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Book Review, NRJ 61.1

February 15, 2016 12:00 PM | David Eddy (Administrator)

Matthew Fontaine Maury, Father of Oceanography: A Biography, 1806-1873

John Grady

Matthew Fontaine Maury is very much an oddity in the pantheon of the United States’s naval heroes. Whereas virtually all such heroes achieved their status as a consequence of their bravery in action, Maury is revered for his scientific accomplishments. In addition, though Maury most certainly actively participated in war, such efforts were reviled during his lifetime and for many years after his death. Finally, while many of his peers who fought for the Confederacy received their due acknowledgement for their services from the nation as a whole quite quickly after the Civil War ended, Maury steadfastly adhered to the Confederate States of America, even in defeat, hindering honoring his accomplishments.

This new biography, by John Grady, is a remarkably thorough narrative of his background and life, and is the first new assessment in some thirty years. He comprehensively covers the vicissitudes of his family’s experiences after the Revolution, Maury’s hardscrabble upbringing, and his early naval life.

Maury’s seagoing career was halted by injury, and he moved on to undertake the work for which he is most famous: navigation and oceanography. His research, conducted over many years, in determining wind patterns and charting them to make them useful to mariners was revolutionary and contributed mightily to the advance of the American merchant marine in the years before the Civil War.

When war came, Maury, without hesitation, opted to serve the Confederacy. His most notable contributions to its cause were working with others to secure orders for ships in Europe and perfecting electrically-detonated mines (then often called torpedoes). This latter work, especially when he applied it for defense against attack on land, generated considerable opprobrium, since it was considered an underhand tactic.

After the Confederacy’s defeat, Maury essentially exiled himself, largely because he was very uncertain he would be granted amnesty if he returned to the United States. He involved himself in schemes to resettle disaffected southerners in Mexico in conjunction with the French ambitions (that ultimately failed disastrously) to establish Emperor Maximilian there. He finally returned to the United States in 1868 to a new career in academia.

The depth of Grady’s research is amply demonstrated by the very comprehensive bibliography. This effort pays off in his exhaustive detailing of the events of Maury’s life. This detail, however, seems to this reviewer to mask Grady’s limited analysis of his material; he does not go beyond the bald statements of fact to explore Maury’s motivations and assess his impact more completely. Nevertheless, this biography is a major contribution to the study of this remarkable naval officer.

  • Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2015
  • 6” x 9”, softcover, viii + 354 pages
  • Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $45.00
  • ISBN: 9780786478217

Reviewed by William Emerson, San Diego, California

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