A Confederate for the World
This is the last in a series of posts offering brief backstories on the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue.
Why is there a statue of a grizzled old man in a civilian suit sitting under a storm-swept globe on Monument Avenue? Presumably, he was a Confederate. But the statue doesn’t look especially Confederate, and the inscription reads simply “MAURY / PATHFINDER OF THE SEAS.”
Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873) was in fact a Confederate naval officer, and that status gave him the credentials to join Lee, Stuart, Davis, and Jackson on Monument Avenue. But his statue commemorates him not as a Confederate, but a Man of the World, literally and figuratively.
Born in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, Maury entered the U.S. Navy at age 19. Although he never fought a battle and was prone to seasickness, Maury became one of the U.S. Navy’s most accomplished officers. His victories came in the war to tame the sea itself. In 1839, five years after he published his first navigation textbook, an accident left him lame and unfit for sea duty. The navy assigned him to the Superintendency of the United States Naval Observatory and head of the Depot of Charts and Instruments in Washington, D.C., from which he supervised the charting of the world’s oceans.
Maury became a bona fide international celebrity when he organized the 1853 International Maritime Meteorological Conference in Brussels. Seafaring nations awarded him medals for making ocean travel safer.
Safer navigation was only a part of Maury’s grand vision of international commerce. Maury considered the Caribbean Sea and the slaveholding societies surrounding it as the epicenter for global trade and referred to the Gulf of Mexico as “Our Mediterranean.” Maury advocated the use of U.S. naval power to integrate and dominate the commerce of the lands surrounding those critical bodies of water, to benefit the United States generally and the slaveholding South specifically.
Whatever his international reputation, Maury considered himself a Virginian. When the so-called 1861 “Peace Conference” in Washington (of which he was an architect) failed to hold the Union together, Maury resigned his commission, took a boat across the Potomac River to Alexandria, and offered his services to Virginia. He was appointed to a three-man Advisory Council overseeing the state’s military preparations.
Maury’s primary contributions to the Confederacy were a series of successful experiments to improve the effectiveness of underwater torpedoes (mines) and to supervise the creation of torpedo defenses. Because of his celebrity (and because of personality conflicts within the Navy Department), the Confederate government sent him abroad in 1862 to acquire supplies, ships, and technology. He was still in England when the war ended.
After the war, Maury left England for Mexico, where he became commissioner of immigration in the government of Emperor Maximilian. In that role he tried to persuade other former Confederates (including R. E. Lee – who declined and beckoned Maury to come home) to emigrate to Mexico and form a “New Virginia” that would salvage the attributes of the South’s plantation society, especially the exploitation of unfree non-white labor. The violent overthrow of Maximilian’s government compelled him to return to the United States. He joined the faculty at Virginia Military Institute and settled in Lexington, Virginia.
The push for a monument to Maury began when a Richmonder visiting Germany, Gaston Liechtenstein, found that Maury was renowned much more in Europe than in his native land. Liechtenstein’s appeal inspired Elvira Worth Moffitt (1836-1930), a thrice-widowed daughter of a North Carolina governor who had recently moved to Richmond with a proven passion for patriotic and preservation work.
In May 1915, Moffitt formed The Matthew Fontaine Maury Monument Association. It had three objectives: to place his name “among those of other great Americans” in the New York Hall of Fame; “to induce the State Board of Education to designate the 14th of January (Maury’s birthday) as Maury Day in the schools”; and to erect “a bronze memorial in the City of Richmond, to which it is desirable that every citizen of the United States contributes in general appreciation of the many inestimable benefits which Maury conferred upon mankind.”
A $10,000 appropriation from the Virginia General Assembly in 1920 jump-started the fundraising. Consistent with its objective of educating the next generation about Maury and his accomplishments, the Association asked every Virginia school child to contribute a penny toward the remaining $40,000 needed.
The Association engaged Richmond sculptor Frederick William Sievers, selected a site on Monument Avenue in 1921, and laid the cornerstone in 1922. Sievers proposed a design for Maury as unconventional as his equestrian statue of “Stonewall” Jackson (recently unveiled on Monument Avenue) had been conventional.
Sievers characterized his design as “an allegory of the sphere of Maury’s mind, which was nothing less than the entire universe.” Holding up the globe was a kinetic group of sailors and farmers, “figures of both the marine and agricultural scenes,” explained Sievers, “hopefully looking forward for some unseen and unknown help – that help is Maury.” Seated in front of the globe was Maury, holding a sea chart and “listening to the voice of the winds and the voice of the waves…in profound thought.”
The statue was unveiled on November 11, 1929 – the 11th anniversary of Armistice Day. The dedication date bespoke a new generation’s consciousness of a more recent war. “The unveiling and the iconography of the monument signaled an end to the motifs of southern military power, which had dominated Monument Avenue,” concluded Matthew Barbee in an important recent essay. “The South’s Lost Cause was brought into the larger narrative of American progress and growth.”
The dedication date and the monument itself also testified to a strong current that always had been present in Confederate commemoration: an insistence that Confederates were also patriotic Americans and significant actors on the stage of America’s political and cultural life. Just as former Confederates were publishing books and pamphlets trumpeting the accomplishments of antebellum southerners as statesmen, writers, poets, scientists, and inventors, the Matthew Fontaine Maury Monument Association wanted to remind passersby that a Virginia-born Confederate had conferred “inestimable benefits…upon mankind.”
For further reading:
Matthew Mace Barbee, “Matthew Fontaine Maury and the Evolution of Southern Memory,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 120, No. 4 (2012): 372-393.
John Grady, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Founder of Oceanography: A Biography: 1806-1873 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Books, 2015).
John Majewski and Todd W. Wahlstrom, “Geography as Power: The Political Economy of Matthew Fontaine Maury,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 120, No. 4 (2012): 340-371.
Frances Leigh Williams, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Scientist of the Sea (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1963).