The Second Sinking Of The ‘Maine’

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On the evening of February 15, 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine rode peacefully at her mooring in Havana Harbor. Officially she was there on an innocuous diplomatic mission, but many saw her presence as a demonstration of U.S. sympathy for Cuban rebels in their struggle against Spanish imperialism.

At 9:40 P.M. a small explosion shook the port side of the ship. Immediately afterward the entire forward section of the vessel breached upward in a concussion that curled both deck steel and twelve-inch armor plating. Minutes later the Maine was settling in soft mud thirty-five feet below the boiling surface.

 

The New York Journal immediately proclaimed that an enemy’s “infernal machine” had split the ship in two. A Navy board of inquiry sent divers to explore the wreck and later announced that the Maine had been destroyed by two or more explosions ignited by a mine of indeterminate origin. Of 354 Marines and sailors aboard, more than 260 were killed. America declared war against Spain on April 25, 1898, and “Remember the Maine!” became its battle cry.

The war was over in a few months, long before a new Maine could be launched and outfitted for service, but the U.S. victory over Spain ensured a role for this vessel and her sisters in America’s foreign policy in the years to come.

In 1907, at Hampton Roads, Virginia, the Navy paraded sixteen powerful battleships in an armada that moved President Theodore Roosevelt to exclaim, “By George, isn’t it magnificent!” But all the gleaming hulls and gilded bow insignias of the Great White Fleet could not erase the image of a distinctive mainmast that still poked from the waters of Havana Harbor.

 
 

There boatmen were kept busy ferrying tourists out to view the rusting sepulcher, and every newsstand sold colored postcards of the wreckage. Inevitably one of these cards landed on the desk of a U.S. congressman. His constituent wanted to know why American sailors and their ship had been abandoned in foreign waters. Some asked if the Maine could be raised; others called for a new investigation into the cause of her loss.

Despite occasional overtures from Congress, top government officials opposed efforts to retrieve the ship. In 1902 Navy Secretary William H. Moody wrote Eugene Hale, chairman of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs, saying that the Navy “does not regard with favor the raising of the Maine for the purpose of entering … into a new investigation.” Senator Hale sided with Moody, and their failure to support recovery attempts fueled popular suspicions that the government had something to hide.

Others were eager to raise the ship. The Spanish government offered to do the job at its own expense and conduct a new investigation in hopes of proving what it had maintained all along: that the explosion that sank the Maine came from within the ship.

Private citizens also wanted the Maine raised, mostly for patriotic reasons; one local bard implored the government to “Take the old ship out of her filthy grave/ To the clear, blue sea and the whitecapped wave.” Schoolchildren drew sketches and sent them to the White House, and inventors proposed the use of canvas air bags, submersible barrels, tanks, barges, and a newly developed “sub-marine derrick.”

And, of course, entrepreneurs wanted a hand in the raising. In 1904 the “USS Maine Salvage Company” offered its investors “substantial dividends” by proposing to display the retrieved wreck and sell advertising space around it. Photographic rights would also be sold as the ship toured American ports. All in all, the scheme promised to be “one of the most successful show enterprises in the world.”

But the movement that finally won congressional support was led by William Sulzer, a New York representative. In a speech to the House on March 23, 1910, he gave three reasons for action: “First, because the wreck is a menace to navigation in the harbor of Havana.” Second, the Maine should be raised “to ascertain how she was destroyed, so that the truth shall be known.” Third, and most important, “the remains of the Nation’s dead now entombed in the hull [should] be recovered and brought home for burial with naval honors in the mausoleum in Arlington Cemetery.”

A deft and influential statesman, Sulzer quickly piloted his legislation through both House and Senate. On May 9, 1910, President Taft signed the act authorizing the Secretary of War and the Army Engineers to provide for the raising or removal of the wreck.