in a short but appropriate speech, as a Doctor of the University of Cambridge; after which the new Doctor took a seat on the left of the Vice-Chancellor. Then came the other three I have already spoken of, and then came nearly forty, in black-silk gowns and furred hoods, who were to be created M.A.'s or B.A.'s. They knelt down before the Vice-Chancellor one by one, and put up their hands like a child saying its prayers; the Vice-Chancellor put his hands outside theirs and said in Latin, 'By the right of my office and the power invested in me, I create you Master of Arts or Bachelor of Arts (as the case might be) in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.'

". . . . Papa presently introduced me to Mr. Adams, the Astronomer-Royal (the man who 'predicted the planet Neptune at the same time that Leverrier did). He went with us and Mrs. Vice-Chancellor to the FitzWilliam Museum that afternoon, and afterwards invited us to a strawberry-feast in his garden."

In 1868 the political objections to Maury's return to his native country had been removed by the enactment of a general amnesty. He had been offered the Directorship of the Imperial Observatory by the Emperor of the French, and the Superintendency of the University of the South at Suwanee; but he declined both. He had accepted the Chair of Physics at the Virginia Military Institute. The buildings at Lexington are in a line with the Washington and Lee University, over which the illustrious General Lee presided as Rector. This fact had no small influence in Maury's choice of Lexington for a home, so highly did he appreciate the pleasure of a renewal of the friendship which existed between them as neighbours in old times, when one lived at the Washington Observatory, the other at his country-seat of Arlington. The two houses were in full view of each other, with the River Potomac flowing between them. General Lee always earnestly wished that Virginians should not leave their country, but work for her in adversity as in prosperous times. As regards Maury, that noble and patriotic wish was now gratified.


Maury's Commission to the Chair of Meteorology at the Virginia Military Institute.

The Virginia Military Institute to M. F. Maury, LL.D.



Know you that, reposing special trust and confidence in your virtue, intelligence, and great qualifications, the Board of Visitors of the Virginia Military Institute, by virtue of the authority invested in them by law, have appointed you Professor of Meteorology.

Given under my hand, as President of the Board of Visitors and under the seal of the State, this 22nd day of February, 1868.

John Letcher,
President of the Board of Visitors of Virginia Military Institute.



Maury accepted this appointment in the following letter to General Smith, of the Virginia Military Institute:—


To General F. S. Smith, of Va. Military Institute.

General, London, April 21st, 1868.

I thank you kindly for your letter of the 3rd inst, explaining my duties in the new Chair. They, being such as therein defined, you have induced me to accept.

I should lack courage to undertake a regular course of lectures as one of the faculty, simply because it would lead me into an untried line of life; and as my rule is to put my heart into whatever I attempt to do, and try my best, I should have to work overmuch—especially at the beginning—and I am afraid of that. The consideration, therefore, that I am not to be charged with a class, or expected to deliver a regular course of lectures, removes a "sea of troubles," and leaves me in a field of research in which I am not altogether a "raw hand."

. . . . You certainly do draw a very bright picture of the work that is before me[4]—of the results that are expected from it, and of the success that is to attend my labours.

"We do not weigh in the same balance the force that I can bring to the work. Therefore, as bright as your picture is, I have my fears of what there may be on the other side. "Still, it's wise and brave to hope the best," and, bringing willing hearts and ready hands to the work, we'll try to rub even the dark side bright, should it be turned towards us.

I have some private matters to attend to, previous engagements and obligations to meet and satisfy, which may prevent my being with you in June.

Will not your field-parties lack instruments? If you, have the funds, had you not better make known your wants while I am here? Loseby—who Brooke will remember as my "crack" chronometer-maker—has invented a pocket-barometer that will give you orographic features, as you ride about the country, with much nicety. With it you can read difference of level by the way as you read time from the face of your watch. A dozen of these barometers—say at $12 each—would be invaluable.

Yours truly,
M. F. Maury.


Maury bade a reluctant farewell to many warm friends whom his talents and misfortunes had drawn around him. He took the steamer at Liverpool with his family, and arrived at New York early in July 1868; but his house at Lexington was not ready for him until the beginning of the following year. He went to Richmond in August, and thence, with his daughters, to the White Sulphur Springs, intending to devote the autumn to a study of the climate and productions of Virginia, with a view to the preparation of a report on its geographical position and commercial advantages. At that time the people of Holland were in great hopes that Flushing, with improved facilities for ships, would become an important commercial port. Maury received a proposal for establishing a life of steamers from Flushing to Norfolk in Virginia, and he welcomed the idea as likely to confer great benefits on his beloved native land. This gave a fresh spur to his ideas connected with an industrial and meteorological survey of Virginia.

On the 10th of September, 1868, Maury was duly installed in his Professorial Chair at Lexington; but he was not able to begin his residence until the following year. He spent the winter at Richmond, occupying himself with a preliminary report on the material wealth and resources of Virginia, and entertaining bright hopes from the new direct line of steamers which Commodore Jansen was striving to establish between Flushing and a Virginian port By the spring of 1869, Maury and his family were established in their house at Lexington.

  1. First Lord of the Admiralty 1858-59 and 1866-67; afterwards Lord Hampton.
  2. France.
  3. For a more full and interesting account of torpedo operations against the enemy in Charleston Harbour, see 'Military Operations of General Beauregard,' by Col. Roman, 2nd vol., pp. 181 to 184.
  4. Physical Survey (and Report) of Virginia.