On February 15, 1898, a massive explosion of unknown origin sinks the battleship USS Maine in Cuba’s Havana harbor, killing 260 of the fewer than 400 American crew members aboard.
One of the first American battleships, the Maine weighed more than 6,000 tons and was built at a cost of more than $2 million. Ostensibly on a friendly visit, the Maine had been sent to Cuba to protect the interests of Americans there after a rebellion against Spanish rule broke out in Havana in January.
The original Naval Court of Inquiry, headed by Captain William Sampson, concluded that the Maine sank when a mine detonated, causing the ship’s forward magazines to explode. The court of inquiry based this on eyewitness testimony of two explosions, as well as inward bending of part of the hull. However, it did not fix responsibility for the mine.
The Spanish wanted to undertake a joint investigation with the United States. When refused, they conducted their own inquiry, which attributed the explosion to a fire in a coal bunker adjacent to the Maine’s munitions stores. They cited lack of evidence for things normally seen in mine detonation, such as a column of water, dead fish, etc.
In 1911, the Maine’s wreckage was raised and subjected to a new court of inquiry headed by Rear Admiral Charles Vreeland. It confirmed Sampson’s conclusion of an external device; the wreck was subsequently taken out to sea and scuttled.
In 1974, Admiral Hyman Rickover conducted a private investigation, finding that a coal bunker fire caused the explosion. In 1998, National Geographic commissioned a study using computer models that blamed a mine. In 2002, the History Channel produced a documentary in which scientists reconstructed part of the hull. Their verdict was an accidental coal bunker fire, concluding that the hull’s inward bending resulted from in-rushing water.
None of these investigations seem totally satisfying, as they explore how rather than who. Although coal bunker fires did occur on some U.S. warships of that era, none blew up. By what coincidence was the Maine the only ship to so explode, while in Havana Harbor, and just when cries for
" >war peaked? The bunker in question had working fire alarms, and the Maine had a competent crew.
With a crew of 355, a bomb would have been difficult to plant unnoticed. As the explosion occurred after nightfall, it is possible someone used the cover of darkness to float an external mine to the Maine. Who had motive? Spain’s actions and internal documents prove it wished to avoid war at all costs. The primary beneficiaries were the Wall Street establishment and Cuba’s revolutionaries. The latter were using dynamite to destroy trains and bridges. They surely knew that if the ship met disaster, America would likely win their war. In Who Sank the Maine? historian Thomas Fleming noted that 50 to 100 pounds of dynamite, exploding externally, could have sufficed to detonate the Maine’s munitions.
“Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!”
It’s February 1898, and you’re a recently recruited U.S. Navy sailor. Your ship, the USS Maine, left Key West, Florida, three weeks ago and is now in Cuba — Havana Harbor, to be specific. It’s 9 p.m. and the sun has gone down. You’ve been trying to read a tattered copy of “The Adventures of Captain Horn” by Frank Stockton, but the other young men in your berthing area have been making too much noise throwing wet rags at each other for you to pay much attention. It’s enough to break the relentless monotony, though. Topside, the dry winter breezes of the Caribbean blow lazily across the deck as the rocking boat gently swings your hammock back and forth. Today is just another boring Tuesday while you and the rest of the crew wait for something to happen.
On your ship, you’re somewhat cut off from the media, but before you left the Keys, you were remotely cognizant of things heating up with the Spanish over Cuba. As a 19-year-old serviceman, war is a concern, but in the last 50 years, the Navy hasn’t really done a lot of fighting. The Civil War some 30-ish years before was made up largely of land engagements. The subsequent Indian wars in the American West were fought by cavalry — hardly maritime in nature.
Then, out of the silence, a sudden brutal shock wave and massive explosion launches you off your mattress and into a metal cross beam. Blunt, withering pain fills your consciousness, and just before you pass out, you’re aware of intense screams. They’re coming from your friends. Other sailors call for their mothers as your world goes black.
This could have been the scene on board the USS Maine as it floated in Havana Harbor at 9:40 p.m on Feb. 15, 1898. At the height of American tensions with Spain over Cuba, war was looming. Local Cubans had begun rioting in the city, destroying property, and threatening order. The Maine was sent as a show of force to look out for American interests.
Since the end of the Civil War, American investors had accumulated a great deal of wealth from the sugar industry in Cuba, which was a colony of Spain at the time. Despite that, most of Cuba’s exports went to the United States, and nearly 40% of its imports were American — far greater volumes than it traded with its “mother” country. With the U.S. government eyeing locations in Central America to build a large canal to the Pacific Ocean, the unrest in Cuba seemed like a good opportunity for the United States to gain a foothold and maintain a presence.
Since 1865, Cuba had attempted to achieve independence from Spain multiple times. From 1895–1898, the infighting had grown particularly bad as revolutionaries were waging a guerrilla war against their European rulers. Spain was viciously suppressing Cubans in a campaign of “reconcentration,” sending thousands of people to camps. The result was open rebellion. President William McKinley’s administration wasn’t interested in a war, but it was hard to quell the rumors of Spanish brutality, which appalled many Americans. It was also hard to deny temptation — Cuban independence could mean solidifying a valuable strategic position in the hemisphere, not to mention allowing for a much less complicated sugar trade, capable of lining the pockets of Boston and New York businessmen. Even Theodore Roosevelt, who served as assistant secretary of the Navy in the late 1890s, openly advocated for war with Spain.
As guerrilla fighting and tensions in Cuba rocketed skyward, newspapers in New York owned by pioneers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer saw it as an opportunity to sell papers. Headlines and stories were embellished, and news stories were even fabricated, resulting in a new term “yellow journalism.”
Maine Baseball Team
This proud but ultimately tragic assemblage of players, coaches, and mascot is the baseball squad from the battleship USS Maine. The team had just won the Navy baseball championship held in Key West, Florida, in December 1897, beating a team from the cruiser USS Marblehead eighteen to three. The Maine’s star was a black pitcher named William Lambert (upper right), and engine stoker from Hampton, Virginia, who was described by one shipmate as “a master of speed, curves, and control.”
Two months after this celebratory photograph was taken, all but one of these men died when the Maine exploded and sank in Havana harbor, killing 260 of the ship’s crew and sparking the Spanish-American War. Other than the goat, which was left behind in Key West when the ship was ordered to Cuba, the lone survivor was John Bloomer (upper left). Only minutes before this devastating–and still mysterious–explosion, C.H. Newton (middle row, second from left) had sounded taps for the crew at the usual time of 9:10 p.m. Caption written by Alan Bisbort for the 1997 Library of Congress Baseball Calendar.
The USS Maine mysteriously exploded on the night of Feb. 15, killing 260 crewmembers. Most died immediately, but others slowly burned to death. Lt. George Blow, who was abroad the Maine, wrote to his wife, “…the scene is still too terrible to recall, even had I the time.” The explosion had ignited the coal bunkers, quickly setting off the ship’s powder magazines, which nearly tore off the entire bow. The newspapers went wild, blaming the incident on Spanish sabotage and provocatively called for revenge, galvanizing much of the public in favor of a war. Unclear of the cause of the blast, the government urged calm and commissioned an investigation. The next month, a report conducted by the U.S. Navy determined the explosion was caused by a mine, with the Spanish the most likely culprits. American advocates for war chanted, “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” Congress authorized the president to use force and demanded Spain grant independence to Cuba. In response, Spain severed diplomatic relations and the Navy blockaded the island. The situation escalated further when Spain declared war on Apr. 24. Congress responded the next day with a declaration of its own, and McKinley reluctantly went along with it.
The Spanish-American War lasted 10 weeks with much of the action taking place on the island of Cuba, the most famous battle happening on July 1. Col. Teddy Roosevelt, who resigned his post as assistant secretary to the Navy, led the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, aka the “Rough Riders,” to the Battle of San Juan Hill; a bloody struggle to the gain high ground above enemy naval concentrations in the harbor of nearby Santiago de Cuba. The action cost the Fifth Army Corps over 1,000 soldiers — nearly five times as many as the Spanish, but despite the grave loss of life, Roosevelt, who carried a pistol into battle recovered from the Maine, overtook the enemy position and carried the day. Two days later, the Spanish fleet was destroyed, leading to surrender of the city on July 17.
Other smaller actions took place on Spanish lands in the Philippines and Guam. In the end, far superior U.S. forces were able to gain ultimate victory over the Spanish, whose military had been declining since the early 1800s as a result of frequent clashes with France. In the Caribbean, Spanish forces were further weakened by disease. Backed into a corner, they knew they were beaten and agreed to the Treaty of Paris on Dec. 10, which favored the United States. The U.S. emerged as a power player on the international stage and was portrayed as a defender of democracy. The treaty ensured the U.S. gained all of Spain’s territories outside Africa, including the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico.
Interestingly, the war benefitted both the United States and Spain. In many ways, the U.S. was still reeling from the Civil War, but the brief conflict with Spain brought together old foes from North and South, not to mention African American “Buffalo Soldiers,” who played a significant role during the fight for San Juan Hill. After the treaty was signed, the U.S. also returned much of Spain’s capital, which was then re-invested into steel, chemicals and other industries.
In addition, two veterans’ organizations emerged as a result of the war: the American Veterans of Foreign Service and the National Society of the Army of the Philippines, the parent organizations of today’s Veterans of Foreign Wars.
As for the USS Maine, controversy surrounded the incident and what caused the explosion. After the war ended, two more investigations were conducted in 1898 (one by the Spanish, and the other by the U.S. Navy), both reaching different conclusions. While the Navy insisted the Spanish were to blame, Spain’s examination of the evidence held that the explosion was clearly an accident caused by the crew. Another inquiry by the U.S. government took place in 1911 in conjunction with efforts to recover the bodies of many of the Maine’s crewmembers who remained entombed in the wreck. This investigation also blamed sabotage. A fourth analysis in 1974 was led by Navy Adm. Hyman Rickover, followed by a fifth in 1998 by the National Geographic Society. The most recent research was the subject of a 2002 television show called “Unsolved History.” Despite the numerous studies, however, none of the investigations were able to conclusively state what caused the blast that killed three quarters of the Maine’s crew. Even though the incident was known as “the last straw” that brought the U.S. to war with Spain, the mystery remains unsolved today.
Early in 1898, the battleship USS Maine was sent to Havana. Supposedly undertaken to protect U.S. interests in Cuba, this action was a blatant effort to change Spanish colonial policies. Then, on the night of February 15, the Maine blew up in Havana Harbor with the loss of 260 lives. Though the exact cause of the explosion was unknown, the loss of the Maine became the focal point for Americans who sought war. The cry ‘Remember the Maine – to hell with Spain!’ swept the country, and the day after the board of inquiry’s report come out, President William McKinley sent Madrid an ultimatum, which led directly to the U.S. declaration of war against Spain in April. This book examines the historical circumstances leading up the destruction of the Maine, the immediate aftermath, and the long-term consequences.
The USS Maine is one of the most famous ships in American history, but for all the wrong reasons. A symbol of naval strength in the late 19th century, the Maine’s tragic fate is taught to students across the nation, not just because it was a disaster but because it is associated with the most notorious examples of yellow journalism in the country’s history and ultimately brought about a war, despite the fact it’s still unclear what caused the ship’s explosion.
In 1898, one of Spain’s last possessions in the New World, Cuba, was waging a war for independence against Spain. Though Cuba was technically exempted from the United States’ Monroe Doctrine since Cuba was already a possession of Spain when the Monroe Doctrine was issued, many Americans believed that the United States should side with Cuba against Spain. At the same time, however, President William McKinley wanted to avoid getting tangled in a war between outsiders, while Spain also wanted to avoid any conflict with United States and its powerful navy.
Despite leaders hoping to stay above the fray, American economic interests were being harmed by the ongoing conflict between Cuban nationalists and Spain, as merchants’ trading with Cuba was suffering now that the island was undergoing conflict. Furthermore, the American press capitalized on the ongoing Cuban struggle for independence, which had been flaring up time and again since 1868. In an effort to sell papers, the press frequently sensationalized stories, which came to be known as yellow journalism, and during the run-up to war, yellow journalism spread false stories about the Cuban conflict in order to sell newspapers in the competitive New York City market.
Despite President McKinley’s wishes to avoid a war, he was forced to support a war with Spain after the USS Maine suffered an explosion in Havana’s harbor in February 1898. McKinley had sent the ship to help protect American citizens in Cuba from the violence that was taking place there, but the explosion devastated the USS Maine, which had to be towed to harbor and eventually scuttled, but only after 266 American sailors aboard the ship were killed.
Although the cause of the explosion was never determined, yellow journalists in the American press blamed Spain, claiming the USS Maine was sabotaged. President McKinley was unable to resist popular pressure after a U.S. Navy report also claimed that the ship had been subjected to an explosion outside of its hull, which subsequently ignited its powder magazines inside the ship. Later investigations proved inconclusive, but President McKinley was now forced to accept war with Spain, bringing about the Spanish-American War.
The Explosion of the USS Maine chronicles the controversial explosion, tracing the history of the ship from its glorious beginning to its ignominious end, as well as the critical aftermath. Along with pictures of important people, places, and events, you will learn about the USS Maine like never before, in no time at all.
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