A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury/Chapter 8

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The Naval Retiring Board.


In the progress of the narrative, we now come to what was to Maury perhaps the most painful and mortifying episode in his career. Although restitution was made, and he was restored to the service and promoted by special Act of Congress, yet the iron entered into his soul.

On February 28th, 1855, was passed, by the Senate and House of Representatives, an Act to promote the efficiency of the Navy, by which it was provided that the President of the United States shall cause a Board of Naval Officers to be assembled, to consist of five captains, five commanders, and five lieutenants, who shall make a careful examination into the efficiency of the officers of the grades hereinafter mentioned, and shall report to the Secretary of the Navy the name and rank of all officers of said grades who in the judgment of said Board shall be incapable of performing efficiently all their duty both ashore and afloat.

The following is the official announcement, and the first intimation that Maury received that the Board had placed him on the Retired List:—


To M. F. Maury from J. C. Dobbin, announcing the Finding of the Naval Retiring Board.

Navy Department, Washington, D. C.,
Sir, September 17th, 1855.

The Board of Naval Officers assembled under the Act to promote the efficiency of the Navy, approved Feb. 28th, 1855, having reported you as one of the officers who in their judgement should be placed on the retired List on leave-of-absence pay, and the finding of the Board having been approved by the President, it becomes my duty to inform you that from this date you are removed from the active Service List and placed on the Retired List on leave-of-absence pay.

You are, however, not detached from the Naval Observatory. I avail myself of the authority of the law to direct that you continue on your present duty.

I am, respectfully, your obedient servant,

J. C. Dobbin.


"This Board", says Maury, "could only have given an average of ten minutes' 'careful examination' to the merits and demerits of each one of the 712 officers in our Naval Service. This Board met in secret, kept no record of proceedings, called no witnesses, and heard no arguments. They commenced their sessions on the 20th of June, and adjourned on the 26th of July. They lost several days by absence of members, and five days on account of Sundays.

Their sessions commenced at 10 a.m. and lasted until 3 p.m. The Board was required by the Act of Congress to make a careful examination into the efficiency of every officer. Their whole working time was less than 140 hours, during which period they adjudicated upon the claims of 712 officers, so that the 'careful examinations' amounted to an average of about ten minutes for each, the result of which was to seal the fate of many a good fellow who had served his country long and faithfully."

Loud complaint was also made of the action of the Board in declaring incompetent, unworthy of promotion, and an incumbrance upon the Navy, the very men who for many years past and up to the present time had done and were doing so much for the interest and reputation of our country. Reference was particularly made to the case of Lieutenant Maury:—"There seems to have been, on the part of the Board, a feeling which induced its members to take advantage of their irresponsible power to strike down almost every officer who had in any way distinguished himself by his scientific attainments; and in doing this they all took very good care to look out for No. 1, as will be evident from the following statement, which any one may verify for himself by examining the Naval Register. Of the officers whom the Board were called upon to scrutinize, there were 362 on the Naval List ranking above the youngest lieutenant on the Board, while below were 322."[1]

The press of the country rose almost as one man, and demanded the reinstatement and promotion of Maury. The New York Journal of Commerce said:—"Lord Nelson lost both an eye and an arm, yet his name as mighty in battle. Our officers have lost neither arms nor eyes, it is true; but they stand on the records of their country disgraced. Although Messrs. Mallory and Clayton deny that any action of the Senate can wipe this disgrace off, we must beg to differ. Let these officers be restored to their former positions, and then if any charges rest against them on the records of the Navy Department, let them be tried, and, if found guilty, condemned. But it is absurd to believe that 50 per cent of the Navy has been for years inefficient, immoral, and worthless. And if 15 officers of the Navy decide that one-half are unfit for active service, it is more than probable that the other half are no better. The papers have already spoken in loud tones against the proceedings of the Board, and will continue to issue their anathema maranathas until justice is done to these much injured officers. We ask by what rule was this Board selected? Did they pass the ordeal of a secret inquisition? Or have they since their appointment passed another 'careful examination' by a Board?"

Senators Jefferson Davis and Stephen Mallory, prominent advocates of the original Bill establishing the Retiring Board, both strongly opposed Maury's reinstatement when a Bill praying for justice for those injured by the action of that Board was introduced into Congress. One afterwards became President of the Confederate States, and the other his Secretary of the Navy, and, both before and during the war, were inimical to Maury. At this time the following appeared in the New York Herald of December 15th, 1855. appeared in the New York Herald of December 15th, 1855.

"We learn that the Russian Minister yesterday waited on Lieutenant Maury, at the National Observatory, to deliver, by command of his Government, the following autograph letter from the Grand Duke Constantine, Commander in Chief of the Russian Navy:—


To Lieutenant Maury.

Sir, St. Petersburg, December 2nd, 1855.

It is now a long time since the eminent scientific works, for which navigators of every nation are indebted to your zeal and your talents, attracted my attention. . . . . I should rejoice, sir, to present you with a testimonial of my esteem; but, knowing the laws of your country, which do not permit you to accept anything from foreign Princes, I must confine myself to the expression of my sentiments. They are as exalted as your own merits; and, in my official capacity, I may say to you that you do honour to the profession to which you belong, as well as to the great nation which you have the honour to serve. Receive, sir, the assurance of my goodwill and esteem.


"This is a high but deserved compliment to Lieutenant Maury, who has just been retired by the action of the Retiring Board of the Navy. Maury has many powerful friends in the United States and abroad. The people of France, England, and Germany know more of such men as Maury, than they do of our most prominent politicians, and through such as Maury our country gains credit; his being retired has occasioned surprise and displeasure throughout countries. There will be a great deal said about it."

The National Intelligencer said:—"The conduct pursued by that board in reference to Lieutenant Maury and the storm of indignant public feeling aroused by that action, has evidently reached the White House, and called forth 'special pleading' towards the public.The Secretary of the Navy evidently feels that injustice has been done to one of the noblest spirits in the navy—to a man whose name will hereafter be looked upon as a legacy which the whole country will delight to protect, and to which Science will turn as to one of her special favourites.… We commend the spirit in which the above sentiment is conceived, and we hope the assurance thus given to the public, of a willingness to rectify errors, will be carried out. In the case of Lieutenant Maury, all right-minded men, without respect to party, have spoken and unanimously said, Let his sword be restored to him with all the honour and reparation due to injured merit. Let this be done and done quickly!"

On March 25th, 1856, he addressed the following letter to each of the three Secretaries of the Navy, who were at that time within reach:—

Sir, Observatory, Washington, March 26th, 1856.

Will you do me the favour to state why, when you were Secretary of the Navy, you did not order me to sea? Was it because I did not apply, or was it because you considered my services on shore of more value to the country than they would have been at sea? I make this request in connection with the proceedings of the late Naval Board, and hope that in this circumstance you will excuse the liberty, and oblige.

Yours truly,
M. F. Maury.

Sir, Hillsboro, North Carolina, April 7th, 1856.

I regret that my absence from home has delayed a reply to your letter of the 26th ultimo so long after its receipt by my family. In answer to your inquiry, why you were not ordered to sea during my connection with the Navy Department, I have to state that I considered your services at the National Observatory of far more importance and value to the country and the Navy than any that could be rendered by an officer of your grade at sea in time of peace. Indeed, I doubt whether the triumphs of navigation and of the knowledge of the sea achieved under your superintendence of the Observatory will not contribute as much to an effective Naval Service and to the national fame as the brilliant trophies of our arms.

I remain, very respectfully, your obediant servant,
William A. Graham.

To Lieutenant M. F. Maury,
United States Navy, &c.
My Dear Sir, Baltimore, March 28th, 1856.

I have received yours of the 26th, asking me to state why, when I was at the head of the Navy Department, I did not order you to sea. You ask further, was it because you did not apply, or because I considered your services on shore of more value to the country than they would have been at sea.

I have no recollection of your having applied for sea service, though you may have done so, and I, after this lapse of time, have forgotten it. From my knowledge of the nature of your scientific pursuits, their usefulness to the country, and your devotion to them, I can say that nothing but such an emergency as left me no alternative, would have induced me to withdraw you from your labours at the Observatory by an order to go to sea. My estimate of the importance of the scientific service required from the officers of the Navy is sufficiently manifested in my report to the President, in December 1852, upon the organization of a Hydrographical corps, to be charged especially with such duties as those to which you have applied yourself with so much advantage to the country and to your own reputation. I still hope to see that subject attract the attention of Congress, and in the establishment of the corps to furnish an appropriate occasion to the Government to avail itself of your services under conditions equally comfortable to your wishes and your deserts.

Very truly, my dear sir, yours,
John P. Kennedy.

To Lieutenant M. F. Maury,
United States Navy, &c.
Dear Sir, Smithfield, April 20th, 1856.

Your letter of 20th of March was received at my residence, during my absence from home on a visit of several weeks, and has, therefore, remained unanswered thus long. I sincerely regret the delay. When I entered upon the duties of Secretary of the Navy, you were at the head of the Observatory at Washington as Superintendent. The post you occupy is one of the highest importance and interest to the Naval Service of the United States. Under your able and efficient administration of its duties, it has and will confer important benefits, not only on the Navy, but on the entire commercial interests of the country. It requires, however, that the Superintendent should possess the acquirements, habits, and tastes of the scholar and man of science, as well as those of the officer and seaman. I found you in the office, familiar with its duties and fulfilling the duties assigned you with constantly increasing labour, enthusiasm, and success, in the midst of investigations and researches that then promised, as they have since conferred, great practical benefit on the service to which you belong, and lasting honour on the country and age in which you live. No imperative demand for sea-service required your detachment from the Observatory, and on no duty either on shore or afloat could your services have been as valuable to the country or as distinguishing and honourable to your profession, as that to which you have been so assigned. With the highest consideration and regard,

I am your most obedient servant,
Wm. Ballard Preston.

To Lieutenant M. F. Maury,
Washington, D. C.

To ascertain the motives which actuated his brother officers in thus placing him under the ban of the Board, he wrote the following letter to each member of the aforesaid Board:—

Sir, Observatory, 8th Nov., 1855

On learning that I had been placed in official disgrace by the late Navy Board, of which You are a member, I addressed a communication to the Secretary of the Navy, requesting to be informed as to the nature of my alleged "incompetency," and the evidence of it. I learn, in reply, that the Board reported the names and rank of officers only, and gave no reasons for their action.

I therefore appeal to your sense of justice, and request that you will be so good as to answer, at your earliest convenience, the following questions, which are numbered for the convenience of your reply:—

1st. What was the process of examination adopted by te Board for ascertaining whether an officer was efficient or not?

2nd. What was the standard of efficiency fot the grade of lieutenant?

3rd. What difference, if any, did the Board, in weighing the efficiency of Lieutenants, make between duty ashore and duty afloat?

4th. Wherein was I found incapable of performing the duties of my office, rank, or grade?

5th. Did the Board inspect the Observatory, or make any other examination as to the manner in which it is conducted?

6th. What was the character of the evidence upon which the Board pronounced its finding against me?

Should you have any objection to speak for the Board in reply to these interrogations, I hope you will have no objection to speak for yourself, and to answer them, at least so far as your own votes and action as a member of the Board are concerned.

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

The answers to this letter were all either evasive, negative, or insulting.

To the Right Rev. Jas. H. Otey, D. D., Bishop of Tennessee Maury wrote on the same subject as follows:—

My Dear Friend, University of Va., 20th, 1855.

You will learn from the enclosed, from one Navy officer to another, that I have, without cause, been made to suffer grievous wrong. The announcement will take you by surprise, as completely as it did me. I appeal to my friends to help me to right. I have been in the service, as you know, upwards of 30 years; during all that time no complaint of duty neglected, or accusation for any cause, had ever reached the Navy Department against me. In short, whatever my shortcomings may have been as a sinful man, as an officer, accountable only to his Government, my conduct has been without reproach; and yet I have been brought into official disgrace—for what? I am as ignorant as you. The thing has been done by a Board of Navy Officers, sitting in secret, and acting mischievously. I neither know what my offence is, nor who my accusers are. . . .

This monstrous inquisition was set up under the pretence of carrying out a law of the last Congress, To promote the efficiency of the Navy, which directed that a Board of Navy Officers should decide who the incompetent were, and that the President should then approve, or disapprove, of the findings of the Board. The law did not require this Board to sit in secret, or to pronounce judgment; but in their secrecy they have adjudged me unworthy of promotion.

This Board was composed of fifteen officers, of whom ten were Captains or Commanders, none of whom had any scientific attainments—indeed, some of them have publicly condemned all science in the Navy. To this feeling—and a feeling of displeasure by no means uncommon to the old Commanders—that I, a Lieutenant, have dared to establish a reputation somewhat honourable in spite of them, I ascribe their finding. I have supposed that the value and the merits of an officer were to be determined to some extent by the fruits of his labour. . . . By this measure, not one of the ten Commanders, except Perry, has as yet made any mark upon the service that will be recognized as a reminder of their excellence when they are gone. And "P.," I am told, has never felt any satisfaction at my services at the Observatory, but the contrary.

The excuse which they will offer for the slur they have cast upon me will be, I suppose, that I am lame. Mere bodily activity, in an officer of my rank, is comparatively of little value, when taken in connection with the mental activity. Officers are expected—at least, it is generally so in the upper grades—to work rather with the head than the hand, and, moreover, I am bodily as active as a majority of the Board, and if broken legs disqualify, at least one member of the Board should have borne me company, for his leg was broken twice over. . . .

General Scott is crippled in the arm, yet it does not appear to have unfitted him for the Army. Besides, this Board has left untouched other crippled officers, both above and below me. . . .

I find, upon re-reading the above, that I have expressed myself strongly, but somewhat, if you were not very much my friend, egotistically. Therefore, I hope you will pardon me for repeating the injunction as to the confidence of this writing. I wanted to put you in possession of all the circumstances of the case. . . .

Excuse me, my friend, and believe me to be, with affection,

M. F. Maury.

Extracts from a letter from one Navy officer to another on the subject of the action of the Retiring Board, in reference to Lieutenant Maury:—
Dear——, 18th Sept.,1855.

. . . . You rightly infer that there is great excitement here about the action of the late Retiring Board; lists confusedly and mischievously erroneous are in circulation, and from them no considerate opinion can be formed; but I know, officially, the action in regard to M. F. Maury; it fills me with astonishment and indignation. I have all along been under the decided impression that the Board had not taken any such untoward course. Just now, on learning what had been done, I earnestly predicted to Mr.—— my conviction that Lt. Maury will be immediately made a full Captain. He has won the highest honours of the profession, and should wear them.

It will be a great public wrong to have his eminent achievements and public works ignored in this way. The act is suicidal! The great benefits he has conferred upon our Naval and Mercantile Marine, upon commerce, navigation, and science generally, are too well known and admired at home and abroad to tolerate even the appearance of putting down, or aside, such an officer.

I am bound to believe that the members of the Board acted under honest but mistaken convictions of duty and Naval policy. There can be no doubt, in my humble judgment, of Lt. Maury's pre-eminent capacity for command, ashore or afloat. Nor can the opinion be sensibly sustained that Hydrographical should be inactive duty in the Navy, and that our organization, should imitate the Army policy of little side-corps.

It is a grievous error, a large public wrong, to smother, if not suppress altogether, the Hydrographic Office of the Navy in this way.

I write hurriedly, but enough to show you where my heart and judgment are in this question. It is useless to say more now.

Yours truly,

To———, U. S. Navy,
New York.
The following letter, from an officer of his own rank, will serve to illustrate the feeling in the Navy of officers who were not under the influence of jealousy. It is written after hearing that Maury had applied for sea-service during the Mexican War:—

To Lieutenant M. F. Maury, United States National Observatory.

U.S.S. 'Saratoga' off Vera Cruz,
My Dear Sir, 5th Feb., 1859.

It was my thought and purpose to have written you this letter a year ago, just before leaving the country, at a time when rumours reached me of efforts being made to supersede you in the charge of the National Observatory; and now that I hear of the possibility or probability of your going to sea, I desire to place upon record my own feelings and humble opinion on that point.

Having been to sea on active service a very large portion of my life, I presume I attach as much importance to the merits and claims of sea service as anyone, having, in fact, but little claim to consideration on any other score, and knowing little about anything else but ships of war and their uses; but I conceive that the services rendered by you in the great results obtained at the Observatory to the service, to the country, and to the world at large, as so far surpassing, in their value and importance to mankind, anything you could possibly accomplish in the sea line of our profession, that it would be with extreme regret I should hear of your relinquishing the charge of that institution voluntarily, or by compulsion—sentiment, I am sure, which would be heartily responded to by scientific men at home and abroad.

For my estimate of your services I do not rely upon my own judgment or opinion, but upon the verdict of the world, literary and scientific, as I have read it in the journals, foreign and native, throughout Christendom.

I am thankful for the honour you have conferred upon my country and profession, with which I am identified as a citizen and member, and as an American I feel more proud at this moment of the great achievements you have made scientific research, and especially of the attractive and comprehensive manner in which you have presented them to the world (so that a plain man like myself can read as he runs), than of those of any man living, in whatever labours he may have been engaged, and I wish here, and now, to enter my humble protest against your resigning a post, for any consideration whatever, which you have distinguished by such extraordinary services.

I am here in the midst of a large fleet of foreign vessels of war, of many different nations, in daily intercourse with their officers, many of them highly accomplished and superior men, and I find, without exception, that our sentiments and views are in common upon this subject, for it is often discussed.

These remarks, in my judgment, are applicable to yourself alone, and to no other officer in our service; and it is solely upon the ground that you are performing more important services to the country, and to the profession, where you are, than you could do at sea, that I say, as a single individual member of that profession, I will, as far as I can, do your part of that work and fighting at sea, if you will continue to work as you have done for us on the land.

I hope the Government will keep you where you are while God spares your life and reason, and that the country will bestow upon you its highest honours, of which you are so justly deserving, whilst you advance in life and in the great work you have undertaken.

You cannot possibly mistake my motives in addressing you this letter, as there is no way on God’s earth that you can serve me, and my acquaintance with you, for twenty years past, has been almost entirely interrupted, never having seen you on my many visits to Washington.

I beg you to be assured, my dear sir, of the very high respect with which I am,

Your obediant servant,
T. Turner,
Commanding U. S. Ship Saratoga.

To show Maury's deep feeling on the on the subject, some extracts of letters written at that time to his kinsman and friend, B. F. Minor, of Albemarle, Virginia, are here subjoined:—
Dear Frank, October 26th, 1855.

I am forging ahead slowly. The law says—"And whenever said board shall believe that said incompetency has arisen from any cause implying sufficient blame to justify it, he shall be dismissed," &c. Now there is ——, who was tried for ignoble conduct, found guilty and sentenced to be cashiered; he has done nothing to retrieve himself since, and he too is on my list. I shall fight that point, and in the meantime ask leave to appeal, or state my case to the public and ask for a suspension of opinion till Congress can sit.... He had written a letter to each member of the Board requesting to "know the grounds on which they had acted, and their reasons for dropping him from the active list of the service and placing him in official disgrace." Most of the members wrote in reply; and he says, "The Board replies are coming in. I am waiting for them all. Last night I received two. M—— declines like a man, plump straightforward 'No!' Can't speak for the Board nor for myself,' yet volunteers to speak for the measure.' The Board had nothing to do with its effect upon me of their action." Their replies will enable us to "peep into" their hearts. S——, P——, and B—— are also in town. They will probably reply soon; we shall see.…

Last night I received the enclosed two answers. B—— 'likes me,' and meant what he says for civility. I 'should be satisfied' with any amount of disgrace for 'full leave of absence pay.' Nay, I should 'be grateful to the Board in that it was graciously pleased to place' me, &c., &c.

I am curious to see the replies of D——, B——, and G——. The former because I think they were moved by malice; the latter because I think better of him than his brother-officers generally do. Moreover, they are all away from town and have not a chance, or rather, so, a good chance, to get their cue from high places. Again, on November 15th, to the same, he wrote:—


As you see, by the replies of eleven out of the fifteen, they are not disposed to share the responsibility that attaches to them, or to enable one to right himself. By its proceedings the Board has outraged the public sentiment, mocked the law by indecent haste, and offended our sense of right.

Mr. Dobbin told me some time ago that I was mistaken in supposing that there was any feeling in the public mind upon the subject. . . . He moreover added that it was a mistake to suppose that Congress was going to undo the matter, for that Senators had conversed with him and pledged themselves to sustain the Board. He admitted that there were some officers, by supposition twelve or fifteen, that ought not to be ruled out, and ought to be put back, and asked me to advise with him as to the mode of getting them back. Speaking hypothetically, he put this case:—Suppose he and the President, consulting with the Senate, should satisfy Senators as to these twelve or fifteen cases; that Senators should agree to confirm the nominations, and that the President, then revoking twelve or fifteen commissions, should send in his blackballed nominations? My reply was, it was unlawful to promote blackballs, and that the President and Senate could not repeal a law. I told him that mere promotion would not satisfy me; that the Board has cast a professional stain, and that must be wiped out. He then suggested the idea of reassembling the Board to state reasons for their finding. I said that would be to aggravate the outrage, and I would not trust the Board!

I have not yet made up my mind as to my next step, or as to what I shall do with the Board replies. . . . I think I shall wait until some of my friends in Congress arrive, so that, seeing how the land lies there, I may take a fresh departure. I am much obliged to Baldwin and my good friends at the university about the professorship. I can't think of anything until I get right here. What wickedness. has that Board not committed! It appears to me that my brother-officers, many of whom are men of intelligence, are utterly mercenary; they think if I get pay that's everything. . . .

Regulations forbid me to appeal to the public. I have asked the Secretary to allow me, but he won't. G——, came to me yesterday with a confidential message from the Secretary that he and the President would use all their influence to have a hydrographic corps established for the Navy, with me at the head of it, backed by G. & M. et Al. . . . Of course I shall heed no overtures until I find out, and have it published, wherefore I am blackballed.

You ask about the feelings of those who are retained on the active list. They are inaugurating a move to make Commander Steward an Admiral, and me a Captain. The plan is to get up a Navy petition. When waited upon yesterday to be advised of this move, my reply was, "I am profoundly sensible of the compliment; but all the sheep-skins that the department could issue could not buy me off from my efforts to wipe out the stain that this mischievous, wicked Board has made." "Of course not," was the reply; "but you don't object to the move?" "No." . . . .

There were members of that Board, I am told, who behaved like hungry wolves and shocked others by the display of savage enmity.

It's a wicked Board to distract my attention from useful work and concentrate it on these miserable controversies, &c.,&c. . . .

It suffices to add that the vindication so persistently demanded was in a short time abundantly attained. During the following winter the action of the Naval Retiring Board was virtually set aside by Congress, and by special Act Maury was reinstated and promoted to the rank of Commander with back pay from the date of his retirement. The letter from the Secretary of the Navy announcing this officially was lost during the Civil War, but Maury's reply thereto is herewith appended:—
Sir, U. S. Naval Observatory, 4th February 1858.

I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of your communication of the 29th ultimo, enclosing a commission making me a Commander in the Navy from the 14th day of September, 1855.

Respectfully, &c.,
M. F. Maury, Commander, U.S.N.

To Hon. Isaac Toncey,
Secretary of the Navy.
  1. See Scientific American, Nov. 1855.