Matthew Fontaine Maury/17

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Description of Lexington,Va. — Maury settled in his last home — Virginia the best route to the North-West — Plans for a Map showing a caste of the atmosphere — Reaches his sixty-sixth birthday — Arrangement to deliver addresses — Meteorological survey of Virginia — Resumes his lectures on agricultural meteorology — His address delivered at Nashville, St. Louis, and Richmond — In delivering his lectures of weather forecasts for farmers M F Maury overtaxes his strength — Maury comes home to Lexington to die. — His last illness — The last scene — His death — Sketch of his character — Particulars of his last days —Quotation of a notice in Temple Bar — His wishes respecting his obsequies.

Lexington, Virginia is a small town, beautifully situated on the western side of the Blue ridge, with picturesque views of valley and mountain-ranges on every side. The academical buildings are erected in a continuous line, facing a green expanse of grass, interspersed with clumps and lines of trees. Nearest the town are the edifices connected with the Washington and Lee University, including the house of the Rector, where General Lee passed the last years of his life, the library and classrooms, and houses of professors. A little in advance is the memorial church containing the noble recumbent statue of General Robert Edward Lee by Valentine, the great Virginian sculptor. The grounds of the University were divided only from those of the Virginia Military Institute by a gate and iron railings. Here is the house occupied by The Pathfinder of the Seas, Matthew Fontaine Maury, with a bright and cheerful landscape in full view from its windows, the house of the Principal, General Francis Henney Smith, and the main building of the Institute with the marks of injuries, wantonly perpetrated by the federal invaders, still visible on its walls.

Here, surrounded by old friends, and free to work at the pursuits which were most congenial to him, Matthew Fontaine Maury passed the last four years of his life with his wife and family. At last he had found a haven of rest; but his busy and untiring brain continued to be as active as ever in devising plans for the good of his country, as is evident from the following letter:—


DEAR FRANK, ( Dr. Tremlett )

Here we are in our new home, busy fixing up; and things begin to know their places. So, we also begin to have a home-feeling. People are very kind, the country is beautiful, the views and the scenery lovely, and both climate and air such that exercise is enjoyment. How I wish I had you and Miss Louisa here with us! Nannie and her two children are now on their way to us — by sea — from New York. Dick (eldest son, Colonel Richard Launcelot Maury) has gone to West Virginia. Brave (youngest son, Matthew Fontaine Maury Jr,) is polishing (being educated) off at the Institute.

The seat of Empire is fast settling down in the North-West States. They already give the Presidents, and will soon dictate the foreign policy of the country. They must have a better way to the sea. They have been taught to believe, erroneously, that the best way lies through Canada and the St. Lawrence. It does not; it lies through Virginia.

You will appreciate my feeling upon this subject, when I remind you that grain is sent round Cape Horn from California, and delivered at the ports along the Atlantic seaboard at ten cents the bushel cheaper than it can now be sent from Iowa and other North-West States; that the people throughout these States — and they are the grain-growing States — know that, with a good highway to the Atlantic seaboard, the value of their grain would be enhanced ten, twenty, even thirty cents the bushel; and they think that Canada and the St. Lawrence can give them such a way.

The greatest difficulty in teaching these people that their best way to the sea lies through Virginia, not through Canada, is to get our people to raise funds for the gratuitous circulation of the Reports[1] in sufficient numbers between this and the next meeting of Congress in December. If we can do that, the North-West States will raise their voices in favour of the Virginia route, and demand the money to open it. When that is done, they will not want Canada, and we shall have peace. Thus you see, my friend, I am aiming high and striking far. But with a few heads such as yours to help, we would hit the mark as sure as a gun!

I wish you would visit as you promised me now that I have a nest of my own. The house is never too full that we can’t always find a place for you.

Help me with your fervent prayers. God bless you!
Yours, M.

Early in 1870, Matthew Fontaine Maury was busy with a map which could serve as a “cast of the atmosphere”— a device which his friend, Lieutenant John Mercer Brooke, the inventor of the deep-sea lead, had also conceived the idea of (Brooke had worked with Maury in charting the sea bottom in the late 1840’s, early 1850’s while they lived in Washington, D.C.) It is described in the following letter to Rutson Maury:



........You remember, before the war, how hard I tried to get up a TELEGRAPHIC METEOROLOGICAL BUREAU (International Weather Bureau) — writing and lecturing about it — now as meteorology for the farmers, now as storm-signals combined with crop statistics. When I was in England, during the war, I proposed to FITZROY, and after his death to his successor, TOYNBEE, a plan for making, by means of an elastic cloth stretched over his map, a caste of the atmosphere, so that he might take in his whole field of observation at a single glance, and so predict with more certainty. Suppose, for instance, with his map pasted on a table, he had bored a hole through London, Liverpool, Portsmouth, &c., and stuck up in each place a little rod graduated for the barometer; that his elastic cloth was then fitted to a slide so that he could set it at the height of the barometer at each of the stations. Fancy each rod to be surmounted by a wind-vane which could be drawn out or shoved in, to show the force of the wind at each place. Thus you would have a “cast of the atmosphere,” and see all about it.

JOHN MERCER BROOKE (invented “deep-sea lead” which took core samples of the sea bottom, Brooke gun, designed the ironclad CSS Virginia from the ruins of the ‘Merrimack’) has suggested just such a plan to Meyers; and Meyers, I have heard, has adopted it. The idea, I think, was as original with Brooke as it was with me.

The following two letters, while recalling his advancing years, prove also that Matthew Maury’s activity and enthusiasm were unimpaired by them:



Yesterday was my birthday — sixty-six. I read my mercies in the first of the morning Psalms, 71st for the 14th day, and imagine the unction with which I joined in the reading in church....

JULY 14TH, 1872

....I am to go to Boston on the 18th September, to deliver an address by invitation, and in October to do the same at Griffin Georgia, St. Louis, and then Norfolk, Virginia. The Board of Visitors won’t accept my resignation; speak in dulcet tones about my presence here.... I put it to the vote this morning at breakfast, “V.M.I. (Virginia Military Institute) or Richmond?” Unanimous for V.M.I. So here we rest for the present, at least.

The British Association wants me at Brighton, England. C. Burrows (the Mayor) “requests the honour of my presence,” August 14th, and they have kindly made arrangements with the Cunarders to take me there and back. It would be fine to set the British Association at work upon my meteorological and crop convention; but I’m too poor — I must decline. The foot took me bad the day before yesterday. Yesterday it had me on crutches, and in the agonies there came a fainting, about 5 P.M. But this morning I feel better, though still on crutches.

During the last four years of his life, Matthew Fontaine Maury occupied himself, as one of his professional duties at Lexington, in making a meteorological survey of his beloved Virginia, partly with the view of developing her resources, and partly in the hope of attracting immigrants to her deserted farms. This survey, as far as it had gone, he embodied in two elaborate and valuable reports; but he was not destined to see the work fully accomplished.

No man was more alive than Maury was to the fact that the agriculture of the South was to her an unfailing source of renewed prosperity — that, like Antaeus, it was from the earth that she would gain restitution of her strength.

Hence Matthew F. Maury earnestly favoured and persistently urged all measures looking to the improvement of agriculture. To this end he resumed the series of lectures on the subject so dear to his heart, which had been interrupted by the war, and visited, by invitation, cities in Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Missouri.

In May and October 1871, he delivered the following address at St. Louis, Griffin, Georgia, which met with enthusiastic commendation:

“I calculate, that in consequence of erroneous estimates and the lack of such accurate crop statistics as we now seek, the cotton-planters alone have received, for their last six crops, many millions of dollars less than they would have received had they known, before selling, the actual cash value of the crops as accurately as it was known after they were sold....

“The crops may be regarded, in one sense, as a meteorological expression of the weather, from seed time to harvest; for that there is a physical relation between the weather and the crops is obvious to all....

“I wrote and lectured on this subject before the war, and I promised then, that if you would give me a lock of cotton from every bale, I would undertake, with that as a fund, to defray all the necessary expenses for forecasting the weather and crops for you, and to render to agriculture and the land services far more signal and valuable than those which commerce and navigation were then reaping from the Wind and Current Charts, and my researches touching the Physics of the Sea. Nay, I went further, and promised to give back your ounce of cotton, if you would lend me influence with your representatives in Congress in favour of an Act just to permit me to do for the land what I was already doing for the sea.

“I simply sought leave to extend my observations over the country so as to comprehend its industries, and bring continents as well as oceans within my field of research.

“I would, I have always thought, have carried the day then, and won this great boon for science and for you, but for official obstruction, which arrested its progress until the war broke upon us....

“The machinery for putting this plan into operation is, so far as this country is concerned, all ready — all it wants is the gearing up. You now have your Signal Office where weather reports are continually received by telegraph, and whence telegraphic forecasts are issued daily.

“And though this work is so new to the officers engaged in it, their progress so far is in the right direction. You now also have the Agricultural Bureau, in the service of which reports embodying many of the facts and observations required are already made, or might be without any additional expense. Many of the data which these two offices seek to obtain stand somewhat in the relation of cause and effect to each other — as, for instance, a dry season and bad crops. Your fields have the same area and soil this year that they had last. Why is not their yield the same? Simply because the seasons were different. Do you mean to say that amid all the mind, means, and appliances of the age, the relations between the weather and the crops are past finding out?

“If I could, with just such a system of researches for the sea, sit down in my office and tell the navigator how for he would find the wind, at any season of the year, in any part of the ocean through which he wished to sail, am I promising too much when I tell you, that by the plan I now propose the relation between the weather and the crops is as capable of scientific development as were the relations between sea-voyages and the winds twenty-five years ago?

“The new system of observations may be so arranged that the two offices may cooperate, each giving the other what it lacks to make its own observations and data complete....

“I have drawn my illustrations chiefly from cotton. But the grain-growers have a larger interest at stake in this matter than even the cotton-planters; and so are all who are engaged in the cultivation of staples, of whatever kind, in any part of the world. Proper cooperation having been established between the Signal Office and Agricultural Bureau at Washington, let us see what else is required to carry the plan into effect in this country....

“I believe the Agricultural Bureau has already in its employ agents in the various States to collect agricultural information. Its organization for receiving monthly or bimonthly reports as to the staple crops of the various sections may, for aught I know, be complete....

“I am under the impression, however, that there is in this Bureau abundant room for improvement as well in organization as in conduct and management; for its utterances as to yield of crops do not, in commercial circles, seem to be received with as much confidence as are the private circulars of many produce-dealers.

“The conference I propose would deal with these defects and give efficiency to both.

“But let us suppose, for the sake of illustration and by way of showing the main features of my plan, that the proper meteorological stations have been occupied. The meteorological office, though more recently established, is the more deserving of commendation. Its forecasts of the weather are instructive; but they are too vague, as yet, to be of much practical value.

“Here is a fair sample of its predictions, called ‘Weather Probabilities.’

“I take this from the first paper I happened to lay my hands on this morning. ‘Washington, August 11th. — A low barometer, with cloudy weather; cold local storms will probably extend during the afternoon over New York and New England.’ There is nothing in these probabilities that you can utilise. There is no reason why, with the means and appliances under the control of that office, you should not reasonably expect to have timely warnings, at least of certain great changes in the atmosphere, that you can profit by....

“But the time is coming, and my plan will hasten it, when these ‘probabilities’ will become certainties, and be more specific and practical.... Of what use can it be to any living soul to know that a low barometer with local storms will probably extend during to-morrow afternoon over New York and New England? Now, if it had said what counties and part of New York and New England these local storms would reach, and give some idea of their character and severity, whether rain, hail, wind, &c., we should have something to count upon.

“But let us suppose, for the sake of illustration and by way of showing the main features of the plan, that the proper meteorological stations have been occupied, and that the observers and co-operators report upon the crops as well as upon the weather; and that, at first and in a tentative way, a special crop-reporter be assigned to every district of 10,000 square miles in the States, who should travel over his beat continually and keep the central office posted, by monthly reports at first, as to the state and promise of the staple crops of his district; at the same time the meteorological observers in this district would send in their observations in detail for the same period, also by mail, while be telegraph both observers keep up their daily reports, both as to the weather and crops. This would give five crop-reporters for Alabama, five for Tennessee, four for Kentucky, and so on all over the country. In Europe, twelve for Great Britain, nineteen for France, one for Holland, &c....

“How to go to work about this, and how to interest all people in a common plan, requires consultation, goodwill, and cooperation among all nations. This we must seek through their wise men and meteorologists, and to get them in conference for that purpose, with their governments at their back, is wherein your kindly aid and friendly offices, with the administration are solicited.

“Europe is ripe for this scheme. There has just been held there a ‘Grand International Congress for the advancement of Cosmographic, Geographic, and Commercial Knowledge.’

A correspondent wrote to me, ‘ Your resolutions for an Agricultural and Meteorological Conference International were received with cheers, and by unanimous vote ordered to be printed.’ “

This next paper was read before the INTERNATIONAL CONGRESS at St. Petersburg, &c., by M. QUETELET (see Le Moniteaur Belgique). In pursuance of Maury’s suggestions, the following resolutions were unanimously adopted:

“Resolved, first — That the President of this society be and hereby is instructed to petition, in behalf of the farmers of Tennessee, the United States Government — through the State Department and the Executive — in favour of the establishment, by international co-operation, of a general and systematic plan of meteorological observations and crop reports, and to request the Government, in furtherance of this object, to invite all other nations to meet, in the persons of their leading meteorologists, at an early day, in a conference similar to that held in BRUSSELS in 1853: first, for the purpose of connecting with the plan now proposed the system that was then adopted for the sea; second, for the purpose of arranging details; and third, for the purpose of providing for a general system of telegraphic meteorology and crop reports, to the end that our knowledge of the laws which control the functions of the atmosphere may be increased, and that accurate and useful forecasts may be made at frequent intervals as to weather and crops in all countries.

“And the President of this society transmit a copy of these resolutions to the State Government and to each of the agricultural societies and journals in the State, inviting their co-operation and requesting them to support the measure with their influence and with similar petitions.”

Honorable Jacob Tompson submitted the following resolution:

“Resolved — That this Chamber of Commerce, approving the general system if international meteorological observations and crop reports as set forth by Commodore Matthew F. Maury, do appoint a committee of three, consisting of the President and first and second Vice-Presidents, to petition the President of the United States to take early measure to call the attention of other nations to this subject, and thereby bring about a meeting of the leading meteorologists of different nations, so as to devise a uniform system of observation and crop reports, and ensure their publication for the benefit of commerce and agriculture throughout the whole world.”

The resolution was unanimously adopted.

In Maury’s enthusiastic pursuit of this favorite plan of crop and weather forecasts for the farmers, and by an extended and exhausting lecturing tour once more to urge this subject upon the farmers, in the autumn of 1872, Matthew Fontaine Maury overtaxed his strength and brought on the return of an old disorder (gout in the stomach), from which he never rallied.

At the National Agricultural Congress in St. Louis in Oct., 1872, Maury again strongly urged the importance of an “ International Conference “ between the leading agriculturists and meteorologists of all countries, to the definite organization of a system of crop and weather forecasts. Maury pointed out the approval which it had received from the most eminent men of science in the world, and the benefits which would immediately accrue from it, and, while regretting the indifference of the Federal authorities, he urged the farmers to use their influence in its favor, in their several States. “Private interest,” said he, “in this matter, I have none; the success of the scheme will benefit all of you more than its projector. I am under the ban of the Nation and can hold no office in it, either State or Federal. The moment the Government takes hold of it, my association with it ceases. I cannot share in the honour of helping to organize or of assisting to carry it out. I have no farm, neither do I cultivate a parcel of ground. Therefore I say, although I advocate this measure so earnestly, and have done so for many years, there is no one in the land who is less to be benefited by its success than I.”

Matthew Fontaine Maury’s health gave way under the fatigue and exposure of this last trip, before he had fulfilled all his engagements, and about the middle of October he hurried home. He exclaimed to his wife as he crossed the threshold, “MY DEAR, I AM COME TO DIE.”

Loving hands with heavy hearts helped him to the bed from which he was never again to rise. For four long months he lay, at times suffering mortal pain, but in the intervals dictating and revising the last edition of his Physical Geography of the Sea. A short time before the anniversary of his birth, January 14th, he prayed aloud in the darkness of the night that God would forgive him the few years he lacked of man’s allotted span, and take him home. He sent for his son-in-law, Spotswood Wellford Corbin, of Farley Vale, and asked that he would stay with him and nurse him till the end. This Mr. Corbin faithfully did, and in his arms the last breath of Matthew Fontaine Maury was drawn.

One of Matthew Fontaine Maury’s daughters thus wrote:

He loved to have us all assembled round his bed, and if we were not all within the range of his vision he would call out the names of those he missed. Gazing earnestly in the face of each, he would say something appropriate and affectionate, always ending with “You see how God has answered my prayers, for I know you every one;” adding, “I shall retain my senses to the last. God has granted me that as a token of my acceptance. I have set my house in order, my prayers are answered, my children are gathered round my bed — and now Lord, what wait I for?”

He repeated the following prayer of eleven petitions, which he wished each of his children and grandchildren to use EVERY DAY:

“Lord Jesus, thou Son of God and Redeemer of the world, have mercy upon me! Pardon my offences, and teach me the error of my ways; give me a new heart and a right mind. Teach me and all mine to do Thy will, and in all things to keep Thy law. Teach me also to ask those things necessary for eternal life. Lord, pardon me for all my sins, for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever and ever, Amen.”

He had composed this prayer for himself thirty-four years before, when his leg was broken, and had repeated it every night since. At another time he prayed, “O Lord, touch my lips with hallowed fire, like Isaiah’s of old, that I may testify to Thy love and mercy to me, who am but as a little child in all but wickedness.”

Matthew Fontaine Maury’s daughter, Mrs. Corbin, recorded:

After we had sung the last hymn he ever heard on earth — “Christ is risen”— the evening before his death, he extended both hands and said slowly and distinctly, “The peace of God which passeth all understanding be with you all —ALL!” As the supreme hour drew near, he said to his eldest son, (Colonel Richard Launcelot Maury), who had been his constant and devoted nurse, “Are my feet growing cold? Do I drag my anchors?” On being answered in the affirmative, he faintly exclaimed, “All’s well.”

Approximately fifteen minutes before death he said he wished his wife and daughters to leave the room that they might not be needlessly distressed by witnessing his last struggle. Notwithstanding this, I lingered where I could see and hear without being seen, and observed him in the last moments lift his hands toward Heaven like a little child who wants to be taken up.”


The simplicity and fervour of his Christian faith, the completeness and child-like humility of trust in God, and his entire resignation to the Divine will, were alike remarkable. All of these, owing the the length of his last illness, were allowed unusual scope for development, and the remembrance of them constitutes a precious heritage to his family.

His tenderness as husband and father were at the same time beautifully illustrated, and this, as well as the other qualities mentioned, were at times lightened by flashes of that quaint humor which had always been one of his characteristics. He derived great comfort from a visit of a week made him in December by his brother-in-law and life-long friend, Dr. Brodie S. Herndon, of Savannah, Georgia, though his professional judgement as to the nature of the malady, which was ulceration of the stomach, was no more encouraging than that previously given by his regular attendant, Dr. R. L. Madison, of the Virginia Military Institute.

The chief pleasure of his long confinement seemed to be his family, on whom, individually and collectively, he loved to invoke the choicest blessings of Heaven. His youngest grandchild, an infant of a few weeks, was in the house, and he told her father that when he saw him fading fast he must bring the little one to receive his blessing. “It may be that the prayer of a repentant sinner will be answered,” he added. This request was complied with. He said he almost felt as if this child had come to take his place — she just entering life, he just leaving it.

To two friends at a distance — Commodore Jansen and Rev. F. W. Tremlett, Maury sent loving farewell messages. He directed one of his daughters to write to the former at the Hague, and tell him how ill he was; how he longed to see him, and what a solace his love was, and had always been, to him. The latter was the friend by whom, some years before, he had been admitted to the full communion of the Church. “When I am dead,” Maury had said, “write to Tremlett and tell him that I think with gratitude of him as a means of bringing me to the communion of Christ, and that I love him. Tell him that when I die and go there” (raising his eyes upward), “I will, if a repentant sinner may, intercede for a mansion for him.”

The following notice of Matthew Fontaine Maury’s death appeared in Temple Bar of March, 1872:—

“....Of Matthew Fontaine Maury’s private character it is scarcely possible to speak in terms of too high eulogy. His unimpeachable integrity and strict sense of honour shed a halo of content over his whole life. He tried, through life, never to do anything of which his conscience disapproved, and he studied, even in minutest matters, exactitude and moderation. Maury’s general knowledge was very extensive, and in his own special science he excelled above all other men. Yet his modesty was so great, and his simplicity so charming, that a child would feel at home in his company.

“His religious feeling was deep and personal. He never obtruded his religious views upon others, though he died, as he lived, in open profession and full communion of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

“On his death-bed he bequeathed a prayer to his children which, like the famous one of Dr. Johnson, the great lexicographer, is touching and sublime in its simplicity.

“For the Bible he entertained the highest veneration, and its testimony, to his mind, was ever strengthened by the progress of scientific discovery.

“The BOOK OF JOB and the PSALMS OF DAVID were his favourite parts of the Old Testament, especially the 107th Psalm. Very early in life Maury felt ‘ That they who go down to the sea in ships, and do business in great waters, see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep. ‘

“This great pioneer of meteorological science passed away, in the calm dignity and faith of the Christian philosopher, at the ripe age of sixty-seven. ‘His eye was not dimmed, nor his natural force abated.’ "

In regards to the place of his interment, Matthew Fontaine Maury expressed no definite wish, saying that his parents, brothers and sisters all lay widely separated, and his dead son (John Herndon Maury) he knew not where.

To the request of his wife that she might be allowed to bury him in Richmond, where she herself expected to lie, he replied gently, “Very well, my dear; then let my body remain here until the spring, and when you take me through the Goshen Pass you must pluck the rhododendrons and the mountain-ivy and lay them upon me.”

His body lay in state in the library of the Virginia Military Institute, the breast covered with the various decorations he had received from the many Foreign Powers. Thence, on the following Wednesday (February 5th), after the burial service, read by the Reverend William N. Pendleton, D.D., his body was borne to its temporary resting-place in the Gilham vault in the cemetery, immediately opposite the tomb of “Stonewall” Jackson.