A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury/Chapter 2

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Notice of the Career of Maury's eldest brother—His Life in the Navy—He is left on the Marquesas Islands for two years—He is taken on board the ship 'Essex' by Commodore Porter—Capture of the 'Essex' at Valparaiso—At the Battle of Lake Champlain—Dies at Sea—Matthew receives a Midshipman's Warrant—His Journey to take up his appointment—Adventures and entertainment by relations—Meets his future wife—Her parentage—Cruise on board the 'Brandywine'—Cruise in the 'Vincennes'—Visits the Marquesas—Passes his Examination—Buys a little seal for his sweetheart.

John Minor Maury, Matthew's eldest brother, entered the Navy of the United States as midshipman when thirteen years old, and became one of the most distinguished young officers of his time. His whole professional career was one of active service and romantic adventure.

Just before the last war between the United States and England, John Maury procured a furlough, and went as first officer of a merchant ship, which had been chartered by Captain William Lewis of the United States Navy, who commanded her. They sailed on a trading voyage to China. Arriving at the Island of Nukahiva, one of the Marquesas group, Captain Lewis left Maury and six men there to procure sandalwood and other articles of trade, for which the ship would touch on her return from China. The war with England broke out. English ships blockaded the American ships in the Chinese ports, and no relief came to Lieutenant John Maury and his men for two years. It had, meantime, gone hard with them.

There were two tribes on that island hostile to each other, a volcanic ridge dividing them. The king of the tribe with whom the Americans made their home was friendly and true to them; but frequent incursions were made over the ridge, which was the barrier of his dominion, by the savages beyond it, and one by one the white men were slain, until John Maury and a man named Baker alone remained alive.

They adopted every precaution against surprise, and the friendly king gave them notice of coming danger when he could. With the handiness of sailor men, they found four coconut trees growing together, and in their tops made their home, not larger than a frigate's maintop, yet sufficient for their resting place by day or night, and safe from discovery. A rope ladder was the means of ascent, and descent, for this curious residence.

One bright morning, two years since their eyes had seen such a sight, a large square rigged ship stood into the anchorage, and soon to their joy she displayed the American flag. Lt. John Maury and Baker came down from their perch, took a canoe, and pulled for the ship. [1] Their costume was as scant as that of the naked savages, who also sought to board this man of war, and the whole party were ordered by the sentry to keep off.

Maury returned to his refuge in the coconut tree. Very soon, however, a launch from the frigate was sent ashore, and a group of officers came within hail, amongst whom Maury recognized an old shipmate, Lieutenant McKnight. At his hail the party looked up, and were astonished to see two white men, strayed like Adam before his fall, descending from the tree-tops.

They were warmly greeted, taken on board the United States frigate 'Essex,' Captain David Porter commanding, were enrolled on the ship's books, and rated and equipped according to their rank.

Porter assembled his recent prizes in this anchorage, and refitted and watered his ship; he then pursued that famous cruise which swept the English commerce from the seas over which the 'Essex' sailed. Amongst his captures was a very fast sailer: he equipped and armed her as his consort, and named her the 'Essex Jr.' Lieutenant Downes was appointed her commander with John Minor Maury as his first lieutenant.

Not long after leaving the Marquesas, they put into Valparaiso, where the English frigates 'Phoœe' and the 'Cherub', under the command of Captain Hilliard, fell in with them. Captain Hilliard had orders to capture the 'Essex' at all hazards. Porter, always ready for fight, cleared his ships for action, and stood out to sea to gain file "marine league" required by international law in respect to neutral ports.

The 'Essex Jr.' got well away to sea. The 'Essex, while rounding the headland, was struck by a squall, her fore topmast was carried away, and while thus crippled and in the harbour she was set upon by the British frigates and captured, after the most glorious defense ever made by a ship of the United States.

Farragut, then a boy of eight or nine years, dear to Porter as a son, was with him on the 'Essex' in this fearful fight.

The Essex Jr. made her way to the United States, where John Maury was ordered to join the 'Epervier', Captain William Lewis commanding. Fortunately, the 'Epervier' sailed a day before John Maury reached Norfolk. Just before sailing, her captain, Lewis, and his lieutenant, Neal, were married to two sisters (the Misses Whittle). The ship was never heard of again, and the ladies were widows (and childless) till they died a few years ago.

Having escaped the fatal chance of the 'Epervier', Maury received orders to proceed to Lake Champlain, in time to be with McDonough in his complete victory over the British flotilla, which was captured or sunk. Thence, a few days later, he wrote to a friend in Fredericksburg, Virginia:—"We have won a glorious victory. I hope the first fruits of it will be to confirm the wavering allegiance of New York and Vermont to the Union. They have been threatening to secede unless peace is made with England on any terms."

Soon after the close of our war with England, the pirates of the West Indies had become a terror to all who sailed those seas. Captain Porter, then the most energetic and successful of our sailors, was ordered to fit out a squadron for their destruction. He was authorized to select his officers for a service so dangerous. His first choice was Maury to be flag captain of the fleet. This officer, like the adjutant general of the army, gave orders for all the movements.

The service was active and severe; the combats were desperate; no quarter was asked or given. The pirates were all destroyed or broken up and scattered.

As a mark of special approbation of his services, Captain John Minor Maury was sent by Commodore Porter to bear to the United States Government his report of the complete success of his operations. John sailed in the store ship Decoy, but died of yellow fever in June 1824, just outside the Capes of Norfolk, and was buried at sea, at the age of thirty one. He had been first lieutenant of a frigate; at twenty six he was the flag captain of the fleet, and was considered by Tatnall Buchanan and other compeers to have been the smartest young sailor in the American navy.

After his return from the glorious victory on Lake Champlain, John Minor Maury married his first cousin (the daughter of his uncle, Fontaine Maury) in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and by her had two sons, William Lewis Maury, who died at the age of twenty of a heart problem, and Dabney Herndon Maury, who after graduating from the University of Virginia, attended West Point, served and was wounded in the War against Mexico, was in the Indian Wars and eventually became a major general in the Confederate Army. He served on many a hard fought field in the South and West, was finally placed in charge of Mobile, and was particularly distinguished in the defense of that place. He was appointed United States Minister to Colombia, South America (1885-1889) by President Cleveland and to him we owe the foregoing interesting narrative of his father's career.

The sad news of Captain John Minor Maury's burial at sea was brought to Fredericksburg by a special messenger on horseback from Norfolk. It was conveyed to his wife by Dabney Herndon, [2] the lifelong friend of both, as she sat with her two little boys awaiting the arrival of her husband. Dabney Herndon took the widow and her sons to his home, where they lived as honored members of his family until his death.

This act of friendship bore a rich harvest of love and affection for the orphaned children of Dabney Herndon, to whom Captain John Minor Maury's widow was ever after a mother.

In 1825, the Honorable Sam Houston, then a member of Congress for Tennessee, obtained for Matthew Fontaine Maury, a midshipman's warrant in the United States Navy. But Matthew Maury's father did not approve of the midshipman's warrent and the perils of the sea for another son, and, while he did not positively forbid the boy's acceptance of it, he refused to give him one cent towards defraying the expenses of the journey East, and even denied him a parting blessing.

Not daunted, Matthew Fontaine Maury borrowed a gray mare, named Fanny, from a kind neighbor, and with only thirty dollars in his pocket, paid to him by Mr. Hasbrouck for assisting in the instruction of the younger pupils of Harpeth Academy, he bade farewell to home and parents, and set out with a bold heart and the scant experience of nineteen years to seek his fortune. Years afterwards he said:—"The bitterest pang I felt on leaving home was parting with my brother Dick, two years my senior. We two had hitherto been inseparable; we slept together, studied out of the same book, and shared every joy and every sorrow. In our talks and plans for the future, we were always to live together, and each promised to name his eldest son after the other."

In due course of time this was done, and Matthew, having a home of his own, and Richard being dead, the latter's young son, Matthew, came to live with this loving uncle, who thenceforward provided for and educated him, as one of his own children, until he was old enough to "paddle his own canoe."

In Albemarle County, Virginia, Matthew Fontaine Maury first came to be amongst his Virginia kin, and often told his children of the hospitality he received in the home of his relatives, near where the University of Virginia now stands.["Piedmont"] His arrival was the occasion of an especial entertainment, and when the ice cream was handed him first as the honored guest by the black servant, he astonished that negro, and tried the good manners of the company, by transferring a teaspoonful of the unknown sauce to his own plate, and sending on the rest.

Maury was more than a fortnight on the road, [3] which was in those days it very bad one, before he reached the home of Mr. Edward Herndon (who had married Matthew's aunt), to whom he sold the mare, and immediately transmitted the money to the owner in Tennessee.

While at his Uncle Herndon's house, he met for the first time the little cousin who was to become his future wife, Ann Hull Herndon, a maiden of some twelve or thirteen summers. She was the eldest daughter of Dabney Herndon (cashier of the Farmer's Bank, of Fredericksburg, and one of the most prominent citizens of that place). Her mother was Elizabeth Hull, of Spottsylvania Co., Virginia. Nine years afterwards, Maury married Miss Ann Hull Herndon (in 1834) from that same house.

In the year 1825, the United States Government had not yet established a naval academy, and the young cadets commenced at once the active duties of their profession. The narrow quarters and crowded steerage, as well as the other discomforts of a man-of-war ship, were as can easily be imagined, little conducive to study.

But it soon became evident to the companions of his own grade, as well as to his superiors in rank, that young Maury had resolved to master the theory and practice of his profession, and was steadily pursuing that object, regardless of difficulties and obstacles. Active and observant, he merited and obtained a reputation for strict attention to the various details of duty, and consequently was often selected for special service.

It is related by some of his companions of that period how Maury would chalk diagrams in spherical trigonometry on the round shot in the quarter-deck racks, to enable himself to master problems, while pacing to and fro, passing and repassing the shot-racks on his watch, thus availing himself of every moment of quiet, and acquiring and storing away for future use, scraps of valuable knowledge during hours that other young men of his age carelessly threw away. With no other textbook than an old Spanish work on navigation, he applied himself resolutely, with the aid of a dictionary, to the task of a new language, and at the same time such nautical information as the book might afford.

During the first year of his service, he visited the coast of England on the frigate 'Brandywine', which then conveyed to France the Marquis de La Fayette, after his visit to the United States in 1825. The gallant Marquis de LaFayette frequently noticed the studious little middy, and had many a kind talk with him.

At this time his pay as a midshipman was only nineteen dollars a month, half of which he sent regularly to one of his sisters.

After a cruise of some months in British waters, and the Mediterranean, the 'Brandywine' returned to New York in 1826, and Maury was transferred to the sloop-of-war 'Vincennes,' then on a cruise around the world.

While on the ship Vincennes, young Maury became a great favorite with the captain, who frequently invited Maury to dine in the cabin. On one such occasion, when the captain had taken a glass or so too much, he insisted that Maury should drink more than the moderate quantity he allowed himself and never exceeded. Maury firmly and politely declined. But his superior officer insisted, and, rising from his seat, approached, glass in hand, to push him yet further. Maury dashed the glass to the floor, and, turning on his heel, left the cabin.

During this cruise, the ship touched at Nukahiva, the island on which his brother John had passed two stranded years, about twelve years before. The old king who had befriended him was still alive, and recognized the younger brother by his name and likeness. He made great show of affectionate greeting, and offered to adopt him as his son and heir.

The change to the ship 'Vincennes' was a fortunate one for the young student, who found his accommodation in the smaller vessel much more favorable for study than in the noisy and crowded steerage of the frigate. When not occupied with his regular duties, or such social intercourse and amusement as courtesy demands among companions on ship-board, he applied himself resolutely to his books, and made such progress, that, at the conclusion of the voyage, he was not only ready to stand his examination, but had prepared (and published soon after) a set of 'Lunar Tables.'

The Vincennes having been paid off, Midshipman Matthew Fontaine Maury was at once offered the position of master on another vessel, but he declined the appointment, and availed himself of this opportunity to stand his examinations. He passed twenty seventh in a class of forty![4]

The following letter was written to his old instructor at Harpeth Academy, afterwards Bishop Otey of Tennessee, while Maury was serving on board the U.S.S. 'Vincennes':—

My Dear Sir, Callao, Port of Lima, 1827.

I had the pleasure, on my arrival at this place from Guayaquil, of finding your agreeable epistle of Feb. 17th, which is the latest date I have from any part of the United States. I do assure you that the reception of a letter from one of my old acquaintances affords me great pleasure, and particularly one from my old schoolmaster. I am highly flattered with the account you give me of my brother Charles' progress at school. I think that he will show to better advantage as a soldier than as a sailor. I have therefore made arrangements to make him a soldier;[5] and should our application fail, any assistance which your influence can render him will be gratefully appreciated by me.

My cruising has been very interesting since I joined this ship, and particularly for the last eight or ten weeks. Owing to the unsettled state of affairs in Guayaquil, we were compelled to stay there, as long as affairs wore a doubtful aspect, in order to protect our commerce against any outrages that might have been committed. On the 10th of last month we were alarmed by the cry of "Viva la patria!" "Viva Guayaquil!" and on going on shore to find from whence these exclamations came, we found the whole city in arms, and drawn out in order of battle, one party headed by the brother of the other's leader. They proceeded to banish all firm friends to the Libertador. Matters remained in this state for about eighteen hours; when, after a little bloodshed, one party declared in favour of the Libertador, and permitted the other, called the rebels, to leave the country. They have since joined the Peruvians. A wise piece of policy, indeed, for it is expected that the two nations will have a difference, not far from open hostilities, so soon as Bolivar shall quell all disturbances in Colombia. He is now on his way from Bogotá to Guayaquil. The conjectures concerning what course he will take are many, and widely different from each other; but the most probable one is, that unless Peru will make proper concessions, he will adopt measures to unite Peru and Colombia under the Government of the latter. We took the Colombian Minister to Peru from Lima to Guayaquil, where we were compelled to leave him, not that the Peruvians had any objection to the man himself, but to the Colombian Minister. The Libertador is very unpopular in Lima, though, should he come to Peru, I should not be surprised to hear a universal acclamation of "Viva el Libertador!" such is the fickle disposition of the natives of South America.

Your next please direct to the care of the Secretary of the Navy, by which means I shall always be sure of receiving it sooner than by any other route. Remember me to all my old acquaintances; and believe me to be always yours, &c,

To Jas. Otey, Esq.,
Franklin, Tennessee.
M. F. Maury, U. S. Navy.
In 1831, just before sailing for the Pacific again, Maury became engaged to his cousin and sweetheart, and he then purchased and gave her a little seal, only to be used in writing to him, bearing for inscription the simple word, "Mizpah", {"The Lord watch between thee and me when we are absent one from the other"}.

Forty years after, when an exile, homeless, and separated from his family, he wrote on the fly-leaf of his Bible, while at sea:—"To mt wife. Dost thou remember Genesis, 31st chap., 49th verse?" and on another leaf—"See 2nd Samuel, 22nd chap., 36th verse: 'Thy gentleness hath made me great, my Nannie.'"

  1. See Porter's 'Journal of the Cruise of the '"Essex"'
  2. This gentleman's eldest daughter married the subject of this biography ten years afterwards.
  3. On the road into Virginia, Matthew fell in with two merchants, on their way to purchase goods in Baltimore. They both conceived a great liking for the lad, and upon their arrival at Bristol, they each took him aside separately, and offered to let him have what money he wanted from their purses. This kind offer he gratefully declined, though when he reached his relatives in Virginia he had only 50 cents left in his pocket. The names of these two friends were Echols and Read.
  4. That a youth of such promise should have passed his examination so low on the list, is but another of the many instances of the kind on record in the history of distinguished men. It may be said, however, that at that period, the scope of such examinations was but faintly defined, and the questions propounded were such as happened to come into the heads of the examining officers. Entering the service at an early age and with but slender opportunities for academic studies afterwards, these sturdy old tars were not likely to question closely on subjects upon which Maury was far better posted than themselves. They attached, perhaps, greater value to details of technical seamanship than to the new problems of their profession, which were then finding birth in the brain of the young man before them.
  5. He procured a commission in the army for him; but Charles Maury, having set his heart upon the navy, positively refused to accept it, and became a carpenter.