General Herndon Maury

 “Recollections of a Virginian in the Mexican, Indian, and Civil Wars.” By General Dabney Herndon Maury, Ex-United States Minister to Colombia, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1894.

Dabney Herndon Maury was born on 21 May 1822 in Fredericksburg, VA and grew up there.  Dabney’s father, Captain John Minor Maury, served in the United States Navy during the War of 1812, and last served as a Flag Captain in Commodore David Porter’s Fleet fighting pirates in the West Indies.  He died of yellow fever on his homeward voyage in 1824 at the age of 28 and was buried at sea “almost within sight of Norfolk harbor, where his young wife and two little children were anxiously awaiting his coming.”

Matthew Fontaine Maury, his father’s younger brother, then “became practically the guardian of my brother, William Lewis Maury, and myself.”  William Lewis Maury died at age 20 “a victim of barbarous medical practice of the day.”

“Dab” vividly recalled the Fredericksburg he knew as a young man.  “I have seen John Randolph’s coach with four thoroughbreds, and John and Jubah in attendance, draw up at the Farmers’ Hotel: and in the summer season ten coaches at once would drive from that old tavern to the White Sulphur.  It was said that one team of thoroughbred sorrels made Chancellor’s Tavern, ten miles away, in one hour.”  He knew many residents of Fredericksburg who vividly remembered personally knowing George Washington, James Monroe, and Light Horse Harry Lee, among others whose names are familiar to readers today.

He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1841 and “continued the pursuit of that most exacting study (law) in Fredericksburg”.  His instructor was JudgeLomax, who Dabney said “realized from the first that I would not prove a bright and shining light in my adopted profession”. 

Maury entered the United States Military Academy at West Point on 1 July 1842, one of 111 young men to enter that class.  There he became friends with several other cadets who became leading generals for both North and South during the Civil War.  These included, George McClellan, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, A. P. Hill, and U. S. Grant.  Among his comments about these well-known figures he mentions that McClellan was brilliant, graduating at the head of his class.  Jackson was clumsy with horse and sword.  Grant was well liked and good at math and horsemanship.  

Maury considered his time at West Point as “the only unhappy years of a very happy life.”  He graduated in June 1846, ranked 37th out of a class of 59 and was brevetted as a 2nd Lieut. in the Mounted Rifles.

Soon the War with Mexico broke out.  As a 2nd Lieut. in the Mounted Rifles, he was sent to Mexico, as were Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, J. E. B. Stuart, Kirby Smith, Jefferson Davis, Jackson, and Grant.

Maury was badly wounded at Cerro Gordo, near Vera Cruz, narrowly escaping “that bloody minded surgeon who was so bent on cutting off my arm.”   He returned to Fredericksburg to regain his health and continued his recuperation at White Sulphur Springs.   From there he was ordered to West Point to serve as an instructor.  He did not want to go “but on arriving there I was persuaded to remain and try the new duties and relations of an officer and professor.”  The next four years there turned out to be “four years spent very profitably and happily at the Academy”.  Champagne corks popped when old comrades, including McClellan and Kirby Smith, arrived.  The young officers enjoyed riding, fencing, hunting and sleigh riding.  They enjoyed playing whist and faro as well as participating in a variety of clubs – including chess, Shakespeare, Napoleon and Spanish.

Back with the Mounted Rifles, Maury marched across the Great Plains for four years in Oregon. 

In 1852 the Rifles were ordered to the Texas frontier.  Before being sent West to participate in the Indian Wars he married Miss Annie/Nannie Rose Mason, daughter of wealthy landowner and lawyer W. Roy Mason of “Cleveland” in King George County.      Annie accompanied him on this frontier assignment sharing the hardships of the Frontier.

            In Texas, the land was wild and beautiful, massive game hunting was for both food and sport.  Most of his time in the west was spent in New Mexico and Texas fighting Apache, Comanche, Navajo, and Pawnee.

            One reviewer of the “Recollections…” writes that Maury’s account of those days as ‘not for the squeamish’.  Another reviewer stated that ‘descriptions of some brutal encounters with Indians do not leave much to the imagination’. 

            In 1858, Maury was appointed Superintendent and Post Commander of the Cavalry School at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.  Here he wrote and published “Tactics for Mounted Rifles”.

On the eve of the Civil War, Dabney Maury’s family was one of several who traveled in prairie schooners through Kansas and into New Mexico.  Dabney was assigned to be the Assistant Adjutant General in the New Mexico Territory, based in Santa Fe.  They were there when they heard “the ominous news” that John Brown had been captured at Harper’s Ferry.  “Before the year (1860) was out we had to be upon our guard…at our last Christmas dinner in Santa Fe, we carefully selected our guests according to their avowed intentions in the coming crisis.” 

            He writes “I well recall the anxious group which gathered in our parlor one evening in May, 1861, to await (the mail’s) arrive and distribution…I ran out into the street shouting aloud as I went that Fort Sumter had fallen, and War had begun!”

 Those soldiers who chose to fight for the south resigned from the US Army and began their journey home.

During the journey, the Maury family found help and friendship from Northerners at every post:  one gave “Dab” a prize Navajo mare; another offered him as much money as he might need.  According to Maury, the sentiment was “I hate to lose you old fellow, but you are perfectly right.  If I were in your place, I would do the same thing.”

For the Southerners it was a perilous trip of 45 days by wagon.  At Topeka, KS, they read an announcement in the morning papers:  “Captain Carter L. Stevenson, Captain Dabney H. Maury, and Lt. Edward Dillon are hereby stricken from the rolls of the army for entertaining treasonable designs against the government of the United States”.  Dabney expected to be arrested at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, but was “cordially welcomed.”  The political climate in St. Louis meant danger, but they escaped to Illinois at sunrise on a ferry.  Safe at last in Louisville, KY, Dabney “gathered my little party around me and took a julep.”

On July 19, 1861, he reached Richmond and reported to the governor and to General Lee.  He was assigned to the Army of Fredericksburg with headquarters at Brooke’s Station.  In February of 1862 he became Chief of Staff of the Trans Mississippi Department.  Maury was honored but disappointed:  “It took me far away from my wife and mother and from my native State, Virginia, when my chief ambition was to fight for her.”

            He fought at Pea Ridge, the Battle of Corinth, and was promoted to Brigadier General in 1862 and ordered to Shiloh arriving just after the battle ended.  He participated in much of the fighting around Vicksburg. 

Finally assigned to Mobile, he took command of the Department of the Gulf. 

He remained in command there until the end of the war having risen to the rank of Lieutenant General.  The end of the war came with the capture of President Jefferson Davis:  “The final day (May 14, 1865) of our service to the Confederacy was one of the deepest gloom to us …the Louisiana Band, the only one left in the Army, came to my encampment that evening and gave me their farewell serenade.” 

Maury ‘s “chestnut sorrel” Roy was all the property he possessed when he began his journey home to Virginia.  The family was not completely destitute for long.  Uncle Matthew sent “a generous check” from London:  ten old friends and comrades offered him money.  Others contributed bales of cotton to be sold for the Maurys.

            Nannie and the children were already at “Cleveland” when Dabney arrived.  The house was still standing “thanks to the kindness of Burnside” whom no doubt recalled having served as a groomsman in Nannie and Dabney’s wedding which was held there.

            Maury’s first venture after the war was to establish the Classical and Mathematical Academy of Fredericksburg.  Soon he doubted his qualifications and turned over the Academy to his assistant.  He then was offered an express agent job in New Orleans and took it.  His next venture, manufacturing turpentine and resin in St. Tammany Parish, LA, ended in failure.  He returned to New Orleans with $2.50 in his pocket and gratefully accepted a job as secretary of the Southern Hospital Association.

In 1868, he “determined to set foot on a plan for the systematic collection and preservation of the Southern Archives relating to the War.”  The Southern Historical Society, based in Richmond, would publish a collection of those papers in 52 Volumes.  These original records were transferred to the Virginia Historical Society for safekeeping in the 1950’s. 

            Annie/Nannie Mason Maury died Feb 21, 1876, and in 1878 Dabney began a movement to reorganize the National Militia (present day National Guard).  In 1886 he authored a thesis entitled “Skirmish Drill for Mounted Troops”.         

President Grover Cleveland appointed him United States Minister to Colombia in 1888.  He ends his memoirs with a account of his two years service in what he called “this most beautiful and fruitful of all the regions of the earth.”

General Dabney Herndon Maury died on January 11th, 1900 in Peoria, IL, and after the funeral in Richmond, VA on the 13th, he was buried in Fredericksburg – next to his wife and mother.

Even though they had chosen different sides in the Civil War, Maury maintained cordial contacts with his former colleagues from West Point.  There is little if any personal animosity. There are only a few oblique references to slavery and he refers to his own slaves only occasionally.  He does not claim the South was right or wrong, he just explains his loyalties and the loyalties of others lay with their states and their service was a matter of Honor.


Sources:  “Recollections of a Veteran…” published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894

“Huguenot Emmigration to Virginia”, R. A. Brock, published by Virginia Historical

Society, 1886

“The Register of Graduates and Former Cadets,” published by the Association of


World Book Encyclopedia      

Fontaine/Maury Family Association newsletter


            History (Central Rappahannock Regional Library)


Dabney H. Maury was the son of John Minor Maury, and E. (Maury) Maury

John Minor Maury was the son of Richard Maury, and Diana (Minor) Maury

Richard Maury was the son of Matthew Maury and Mary Ann (Fontaine) Maury


Matthew Maury of Castel Mauron, Gascony, married Mary Ann Fontaine on October 20, 1716 in Dublin Ireland.  She was born April 12, 1690 in Taunton, England, the daughter of Rev. James Fontaine and his wife Anne Elizabeth Boursiquot. Matthew and Mary Ann (Fontaine) Maury emigrated to Virginia in 1718, where he died in 1752, and she died in 1755. 

            Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury, younger brother of John Minor Maury who became the guardian of John’s two sons after his death, had a distinguished Naval career.  He was born in Spotsylvania Co, VA on January 16, 1806.  By 1825 he was a Midshipman in the United States Navy, promoted to Lieutenant in 1837, and in 1842 was made Superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments in Washington, which later became the National Observatory.  Here he made his renowned current charts and sailing directions and wrote his “Physical Geography of the Sea”.  The Academies of Science of Paris, Berlin, Brussels and St. Petersburg conferred membership on him, as did Cambridge (England) the degree of LL.D.  In the 1850’s research done by Commodore Maury made the laying of the Atlantic Cable possible. 

 When Virginia seceded from the Union he offered his services, and was made a Captain and a member of the Advisory Council.  When it became known in Europe that Captain Maury had left the United States Navy, France and Russia invited him to be their guest.  He replied that his first duty was to Virginia.  He was sent on a special mission to England in 1862, where he remained until 1865. When in London after the war he instructed committees of the armies and navies of several Continental Governments in the mode of defense (mines) that he had developed. Then he was persuaded by Napoleon and Maximilian to make his home in Mexico, and served in several capacities with the Mexican government. After the death of Maximilian, he went to Europe, where he remained until 1868 preparing his “School Geographies”.  Elected Professor of Physics at the Virginia Military Institute, he declined the offer to take charge of the Imperial Observatory at Paris.  At VMI he devoted himself to perfecting a combined system of crop reports and weather forecasts for the benefit of the farmer, as he had combined observations at sea for the benefit of the sailor.  Commodore Maury, known as “The Pathfinder of the Seas”,  died at Lexington, VA on February 1, 1873, his last words being “All is well”.


Helen H. Luckett, 6317 Kenwick Avenue, Fort Worth, TX, 76116