Navy Removes Name of Oceanographic Pioneer From Ship Over Confederate Ties
The oceanographic research ship USNS Maury (T-AGS-39) underway in Chesapeake Bay during sea trials in May 1989.
Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.

The U.S. Navy announced this week that it would be renaming a ship named for oceanographic pioneer Matthew Fontaine Maury because of Maury’s ties to the Confederacy during the later years of his life. 

Maury, known as the “Pathfinder of the Seas,” was a Navy officer and accomplished oceanographer who helped come up with the idea for a transatlantic cable. The USNS Maury will be renamed after Marie Tharp, an oceanographer cartographer and geologist who lived in the 20th century. 

“As the history of our great nation evolves, we must put forth the effort to recognize figures who positively influenced our society,” Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro stated. “This renaming honors just one of the many historic women who have made a significant impact on not only our Navy, but our nation.”

The oceanographic survey ship was renamed as part of a congressionally mandated commission that recommended purging any names or entities associated with the Confederacy from military property, including the historic Confederate Memorial which sits surrounded by the graves of Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. 

Maury was born in Virginia in 1806 before his family moved to Tennessee and he joined the U.S. Navy in 1825. During his time in the Navy, he was aboard the first Navy ship to circumnavigate the globe and released a book on navigation at the age of 30. 

After an injury rendered him unable to sail, Maury became heavily involved in charting the ocean for the Navy. He was placed in charge of the Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments before rising to lead the U.S. Naval Observatory from 1844-1861. 

He was an effective navigator and sailors were able to cut almost 50 days off of travel time for ships going from New York to San Francisco. His influential books on the ocean included “The Physical Geography of the Sea,” and “Sailing Directions,” both originally published in 1855. 

When the Civil War broke out, he chose to side with the Confederacy as he was from Virginia. During the war, he tried to create an electric torpedo and went to England as a Confederate agent. After the war, he worked for a short time with Mexico’s emperor to see if they could establish a Confederate colony before he became a meteorology professor at Virginia Military Institute. 

A monument of Maury, who died in 1873, was also removed from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, in 2020. 

Another Navy ship, a missile-guided cruiser named after the Civil War battle of Chancellorsville, was recently renamed. The Navy chose to the ship to be named in honor of Robert Smalls, a former slave who commandeered a Confederate ship during the war.

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