Remember the Maine! (1898)

The battle cry of the Spanish-American War, coined by the jingo press, whipped up war sentiment after the USS Maine was destroyed in an explosion while anchored in Havana harbor. The sinking served as the cause for the United States to declare war on Spain. The battleship Maine arrived in Cuba, ostensibly for a “friendly” naval visit, at 11:00 a. m. on January 25, 1898. With Spain involved in a vicious colonial war with Cuban rebels, such visits had been avoided since 1895, but as American sympathy for the rebels grew, so too did anti-American sentiment among Spanish loyalists in Havana. Rioting in Havana on January 12, 1898, worried the American consul, Fitzhugh Lee, who cabled that “ships may be necessary later but not now.” Although Havana calmed down, the McKinley administration on January 24 ordered the Maine to Havana.

The Maine was a second-class battleship, weighing 6,682 tons and with a maximum speed of 17 knots. Main battery guns were sometimes arranged in rather strange fashion: the forward turret of the Maine was on the starboard side of the ship and could not effectively fire to port, and the after turret-on the port side-could not effectively fire to starboard. This was an obvious limitation, and was corrected in the next class of ships by placing the turrets on the centerline.

Although Spanish officials would rather the Maine were elsewhere, they were cordial and the city was calm. Nevertheless, Captain Charles D. Sigsbee did not allow his sailors liberty for fear of an incident. Security on the ship was high. The ship’s watch was greatly enlarged and sentries were armed. Both boilers were kept going-a departure from the usual practice of operating a single boiler-in case the ship was called to immediate action, and shells were kept near all of the Maine’s guns.

At 9:40 on the evening of February 15 an explosion ripped through the Maine and sent it to the bottom of the Havana harbor. The first, a small muffled blast, was followed by a tremendous explosion that ripped through the whole forward half of the ship and, almost in an instant, killed 252 men. The ship settled rapidly to the bottom, and the confused survivors were soon either swimming in the muddied waters of the harbor or climbing into rescue boats. Surprisingly, there was no panic; Captain Sigsbee’s orderly, Marine Private William Anthony, furnished history with a memorable example of attention to duty when, upon meeting the captain in a passageway, said, “I have to report, sir, that the ship is blown up and is sinking.”

Three of the Maine’s boats were undamaged and were put into the water, and other boats arrived to help in the rescue effort. Captain Sigsbee was reluctant to leave his ship while there was any possibility of rescuing personnel who might be trapped in the wreck- age, but the fires were setting off shells in some of the magazines and it became impossible to remain aboard.

The captain sent an immediate cable to the Secretary of the Navy, both to advise of the disaster and to caution against speculation as to the cause. “Public opinion should be suspended until further re- port,” he said, but he knew that he was whistling into the wind.

With the entire forward part of the vessel destroyed, 260 men were killed (out of a crew of 355). Newspapers immediately attributed the explosion to Spanish treachery and called for war.

The newspapers had gotten the news by 2:00 a. m., and the race was on. The Journal was quick to announce that the Spanish were responsible, citing no less an authority than Assistant Secretary Roosevelt. Based upon the reported opinions of “naval officers,” the Journal was also able to graphically diagram the placement of the enemy mine that must have caused the sinking; but, leaving nothing to chance, Mr. Hearst also offered a $50,000 reward for additional evidence. Mr. Pulitzer dispatched a ship to Havana, carrying a team of investigators who were to uncover the true story for the World.

The Navy made preparations to convene a formal court of inquiry, and sent divers from Key West to retrieve the magazine keys and the cipher book, and to inspect the underwater damage. The divers reported there was a hole in the bottom of the ship; but none of them were construction engineers and were not really qualified to make any judgments. The Spanish suggested that a joint investigation be conducted, as being in the best interests of both countries, but this was coldly refused, as was permission to inspect the wreck- age. The Spanish went ahead and conducted their own inquiry, using whatever evidence was publicly available.

A great state funeral was held for the dead of the Maine, attended by all of the military, civil, and ecclesiastical authorities of Havana. There was no question of the authenticity of the shock and grief displayed by the members of the official community, and the ceremonies were conducted with deep and sincere sympathy. Captain Sigsbee was uncomfortable at the thought that a Catholic ceremony must be read over the Protestant dead, but the tropical climate did not permit of delay until a Protestant minister could be located. The captain satisfied his misgivings as best he could by reading the Episcopal burial service to himself, en route to the cemetery.

A naval court of inquiry concluded on March 20 that an underwater mine sank the Maine, although responsibility for laying the mine could not be determined. The Spanish offered to send the matter to arbitration in order to settle the cost of the dam- age and even agreed to an armistice (to last as long as the commanding general in Cuba thought prudent) in the war on the Cuban rebels. But the United States was in no mood for arbitration or for negotiations.

President William McKinley had experienced the carnage of war firsthand as an officer during the Civil War. He hoped that the report’s inability to blame the Spanish for the sinking would leave open an opportunity to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the sinking and of the political status of Cuba. But public sentiment was not with him. Reports of Spanish atrocities in Cuba both real and imagined and the mass starvation produced by Spain’s military policies created great sympathy for the Cuban rebels. The publication a few weeks before the explosion of the Maine of the de Lome letter, in which the Spanish minister had made derogatory remarks about the president, abetted the growth of war fever in the United States. Bowing to pressure, McKinley on April 11, 1898, asked Congress for the authority to use the armed forces to intervene in Cuba. Congress debated for a week before agreeing on April 19 by joint resolution. McKinley signed it the following day and the war began.

Seventy-eight years later a study, using the latest naval technology, by Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover of the U. S. Navy concluded that an internal explosion occurring in one of the coal bunkers had caused the sinking of the Maine.


Within days after the destruction of the battleship Maine, a US Navy court of inquiry was convened in Havana on the lighthouse tender, Mangrove. Captain Wm. T Sampson was the presiding officer. The most important duty was to determine whether the disaster was due to sabotage or an accidental internal cause.

The first action taken was to have divers investigate the wreck, but this examination would take time. Meanwhile, the court heard testimony from the survivors, 98 of an original crew of 350 officers and men, although more soon succumbed to their wounds.

From the great volume of testimony, the court narrowed the field of possible explanations for the disaster by examining such questions as the state of the electrical wiring, stowage of combustibles and ammunition, safety shoes, gas detection gear, and even the possibility of a lunatic. Later, the divers’ reports gave the court a new set of circumstances to investigate. A powerful force had driven the ship’s keel up from below and punched in her armor and plating on the port side, but the starboard plates were blown outward. Even a crater was found on the harbor bed. Since prior testimony had established that there had been two separate explosions the court concluded that the first had been caused by a mine and the second was an exploding magazine. Some ammunition had continued to explode even as the hulk settled on the harbor bottom. The Spanish court of inquiry, which met simultaneously, took issue with the exploding mine theory citing that no dead fish were found nor was a geyser observed. Unfortunately, the Spanish court could not send down its own divers (in its own harbor!) because of diplomatic protocol. The Spanish court also questioned the level of training of American sailors.

While the Navy’s case was not airtight, evidence strongly supports the US court’s conclusions. Notwithstanding, in 1911 the wreck was raised and a second court of inquiry was convened. With no new evidence uncovered, that court reaffirmed the earlier court’s finding that the first explosion was exterior to the ship. The wreck of Maine was subsequently moved farther out to sea and to date no new physical evidence has been presented.

In the years since the second inquiry, debate over the exact cause of the disaster has continued. A report released by Admiral Rickover in 1976 summarizes one popular theory. This theory holds that the explosion resulted from coal gas (methane) coming into contact with a crude electrical wiring system. The gas would have formed in the nearly inaccessible Ai6 bunker; close to the 6‑inch reserve ammunition magazine which exploded. This theory explains the problem in those years of ships blowing up seemingly without reason, the origin of coal gas not being fully understood in 1898. Yet the court of 1898 closely investigated the condition of the A16 bunker and found nothing amiss.

The Maine’s destruction was such a fortuitous and timely event for some political groups and the accidental explosion theory dependent on such a sufficiently rare type of occurrence that it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that her loss was not accidental. Anarchists of the day would not have had any scruples about sabotage. If there was indeed a mine, the question of whose mine it was remains open to this day.

“conspiracy theory”

What, then, was the “true” story? Admiral H. G. Rickover conducted a new examination into the explosion in 1976. He noted the problems of the original 1898 U. S. inquiry: limited expertise, poor diving conditions in the harbor, and inadequate questioning during the hearings all contributed to an inquiry that was not as comprehensive as it should have been, given the import of its result. Even contemporary experts questioned the likelihood of a mine having been the cause of the disaster. Public pressure to do something with the Maine wreck led to Congress appropriating $650,000 in 1910 to remove the wreck and recover the bodies still there for burial in Arlington Cemetery. The Army Corps of Engineers were given primary responsibility for the endeavor. In 1911, a new board of investigation arrived in Havana with more expertise than 1898. They took detailed records of the damage and many photographs and diagrams. Nevertheless, their ultimate conclusion (while differing from 1898 in technical detail) was that the primary explosion was still due to the placing of a mine, which had set off another explosion in the magazines. For the purposes of Rickover’s study, two experts reexamined all the evidence and concluded that in fact the primary explosion had been an internal one, possibly caused by fire in a bunker setting off explosions in the magazines.

The story of the sinking of the USS Maine is clearly central to the story of the Spanish-American War; but it also raises issues that have to do with the role of the press in creating “conspiracy theories” to suit their purposes (increased circulation and jingoism), as well as the issue of scientific evidence and its role in establishing “truth.” In this story, technical evidence is central in determining the “true” story of the Maine and whether a war was started over an accident. Certainly the role of technical or scientific evidence continues to be central to society’s need to determine the “truth” of events, but this story also reveals that technical evidence (which is not infallible) can be given too much power. Rickover speculates whether a different outcome might have occurred if the 1898 inquiry had come to a different conclusion. While that can only ever be hypothesis, it nevertheless raises the issue of just how important the “conspiracy theory” about the Maine-reinforced by the “truth” of a scientific inquiry and the inflammatory actions of the press-was in shaping the course of history.