Visitors to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis are engulfed in history. The magnificent grounds on the Severn River (known officially as “the yard”) abound in monuments, plaques, halls, and displays memorializing the nation’s naval heritage. Names of heroes adorn stately buildings and major walkways.
The Naval Academy’s mission statement reads: “To develop Midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.”
That mission requires teaching historical examples of those ideals, including the heroes around the yard. As first-year students (“plebes”) in 1963, we had their history pounded into our young heads. What was not emphasized to us was that two of them also were Rebels who now are enmeshed in controversies surrounding public references to the Confederacy.
The academy superintendent’s residence is dedicated to the first superintendent, Franklin Buchanan. The Weapons and Systems Engineering division resides in Maury Hall remembering Matthew Fontaine Maury, a pioneer in naval meteorology and navigation.
Franklin Buchanan, a Marylander, became a midshipman in 1815 and served 45 years around the globe. He commanded the sloops-of-war USS Vincennes and Germantown in the 1840s and the steam frigate USS Susquehanna with Commodore Matthew Perry’s Expedition to open trade with Japan, 1852–1854.
The navy at midcentury experienced crises in leadership and discipline characterized by the abolition of flogging, increasing pressure to outlaw alcohol afloat, and a bungled attempt to reform the moribund officer seniority system.
A near mutiny on the training brig USS Somers in 1842 led to summary hanging of the alleged ringleader, a midshipman who was the son of the secretary of war. The long Pacific cruise of the unhappy sloop-of-war USS Cyane witnessed rampant drunkenness and feuding; upon return, nearly every officer was court martialed, including the captain.
Hidebound careerists in the small, inbred service insisted that the profession of the sea must be taught at sea on ships as it always had been; classroom and book learning would not work. Promotion was rightly a long, slow march up the seniority ladder. For forty years after the founding of the Military Academy at West Point, they stonewalled academic training for naval officers.
Captain Buchanan was prominent among reformers who disagreed as the navy evolved from ancient wood and canvas to steam propulsion, iron armor, and advanced armaments. At the request of the secretary of the navy, he submitted plans for a naval school, which was finally established in 1845 at Fort Severn in Annapolis. Buchanan served as first superintendent until 1847 and then commanded warships during the Mexican War. He was Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard in the spring of 1861.
Anticipating that his home state would secede, Buchanan resigned his commission, but when Maryland remained in the Union, he requested to be reinstated for continued service in the U. S. Navy. The lame-duck administration of President James Buchanan (no relation) had routinely accepted southern officer resignations. The Lincoln government, less forgiving of rebels, summarily dismissed Franklin Buchanan from the service, a deep insult to his honor.
Buchanan “went south” to be warmly accepted into the Confederate Navy at his old rank, one of the most senior officers to do so. Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory appointed his most aggressive captain to command naval units defending Hampton Roads, Virginia, with the title of Flag Officer. The revolutionary ironclad CSS Virginia (ex USS Merrimack) would be his flagship and key to dominating that critical waterbody.
Flag Officer Buchanan planned the campaign that became the two-day Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862. He directed his squadron and until wounded, captained Virginia on the first day, destroying the wooden warships USS Cumberland and Congress in the worst defeat the U. S. Navy suffered until Pearl Harbor. The next day, Buchanan’s second in command, Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, commanded Virginia against the USS Monitor in the first battle of ironclads.
Buchanan became the Confederacy’s only full admiral, commanding naval forces at Mobile Bay, Alabama. He supervised construction of the ironclad CSS Tennessee and captained her against Admiral David Glasgow Farragut’s Union fleet on August 5, 1864, until surrounded and pummeled into submission.
Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury hailed from a prominent Virginia family. A carriage accident in 1839 rendered him unfit for sea duty, so Maury devoted himself to the study of naval meteorology, navigation, charting winds and currents.
Maury conducted the first systematic study of the oceans, pioneering a new science of oceanography, and was instrumental in founding the United States Naval Observatory in 1854 where he served until 1861.
Maury collated data from hundreds of logbooks filed by merchant, naval, and whaling captains recording information along the tracks they sailed. He supervised the plotting of weather observations, winds, currents, temperatures, and whale sightings over all the seas at all times of the year over many years, thus refining general and seasonal patterns in regions like the Gulf Stream, equatorial doldrums, tropic trade winds, and polar seas that had not been fully understood.
This newfound knowledge to plot courses optimizing wind and sea conditions was a revolution in ocean navigation facilitating the phenomenal success of clipper ship trade. Maury’s Whaling Charts of the World, issued in 1852, scientifically charted the habitat and migrations of sperm and right whales. His most famous work, The Physical Geography of the Sea (1856), compiled study results with detailed charts.
Maury became a world-renowned scientist known as “Pathfinder of the Sea” as well as an influential proponent of naval reform, including a school to rival West Point. He helped launch the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1848, and was the leading spirit behind standardized, global, weather observations for a “universal system” of meteorology.
In 1851, Maury dispatched an expedition to explore the Amazon River valley. He hoped that Brazil would serve as a “safety valve” allowing excess slaves to be resettled or sold there, and over time, reducing or eliminating the curse of slavery. He campaigned for British and American naval patrols on the coast of Africa to stop the illegal slave trade. Maury wrote to a dear cousin: “I am sure you would rejoice to see the people of Virginia rise up tomorrow and say, from and after a future day…there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in Virginia.”
Still, Maury followed Virginia into the Confederacy. “No military man can permit himself to accept service with a mental reservation” he explained to a friend. “All who are foes of his flag, and whom his country considers enemies of hers, are enemies of his…. The line of duty, therefore, is to me clear — each one to follow his own State, if his own State goes to war; if not, he may remain to help on the work of REUNION.”
Commander Maury, CSN, significantly advanced the technology of electronic mines or “torpedoes,” which were said by the Secretary of the U. S. Navy in 1865 to have cost the Union more vessels than all other causes combined. Maury spent most of the war abroad studying torpedoes, procuring ships and supplies, and applying his considerable influence to promoting peace. Through speeches and newspapers, he tried desperately to convince other nations to intervene and stop the war. Post war, Maury continued teaching, lecturing, and writing with international celebrity until his death in 1873.
So, should Naval Academy buildings be named for Rebels like Buchanan and Maury? Those who originally inscribed the names were celebrating contributions to the United States Navy and to the nation without reference to the—also significant—assistance to rebellion. Immaculate heroes and absolute villains are exceedingly rare. Very few of the thousands who pass by every year are even aware of that history, much less “insulted” by it as if predecessors did what they did personally to spite us.
We who spent four years surrounded by those monuments, plaques, and halls were rather too occupied earning a degree and a commission to be looking for insults from dead people or to be taking the past personally. These two men marched briefly across a few pages among thousands in our history texts, but as far as I recall, caused no concern. The same is probably true today. And just how would Americans who are angry, afraid, or hurting be materially helped by changing the names on two buildings?
On the other hand, we must be mindful of who we memorialize as inspirations for officer trainees. Recent events have heightened awareness on these issues; understanding does evolve. Former rebels must accept consequences of their actions, and there is no shortage of heroes, including those who might have been unjustly neglected. Renaming the Buchanan and Maury buildings would be small and symbolic but perhaps worthwhile contributions to the causes of sensitivity and public confidence.
Such men should not, however, be erased from history books and not only for their accomplishments before secession. Perhaps more importantly, stories like theirs are central to understanding the immense conflict. These Americans made painful choices with conflicting motives at difficult times, as did many others then and since. We now judge that Buchanan and Maury made one very wrong decision, but who would walk in their shoes?
We must evaluate their actions within the context of the times against common standards of “duty, honor and loyalty.” However bad events are now, it is instructive to understand the greatest American crisis. Today’s issues are in many ways continuous of the past—no less weighted with moral import and potential impact on future generations. What can we learn from them to help with current troubles as Americans continue to make choices good and bad?
The same considerations apply to other public memorials and statues in the news. Refining our understanding of history and making reasonable accommodations are worthy endeavors, but rewriting history is not. Nihilistic, anarchistic, irresponsible voices have, without public consensus, demanded not just refinement but radical revisions and even destruction of the past and its symbols.
Self-appointed revolutionaries openly declare intentions to overturn time-tested institutions and founding principles. They employ anger, fear, envy, hate, greed, violence—tools of the demagogue—to divide, manipulate, and dominate citizenry. They are enabled by self-serving public officials, facilitated by pervasive ignorance, mob mentality, and blaring digital megaphones.
Abraham Lincoln saw the Civil War as the third great test of republican government. The first was the founding, as he said at Gettysburg, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The second was establishment with the Constitution.
The final trial is whether this nation “or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure” against attempts to destroy it from within, its most serious threat and still an open question. His answer was “increased devotion to that cause” so “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Devotion requires understanding.
Without honest, objective historical discussion, the odds for national survival are greatly diminished. To be “insulted” or angry at history is profoundly counterproductive. Once history becomes the plaything of today’s power politics, it loses all ability to instruct or inspire. That way lies not enhancement of painfully acquired freedoms firmly rooted in the past but destruction. We must be incredibly careful what is renamed, rewritten, or removed and why.
 M. F. Maury to Mrs. Blackford, December 24, 1851 in Diane Fontaine Corbin, Matthew Fontaine Maury — Biography (Original edition London. 1888. Wikisource Edited and Illustrated, 2009), Chapter IX.
 M. F. Maury to Wm. C. Hasbrouck, March 4, 1861 in Corbin, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Chapter XIII.