Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Coming to Terms with the Commodore

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on June 17, 2020

For the last few weeks I’ve avoided saying anything here about the removal, or in some cases, destruction of Confederate and other monuments in the civil unrest across the country, in aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. Coming as I do from a background in museums and historical preservation (although I haven’t worked in that field for many years), I am immensely saddened by the destruction I’ve seen, even while I readily acknowledge that these monuments don’t represent their communities, or our collective values today as Americans.

As I said three years ago, the revanchist efforts to protect these monuments under state law, usurping the authority local governments had to control and maintain their own property, was like tying down the safety valve on a steam boiler — things keep chugging along just fine for a while, until in an instant and without warning, the entire thing blows up in your face. This explosion of anger has, unfortunately, been building for years, and now it threatens to sweep all before it, whether justifiable or not. This is shaping up to be a transformational moment in this country, and I don’t know how it will end.

I’ve thought a lot about the monument to Matthew Maury, the so-called “Pathfinder of the Seas,” on Monument Avenue in Richmond. Maury, unlike Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, or Jefferson Davis, doesn’t owe his historical legacy or fame to his service to the Confederacy. The work that made Maury famous was mostly completed before the war, although (as with many scientific accomplishments), its value only gradually came to be appreciated over the following decades. I had always wanted to set Maury aside from the other Confederates memorialized on Monument Avenue for this reason, rationalizing that Matthew Maury, Confederate naval officer, was someone separate and apart from Matthew Maury, Pathfinder of the Seas. I wanted to believe that Maury’s Confederate service — unlike that of Lee, Jackson, or Davis — could be reasonably ignored as a simple happenstance, that’s not really relevant to Maury’s legacy.

Of course, that’s not true, and never was.

Penelope K. Hardy and Helen M. Rozwadowski, history professors at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse and the University of Connecticut, respectively, have addressed this issue head-on. It’s not pleasant reading for folks like me who want to keep Maury on his pedestal.

Historical assessments of Maury’s life and work run the gamut from the hagiographic, exemplified by his first biography compiled by his daughter[2] and the several books to come out near the year that the Richmond monument was unveiled in 1929,[3] to more balanced critiques, whether focused on his work on naval reform, navigational improvement, or science.[4] Within the history of science, Maury is recognized for innovating new ways to represent knowledge about the ocean environment, such as his wind and current charts, to enable mariners to navigate more swiftly and safely.[5] His status as a scientist, however, has been highly contested. A previous generation of historians of science denied that Maury could be considered a scientist, both taking a cue from his contemporaries and rivals who did not consider him as part of the scientific community and also applying a rather presentist lens to the definition of science.[6] Other historians who remained critical of Maury’s own science recognized his influence on government support for science.[7] By contrast, scholars today are more likely to judge Maury’s participation in science in the context of contemporary practices, institutions, and judgements.[8]

Understanding Maury’s activities and convictions in the context of his time does not, however, suggest that historians of science should avoid or even consider as separate his deeply-held support of the institution of slavery. Consider, by analogy, the historical legacy of Francis Galton, who created modern statistical techniques in pursuit of his eugenics research. It is nonsensical to separate out his dedication to racist eugenics from his mathematical accomplishments, and indeed historians do not try to do so. Historians have noted that Maury’s scientific and naval work supported American expansionism and projection of power. In this, Maury participated in the widespread nineteenth-century (and earlier) effort to employ science in the service of empire, a strategy widely recognized by historians of science. However, historians of science have not sufficiently linked Maury’s science to his racist ideology.

Apologists for Maury might point to the fact that, although a Southerner and although he did in fact resign his commission in the US Navy to support the rebellion against the United States, he did not own slaves himself. While true, this ignores the vigorous and consistent efforts Maury made to support and extend the institution of slavery. Starting in the 1830s, Maury wrote a series of influential articles advocating naval reform and assertive American military policy that was rooted in his proslavery beliefs.[9] By the 1850s, he was pursuing a concerted program of publication and lobbying to encourage US exploration in South America, with the design of expanding the American system of racial slavery to that region.[10] Maury sent instructions to Lieutenant William Lewis Herndon[11], also a Virginian, as the latter set out to explore the Valley of the Amazon in 1851. While this was one of many such scientific expeditions to South America, and conducted in the style Susan Cannon called “Humboldtian science,” which involved gathering as much data as possible using as many instruments as one could carry, its explicit aim was to assess the region’s potential for commercial exploitation – an imperial project, but hardly an uncommon one at the time.[12] Maury’s instructions, though, conveyed his interest in a longer-term project of American – and specifically Southern – colonization of the region. Find out, he told Herndon, if the government of Peru will “permit American Citizens with their slaves to go there and colonize[,] what guarantee will it afford the Institution?”[13] He inquired too about Bolivia – though here he would be foiled by that country’s early abolition of slavery – but he saw Brazil as a particular opportunity. Brazil, however, anticipated American designs and, while allowing the scientific exploration that might make them appear progressive on the world stage, moved to solidify regional political alliances to prevent American ships accessing the country.[14]

Maury’s efforts to expand the slave nation outlasted his service in the US Navy. He spent much of the American Civil War in Britain as an official agent of the Confederate government, trying to buy ships to engage in commerce raiding against US merchant shipping. (A service which so angered the American merchant mariners who had crowd-sourced much of the data for his earlier Wind and Current charts that the Salem (Mass.) Marine Society turned the portrait they had hanging of him around to face the wall.) As the war went increasingly poorly for the South, Maury switched flags again, entering the service of Maximilian I of Mexico as imperial commissioner of colonization, assisting with a plan to literally establish a “New Virginia” in Mexico, where he arranged customs waivers, tax exemptions, and land grants to entice Southerners to move and to take their enslaved laborers with them to work new plantations.[15] Unwilling to return to the US in the immediate aftermath of the war because he feared arrest for treason, he continued his diplomatic efforts with Mexico, writing to friends back home with ongoing enthusiasm for the project. He was so unwilling to let go of the institution of slavery that his friends found it hard to convince him that emancipation was already a fact, and that formerly enslaved Americans would have no interest in moving to Mexico with their enslavers to perpetuate their bondage. In the end, he stayed in Mexico until Maximilian’s own regime collapsed, returning to the US only in 1868 and only after enough other Confederate officers had received paroles for their treason that he felt safe to do so.[16]


It pains me to say this, but Maury has to go, too.




3 Responses

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  1. Neil Hamilton said, on June 17, 2020 at 9:20 pm


    By no means is this over. Seems like we are all stuck on the sidelines as we watch changes taking place. I feel we are watching not only three years of steam building up in the boiler, but 155 years of rage and frustration boiling out into public view. There were plenty of chances to address this rage and frustration, but the only notice that was given was to deny and defend the old ways.

    Well, that denial is garnering attention. Now it is left to see the reaction to that denial will spark real change. because there is no going back to the way things were.

    Neil Hamilton

  2. J.B. Richman said, on June 26, 2020 at 9:50 am

    The current attacks on monuments have little to do with Black America’s struggle for equality or honoring the Confederacy. If those were the only reasons, then the mobs would’ve left monuments to the 54th Massachusetts, General Grant and Abraham Lincoln alone. This is a left wing culture war on the whole idea of our constitutional government. Most Blacks according to polls do not want to defund the police departments, the same as most other Americans. In Los Angeles, the police department is 30% white non-hispanic. The all-white police departments of the segregation era are a thing of the past. What all people who care about justice and the rule of law would like to see is a system where rogue cops are quickly weeded out without being protected by the police unions. That is clearly what happened in Minneapolis, and all of the other Democrat controlled cities where these incidents have occurred. The police are no more above the law than any of us. I am glad to see that some progress is being made in that area:

    The Mayor is a Democrat as are 5 of the six city council members. I’m pleased that this kind of behavior is now beyond what can be excused in the only American city ever to stage a coup d’etat.

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