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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 313

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This is the grave of the traitor Matthew Maury.

Born in 1806 to an elite Virginia family near Fredericksburg, Maury wanted nothing more than to join the Navy. But after his older brother died of yellow fever while in the Navy, his father forbade it. However, the young elite had plenty of connections and managed to secure a spot in the Navy in 1825 through the influence of family friend Sam Houston, then a congressman from Tennessee before he went to Texas to commit treason in defense of slavery against Mexico. He was fine in the Navy, but it turned out his real skill was in science and cartography. He was on the USS Vincennes when it became the first American warship to circumnavigate the world and he began to record measurements and other scientific observations.

Maury’s seagoing days were much shorter than his Navy days because he busted up his leg pretty badly in a stagecoach accident in 1839. After this, he was on desk work, specifically the officer in charge of the US Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments in Washington. But there, he sought to organize American naval knowledge and create a functional library while urging officers to record information on their journeys. This led to the 1847 publication “Wind and Current Chart of the North Atlantic,” a pioneering improvement of navigational knowledge. Other projects included learning about whale migration patterns and his belief that the Northwest Passage must exist because harpooned whales in the Atlantic were sometimes found to have harpoons from the Pacific already inside them and how else could he explain it. He was wrong of course, but it made a certain amount of logical sense at least. He also pushed for the creation of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, which was established in 1845. In 1854, he got his department, now much more respectable and powerful, renamed the United States Naval Observatory and Hydrographical Office, which still exists today. Although they held very different political views, Maury became friends with John Quincy Adams over their shared ambition for a national observatory and Adams would often stop by before his 1848 death to use the telescope in Maury’s office.

Maury thus was a very forward-thinking and scientific man, except that he was also a slaver and believer in southern nationalism, although one who held onto the Jeffersonian belief that slavery was bad in the end. So when Virginia committed treason in defense of slavery in 1861, Maury resigned his commission for a role in the Treason Navy. He had, like so many America elites, long fretted about how the nation could survive with free black people and so he thought a great idea if the nation wanted to someday eliminate slavery was to move them all to Brazil, allowing southern slavers to live in peace without northern interference or just sell their slaves to masters there. In fact, Maury went so far as to start pressuring Brazil to allow the sale of their lands to American slaveholders and to allow for the free navigation of the Amazon to anyone who wanted to go. To say the least, Brazil was not impressed by this colonialist idea, even though slavery was still legal there. Of course, after the Civil War, some diehard Confederates were so desperate to remain trafficking in human flesh, raping and killing and selling slaves without any legal consequences, that they moved their plantations to Brazil.

Maury was a big coup for the Confederates to get because he was such an internationally famous scientific figure. So they sent him to Europe to stir up support for treason in defense of slavery. He went around giving speeches for the Confederacy and buying arms and ships. He also used his scientific background to create a very effective mine to blow up Union ships, which killed a lot of American soldiers who had not committed treason to defend slavery.

In the aftermath of the war, the fortune of Maury’s family was ruined, largely being both in human property and in land in the destroyed Fredericksburg, so he went to Mexico where he worked for the French colonialist Emperor Maximilian as Imperial Commissioner of Immigration, largely seeking to build colonies for Confederates fleeing what should have been their execution. But after the Emperor was finally forced off the throne by the Mexican people, Maury returned to the United States. He played a role in establishing Virginia Tech and was offered the presidency of many southern colleges and universities, but he chose to go live in Lexington to be near his good friend, the traitor Robert E. Lee, for whom he was a pallbearer at his 1870 funeral. He also continued his scientific studies, publishing The Physical Geography of Virginia, a book intended to spur mining operations in his home state. He continued giving speeches as well until just before his death in 1873.

Matthew Maury is buried at Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia, after having initially been buried in Lexington, Virginia.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader contributions, for which I am always grateful. I hope it was a good use of your resources. As I mentioned yesterday, any contributions this week will go to sending me to Baltimore for the Maryland Book Fair, with several grave visits as well. So if you would like me to visit James Rouse, the pioneering shopping mall developer, or Secretary of the Interior and New Deal advisor Harold Ickes, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Both are near Baltimore. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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