The U.S.S. Maine was a second-class battleship commissioned in 1895 that was part of the new U.S. Navy fleet of steel ships. It exploded in Havana Harbor in 1898 and precipitated U.S. entry into the Spanish-American War.
The construction of the U.S.S. Maine was rooted in U.S. naval expansion of the 1880s. The U.S. Navy had fallen into serious decline following the Civil War, and it had fallen behind several nations in ship technology. In 1883, U.S. Secretary of the Navy William H. Hunt secured funds from Congress to build modern steel ships. U.S. naval yards turned out a number of vessels known as the ABCD ships, which were the steel-hulled Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Dolphin battleships.
Larger and more powerful upgrades soon appeared. The U.S.S. Maine was one of them. A 6,682-ton second-class battleship, it was built in the New York Navy Yard and commissioned in September 1895. Its primary duty was to patrol the Atlantic and Caribbean. Its fame, however, came from its role in the Spanish American War.
U.S.S. Maine and the Spanish-American War
Cuba revolted against Spanish rule in 1895, which caught the attention of the United States. The U.S. was interested in Cuba for a variety of reasons, from economic trade to general humanitarian issues. American opinion was divided on intervention, but in December 1897 the American consular-general in Cuba, Fitzhugh Lee, asked for the U.S.S. Maine to be moved to Key West, Florida, in the event of war.
A month later in January 1898, Secretary of the Navy Stephen D. Long ordered the U.S.S. Maine's commanding officer, Captain Charles D. Sigsbee, to move the ship to Havana Harbor as a show of strength. Spain resented the ship's presence but did nothing overtly to retaliate. However, only three weeks after being stationed there, it exploded on February 15, 1898, killing over 260 men, two-thirds of the crew. The United States immediately concluded that Spain was responsible, but Spain accused the United States of sabotaging its own ship as an excuse for war.
President William McKinley wanted to move cautiously, but newspaper giants such as William Randolph Hearst, editor of the New York Journal, and Joseph Pulitzer, editor of the New York World, worked hard to convince the American people to support war. The war cry, 'Remember the Maine' became a common jingle in journalistic circles. President McKinley asked the U.S. Congress to declare war on Spain in April 1898, which it did. The war was a pivotal event, marking the point at which the United States began to expand overseas. Meanwhile, the U.S. ordered an official investigation into the cause of the explosion.
Who Blew Up the U.S.S. Maine?
A U.S. Navy board of investigation in March 1898 concluded that the cause was likely an external mine. George Melville, the Navy's Chief Engineer, and Philip Alger, the Navy's top ordinance expert, doubted the results and argued that an internal explosion in the magazine room was more likely the cause. However, they were not part of the official investigation team.
A follow-up investigation in 1911 concluded the same result, given that its hull was bent into an inverted V-shape that pointed inward, suggesting an explosion from the outside. However, in 1975, yet another investigation took place under Admiral Hyman Rickover, the so-called 'Father of the Nuclear Navy' who utilized more modern investigative techniques. Rickover reached the conclusion that the explosion was internal and the result of spontaneous combustion in the coal holdings compartment located under the forward magazine room. Many historians consider this the definitive investigation and the findings conclusive.
In 1998 however, the National Geographic Society commissioned an independent naval engineering firm, Advanced Marine Enterprises, to reexamine it again using computer models. This investigation concluded that both scenarios - an external mine and internal combustion - were possible. If nothing else, these studies demonstrate the continued interest in the U.S.S. Maine after a hundred years' time.
The U.S.S. Maine in Modern Memory
The history of the U.S.S. Maine is written in its public monuments. The most distinguished is the U.S.S. Maine Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It was built as a mausoleum that sits underneath the mast of the Maine, taken from the ship in 1905. The memorial was designed by architect Nathan C. Wyeth and first displayed in 1913. Arlington National Cemetery created a separate graveyard for the sailors recovered from the ship.
Another is the 44-foot limestone Maine Monument in Central Park, New York, designed by sculptor Attilo Piccirilli in 1913. The gilded sculpture portrays the mythological female figure, Columbia Triumphant, in a seashell chariot pulled by three sea horses. Though it does not display any part of the ship itself, it is meant to represent American dominance of the seas. In 1925, the Cuban government itself built a monument in Havana to honor the sailors who died on the U.S.S. Maine.
The U.S.S. Maine had a short-lived but famous career. It was one of the earliest modern steel battleships of the U.S. Navy, but more importantly it was the spark that launched the U.S. into the Spanish-American War. This war was strategically important because it expanded U.S. territory overseas and symbolically important because it signaled America's ascent as a global power.
The immediate investigation into the cause of the explosion concluded that it was caused by a mine, and noted newspaper giants of the era such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer capitalized on this and used the incident to push the U.S. into war. The cry of 'Remember the Maine' became the common expression of this sentiment. A later investigation known as the Rickover Study in 1975 argued that the cause of the explosion was internal and due to spontaneous combustion in its magazine room. The fact that part of the hull of the U.S.S. Maine ended up in Arlington National Cemetery testifies to its enduring significance and fascination in American military memory.