- Historic Sites
The Second Sinking Of The ‘Maine’
Giving the men who died aboard America’s first battleship a decent funeral took fourteen years, three-quarters of a million dollars, and some hair-raising engineering. But in the end, they did it right.
December 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 8
While the ship was being cleaned, Captain Ferguson photographed every aspect of the wreckage and measured the shattered plates. In November 1911 the board of inquiry met in Havana. It viewed the wreckage, studied the photographs, listened to the testimony of witnesses, and finally, after nearly two weeks, announced that the explosion that had sunk the Maine had been set off by a charge “exterior” to the ship. Although the board located the explosion farther aft than was originally believed, its findings basically those of the 1898 inquiry.
As soon as Congress had approved the Maine legislation in 1910, requests for relics began flooding into the White House and the War Department. They were turned over to Captain Ferguson, the man who had come to know the ship most intimately, with instructions that relics should go to the former officers and crew of the Maine and their heirs, municipalities, military organizations, national museums, and approved patriotic groups.
Ferguson approved only a fraction of the requests, but even these numbered in the hundreds. Most were specific— a ten-inch shell, a whistle, a bell, a chronometer, and so on —and it soon became apparent that there would not be nearly enough of the Maine to satisfy everyone. Consequently, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson instructed that commemorative tablets be produced, and for this purpose fifty thousand pounds of steel from the Maine was set aside. In November 1912 the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts appointed a New York sculptor, Charles Keck, to design the tablet, and the next year nearly fifteen hundred were cast.
By the time the tablets were ready, most of the recognizable parts of the Maine had been distributed. While the mainmast was reserved for a monument at Arlington National Cemetery, the foremast went to the U.S. Naval Academy, and the ship’s rear ten-inch guns and after turret were donated to Cuban government officials who wanted to erect a Maine memorial in Havana. Organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution received the choice smaller items: binoculars, sextants, rifles, revolvers, bells, telescopes, and cutlasses. Some valuable mementos, however, including much of the ship’s china, went to senior naval officers.
Most recipients ended up with humbler tokens. The citizens of Woburn, Massachusetts, who had hoped for “an anchor [or a] small gun,” got a ventilator cowl. Bunker plates, port covers, and powder tanks went to veterans’ groups. Women’s patriotic organizations tended to want fragments of wood (remarkably well preserved by the Havana mud) that could be fashioned into gavels. The city of Findlay, Ohio, had the good fortune to receive the captain’s enameled-steel bathtub. The revered object was first publicly displayed on May 30, 1913, when it was viewed by “thousands of curious persons.”
The sad process of excavating the dead was also a laborious one. Mud had to be removed with shovels rather than with the quicker and more efficient steam hose, so that the proximity of personal artifacts and bones could be recorded. Fragments of an officer’s uniform, cap buttons, and a Naval Academy class ring, for instance, indicated that the bones of a “young man over six feet tall” were probably those of Darwin R. Merritt, the assistant engineer on duty the night of the explosion, who was last seen alive near the spot where the remains were found. By the end of the year parts of sixtysix skeletons had been recovered, but only Merritt’s could be positively identified.
With about two-thirds of the Maine still intact, the Army decided to refloat the hull, tow it beyond the three-mile limit into international waters, and sink it in the Florida Straits. Officially this was “the best and most economical” way of removing the wreck from Havana Harbor. Clearly, however, it would have been cheaper to cut or blow up the ship where she lay. Moreover, towing the unstable wreck was a risky affair: it could capsize and sink while still in Cuban waters. This was a chance the U.S. government was willing to take in order to stage funeral ceremonies that, according to The New York Times , had “not had their like in history.”
The mangled forward section was cut up and removed, while a concrete and wood bulkhead closed off the open end. Engineers fitted valves in the hull and pumped water through them to help loosen the seal between the ship and the mud in which she lay. At the same time, seawater slowly reintroduced into the cofferdam rose around the hull. Finally, the Maine broke free. Lighter by many tons, she rode precariously on a nearly even keel, her waterline a foot higher than it had been on the night she was destroyed.