On 15 February 1898 around 9:40 pm, an explosion caused the USS Maine to sink in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. That is all anyone can agree on regarding what happened that night. It took the lives of 266 United States sailors and is commonly cited as a catalyst that led to the Spanish-American War. “Remember the Maine” became a rallying cry that was emblazoned on buttons and banners and inspired the first group of Americans to voluntarily fight a war on foreign soil. But what actually caused the USS Maine to explode that night is a hotly contested mystery still today.
What was the USS Maine even doing in Cuba? As a Spanish colony, Cuba was facing a rather cruel regime under Prime Ministers Antonio Canovas del Castillo and Praxedes Mateo Sagasta. There had been various attempts in the 19th century of the Cuban people fighting for their independence, which ultimately failed each time. In 1895, they had come under the local rule of General Valeriano Weyler, who imposed martial law on civilians who supported independence fighters. Prior to the United States’ involvement, there had been reports of the Spanish using something akin to concentration camps to deter the rebellion. Beginning in 1896, Weyler ordered Cuban peasants to undergo reconcentracion under the threat of death. By 1897, reports indicated that the people placed in camps were left to starvation and disease, which had caused the deaths of more than 150,000 people.
Upon hearing such reports, Americans organized and gathered food aid and sent it to those suffering in the Cuban concentration camps. Shipments of cornmeal, potatoes, peas, beans, condensed milk, quinine, and other staples were sent to Cuba, which served as a signal to the Cuban rebellion of American support. This was just the public response, of course, because the American government’s response was exponentially more invested in the navies that were developing in South American countries. Specifically, the Brazilian ironclad battleship, the Riachuelo, was of the utmost concern to the United States Navy. The era of becoming a more significant player on the global stage was in its infancy, and showing military dominance was one option to increase America’s standing. President McKinley was charged with more than providing food to our neighbors to the south, and hence, sent the USS Maine as a response to protect “American interests.”
The USS Maine had been built over the course of nine years and was finally christened into service in 1889. Delays had been caused by a shipyard fire that destroyed the construction plans, but once it was sea worthy, the USS Maine was considered an excellent addition to the Navy’s fleet. She wasn’t the fastest, nor was she the most powerfully armed, but she was classified as a heavy armored cruiser with a significant artillery capacity, including four torpedo tubes, which made the Maine a good candidate for the purpose of sitting in Havana harbor as a show of American presence.
The presence of American journalists was another aspect at play in Cuba at the time. “Yellow” journalism was in full swing, and selling papers was the name of the game. You’ll have to remember that this was in an era before radio, television, or any other form of public information conveyance. Between newspapers and magazines, everyone who could read did read, meaning that’s where their money went for news and entertainment. The way to get the most money was to have the biggest headlines, the best scoops, and the most tantalizing stories. Nothing sells quite like war, and so, in the shadow of the Cuban rebellion just a stone’s throw away from Florida, journalists were on the ground waiting. Some weren’t actually waiting, however…they were invested and involved. One such correspondent was Sylvester Scovel; he was effectively a rebel agent. He carried messages back and forth to Cuban insurgency leaders and supplied American authorities with intelligence.
When the explosion of the USS Maine occurred, journalists ran with the worst version of what could have happened. Speculation was extremely varied, and while some chose not to point fingers at Spain or took a “wait and see” stance about the explosion, others clearly blamed Spain and prodded McKinley to take immediate action. Local “specialists” far removed from Havana were asked for their opinions, although they hadn’t seen any wreckage in any detail. Other journalists provided first hand accounts about the blast that rocked the city and blew out lights along the waterfront.
In the aftermath of the explosion in March of 1898, Naval inquests were conducted by the United States and Spain. At the time the findings of the McKinley Administration’s inquest concluded the blast was caused by some external force under the ship, likely a mine. A responsible party was not identified. Reactions from the Navy’s Chief Engineer, George Melville, and the Navy’s leading ordinance expert, Phillip Alger, disagreed with the inquest findings. They both agreed it was likely that the coal bunker may have spontaneously combusted and caused the adjacent munitions magazine to explode. Their opinions were not heeded, and neither was the fact that other ships had experienced spontaneous combustion in their coal bunkers. Spain’s inquest cited various reasons it could not have been a mine, primarily based upon interviews and observations made immediately after the explosion. They concluded it was an internal explosion.
Regardless of what actually happened, war was declared on 25 April 1898 and fighting in Cuba began in June. The war did not last long, and the United States and Cuba declared victory over Spain on 13 August 1898. The American war with Spain would continue around the globe in the Philippines, another Spanish colony chafing under its colonial rule.
The USS Maine remained on the floor of the Havana harbor until 1911. This is when a second investigation took place, as ordered by President Taft. The Army Corps of Engineers built a cofferdam around the shipwreck to allow water to be pumped away from the wreckage. The hull was inspected thoroughly, photographs were taken, and the conclusion that there had been a mine was again made. The evidence for a mine is focused on an inverted “V” shape in the iron cladding of the hull.
In 1974, a third study was taken on by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. He asked Naval historians to investigate based only on records and historical documentation. Professional engineers were involved in the interpretation of the evidence. Their study concluded that the explosion was definitely internal. The coal bunker had been adjacent to the munitions magazine and the two areas were separated only by a bulkhead. The inward bent evidence was proposed to have been damaged thusly upon ignition.
In 1998, National Geographic got involved, charged with finding the truth of what really happened, which was something of an anniversary remembrance 100 years after the sinking of the USS Maine.They used digital modeling techniques as administered by a marine engineering firm. While the model did confirm that the coal could have readily reached a temperature to create an internal explosion, they concluded that it was an external explosion. It is noted, however, that the model had to make several assumptions about the conditions present on the ship before the blast (munitions and gunpowder were stored properly, the coal was burning in this limited location, etc.). Some would argue that the model would be inaccurate based on these unknowable assumptions.
The USS Maine was also featured on a 2002 episode of Unsolved History, which came to the conclusion that the internal explosion was more likely.
The USS Maine is memorialized in several locations, but four places are the most prominent. The foremast is installed on the grounds of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The main mast is installed on the grounds of Arlington Cemetery, where 164 of the USS Maine’s sailors are buried. A memorial exists in Havana, which has its own unique history (originally dedicated in 1925, damaged by a hurricane, restored in 1928, targeted for dismantling in the wake of the Cuban revolution in 1961, with a new plaque that calls the sailors victims of imperialism). And in Key West, there is a memorial in the Key West Cemetery where injured sailors who died in hospital there were buried.
The truth of the matter is, we’ll never know exactly what happened to the USS Maine that fateful night, but we can remember what the steps toward war look like, and hopefully find a way for diplomacy to do the work of nations.
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US Military Records for the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars
The Spanish-American War occurred in a brief four-month span during the summer months of 1898, but created multiple record sets for the over 280,000 soldiers, sailors and marines in service of the United States, including both the famed Buffalo Soldiers and Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. These records are often also grouped with the ensuing Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 (which many record sets may also refer to as the Philippine Insurrection), as there may be overlapping service.
To determine if an ancestor may have served in the United States military during this time period, there are a few places one could begin. Both the 1910 and 1930 Federal Census enumerations included questions for veterans - column 30 in 1910 and columns 30 and 31 in 1930 - which are indicators of military service. The 1900 Census did not ask about military service, but did enumerate service members who were stationed in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines at the time. Another great starting place is to search National Archives microfilm publication T288, the General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934, which can be browsed for free on FamilySearch. This publication is the same collection in which Civil War pension files are indexed. Pension records were created when a veteran applied for financial compensation on the grounds of injury, illness or disability due to their service; dependents, such as parents, spouses and minor children, also applied for benefits based on a veteran’s service. The pension files can be obtained through the National Archives, but the index itself can also provide a wealth of information including final rank and unit information, enlistment, discharge and pension dates and the state in which the pension was filed, among other details.
Once an ancestor’s service has been determined, the process of gathering information about that service can begin. An important distinction to note for United States military records is that the record-keeping for the Army and the Navy has always been kept separately as they were under the jurisdiction of different government agencies, so the availability of information and level of detail provided is largely dependent upon the branch of service. The Department of the Navy has held jurisdiction over the Marine Corps since the 1830s, so those records are often grouped together. During the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars, another important distinction is that the Army was divided into those in the regular federal forces and by volunteers. In 1898, the standing army totalled 26,000 men and was not at a strength capacity to go to war; therefore, Congress passed the Mobilization Act of April 22 , which allowed for the expansion of the regular army to 65,000 men and the raising of an army of 125,000 volunteers by state (which could include standing state militias) - Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania contributed the most volunteers for service. An index to Compiled Military Service Records for Volunteers can be viewed on Ancestry. Service records for all branches can be obtained through the National Archives, but there are also additional state and federal records which have been digitized and can provide information. The Register of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798-1914 and the Navy and Marine Corps Registries, 1814-1992 contain lists of service members for each year. States also kept their own records for military service. The casualty list for the USS Maine was printed in the Annual Reports of the Secretary of the Navy for 1898.
Although these are just a few of the available records, they offer a great starting place to learn more about any Spanish-American or Philippine-American War service in your family.
Puerto Rico was an integral part of the Spanish Colonization in the 15th century and remained under Spanish rule until the Spanish-American War of 1898. Learn about Citizenship in Puerto Rico in this article from our archives.
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