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New England mariner's descendants change tack on shunning oceanography's inventor for his Confederate sympathies
Famed oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury.
U.S. NAVAL OBSERVATORY LIBRARY
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The Salemites esteemed Maury's accomplishments, which cut ships' travel time to distant ports by weeks and found a safer way around Cape Horn.
As first superintendent of the Navy's Department of Charts and Instruments (later the Naval Observatory and Hydrographical Office), he sent complimentary copies of his works to the society.
But Salem's good feelings evaporated when Maury sided with his native Virginia in the Civil War. Though he had opposed secession, like Robert E. Lee, he quit the U.S. Navy and accepted a commission in the Confederate naval forces.
That's when outraged members voted to strike his name from the Marine Society's rolls and ordered that his picture be reversed and hung head down in their meeting hall.
It wasn't until 1966, during the group's bicentennial gala, that a few members tried to resurrect his good name.
Ernest S. Dodge, director of Salem's world-renowned Peabody Museum, suggested that maybe the time had come to pardon Maury, given that the Civil War had been over for a century.
So clerk Philip Chadwick Foster Smith brought up the idea at the annual meeting, as 18th- and 19th-century portraits of Marine Society members gazed down upon their descendants.
"The room instantaneously erupted into an uproar. Volatile expressions of indignant outrage. Sardonic laughter. Vitriolic explosions of wrath. Boos. Hisses. Bronx cheers," Smith wrote. "'No! No! No! Never! Let it stay that way!'"
The motion died without a second.
forgiveness, at last
Fast-forward to last year, when horrified APVA members returned from Salem to Fredericksburg and began spreading word about Maury's undignified treatment. The group formed the Maury Project, spearheaded by Fredericksburg residents Rebecca Starling and Scott Walker, to research the oceanographer's life and to reach out to the New England group.
"This was a happy discovery for the APVA," Starling said. "We wanted to bring back to life this man whose name has slipped away from us all."
In September, the APVA formally contacted the Marine Society. Noting Fredericksburg's tradition of honoring both Union and Confederate soldiers, it offered the gift of a new portrait of Maury to be hung in the society's hall, face forward, with a framed text about his innovations in navigational science. A bevy of other Fredericksburg-area groups sent encouraging letters.
A few days ago, APVA officers learned the group's polite entreaty had succeeded. A diplomatic exchange will follow, with society clerk Allan P. Vaughan coming here in early April for a reception with the APVA travelers whose visit to Salem set things in motion.
In October, a small delegation will attend the Marine Society's annual meeting, at which Walker will speak on Maury's life and accomplishments.
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029