This Week In History: American battleship Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 15, 1898

The USS Maine, a battleship of what is now known as the “pre-dreadnought class,” was commissioned in 1895—a few months after Cuban revolutionaries, inspired by the exiled writer José Martí, launched a series of uprisings against Spanish rule. In January 1898, the Maine steamed into the harbor of Havana, Cuba—only 100 miles (161 kilometers) south of Key West, Florida. Its purpose was to protect U.S. lives and property as conditions in Cuba deteriorated under martial law.

At about 9:40 on the night of Feb. 15, 1898, more than five tons of powder magazines ignited aboard the Maine as it lay at anchor in the harbor. The resulting explosion virtually obliterated the fore (front section) of the ship, killing some 260 of the ship’s crew. Only about 100 sailors survived.

The explosion shattered windows throughout Havana. The Maine burned and quickly began to sink. In the harbor, shock and chaos reigned for days. Divers searched the twisted wreck for survivors and for the cause of the explosion. Such searches proved to be mainly in vain.

News of the Maine shocked and outraged the American public. Many U.S. newspapers, specifically those owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, accused the Spanish government of sabotaging the vessel. On February 17, just two days after the incident, the front page of Hearst’s New York Journal blared the headline: “Destruction of the War Ship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy.” The paper offered a $50,000 reward for “the Detection of the Perpetrator of the Maine Outrage!” Though an official Navy investigation had barely gotten underway, the paper’s stories insisted that Navy officers were unanimous in blaming the Spanish for the explosion. Pulitzer’s New York World was a bit more cautious that day with its headline “Maine Explosion Caused By Bomb Or Torpedo?” It reported details of the ongoing investigation and stated that American officials were ready to act against Spain if the investigation determined the explosion was not an accident. Encyclopedia editors at the time noted that 1898 marked the 75th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, in which President James Monroe had warned the monarchs of Europe to avoid interfering with the nations of the Western Hemisphere.

Newspapers and such “war hawks” as Teddy Roosevelt—then assistant secretary of the Navy—began to urge the country toward war. The cry “Remember the Maine” became a call for war with Spain. The Spanish denied any involvement in the incident. They claimed that an explosion inside the ship caused the disaster. But a naval court of inquiry concluded that a submarine mine had caused the explosion. The administration of U.S. President William McKinley concluded that Spain should no longer control Cuba’s affairs. At first, McKinley tried to avoid war by offering to purchase Cuba through diplomatic channels. When Spain rejected this offer, McKinley moved toward war. The Congress of the United States approved a declaration of war against Spain on April 25, 1898.

American forces dominated the Spanish before an armistice was reached in August. Spain gave up its claim to Cuba in a treaty signed in December. The United States had entered the war proclaiming that its fight was for Cuban sovereignty, but its troops would occupy Cuba for four more years. In 1902, the island was granted its independence after its representatives were forced to accept the principles of the Platt Amendment, which gave the United States broad powers to intervene in Cuba’s affairs.

The recovered bodies of the sailors killed in the Maine explosion were initially buried in Havana. A year later, the bodies were disinterred and reburied in the United States. Most were laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. The USS Maine Mast Memorial at the cemetery contains the battleship’s main mast.

In 1910, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a project to investigate and raise the Maine. The vessel was resunk about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) off of Havana in March 1912.

In 1976, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover published a study of the Maine incident based on research by several U.S. Navy experts. The study concluded that the most likely cause of the explosion was that heat from an undetected fire in a coal bin exploded a nearby supply of ammunition. In the years following the Rickover report, an independent investigation claimed that evidence supported the theory that the ammunition was set off by an external mine. Other reports, however, reiterated support for the coal-bin theory. The mysteries of the Maine seem unlikely to ever be revealed.

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