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H-015-3: “Remember the Maine!  To Hell with Spain!”

H-Gram 015, Attachment 3
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
February 2018 

The design of the USS Maine was pretty much an abberation. She had a long list of cutting-edge technological advances and an even longer list of major design flaws. In the nine years it took to build her, thanks to constantly changing requirements, budget shortfalls, shortages of key material for the untested advanced technology, inadequate industrial base, shipyard strikes, poor workmanship, and other factors, the Maine was obsolete before she was even finished. Originally intended to be an armored cruiser, she was completed as a battleship, but was inadequately armed (two twin 10-inch gun turrets, a host of smaller-caliber weapons, and even torpedo tubes) to be a match for battleships in other navies of the day, and she was far too slow to act as a commerce-raiding cruiser. In fact, the impetus for the construction of the Maine was the acquisition by the Brazilian navy of the battleship Riachuelo in 1883 and the realization (and embarrassment) that the Brazilian navy was the strongest navy in the Western Hemisphere—and the Chilean and Argentine navies were on pace to surpass the U.S. Navy as well. Following the U.S. Civil War, the U.S. Navy had been allowed to severely decline in terms of numbers and quality, primarily due to lack of funding, but also lack of national (or even Navy) consensus about the role of the service: to be able to fight other Navies as a fleet, or just to raid opposing nations’ commerce as individual ships.

Congress authorized construction of the Maine in 1886, and she was the largest naval vessel to be built in a U.S. yard to that time. Maine was finally commissioned in 1895. During the 1890s, Congress had at long last authorized a major increase in U.S. naval strength and three battleships of the Indiana class (four 13-inch guns) were completed shortly after the Maine, and significantly out-classed that ship in all respects (although even they were obsolete by 1903). Maine initially operated with the North Atlantic Squadron. By the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the U.S. Navy was much improved in terms of numbers and quality of ships, although it was still no match for the major navies of Europe. However, it would prove to be more than a match for the navy of Spain, which had been allowed to fall into a very decrepit state.

With the increase in tensions with Spain due to the rebellion in the Spanish colony of Cuba, the Maine, under the command of Captain Charles Dwight Sigsbee, was ordered to steam from Key West to Havana in January 1898 to protect U.S. interests in Cuba. These were considerable, and there was a very vocal lobby in the U.S. advocating annexation of Cuba as a U.S. colony, much to the consternation of Spain. U.S. newspapers hyped reports of Spanish atrocities, generating great sympathy in the American public for the rebels in Cuba. A number of U.S. newspapers practiced what has come to be known as “yellow journalism,” i.e., only a loose association with the facts, the original “fake news,” if you will, willing to publish just about anything to increase circulation.

The explosion of the Maine about 2140 on 15 February 1898, obliterated the forward third of the ship. Maine sank in relatively shallow water with the remains of her superstructure still above water. Most of the officers (18 of 20) survived, including Captain Sigsbee, because the officers’ quarters were in the stern. The crews’ quarters were in the forward part of the ship and therefore loss of life among the enlisted crew was extremely heavy. The New York Journal (owned by William Randolph Hearst) and the New York World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer) seized on the disaster as an opportunity to increase circulation, immediately blaming Spain, and offering rewards ($50,000, a huge sum at the time) for the conviction of the criminals who had killed American Sailors. Although most political, military (and even newspaper) leaders did not find it plausible that Spain would have deliberately done such a thing, the inflammatory newspaper coverage resulted in what can only be termed as “hysteria” on the part of the American public. On 13 April 1898, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 311–6 to authorize Republican President William McKinley to use military force to end the hostilities in Cuba (between Spain and the rebels). The vote in the Senate was closer at 42–35 for the resolution. The resolution was not technically a declaration of war, but that is how Spain interpreted it. Soon the war would be on.

The first investigation of the Maine explosion was conducted by the Spanish (the “Del Peral and De Salas” inquiry) and concluded a spontaneous combustion in the coal bunker adjacent to the magazine was the cause of the blast. This conclusion was ignored by the American press. The Spanish investigation also noted that no cables had been found, indicating that a mine could not have been electrically detonated, and that the dead calm conditions made striking a contact mine unlikely. Captain Sigsbee also noted that numerous Spanish officers expressed their sympathy. Spanish government correspondence indicated a serious concern that Spain would be blamed for the explosion and a strong desire that the United States would not reach that conclusion.

The U.S. Navy quickly formed a court of inquiry to investigate the explosion. The board consisted of line officers, and was initially composed entirely of officers junior to the Maine’s captain before a more senior officer, Captain William T. Sampson, was placed in charge. The board arrived in Havana on 21 February and took testimony from survivors and witnesses, although this phase was rushed due to the potential for imminent outbreak of war. The board also did not avail itself very well of technical advice from engineers (then separate from line officers) in reaching its conclusion on 28 March that a submerged mine was the cause of the explosion of two or more of Maine’s forward magazines. This conclusion was based on witnesses who reported two explosions in quick succession and a part of the keel at frame 18 being bent inward, indicating an external explosion. The U.S. board also noted that it could find no evidence fixing the responsibility on any person or persons.

In 1911, the U.S. Navy conducted another court of inquiry (the “Vreeland Board” led by Rear Admiral Charles Vreeland) in conjunction with an effort to recover the remains of U.S. Sailors before clearing the wreck from Havana Harbor. This time, the board included certified engineers. A cofferdam was placed around the wreck, allowing for inspection (and removal of remains). The Vreeland Board concluded that the bent keel was the result of the explosion of the magazine and not due to an external cause, and that the initial explosion was farther aft and a lower order than determined by the Sampson Board, but still reached the conclusion that a mine was the cause of the magazine explosion. (Some recent computer analysis has indicated that it would not have taken a very large external charge to have detonated the magazine.) After the Vreeland investigation, the recovered remains of Maine’s Sailors were buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and the hulk was refloated, towed out to sea, and ceremoniously scuttled.

In 1974, for whatever reason, Admiral Hyman Rickover took an interest in the sinking of the Maine and commissioned an independent study, which he published in 1976 in the book How the Battleship Maine Was Destroyed. The research by the team was pretty exhaustive. The conclusion was that the Maine was most likely destroyed as a result of spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker next to the magazine. As the U.S. Navy (and other navies) transitioned to steel warships, they also transitioned from burning anthracite coal to much more volatile bituminous coal in order to generate greater power and speed. Under certain circumstances, bituminous coal was capable of spontaneous combustion, and such fires had been reported on other U.S. Navy warships before the Maine disaster, and other navies had lost ships as a result (although unstable cordite would prove to be a far more effective way for warships to blow themselves up in the first decades of the 20th century). It should be noted, however, that both the Sampson and Vreeland Boards had members with first-hand experience with coal bunker fires, which were a common enough occurrence so that ships had procedures in place to guard against them (which actually worked in other cases in the U.S. Navy). Both those boards concluded that a coal fire was not the cause. There is also modern analysis of the bituminous coal burned by Maine based on data from where it was mined, which indicates that it actually had properties very much like anthracite, making spontaneous combustion less likely.

There have been a number of TV documentaries, additional books, and other studies, including computer simulations, since Rickover’s book that have attempted to determine the exact cause of the blast. These have resulted in some additional evidence that the blast was external and some other that it was internal. There are certainly other things besides a coal fire that could have resulted in an internal blast, although there is no evidence that conclusively points to another cause, such as unstable ammunition. Personally, I find that the Maine was subject to a mine explosion to be highly unlikely, but there are weaknesses in the coal fire theory as well. Most of the evidence, in my view, still points to an internal cause, but sometimes, 120 years of history just refuse to give up their mysteries and we may never really know what caused the Maine to blow up, kill 261 Americans, and start a war.

(A key source for this item is H. G. Rickover, How the Battleship Maine Was Destroyed, Government Publishing Office, 1976. An article on the web “How Likely was a Coal Bunker Fire Aboard the Battleship Maine?” by Patrick McSherry provides no direct support to the mine theory, but does expose some weaknesses in the coal fire theory.)

Published: Tue Feb 27 10:40:56 EST 2018