During the 1890s a bloody Cuban War of Independence raged 90 miles off the U.S. coast and Americans grew increasingly concerned. Washington finally acted and in January 1898, Capt. Charles D. Sigsbee was ordered to take USS Maine to Cuba to protect U.S. interests in the troubled region.

The crew of USS Maine ACR-1. (Public Domain)

The USS Maine passing Morro Castle as she entered Havana Harbor, Cuba, on Jan. 25, 1898. (NH 48619, Naval History and Heritage Command)

The ship entered Havana Harbor and anchored there on Jan. 25 and for the next three weeks showed the American flag. But shortly after 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 15, an explosion rocked the vessel, quickly followed by another. The blasts quickly sank the ship, killing 266 sailors, nearly three-quarters of the crew. Most of the men were asleep in the forward part of the ship where the first blast occurred. In the immediate aftermath, the City of Washington, a nearby American merchant steamship, rendered what assistance it could.

U.S. Navy, Commanding Officer of USS Maine when she was lost Feb. 15,1898. Photograph published in Bohemia, 1904. (NH 95096, Naval History and Heritage Command)

The crew consisted of 355 men with 26 officers, 290 enlisted men and 39 marines. Of them, 251 sailors or marines were outright killed or drowned; seven others were rescued but soon died of their wounds. One officer died of shock. Only 16 of the 94 survivors were uninjured.

The news of the sinking rocked the nation. Yellow journalism raged as Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper covered the explosions and sinking while William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal focused on who was to blame. The Journal offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who could identify the perpetrator. Was it a Spanish mine, a torpedo, or an act of sabotage? Or was it an accident? The newspapers, and America, demanded answers.

Fitzhugh Lee, the son of Robert E. Lee, was United States Consul General in Havana, Cuba, when the USS Maine was lost. Halftone photograph taken in 1894. (NH 48273, Naval History and Heritage Command)

 

Funeral procession in the streets of Havana, Cuba, shortly after the disaster, for crewmen killed when the ship exploded. (NH 46765, Naval History and Heritage Command)

The first official inquiry was commissioned by the Spanish government, under naval officers Del Peral and De Salas. They concluded spontaneous combustion of a coal bunker had ignited the ship’s magazine. This conclusion was met with skepticism, derision and outrage by the newspapers (and many Americans), who suspected a cover-up.

A U.S. Navy diving crew at work on the ship’s wreck, in 1898, seen from aft looking forward. (NH 46765, Naval History and Heritage Command)

The U.S. responded with its own court of inquiry under Capt. William Sampson. In March 1898, the report came out in two parts, proceedings and findings. There were broad gaps and inconsistencies between the two, but the report basically concluded the ship had been blown up by a mine. The conclusion was based on witness testimony, which said two explosions had been heard, as well as evidence that part of the keel was found to have been bent inward.

Chief Engineer George W. Melville proposed the sinking’s cause was from a magazine explosion within the vessel. The Navy’s leading ordnance expert, Philip R. Alger, took this theory further, suggesting the magazines had been ignited by a spontaneous fire in a coal bunker, much like what the Spanish had surmised.

The coal used in USS Maine was bituminous, known for releasing a gas called firedamp, which can cause spontaneous explosions. But Sampson’s findings proved more acceptable to the media and American people. On April 21, 1898, less than 60 days after the sinking, the Spanish-American War began.

In 1910, there was interest in returning the USS Maine dead to the states. This precipitated another court of inquiry, known as the Vreeland Board. By this point, the Cuban government also wanted the wreck, now considered a navigational hazard, removed from the harbor. A cofferdam was built around the wreck and water pumped out.

Raising Maine Dec. 20, 1910 (Public Domain)

The ship was inspected, and the Vreeland Board concluded that it had been an external explosion which had ignited the magazines. The theory of a Spanish mine and treachery still ruled the day. During this investigation, the USS Maine was refloated and towed out to deep water. It was intentionally sunk in 600 fathoms. End of story? No.

In 1976, Adm. Hyman G. Rickover commissioned his own investigation into the USS Maine and concluded the cause had not been a mine. He stated there was no plausible evidence of hull penetration from the outside. Instead, he revived the idea of spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker as the culprit causing the first explosion.

In 1998, for the centennial of the USS Maine sinking, National Geographic Society also looked into USS Maine. They came away with inconclusive results. Not to be outdone, in 2002 the Discovery Channel also investigated the mystery. Using photographic evidence, naval expert, and archival information, they argued the initial explosion was caused by a coal bunker fire.

It is interesting to note all investigations agreed an explosion of the forward magazines caused the sinking, but all suggest different theories as to how those magazines ignited.

On May 9, 1910, Congress authorized funds for removal of the wreck from Havana Harbor. Col. William M. Black led the effort to raise USS Maine. The Army Corps of Engineers placed caissons around it and created a cofferdam.

The wreckage of the Maine, surrounded by a cofferdam, June 16, 1911. (Public Domain)

About halfway between bow and stern, they built a concrete and wooden bulkhead to seal the after-section, then cut away what was left of the forward portion. Holes were cut in the bottom of the after-section, through which jets of water were pumped. This broke the mud seal holding the ship down.

They then plugged the holes and installed flood cocks, which were later used to re-sink the ship. Salvagers found USS Maine’s original Worthington pumps to still be operational. After 14 years, they were fired up and proved instrumental in helping raise the ship.

On June 30, 1911, 13 years after it sank, USS Maine‘s main deck was once again exposed to the air. The wreck had been badly corroded, and its bow severely crumpled by the blasts. Army engineers dismantled what was left of the superstructure and decks.

For the rest of the year, Vreeland’s committee inspected the wreck and removed pieces of the ship. Then on March 16, 1912, USS Maine was towed four miles from the Cuban coast by the tug Osceola. They were escorted by battleship North Carolina and light cruiser Birmingham. The hulk was loaded with dynamite and flowers adorned its deck. An American flag was strung from the jury mast.

At 5 p.m. local time, with a crowd of 100,000 people watching mostly from shore, USS Maine’s sea cocks were opened. The vessel sank within 20 minutes, to the sound of taps and a 21-gun salute from Birmingham and North Carolina. It disappeared into 600 fathoms of water.

In October 2000, Ernesto Tapanes and Paulina Zelitzky of Toronto-based Exploramar rediscovered USS Maine. The wreck was somewhat east of where it was reported to have been scuttled. Researchers suggested strong currents had pushed it during the sinking ceremony.

Exploramar reported video footage showed USS Maine hull to be well-preserved, but very much broken up. There was little oxidization, researchers could see most structural parts. The warship was found 3 miles off the coast at 3,800 feet depth.

USS Maine was identified by its doors and hatches, as well as its anchor chain. The shape of its propellers also helped in identification, as did the holes where the bow had been cut off. The missing bow was the best indicator. Surrounded by a debris field of coal, the hulk sits capsized on its port side, deeply buried in mud halfway up to its starboard propeller.

For the state’s first named U.S. Navy vessel, the USS Maine had a short and turbulent history. But it ranks up there in name remembrance for its fateful visit to Cuba and its tragic ending. It proved to be the catalyst to a war in which the young United States emerged a world power. So, it is important that we remember the Maine!

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.