Commander Francis W. Dickins on Forwarding the Report of the Destruction of the U.S.S. Maine to President William McKinley
WASHINGTON, D. C.,
December 8, 1898
Memorandum for the Secretary.1
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Briefly, the Maine incident, as far as it came under my experience and according to my recollection, is this: About half past one o’clock in the morning of February 16, 1898, I was awakened from my sleep, due to the visit of a newspaper man who brought a telegram, and who came to ask me if the purport of the telegram was true. While he said the report was that the Maine had been blown up, he came to me- as these men did often during the winter to verify reports of one kind or another that they happened to get hold of- to find if this could possibly be true. Of course, I was very incredulous and could hardly believe that such a thing could have occurred and told the gentleman that I did not believe it. This gentleman had hardly left the house when a messenger came to me from the Secretary of the Navy, who was living at the Portland,2 bringing a dispatch from Captain Sigsbee, of the U.S.S. Maine, reporting her destruction, loss of life, etc.3 The Secretary sent this dispatch with a short personal note, written in lead pencil. The note is as follows
I have just received this terrible telegram. Please have requests attended to at once by telegram in ordinary language, not using a cipher.
Across the left-hand margin of this note was written these words: “Give this dispatch to the press.”
I at once went to the Portland, getting there, I think, about half past two o’clock in the morning. It was a very cold, windy, blustering night, and, naturally, as I went through the deserted streets on such a wild night, thinking of such a tragic event, it made a deep impression upon me. I found the Secretary in a little room adjoining the office of the Portland, surrounded by two or three newspaper men. I had a conference with the Secretary about the matter, and, in complying with his question, I described to him how an explosion might have occurred. Of course, it was assumed that it was not done by evilly disposed persons, but that it was an accident. The Secretary directed me, after consultation, to send orders to the Naval Station at Key West to despatch a vessel with medical assistance and to furnish information as rapidly as possible.4 The Secretary asked me if I thought it advisable to awaken the President to let him know about the event. He said the President had very much to do and must be very much fatigued and he disliked to awaken him unless it was necessary. I told him that, as it was such a tragic event, it would be more agreeable for the President to learn of it at once than to hear of it accidentally from some unauthorised person in the morning. Accordingly, I went at once to the Executive Mansion and was ushered upstairs by a watchman to a large room, from which I think the President’s bedroom opens. The President came out in his dressing gown; I handed him the despatch which he read with great gravity. He seemed to be very deeply impressed with the news, handed back the despatch to me, and took it again, two or three times, expressing great regret that the event had happened, particularly at that time. He questioned me as to how the accident could have occurred, and I explained to him the different ways in which it might have happened. I told the President that everything had been done that could be done at that time; he directed me to inform him during the night if anything more very important in regard to the matter was learned.5 I then went to the Navy Department to look over the muster roll of the Maine, and then to my house, getting home sometime between four and five o’clock in the morning.
The Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Captain A.S. Crowninshield, had gone to the West Indies about a week before this event occurred, and returned about ten days after,6 so it happened that during this period I was Acting Chief of the Bureau of Navigation. Of course, the excitement during this time at the Navy Department was intense, and many things had to be arranged, involving an immense amount of business, including the organisation of the Court of Inquiry, and other matters.
Assistant Chief of Bureau
Source Note: TDS, OHi, Francis W. Dickins Papers. This memorandum is on Bureau of Navigation stationary.
Footnote 1: Secretary of the Navy John D. Long.
Footnote 2: Presumably, Portland Hotel, which was on Vermont Avenue, N.W.
Footnote 3: See: Capt. Charles D. Sigsbee to Long, 15 February 1898.
Footnote 4: See: Cmdr. James M. Forsyth to Long, 16 February 1898. In his journal, Long recalled: “Sent for Commander Dickins, of the Bureau of Navigation, who came in and, under my direction, telegraphed for some small vessels to go to the harbor to render assistance.” MHi, Papers of John D. Long, vol. 78.
Footnote 5: In his journal entry of 17 February, Long wrote: “The President sent for me this afternoon, to see if I had anything to give him. Am sorry to find him more oppressed and care-worn than at any time since I have been in the cabinet.” MHI, Papers of John Davis Long.
Footnote 6: Commo. Arent S. Crowninshield was in Dominican Republic exploring the possibility of acquiring a coaling station.