It was national slogan, a rallying cry, a calling card for empire. Remember the Maine! But do we really remember it? Maybe not as much as we think. And how have we remembered it?

USS Maine, a 6,682-ton second-class battleship, was commissioned in 1895, the first U.S. Navy ship named after the state. Built during a period of dramatic evolution in naval warfare and engineering, USS Maine was cutting edge technology for its day, but considered obsolete as it entered service. Do we remember that?

Its destruction resulted in 266 deaths, two-thirds of the crew, and was the catalyst thrusting us into the Spanish-American War, which in turn propelled us to international prominence for the entire the 20th century. The sinking of USS Maine was of national importance, an act considered equal in our consciousness to the siege of the Alamo or the firing on Fort Sumter. Do we remember that?

As I researched its saga, I found that the ship, its fate, and its legacy are all distinctly separate elements, yet which combine into an incredible story. Three legs to the same maritime history stool, if you will. And you need all three for that stool to stand. So, let’s look at the first leg, the ship itself.

The idea of USS Maine began with the 1883 delivery of the Brazilian battleship Riachuelo and the increase of naval forces throughout Latin America. Brazil, Argentina and Chile found themselves in an arms race and the acquisition of modern armored warships from Europe, such as Riachuelo, greatly alarmed our government. Brazil’s navy then was the most powerful in the Americas.

When confronted with the scenario of hostile warships off American coasts, the need for modern U.S. warships became clear. A design contest was held, open to any naval architect, to submit designs for two warships, an armored cruiser to be called USS Maine and a battleship to be called USS Texas.

The floor deck plan of the “Maine” shows its turret placement. Public Domain

 

There were some set criteria. USS Maine had to fit within existing docks and have a shallow enough draft to enable it to use all major American ports and bases. Its maximum beam was similarly fixed, its length set at 300 feet, its maximum displacement 7,000 tons. In addition, the vessel needed to have a speed of 17 knots, a ram bow, double bottom, and be capable of carrying torpedo boats. Armament would be four 10-inch guns, six 6-inch guns, and four torpedo tubes. Armor thickness was also defined.

Theodore D. Wilson won the design contest for USS Maine. Although considered conservative and inferior to other plans submitted, Wilson’s was chosen most likely since the Texas design was to come from a British firm. Officials thought we would demand at least one to be American designed.

USS Maine was originally classified an armored cruiser, hence its designation AC-1. Both new vessels reflected latest European naval developments with layout of their main armament resembling the British ironclad Inflexible, as well as similar features of some Italian ships. USS Maine’s two-gun turrets were staggered en échelon, rather than on the ship’s centerline, with its fore gun positioned out from the starboard side while aft gun protruded from the port side. This allowed both guns to fire ahead, astern or across its deck, especially with cutaways in the main superstructure.

Congress authorized construction in early August 1886 and its keel was laid down Oct. 17, 1888, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The largest vessel built in a U.S. Navy yard at that time, USS Maine measured 324 feet long, with a 57-foot beam, draft just over 22 feet and a displacement of 6,682 tons. Divided into 214 watertight compartments, it had a double bottom from foremast to the aft end of its armored citadel, a distance of 196 feet. Wilson’s original design was for a three-mast bark rig for wind propulsion, but this proved impractical, and USS Maine’s mizzen mast was removed in 1892 after launching. The remaining two masts, which would be recovered from the wreck, never hoisted any sails.

Machinery for the ship, built by N. F. Palmer Jr. & Co.’s Quintard Iron Works facility in New York, was the first designed for a major ship under direct supervision of George W. Melville. This famous engineer and Arctic explorer was soon to become commodore.

USS Maine had two vertical triple-expansion steam engines, inverted and mounted in watertight compartments separated by a ship-long bulkhead. They were designed for a total output of 9,293 horsepower. Eight single-ended Scotch marine boilers provided steam at 135 psi (pounds per square inch) working pressure and 364 degrees Fahrenheit temperature. On trials, however, USS Maine failed to meet its contract speed of 17 knots or 20 mph. They also carried two dynamos to power interior lighting and searchlights.

The ship carried a maximum load of 896 tons of coal situated in 20 bunkers, 10 along on each side, which extended below the protective deck. Wing bunkers were located at each end with a fire room extending inboard to the front of the boilers.

Its guns consisted of four 10-inch/30 caliber Mark IIs with a maximum elevation of 15 degrees. The ship carried 90 rounds per gun of 510-pound shells. With a muzzle velocity of 2,000 feet per second, a range at maximum elevation could be achieved of 20,000 yards, over 11 miles!

An engraving copied from Scientific American magazine, Vol. 45, 1898, shows the launching, at the New York Navy Yard, 18 November 1889. (NH 46767, Naval History and Heritage Command)

 

USS Maine launched Nov. 18, 1889, sponsored by Alice Tracey Wilmerding, granddaughter of Navy Secretary Benjamin Tracy. Apparently, Wilmerding struck the ship’s bow near its plimsoll line depth of 13. This action, caught in a widely publicized photograph, scandalized many who superstitiously now considered the ship unlucky.

They were further empowered in this line of thinking when a three-year delay ensued after its launch as the shipyard waited for nickel steel plates for USS Maine‘s armor. Then, weight distribution was found to be ill-balanced, dramatically slowing its speed. Two other flaws emerged regarding its protection. One was a lack of decent topside armor to counter effects of rapid-fire intermediate-caliber guns and high-explosive shells.

The second was the use of nickel-steel armor instead of Harvey steel or Krupp armor, both having twice the tensile strength of nickel. With the same density, 6 inches of Harvey steel equaled 10 inches of nickel steel in protection. Using nickel steel made USS Maine heavier and slower.

A port quarter view, taken in Bar Harbor, Maine, 1895. (NH 48621, Naval History and Heritage Command)

 

The ship was finally commissioned Sept. 17, 1895, under command of Capt. Arent S. Crowninshield. Two months later, it sailed to Newport, R.I., to fit out and test-fire torpedoes. Later that month, they visited Portland and Bar Harbor in Maine.

This view, looking forward on deck, port side, was taken while the ship was visiting Bar Harbor, Maine, 1895. (NH 48622, Naval History and Heritage Command)

 

For the next 18 months, USS Maine operated out of Norfolk, Va., working along the Atlantic East Coast and Caribbean. On April 10, 1897, Capt. Charles Dwight Sigsbee relieved Crowninshield.

For all its shiny newness and technology, USS Maine was actually out of date by the time it entered service. This was due to several factors, including its long construction period. Nine years was considered unusually long, delays mostly caused by U.S. industry limits at the time. A fire in the drafting room of the building yard, where its working set of blueprints was stored, caused further delay. Then there was the three-year wait to get the nickel steel plating.

In a photo tilted “Evening Amusements,” Maine crew members play cards and read in their berthing spaces, circa 1895-1898. (NH 46729, Naval History and Heritage Command)

 

Changes in ship roles of this type, and evolution in naval tactics had also changed things. The use of steel plating now meant ramming was no longer a worthwhile maneuver, as compared to earlier ironclad vessels. There was also possibility of self-damage from the ship’s en échelon gun placement, which discouraged firing end-on or across the deck. Another drawback of this set-up limited the ability for USS Maine to fire any kind of broadside.

Its main turrets were situated on a cutaway gundeck, always awash in any bad weather. Mounted at the ends from the ship’s center of gravity, the vessel heavily rolled in rough seas. The overhanging main turrets also prevented coaling at sea, except in very calm waters.

The role of armored cruisers was also evolving. Instead of being a small, heavily armored copy of a battleship, new cruisers needed to be faster, more lightly armored commerce raiders. USS Maine was not, having been built with heavy belt armor, not conducive to this new naval strategy.

As a result, USS Maine was caught between competing positions, unable to perform either adequately. It lacked more protective armor and higher firepower to go up against any kind of a battleship but also did not have any speed to be a raiding cruiser. As it entered its first year of service, USS Maine was already considered obsolete for the naval tactics of the day.

A half-toned photograph, originally published in “Uncle Sam’s Navy,” 1898, shows the Gunner’s Gang, photographed in one of the ship’s torpedo rooms. (NH 50183, Naval History and Heritage Command)

 

But this would not factor into its fate, as war clouds gathered over Cuba and America grew increasingly concerned watching Spanish mistreatment of the Cuban people. USS Maine had a rendezvous with Havana Harbor and a date with destiny.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.