On today’s date, March 15 in 1898 a vast explosion sunk the American Navy Battleship U.S.S. Maine (Pictured above) while she was in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. 260 men were killed out of a crew of nearly 400. The source of the explosion was unknown at the time. But an official U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry wasted no time in stating that explosion had been caused by a mine. Spain was not directly blamed for the ”mine” in the Inquiry report. But much of the American public as well as Congressional leaders believed Spain to be the culprit, and this eventually lead to a Declaration of War against Spain.
“I was just closing a letter to my family when I felt the crash of the explosion. It was a bursting, rending, and crashing sound, or roar of immense volume, largely metallic in character. It was succeeded by a metallic sound – probably of falling debris – a trembling and lurching motion of the vessel, then an impression of subsidence, attended by an eclipse of the electric lights and intense darkness within the cabin. I knew immediately that the MAINE had been blown up and that she was sinking.” These were the recollections of the Maine’s Captain Charles D. Sigsbee
What was the U.S. Problem With Spain, and Why was the Maine in Havana?
By the 1890’s Spanish rule over her “Empire” was growing weak. Spain held several territories in the Pacific Ocean, most importantly the Philippine Islands, and also the island of Cuba wherein there were rebels conducting a full scale insurrection against Spanish rule. And the Spanish authorities were spending no mercies on the Cuban rebels. American indignation over the brutal Spanish tactics ran high. Also there were U.S. commercial interests in Cuba were being adversely affected. The U.S. President at the time was William McKinley
(President 1897 – 1901) had been an officer during the American Civil War and his experiences there left him detesting war. So he tried to avoid armed conflict. The Maine was sent in to show the American flag and protect U.S. interests But with the explosion the newspapers particularly those of William Randolph Hearst (See New York Journal headlines reporting on the explosion above), The public and governmental leaders were whipped into a high pitch of anti Spanish feelings with sensational and totally unproven headlines such as “Destruction of the War Ship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy!” McKinley had few diplomatic avenues to explore and when these failed, war was declared on April 20, 1898.
What Happened in the Spanish American War?
Although Theodore Roosevelt resigned his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in order to raise a cavalry regiment that came to be known as “the Rough Riders” which subsequently charged up San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898, it was not T.R. who coined the phrase “A splendid little war”. The phrase was written by U.S. Secretary of State John Hay who gave it that moniker in a letter to T.R.. And it did turn out to be just that for the Americans. The fist crash came on May 1, 1898 when the seven ships of the Asiatic Squadron blew under the command of Admiral George Dewey (below) blew 10 out-dated
Spanish warships out of the water in Manila Bay. The rest of the war went with similar victories for the U.S. Army which invaded Cuba and decisively defeated the Spanish forces within three months. An armistice halted the shooting in August. A Peace Treaty was signed in Paris on Dec. 12, 1898 and in the treaty Spain ceded its former possessions of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. The United States thus acquired its first overseas Empire.
Oh, and By the Way…..
Several investigations conducted by Admiral Rickover, the National Geographic Society and finally by the Discovery Channel (in 2002) determined that a coal bunker fire caused the explosion which blew up the U.S.S. Maine back in 1898. This “Act of an Enemy” as it was described back at the time, happened as the result of a gap in the bulkhead separating the coal and powder bunkers which then allowed the fire from the coal bunker to spread to the powder bunker. Far from being a dark plot, the loss of the Maine happened because of a design flaw in the ship’s construction.