A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury/Chapter 4

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Publication of "Scraps From The Lucky Bag"—Appointment to the charge of the Depôt of Charts and Instruments at Washington—Letters respecting the work at the Observatory.

In 1839 Maury began the publication of a series of articles on naval reform, and other subjects of general interest, under the title of "Scraps from the Lucky Bag," and with the "nom de plume" of "Harry Bluff." They first appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond, Virginia and the incognito was preserved for some time; but the essays attracted much attention, and were generally approved by the navy. Amongst other matters, he urged in these papers the adoption of steam as a motive power. Perceiving the change that steamships, rifled guns, and hollow shot would bring about, he proclaimed "a new era in naval warfare, that of big guns and small ships."[1] Under the old system, the power of a man of war was expressed by the number of her guns, some having as many as 120. He predicted that in future wars few vessels would have more than six. Experience has shown how sound was his judgment.

In the early part of the same year he drew attention to "great-circle sailing,"—as a means of shortening the distance between American and English ports. He also wrote on the subject of "Direct Trade in Southern Bottoms." This question was warmly discussed by the Richmond Whig and the New York World.

In another scrap for the same paper he advised that "a navy-yard and forts should be established at Memphis and Pensacola," and wrote:— "Pensacola and some point in Georgia, or on the Eastern Coast of Florida, cannot be too strongly fortified or too well supplied now with all the imperishable articles on the lists of outfits for shipping, with implements and instruments of war. They would be to the Gulf of Mexico and the West Indies what Gibraltar is to the Mediterranean and the Levant.

"There our vessels might rendezvous and thence hold the enemy in check. For them our merchant vessels, when pursued, would shape their course, and find safety in the strength of these two points.... In our present unprotected state, and without the above-mentioned defenses, all the immense wealth which is poured into and out of the Gulf of Mexico, as through a funnel, would be at the mercy of an enemy." In the same paper Maury advocated the establishment of a naval school for midshipmen, "that they might there be instructed in the higher duties of their profession," and urged the use of regular textbooks. This paper led to the building of forts at Key West and the Tortugas, and to the establishment of a naval school at Annapolis, Maryland, and the use of his (Maury's) 'Navigation' as a text-book there.

In a paper entitled "The Navy and the West," published in the Southern Literary Messenger of January 1843, Maury insisted upon the advantages which would accrue "from the building of a dock and navy yard and school of instruction for naval engineers at Memphis, so that they might be ready to understand and control the steam power which was beginning to be adopted as a motive power in the Navy."

The Memphis Eagle and Enquirer said of him, on April 9th, 1859:— "If there has been no occasion heretofore to ask the question, it is not out of place now to inquire, To whose exertions are we chiefly indebted for the establishment of the navy-yard at this place? The answer is, to the labours of Lieutenant M. F. Maury.

"About sixteen years ago he, in a series of masterly and convincing articles, published in the Southern Literary Messenger, showed the importance of a navy yard, to be located in the valley of the Mississippi, and satisfied every reflecting mind that it was due to the interests of the West, considered in all its commercial and political relations.

"These articles attracted great attention. They found their way into the weekly and daily papers, and led to warm and animated discussions upon the merits of the project started by Lieutenant Maury.

"He met all objections triumphantly; but went further, and proved to the satisfaction of the great minds of the country that Memphis was the precise location best suited lot the establishment of the proposed navy yard; nor were his efforts in this cause confined to communications addressed to the intelligence of our countrymen through the public press. The matter was brought before Congress, and was referred by the House of Representatives to the Committee on Naval Affairs. Lieutenant Maury was indefatigable in his labours to put the Committee in possession of every fact and item of information necessary to guide it to a wise conclusion, and actually wrote the Report presented to the House by Dr. Peyton, and which the Nashville papers at the time commended as a masterly production.

"Ought not the debt to be recognized by some appropriate acknowledgment on the part of our city authorities, or of our citizens, not by passing complimentary resolutions—heaven save the mark!—but by some substantial token which may witness our appreciation of his services. What shall it be? In my opinion it had better be the offer of a home, comfortable and well furnished, in our vicinity, and an invitation to come and spend the balance of his days within the State of Tennessee—the state of his adoption.

"Perhaps someone else can suggest something better, or more appropriate. I am chiefly anxious that some lasting memorial be preserved of the labours of a man, who by his works has conferred lasting honour upon his whole country, and, upon this city in particular, special benefits.

"I may recur to his labours again, and show that Lieutenant Maury is the author of a measure which has secured, and is now securing by its operation, millions of dollars to the States bordering on the Mississippi."

In June 1843, he advocated the use of blank charts on board public cruisers. This paper was read before the National Institute. Afterwards, in July of the same year, he read before the President of the United States, members of the Corps Diplomatique, &c., another much talked of paper that Maury had written, entitled "The Gulf Stream and its Causes," and still later another paper on the connection of terrestrial magnetism with the circulation of the atmosphere.

In another "scrap" he urged, for the defense of the Great Lakes, the establishment of forts, arsenals, and a ship canal from the Illinois River to Lake Michigan, to connect with the Memphis navy yard (which had by this time become a fixed fact), and transport ships to and fro in time of war:—

"Millions have been expended for the defence of the Atlantic seaboard. A million is due for the protection of Southern harbours and the Gulf States, and if we leave the Lake States exposed, it is like locking fast the doors of an edifice and leaving the windows open. . . . It is other nations which impose upon us the necessity and expense of military preparation; and it is well to remember the sage advice of a wise statesman, who said, 'In time of peace prepare for war.' If all other nations would sink their navies, raze their forts, and disband their armies, we too might do the same; for we arm only for defense, and not for conquest'...How different is the Illinois ship canal from any of the Atlantic forts! They are works which must be garrisoned and kept in order at heavy annual expense. The former, with one or two outworks, will protect 2000 miles of coast line in war; and in peace be a source of untold blessing to the East and West, to the North and South, and of solid and substantial benefit and advantage to a vast commerce.

"It will more than maintain itself—the money expended on it in peace or in war will not be idle for a moment, and the work will pay back its first cost every year in princely and magnificent sums. . . . Let this work be completed, and it will prove a dragon's tooth, planted in the West, to bring forth for the defence of the country a harvest of steam clad warriors, ever brave, always ready. . . . The question of this ship canal is second only to that of the free navigation of the Mississippi River and the purchase of Louisiana.

"Various elements are at work in our political system to try the strength of the Constitution. Whenever, if ever, a political storm shall burst upon us, this canal will prove a noble anchor to windward. . . . Such agents are at work, as tend to foster sectional jealousies. . . . Intolerance and fanaticism are the bane of free institutions—they may be destined some day to try the strength of the Union. Give us, therefore, for antidote, this canal."

His first five "scraps" from "The Lucky Bag" which were written on naval reform and other subjects of national interest, attracted so much attention, and were so generally approved by the Navy, that (although the author was, as yet, entirely incognito, and great curiosity was expressed as to who he could be) the officers, defraying the expense by subscription, had large numbers of these papers published and circulated. When it became known that Maury was the author of these remarkable papers, his ability and grasp of mind were universally acknowledged. His position as an authority on naval questions was established, and soon afterwards he was placed in charge of the Depôt of Charts and Instruments at Washington, not upon his own application, but on the ecommendation of brother officers. Maury developed this office into the well known "National Observatory and Hydrographical Department of the United States." He received the appointment in the seventeenth year of his service, and the thirty sixth year of his age. "No man could have been found in the country," says Senator Bell [2] of Tennessee, in a speech before the Senate, "better fitted than Maury for this difficult duty; and he worked with the zeal and energy that were expected of him."

About this time, he writes to his cousin and others describing his work at the Observatory, his life there, and other matters.

To Ann Maury.
U. S. Depôt of Charts, &c.
Washington, August 4th, 1842

. . . . I came from home a month ago. The additional exercise, which I have been obliged to take here, has proved of the utmost service to the leg. On one or two occasions, I have been on my feet from eight or nine in the morning till eleven at night. The leg strengthens under it all the time. I am on my feet standing or walking most of the day; but, unless I go down the city, I never touch my cane. It stands in the corner looking like a cast-off friend. So far the new duties are admirable.

A Bill has passed the Senate for building a depôt, as 'tis called.... What part I am to have in it, or what bearing it is to have upon me in my present situation, I am not able even to guess. I am keeping bachelor's hall for the present. Miles, the porter, and I can vie with you in economy. His and my expenses for one week, including marketing, board, &c, amounting to exactly forty eight cents. Moreover, there was generally a midshipman to tea.

To the same.
October 15th, 1842.

. . . . Lewis Herndon is now attached to this office. He and his wife (Mit) are messing with me now. . . .

Last week, when I was in New York, I occupied your room. I counted and recounted your "Little Niggers"[3] over the mantlepiece oftener than Gil Blas did his ducats. You know, between morning naps, counting numbers is a regular thing with me. I try to make the mind do something to give it the habit of obedience to the will, whenever the faculties are not sleeping. It kicked terribly though at having to imagine every morning the middle profile in a line with the rest. Then there was one looking back; she must be taken down and put in front. Those profile pictures are, to me, the most eloquent exponents of affection and love. It may be association; I suppose it is.

February 16th, 1843.

. . . . We are all in our usual state of health, except perhaps myself. The doctor said I was destroying myself with over-much head work, and in consequence, I have had to hold up somewhat. But it is a hard case that one's brains will not stand the work of one's will.

Certain it is that, after working from nine or ten in the morning till one or two at night, I begin to look and feel badly.[4]

A curious prophecy of the phonograph and telephone is contained in the next letter:—

To Ann Maury of New York.
Washington, May 12th, 1844

. . . . What a pity it is that M. Daguerre, instead of photography, had not invented a process of writing, by merely speaking through a trumpet at a sheet of paper. What a glorious thing it would have been! I could then have hailed out letters to M. in the boldest hand, and at any time. Instead of saying, I wrote you a letter last Monday, the phrase would have been, I spoke you a ream last Tuesday. The world would become a mere scribbling shop—a vast book machine. When out visiting, and you would wish to give the cook an order you would only have to hail down the pipe and the cook would have a written order at her feet, and then there would be no mistake about the puddings.

What a convenience that would be to housekeepers!

Such a consummation, though, must be left for the generation of such as Davy Jones [2nd son, John Herndon Maury] and little Poll. 'Twould be a curious thing if they were to carry on a courtship in this way [and we now have Internet].

To Ann Maury of New York.
Observatory, June 23rd, 1844.

. . . . Tomorrow is Betty's and Nannie's birthday. They and "Goggin" (Dick)—ndeed their mother, aunts, and all hands—are as full of a trip to the Chain Bridge for a picnic as old King Seid was of his visit to the "Island in the Lake."

They—the three children—are to catch fish for dinner, and Vendovi (the dog) a hare. [William] Lewis Herndon is to go to row them in a boat. Mit (Lt. Wm. Lewis Herndon's wife) is forbidden to go unless she looks happy, for she hates picnics. Mr. Brown has fitted up a fishing rod for each. The bus is to take us up at 10 a.m., and come for us at five or six. We are to carry matches and make a fire, cut boughs and make a bower, and Davy Jones is to take his nap in the mill, or under the bridge, according to circumstances. The greatest drawback to the most extravagant anticipations of pleasure and enjoyment, is the fear that the day will be rainy or snowy, or something, and the fact that "to-morrow is so long a-coming."

The greatest marvel about the whole thing is, that Nannie has become quite enthusiastic about it...If nonsense will sell at all, I am sure you have here three fipsworth of it.

To the same.
Observatory, Sept.13th, 1846.

. . . . I look at the stars and you are brought to mind. Those superb clusters in Perseus which you used to admire in the west are now in the east. Sirius, with his "Dawn of Day" in the telescope, has disappeared, and the glorious Nebulæ of Orion culminate by day; but then there is that exquisite double star in Andromeda, orange and emerald—that, too, is in the east.

. . . I have quite a large corps of observers, and some very good ones. So closely do they observe, that their observations show the instruments to be in different parts of the building. I am now very much engaged with preparations for publishing our first volume of observations. This keeps me stretched, for as a preliminary thereto most tedious investigations of the forms, figures, imperfections, &c. of the instruments are necessary.... A glorious privilege is that of labour. . . . An officer is standing idle while I write this.

In haste, yours,

The National Intelligencer says, in speaking of Maury and his work at this time: "The simple depôt for charts and instruments was transformed into an observatory. Surrounded by such men as Ferguson, Hubbard, Coffin, Keith, Yarnell, Laurence, Beecher, and other faithful workers, whom Maury inspired with his own enthusiasm, he made the Naval Observatory, national in its importance and fame."

To Mrs. William Maury, Liverpool.
Observatory, Nov. 14th, 1846.
My Right Trusty and Well-Beloved Cousin,

I am sure you cannot hate that word. It is a good old word, venerable for its antiquity, lovely in its associations. The dearest friend of my youth was my first and only love, my charming Nannie, who has blessed and who now cheers and comforts me and lends all the enchantment of "young love's dream" to the word. "Blood is thicker than water," and I do love my worthy cousins.

. . . . I am very much occupied in keeping the stars in order. I have one in custody at present, taken up under the "Vagrant Act"—a mulatto! It is unique, and a perfect little love. . . . I have two pairs of double stars which [William] Lewis Herndon makes 20" or 30" farther apart than the great Bessel represents them to be. These must be looked after; and if they have moved that much, the discovery will be a grand one. I have them in my pocket now though, and I'll keep them till you come, so we may look after them together. Besides, there is the "great refraction circle," which has just come; you must help me to mount that. It an exquisite piece of machinery; I should like to wear it round my neck, it is so beautiful!


The following letters to his kinsman and friend, Mr. Blackford, explain Maury's motive in accepting the appointment at Washington.

To Wm. Blackford, Esq., Lynchburg, Va.
Dear Blackford, Observatory, January 1st, 1847.

A prosperous and a happy new year to you and yours. You are equal to Brodie Herndon for pleasant letters. . . .

I send you a copy of our observations; not that I expect you, Cousin Mary, or Lucy, to read it through, but for the chance of a silent lesson which your boys may sometimes find in it.

The colleges are warm in their commendation of the volume, and it amuses me that almost every one expresses surprise that Navy officers should be able to do such things. We have beaten Greenwich all hollow, there is no doubt; yet we shall do even better next time. . . .

I have solved a problem that has often blistered my heart, and proved that Navy officers are fit for something else than scrubbing decks at sea and tacking ship. You know I did not want the place, and only decided to keep it when I heard it had been promised to a civilian, under the plea that no one in the Navy was fit for it. I then went to Mason, pronounced that the repetition of a practical libel, and told him he must stand by me. He did so, and though I had never seen an instrument of the kind before, and had no one with me who had, I was determined to ask no advice or instruction from the savans, but to let it be out and out a Navy work. Under these circumstances you may well imagine the pleasure which I derive from any fresh proof of success.

There is a chance of the Observatory being converted into the "Hydrographical Bureau," with a salary of $3,500. I would be wrong to give up that; but, as I said before, if it were not for my poverty, I should not desire to remain here longer than to satisfy two or three problems, and I have sent for an instrument, to help in solving them. I beg pardon, but one must take an airing on one's hobby now and then.

In haste, your friend,
M. F. Maury.

To the same.

April 20th, 1848.

. . . . The Observatory affairs go on pretty well. They speak of us kindly in Europe, and I think we are making friends in Congress. I am preparing for an expedition during the summer, on the Magnetic Telegraph Routes, for the purpose of determining difference of longitude between the principal cities and the Observatory.

Willy, I suppose, is toting the chain? Tell him to drive ahead, study well, and improve fast; I shall want him to go out and survey the route for the Memphis and California Railroad. . . . The Boston merchants were so pleased with that Wind and Current Chart,[5] that they offered to raise 50,000 dollars to buy a vessel and keep her at my orders to try new routes. I said nay; and then they petitioned Congress to detail a man-of-war for the purpose, to which "Uncle Sam" gave apple-crust promise. Four vessels that I know of have tried the new route to the equator. The average of the four passages is ten days less than the average by the usual route.


To the same.

March 12th, 1849.

. . . . The charts are going a-head bravely. They are quite as much admired on the other side as on this and they do turn out exceedingly rich. Some new discovery, some new; law of nature is constantly starting up before proceed with our investigations. [Wm.] Lewis Herndon has the Whale Chart in hand; that will be of such importance to the whale-men that might well afford to give us a perpetual log in all their ships....

Betty is going to school, and growing apace. I wish I could give her physic to keep her as a child. The idea of my daughters ever getting married is so unpleasant, that I am sure I shall never like the man who marries one. I hate him now from the bottom of my heart. Schools and education disturb me. If I were only a rich man I would devote all my wealth, time, and energies to reforming education. I would build a model college for boys, and another for girls, and be happy as are the angels in the consciousness of doing good. As a general rule, I regard colleges, as at present conducted, as humbugs, and female seminaries as downright cheats and now that the time has come for educating my own children, I find myself chained down by the vile system, and I am unable to break the fetters, because I am too poor to employ teachers of my own, and so have my children educated in regular ship-shape style. A little music for the girls is all I can get. To see how smatteringly they are taught, look at the great majority of middle aged women of your acquaintance who are educated at these seminaries!...

To a young cousin (Lucy Blackford) he says:—

I hope you have a code of rules for study which are unbending, which you follow up daily with great diligence, and that you do not often take doses of poison from those things called novels! Novel reading is, to the student, what mint juleps are to the tippler—most delightful and refreshing at the time, but serpents under the flowers in the end. I often deplore the general state of female education in this country.

In 1847-48 Congress failed to make any appropriation for the NATIONAL OBSERVATORY, and in consequence Maury's pay was stopped for a time. Maury writes of this incidentally in the following letters to his cousins in New York:—

Observatory, April 10th, 1848.

. . . . No pay yet, and I am very tired of living on such slender means. Better times, I hope, are coming before long; this poverty is a terrible weight upon one's mind and wants.

June 10th, 1848.

. . . . The pay has almost passed the House, and I begin to think of increasing expenditure in the way of education, &c., for the children, and church and social facilities, &c., for Nannie.

My "magnetic longitude" trip has been knocked on the head, for the present at least, by the non-arrival of the instruments from Munich.

August 25th, 1848.

. . . . Congress declared the Superintendent of the "Marine" to mean me, and to mean moreover that the pay should commence from the passage of the Act—thus giving me about $500 extra!

  1. See S.L.M., October 1839
  2. Senator John H. Bell, who was the Whig candidate for President in 1860, and was defeated by Abraham Lincoln.
  3. Silhouettes in black and white
  4. This letter is written with marked illegibility. His caligraphy ever since his leg was broken shows a change for the worse. At this time, excessive work brought on pain in the head, as if by that pressure to keep the busy brain from working.
  5. The one to Rio, the first of the series.