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Documentary Histories
Spanish-American War

Introductory Essay

Destruction of the U.S.S. Maine

     The destruction of U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor may not have caused the Spanish-American War, but it was certainly a factor in its onset. Maine was one of the newest American battleships. Authorized in 1886 and commissioned in 1895, it was 310 feet Long, 57 feet wide at its largest point, displaced 6,682 tons, and could steam at 17 knots. It carried four 10-inch and six 6-inch guns as its main battery, seven 6-pounders as its secondary battery, and four torpedo tubes, two on each side—a formidable armament in that day. Its crew numbered 354 officers and men.1

Maine was the symbol of the U.S. Navy’s resurgence as a naval power. It was the first armored battleship built entirely of domestically produced materials, and in an American shipyard. Its destruction and the loss of 266 officers and crew was a tragedy that jolted the nation and struck at the heart of the U.S. Navy, which was then a small and close-knit service.

While the destruction of Maine probably drew America into war, its presence in Havana harbor was in the interest of peace. The spiraling violence of the Cuban revolution with its attendant destructive effects on its people and economy attracted the attention of many in America. The unwillingness or inability of the government of Spain to find a formula to satisfy Cuban demands for independence--or at least greater political autonomy--along with continued pressure from some segments of the American press (often called the “yellow” press) and members in Congress, all combined to put increasing pressure on President William McKinley’s administration to intervene in Cuba.

In response to events=, the administration decided to shift portions of the United States Navy to positions closer to Cuba. So, in December, Maine and cruiser Detroit were ordered to Key West, Florida, the American naval base closest to the island, and in January the North Atlantic Squadron was sent to conduct winter exercises in the Gulf of Mexico.2

Things came to a head on 12 January, when a riot broke out in Havana. The mob, which included officers of the Spanish army, was demonstrating against a few Havana newspapers that favored autonomy. American consul Fitzhugh Lee was concerned that the violence might be turned against Americans and their property, so he alerted Capt. Charles D. Sigsbee of Maine to be prepare to sail at a moment’s notice. In Washington, some in the State Department decided that these riots portended the fall of the Spanish reform regime in Cuba and advocated intervention. At the very least, they wanted the U.S. naval squadron to be prepared for immediate action.3

McKinley, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long, and Assistant Secretary of State, William R. Day decided to send Maine to Havana. They believed this would satisfy those calling for Cuban intervention in the United States and, since visits by warships of other powers to Havana occurred regularly, would not create issues in Cuba.4 As seen in the early February reports from Capt. Charles D. Sigsbee to Long, the visit was viewed as a diplomatic success by Sigsbee. There were initially no problems, though Maine’s captain was careful to minimize the chances of an incident by allowing only a few selected members of the crew to go ashore.5

On the evening of 15 February 1898, a massive explosion ripped Maine apart. Two hundred and fifty enlisted men and two officers were killed, eight more died in the next few hours, and another six died in the months following as a result of their injuries. It was one of the worst peacetime naval catastrophes in the history of the United States Navy. In fact, more naval personnel died in this explosion, than would be killed during the entire war that followed. The situation was volatile, but a key Navy leader, Commo. Arent S. Crowninshield, chief of the Bureau of Navigation, later wrote that, “The cool, clear-headed telegram of Captain Sigsbee [reporting the tragedy] did much to strengthen the Department in its purpose to take the fairest and most dispassionate view of every question” and to diminish the dangerous confusion immediately after the explosion.6

As Crowninshield indicates, there was no immediate demand for war. While certain groups in the United States blamed the Spanish and agitated for armed retaliation, most Americans, including Secretary of the Navy Long, were impressed by the compassion and concern shown by Spanish authorities in Cuba and Spain. They accepted the possibility that Maine’s destruction was a tragic accident. The Navy’s leading expert on explosives, Capt. Philip R. Alger, and newspapers such as The New York Times made the early case that Maine wasdestroyed by a spontaneous fire in a coal bunker that set off ammunition stored near-by, a theory strongly supported by the best modern study on the destruction of Maine authored by Adm. Hyman G. Rickover.7

A Court of Inquiry was convened to establish the exact cause of the explosion.  Its members were carefully chosen8 and it seems to have done its best to arrive at the unbiased verdict that Maine was destroyed by sabotage. Spanish authorities in Cuba, fearful that the Court might decide that Maine had been destroyed by sabotage, conducted an investigation of their own, although its deliberations were hampered by the refusal of the Americans to allow them to examine the ship or the point at which the explosion occurred. The findings of the United States Navy’s court, which concluded that sabotage was the cause of the destruction, and of the Spanish investigation, which concluded that the Maine was not blown up “from without,” have both been printed here.9

Once the Navy’s Court of Inquiry adjudged that sabotage was involved in the destruction of the battleship, even though it was careful not to blame the Spanish government, the demand for action became overwhelming and mobilization for war, which will be explored in the next group of documents, began in earnest.

Footnote 1: DANFS and Rickover, Destruction of the Maine, 1.

Footnote 2: Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt to Commander-in-Chief, North Atlantic Squadron, 3 January 1898, DNA, RG 313, Entry 47.

Footnote 3: On these importance of these riots, see John L. Offner, An Unwanted War: The Diplomacy of the United States and Spain Over Cuba (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 94-100.

Footnote 6: Crowninshield, Report, undated, DNA, RG 24, Entry 254; for the telegram, see: Sigsbee to Long, 15 February 1898.

Footnote 7: Rickover, Destruction of the Maine.

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