A Brief History
On February 15, 1898, at 9:40 p.m., the US Navy had one of its darkest and yet most memorable days when the armored cruiser USS Maine ACR-1 blew up and sank while docked in Havana Harbor, Cuba.
Sent to Cuba to protect American interests during the Cuban revolt against Spain, the Maine blew up and sank quickly, having experienced over 5 tons of gunpowder exploding in the forward part of the ship. The giant explosion and quick sinking cost 266 of the 374 man crew their lives. The Navy and the US in general was stunned, and although the cause of the blast was not known at the time (and was not determined even after subsequent investigation), the press drummed up national hysteria against Spain, insinuating that Spanish sabotage had certainly caused the sinking.
Although newsman Joseph Pulitzer privately acknowledged that “only a lunatic” would think Spain was responsible for the blast, the press continued its anti-Spanish rant and national demand for revenge swept the nation. By April, the US and Spain were at war, with the US war cry “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” ringing out. Oddly enough, President McKinley did not refer to the Maine when he laid out his case for war with Spain.
Commissioned in 1895 during a time of rapid advancement in naval technology, the Maine was more or less already obsolete when it entered service. Displacing 6800 tons, she was 324 feet long with a 57 foot beam. Armed with 4 X 10 inch guns, 6 X 6 inch guns, 4 torpedo tubes, and numerous smaller guns, including Gatling guns for close in work, the Maine had maximum armor thickness of 12 inches. The use of high grade steels allowed for thinner armor with superior protection, lessening the weight of the ship. The ship could make 16.45 knots, and travel 3600 nautical miles at 10 knots. At the time of her commissioning, the Maine was probably the most powerful US Navy ship.
Powered by 2 vertical expansion steam engines driving 2 screws ( or propellers), the ship was fueled with bituminous coal, and the coal bunker was located adjacent to the powder magazine that blew up, causing some suspicion to fall on the coal bunker as a cause of the explosion. Numerous investigations into the disaster were done starting right away and continuing through the years, including a 1974 investigation ordered by US Admiral Hyman Rickover that concluded spontaneous combustion of the bituminous coal caused the explosion. (The US Navy had been using anthracite or “hard” coal which burned cleaner, but not as hot as bituminous or “soft” coal, which allowed for higher ship speeds leading to the switch to bituminous coal fuel. Unfortunately, bituminous coal is prone to spontaneous combustion while anthracite coal is not.) In 1998 a National Geographic Magazine investigation acknowledged that spontaneous coal combustion may have been the culprit, but claimed that a mine placed alongside the hull was more likely. Other experts disagreed with this conclusion. The History Channel produced a 2002 investigative documentary that concluded a coal bunker fire was the cause of the blast.
Most troubling of conspiracy theories are those that imply the US itself planned and caused the explosion as an excuse to declare war on Spain. Russian and Cuban officials have often proposed this particular theory. Not as far-fetched as you might think, this sort of “false flag” conspiracy was considered seriously by the US in 1962’s Operation Northwood, just such a plan to blow up a US ship at Guantanamo Harbor as a pretext to invade Cuba!
In 1911 and 1912, the US raised the wreck of the Maine, and in 1912 she was towed off shore and sunk for her final rest. In 2000, the wreck was re-discovered in 3770 feet of water by a Canadian exploration firm working with researchers from the University of South Florida.
Today, memorials to the ship and its lost crewmen can be found in Arlington, Washington, D.C., Annapolis, Havana, Key West, New York City, and Portland, Maine. Other locations display relics from the stricken ship memorializing her loss as well. The largest ship built in the US at the time of her keel being laid, the Maine became one of the most famous ships in US history. Question for students (and subscribers): What do you believe happened to the Maine? Please share your opinions of her sinking with your fellow readers in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
McNeese, Tim. Remember the Maine: The Spanish-American War Begins (First Battles). Morgan Reynolds Pub, 2001.
The featured image in this article, an image by Victor Gillam (1867–1920) originally published in Judge (New York), May 7, 1898, volume 34, page 312, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States, because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.