Throughout the year 1897 the vessels on the North Atlantic Station were busily engaged in enforcing the observance of our neutrality laws, and the Department exercised all possible vigilance and activity in that regard. At the same time the condition of affairs in Cuba and the consequences to the United States and Spain made it evident that war might come between them.
The Department, recognizing this fact, on the 11th of January last directed the commander in chief of the European Station to retain those men whose terms of enlistment were about to expire. The Helena, then on her way to the Asiatic Station, was directed to proceed to Lisbon and there await further orders. The commander in chief of the South Atlantic Station was informed of the critical condition of affairs in Cuba, and was directed to proceed with the Cincinnati and Castine from Montevideo to Para on the north coast of Brazil.
On January 24 the Maine was ordered to Havana, Cuba. This was the first visit of a vessel of the United States Navy to any port in Cuba for several years, although the necessity of protecting American interests made the presence of our flag in Cuban ports desirable.
On February 15, at 9.40 p.m.7 this noble battle ship was blown up in Havana Harbor, and two hundred and sixty-six lives were lost. The news of this appalling catastrophe was communicated in the following dispatch from the commanding officer.
HAVANA, February 15, 1898.
SECRETARY OF THE NAVY,
Washington, D. C.:
Maine blown up in Havana Harbor at 9.40 tonight, and destroyed. Many wounded and doubtless more ki1led or drowned. Wounded and others on board Spanish man-of-war and Ward Line steamer. Send light-house tenders from Key West for crew and the few pieces of equipment above. No one has clothing other than that upon him. Public opinion should be suspended until further report. All officials believed to be saved. Jenkins and Merritt not yet accounted for. Many Spanish officers, including representatives of General Blanco, now with me to express sympathy.
This judicious telegram did much to secure in the public mind a dispassionate view of the disaster. A board of inquiry, appointed to report to the Department the cause ofthe explosion, proceeded to Havana and began its investigation February 21.
After an exhaustive examination of the wreck, and after taking the testimony of witnesses and of experts, the board reported on the 21st of March that the Maine had been destroyed by the explosion of a submarine mine, but that it was unable to fix the responsibility upon any person or persons. It was evident that the cause of the disaster must have been from the outside. Meantime the commander in chief of the European Station was instructed to attach the Albany and New Orleans--then purchased in England of the Brazilian Government to his command, and bring the latter, the other being unfinished, to the United States. The Commander in Chief of the Asiatic Squadron was ordered to assemble his squadron at Hongkong. The Olympia, under orders at that time to San Francisco, was retained on the Asiatic Station. The Oregon was ordered to proceed from Bremerton, Wash., to San Francisco and prepare for a long voyage.
Commanders in Chief of stations were ordered to husband ammunition and to keep their vessels filled with the best coal obtainable. Enlistments, even in excess of the established quota, were ordered to fill the complements of men for the Columbia, Minneapolis, Miantonomoh, and other vessels. The North Atlantic Fleet was greatly strengthened, and vessels were concentrated in the neighborhood of Key West. The Flying Squadron was organized, under command of Commodore W. S. Schley, and stationed at Fortress Monroe for the protection of any point on the coast which might be menaced by a Spanish fleet.
On the 9th of March Congress passed the emergency bill appropriating $50,000,000 for national defense, and the Department at once was appointed and directed to make thorough examination of such vessels as might be desirable for purchase. Purchases were made upon the recommendation of the board; the vessels bought were at once sent to the different navy-yards and private yards; the changes necessary to fit them for naval purposes were pushed forward with the utmost dispatch, and the purchase of ammunition, guns, and all classes of naval war material went rapidly on.
The commander in chief of the Asiatic Station and the commander in chief of the North Atlantic Station had been engaged in thoroughly preparing the units of their commands for the test of war. The squadrons, ships, officers, and crews were in admirable condition and training had been for months engaged in tactical maneuvers and gunnery practice, and were strengthened by the addition of the auxiliary vessels as rapidly as converted. The bureaus of the Department had, by wise forethought, prepared them with every facility in the way of men, supplies, ammunition, information, and drills, and as early as April 15, four weeks before Admiral Cervera's fleet reached Cuban waters the Navy of the United States was ready for the outbreak of hostilities. The North Atlantic fleet at Key West covered Cuba; the Flying Squadron at Hampton Roads stood ready to defend our own coast, or to threaten that of Spain, and the Asiatic Squadron at Hongkong only awaited information of the outbreak of hostilities.
On the 19th of March the Oregon left San Francisco for Callao, Peru. The Department issued orders to the Marietta, then at San Jose de Guatemala, to precede her, in order to arrange for coal and to facilitate in every way possible the passage of this powerful vessel to reinforce the fleet in the North Atlantic. From Callao she proceeded to Valparaiso, then to Sandy Point, Patagonia, and arrived at Rio Janeiro on April 30, at which point the Department advised the commanding officer of the declaration of war and of the sailing of the Spanish fleet from the Cape de Verde Islands on April 29. She arrived off Jupiter Inlet, Florida, on the 24th day of May, in good condition and ready for service, and was ordered to Key West;, where, after coaling, she took her place with the blockading squadron and became a part of the command of Admiral Sampson.
In order to provide for the protection of the Atlantic coast between the capes of the Delaware and Bar Harbor, Maine, the Northern Patrol Squadron was organized, and was placed under the command of Commodore J. A. Howell on April 20. This squadron consisted of the San Francisco (flagship), Prairie, Dixie, Yankee, and Yosemite. At various times there were also attached to it the Columbia, Minneapolis, Badger, and Southery.
On April 21 Congress declared war. Admiral Sampson, in command of the North Atlantic Fleet, which had been engaged during the five or six preceding months in gunnery and tactical practice off Florida, was at one ordered to blockade that part of the northern coast of Cuba extending from Cardenas to Bahia Honda. At 6.30 a.m. on April 22 the admiral sailed on that errand.