Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Captain Charles D. Sigsbee to Eliza Lockwood Sigsbee

Habana, Cuba February 17th. de 18981

My darling Wife:

     The papers have given you an account of the awful destruction of the Maine but with what accuracy I cannot judge. So far as I can now judge, 253 persons have been drowned or Killed and 101 Saved. Two officers are dead Lieutenant Jenkins and Engineer Merritt.2 The latter received help, in the blinding darkness and watery whirl of his quarters, by Naval Cadet Boyd3 until they were swept apart. Jenkins up to his arms in water, in a sinking ship started for his stateroom— which was in opposite direction from the hatch— doubtless to save important papers, and was drowned. Of the crew who were saved only 18 or 19 are uninjured: the explosion was under the men’s compartments. My Steward and my Servant— Bell and Pinckney— were Killed, poor fellows, but Williams, my cook, was saved.4 Williams was slightly burned. Some of the wounded will die. With the exception of one of my orderlys and one young Gunner’s mate,5 I have sent the uninjured men to Key West. All but 26 of the wounded have gone to Key West. I have kept a few of the wounded Officers here, Wainwright, Holman, Holden (my clerk) Paymaster Ray, Dr Henneberger, and Chaplain Chidwick.6 We are living at hotels but so long as we are here you may address me at Key West. I will get the letters all the quicker by that method. I have had no letters for three mails. from you I mean. What is the matter? It has seemed very remarkable that in this place of more or less danger and where there is yellow-fever, small-pox and typhoid fever ­— a notoriously unhealthy place — and where the populace hate us, I should not have been remembered. Perhaps my letters have been pilfered from the mails. As to the explosion! I was sitting at the table in my port cabin about and had been working with Holden on various important official papers— especially one in which I was replying to the Department’s inquiries as to my views about torpedoes onboard ship— These papers had been gotten out of hand and I had just about finished a letter to you— had put it into its envelope when the disaster came. There was an awful moment of trembling and roar, then a tearing, wrenching, crunching sound of immense volume, so great that you cannot conceive it: then falling metal, a great wrench and twist and a heeling subsidence of the Vessel. There was instantaneous darkness and smoke filled my cabin. There was no mistaking it. I knew in the instant that my vessel had been destroyed. First I went to the starboard cabin ports. It was dark outside and I could see nothing clearly. I could have gotten out that way immediately but it struck me that I could maintain my position of command better by going by way of the passage. I groped and stumbled along the passage which was filled with smoke and made noisy by falling [wingnuts?]. Near the outer entrance My orderly Private Anthony, the tall fellow, ran into me. True to his duty he was rushing to notify me or to help me. He reported hurriedly that the ship was blown up and was sinking. Thereafter he never left my side. I clim[b]ed to the poop deck and gave the order for immediate silence, and directed Wainwright to post sentries wherever possible about the ship. Then I looked about and asked a few questions of Wainwright Holman and others. The deck I had just left was awash; apparently the whole middle of the ship was piled up was piled up in great masses and tangled ribbons. Nothing could be distinguished clearly. I ordered the magazines flooded if they could be reached as fire was beginning to start amidships, but it was seen that even the deck cocks7 could not be reached, and that the forward part of the ship must be wholly submerged (it was hidden from view) and the after part rapidly subsiding. There were no marines to post, no places to post them. There was a [tendency?] to roll, doubtless due to the Explosion. Through the darkness I could faintly see whitish forms in the water more or less remote. Pitiful cries floated to us. I soon saw that we on the poop— the only foothold— were all the able bodied left. I ordered the after boats to be lowered, the gig and whale boat, the only undamaged ones left out of fifteen. They were lowered and manned by officers and men and sent to pick up the wounded and convey them to the Spanish Man of War, Alfonso II, and the American Steamer City of Washington[.] The boats from them and other vessels were very active in helping to the same end. Everything was disordered by Wreckage and fallen things even where we were. The fire amidships grew and made the darkness more intense. The Officers who were not in the boats Kept close about me and were cool and in perfect discipline: there was no stampeding: everything was referred to me as completely as at any ordinary general quarters. One wounded man at least was taken from the bridge poop. Blandin was hurt by a flying fragment and the Boatswain also.8 Finally the gig and whaleboat and the boats of the Spanish man of war, having picked up all those in the water and conveyed them to other vessels, came for us. The fire was getting more intense, and Wainwright whispered to me that he feared the forward magazine had been thrown up into the burning mass and might explode anytime. In fact some loaded 6 pounder and 1 pounder loaded cartridges (inch shell) were then exploding in the wreck. They had been stowed in the pilot house for sudden use at night. The officers were very considerate of me and urged me to get into the boat but I declined and directed them to get in first. Of course I was the last to leave the dear old Maine. There was no necessity to climb or jump the poop deck was just level with the gigs rail as stepped from the ship. We went about directing all boats to leave the scene of the wreck because of the possibility of another Explosion— Everything possible having been done by that time. I went aboard the American Steamer City of Washington (Ward Line) Captain Stevens9 when I found a lot of our wounded in the Care of surgeons and the whole sympathetic complement of the vessel. After setting a muster going I wrote my first dispatch to the Government. About the same time I received General Solado, the representa[ti]ve of General Blanco,10 and many Spanish Officers who came to express regrets and Sympathy. All asked for the cause but I replied that I could not permit myself to decide until further investigation. While the Spanish Officers were extremely courteous I could but note that they were very much concerned to Know an Estimate of the Cause. General Lee11 soon came onboard and then remained with us all night. The wounded from the Spanish War Vessel were sent to the Havana hospital— without reference to me, but I suppose it was the best that could be done and there was great emergency. I turned in about 2 o’Clock, but I must first state that Explosions of projectiles onboard the Maine Continued for half an hour at least after I had reached the City of W. I could not sleep because it was hot, and my bunk was hard. Then, too, the cries and groans of the wounded were incessant just outside my door. I needed sleep and a clear head for the next day but I got only about one hour of actual sleep and was up early next morning— Yesterday— Yesterday I went onboard the Light House Ship Mangrove and the USS Fern when they arrived and about 4 pm. came to this Hotel, where General Lee lives. I had on my worst military trousers at the time of the accident, also an old serge suit from Sacks Saks it being hot. My watch was stowed away. I carried away what I stood in nothing else. In fact I shouldn’t have stopped to save anything if I could. I could think only of the Maine and her people. A better, and more docile and quiet crew no captain ever had under him. Oh, the damnable cruelty of it! I can give you no word as to my impression of the cause. That must be official first. Of course I have my opinion.12 Last night General Blanco came to my Hotel personally, also the Mayor of the City13 and requested that the Government be permitted to give public burial to the dead I am in order that public sympathy and sorrow might be shown, and due honor Shown to the dead. I could not well refuse that request on that ground since I must conduct everything in an official basis and according to usages: also it will, I trust, serve to quiet the wild feeling that must now reign in the United States. — perhaps. We will have a public funeral at 3 o’Clock to-day, but I shall decline further public honor. My position is a very delicate one as you may suppose. I haven’t blunder[ed] and don’t intend to. Just now I learn that twenty-five bodies are ready for burial. Bodies are constantly being found. I have arranged for a Protestant minister to read the Service over the protestants.14 Fortunately I got a check for forty five dollars this morning— from an Officer who owed me that amount. I remembered this morning that I have a weeks’ washing onshore at a laundry. I have just bought a very few necessaries. Poor little Peggy was saved; she trembled with fear long after she had been taken off the Maine.15 Give my love to each and every one of the Girls:16 I wont leave here so long as I can be of any service. This letter has been written in a great rush. Love also to Clan — all of them, Hastily! To yourself Lovingly  

                             CDS

Source Note: ALS, N, Charles D. Sigsbee Papers. The letter is written on Gran Hotel Inglaterrastationery. In the upper right-hand corner of each new sheet, is printed: “APARTADO 725 ♦ CABLE “INGLATERRA” ♦ TELEFONO 1265/GRAN * HOTEL * INGLATERRA/PARQUE CENTRAL.” Also on each page is printed a partial place/date line. In a variation of Edwardian script font it reads: “Habana, Cuba . . . . . . . . . . . . . . de 189. . . .”

Footnote 1: As seen in the source note, a portion of this line is printed.

Footnote 2: Lt. Friend W. Jenkins and Assistant Engineer Darwin R. Merritt.

Footnote 3: Naval Cadet David F. Boyd, Jr. was in training to become a commissioned officer.

Footnote 4: Cabin Steward John R. Bell; Mess Attendant James Pinkney; and Cabin Cook Henry Williams.

Footnote 5: Private William Anthony and Gunner’s Mate Second Class Charles H. Bullock. Weems, Fate of the Maine, 96.

Footnote 6: Maine Executive Officer Lt. Cmdr. Richard Wainwright, Lt. George F.W. Holman, Navy Cadet Jonas H. Holden, Paymaster Charles M. Ray, Surgeon Lucien G. Heneberger, and Chaplain Father John P. Chidwick.

Footnote 7: Seacocks are valves on the hull of a ship permitting water to flow into the vessel. Some seacocks on warships are designed to flood the ship when opened. Typically, this is done to magazines used for storing munitions to forestall explosions in case of fire. Also, opening seacocks (and then leaving them open) is a method used to scuttle a ship so it cannot be captured.

Footnote 8: Lt. John J. Blandin and Boatswain Francis E. Larkin.

Footnote 9: Capt. Frank Stevens of the American steamer City of Washington, a vessel owned by the New York and Cuba Mail Steamship Co. (James E. Ward & Co., agents).

Footnote 10: Brig. Gen. Enrique Solado, chief of staff for the Spanish forces in Cuba and Captain-General Ramón Blanco Erenas Rivera y Polo, commander of Spanish forces in Cuba.

Footnote 11: American Consul-General in Havana Gen. Fitzhugh Lee.

Footnote 12: In his 1899 account of the destruction of Maine, Sigsbee relates that his belief was that it had been “blown up from the outside” and cited as proof that one of his first orders upon reaching the poop deck was to post guards to protect the ship from attack. He also writes that there was a “sound of many voices from the shore, suggestive of cheers.” Charles D. Sigsbee, The “Maine”: An Account of Her Destruction in Havana Harbor (New York: The Century Co., 1899), 67.

Footnote 13: The Alcalde or Mayor of Havana was Miguel Díaz Alvarez.

Footnote 14: Actually, Capt. Sigsbee had not “arranged for a Protestant minister” to preside over the burials. In his account of Maine’s destruction, Sigsbee addressed his request to both the civil and ecclesiastical authorities but without success. Those authorities first refused to allow a Protestant minister to participate in the services and then, when he continued to push the matter, informed Sigsbee that no Protestant minister could be found. In the end, Sigsbee had to read the service himself “as opportunity offered, chiefly in the carriage on the way to the cemetery, and afterward in my room at the hotel.” Sigsbee, The “Maine”: An Account of Her Destruction, 107-09.

Footnote 15: “Peggy” was Sigsbee’s pet dog. Weems, Fate of the Maine, 88.

Footnote 16: Sigsbee had four living daughters at this time. "Sigsbee Family," Accessed 23 July 2014, http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~sigsbee/fam00130.htm.