Friday, June 5, 2015

Walk on the Ocean

Only at the Museum of the Confederacy do you hear people say such things as, "I've been to Traveller's grave and that's all that matters."

I, too, have been there, except my pilgrimage was accidental not intentional. In 2001, I'd gone to Washington and Lee for a wedding at the Lee Chapel and you can't very well go to the chapel and not hear about Traveller's final resting place.

My reason for being at the MOC was today's lecture by former managing editor of the Navy Times, John Grady, on "Matthew Fontaine Maury: The Scientist at War." Since my only frame of reference for Maury was that he'd charted the seas (and as I learned today, that was mainly for whaling purposes, whaling being the #2 industry after cotton at the time), I reckoned I could stand a little schooling in what he did during the war.

Covering only the crucial 15-month period beginning in April 1861, Grady explained that Maury had been superintendent of the National Observatory, except not the national observatory everyone thinks of now. Turns out it had originally been located on 23 Street across from the State Department. As a native Washingtonian, you'd think I'd have known that, but nope, sure hadn't.

Maury resigned his commission (to Lincoln, no less) and nobody tried to stop him, despite his impressive knowledge of 19th century warfare and vast understanding of coastal defense. In Virginia, he found a place with the Confederates.

When a call went out for soldiers, Maury understandably got tons of telegrams and letters from men seeking to join the cause. One letter was from J.E.B. Stuart's mother requesting a commission in the cavalry for her boy. Mother Stuart was nothing if not determined to be helpful.

Grady said they raised 35,000 armed forces in Virginia but had no real war ships, only freighters and tugs. Maury was a master with mines (torpedoes) as a means of coastal defense, but knew they needed something more than mines to deter Union ships, suggesting small gunboats. Seems Maury never got any credit from Jeff Davis, who extolled the mines but never mentioned Maury's role in developing and using them.

Bad as that was, before long Maury was sent to Great Britain and Mexico to round up ships and supplies, orders he saw as exile for seven years, before ending up teaching physics at VMI.

Where, who know, maybe he moseyed over to W & L and saw Traveller's grave, too.

This much I can tell you, though: it's not all that matters. Not by a long shot.

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