Sunday, August 19, 2012

The USS Maine and Why She Is Still Imoprtant.

The Spanish American War is one of the most overlooked wars in American History, perhaps second only to the War of 1812 but not by much. The war with Spain doesn't really register with many when talking about American military history, or American History in general. The only event people mention about the war is the sinking of the USS Maine. The sinking would ultimately lead the U.S. into a war with Spain in both the Caribbean and Pacific. But the Maine has a lesson to be learned from her sinking, a lesson sometimes never discussed.

The USS Maine was the second battleship to ever fly the stars and stripes. Congress ordered her construction in 1888 in response to the growing naval power of Brazil. Chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee Hilary A. Herbert argued "if all this old navy of ours were drawn up in battle array in mid-ocean and confronted by the Riachuelo (A Brazilian battleship) it is doubtful whether a single vessel bearing the American flag would get into port." In short Herbert is saying the U.S. navy was 20 years behind the worlds navies and needed a kick in the pants. That kick in the pants was the Maine. She was built in the New York Naval Shipyard in Brooklyn and was a top of the line, get our of her way battleship. Roughly 325 ft long and 6,700 tons. Her armament could destroy a small nation,  2-10 inch and 6-6 inch guns, along with 7- 6 pounders and 4-1 pounder Drigg Schroeders, 4-1 pounder Hotchkiss guns and finally 4-18 inch torpedo tubes. The Maine hit the high seas in on the 18th of Novermber 1889, however she wasn't full operational until the 17th of September 1895. It would only be a matter of three years that the Maine would lead the U.S. into an international conflict.

The Maine steamed into Havana (above) in January of 1898. The reason, the Maine and her crew of 355 men, went into the port of Havana was to protect American interests during the Cuban War of Independence. The Cuban War of Independence had captured the attention of Americans as it closely paralleled the American Revolution. You had the underdog good guys who wanted freedom and liberty against the brutal, evil empire, that was oppressive and  unfair. The Maine was sent in to flex some muscle and protect American citizens in Havana, after a Cuban Spanish loyalist rioted and destroyed several Cuban newspapers, all which exposed the actions of the Spanish in Cuba. It would be a month later that the Maine would spark the Spanish American War.

The USS Maine would "mysterious" explode on February 15, 1898 and the Spanish American War was on. The Maine's crew was enjoying some down time at the time of the explosion so casualties were high.Of the 355 man crew, 266 men died in the event leaving only 94 survivors. Almost immediately the US Naval Court of Inquiry was on the scene and claimed a naval mine struck the Maine and caused the explosion. The reports that reached the states was of the caliber of FoxNEWSish. The New York Journal and New York World exaggerated the event, causes, explosions, casualties and so on. It was from this that the myth of sabotage and an attack by the Spanish on the Maine comes from. It was this coupled with the American publics anger over Spanish atrocities that turned public opinion to taking up arms to avenge the Maine. In the next two months, the "attack" on the Maine, and American's interest in Cuban Independence caused a wave of anti-Spain sentiment in the U.S., with the slogan "Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!" being the rally cry would ultimately lead to the U.S. declaring war on Spain in April of 1898.

With any event that causes the loss of life, investigations and inquires quickly follow. The Maine was particularly important because of the rumors surrounding her sinking. Both the Americans and Spanish conducted their own research. So as you can guess there were two different results from these investigations, surprise surprise, right? The Spanish claimed it was an internal explosion, based on four reasons all based around the lack of evidence a mine explosion would leave in its wake. While the Americans found that the explosion was caused by a mine as the majority of witness claimed there were two explosions, however they did not place the blame "upon any person or persons." Yet, two months after the war was raging in both the Caribbean and the Pacific and the U.S. and Spain stood toe to toe and duked it out. It would be during the Spanish American War that the legends of the Rough Riders & Teddy Roosevelt, The Battle of Manila Bay & Admiral George Dewey and all the battles in the Philippines, Guam, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Today the Spanish American War is nothing but a paragraph in a history text book or a brief lecture. But there is something that we should have learned from the sinking of the USS Maine, something that shows us today how History will forever repeat itself.

Wars are always taught in great detail. Every battle, every general, every weapon and every aspect of the actual war are examined, reexamined and then the findings are published or made into a documentary. What is often just merely a footnote is what starts the war. Just a few lines are often dedicated to these events and are often quickly forgotten because of the events of the war. For instance the USS Maine, is related to such other events like the Battle of the Alamo, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks of September 11th as they are all the start of bigger event, one that will one day over shadow it. I have written before about how 9/11 will follow suit with the Alamo and Pearl Harbor as they have all been followed by major wars and so is the case of the USS Maine. The Maine sinking was followed by America's first international multi-front war with a major world power. So its easy to see how the Maine and the inquires were soon forgot. More importantly it shows how what starts a war is just a small piece of the puzzle and often summed up in a few sentences, outside of topic pieces. Today the Maine is memorialized across the U.S., from the state of Maine, to New York City, and as far south as Charleston, SC. There is even a monument to the Maine and her crew in Havana. The Maine is a key part of American History, it shows how one event can with enough public influence gain momentum and lead to a declaration of war.  The wreck of the Maine now sits only three miles of the coast of Cuba in about 1,200 meters of water. In the end we see that the Maine is still shrouded in mystery with its sinking still debated today. But more importantly it is a key piece of American History that deserves to be remembered, its men honored and it legacy to live on. 


  1. Is there an interest to the great lakes soo locks? Building of her or training from army navy men from the upper peninsula of Michigan.

  2. My great grandfather was in the war prior to being the lighthouse keeper of several on lake Superior and believed to have interest in the Soo locks.

  3. I have a glass painting or print on glass of the Maine. It is titled US battleship Maine destroyed in Havana Harbor Feb 15th 1898. Copyright 1898 HA Wheeler signed FN Atwood 95. It is in good condition. Has print on the back of ship exploded. I just want it to go to someone who will appreciate it's history. It has a chain around the glass that it hangs from. You may know where it should go so it doesn't end up on eBay or in a flea market???? thanks

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Wish I saw this post earlier. Our school is so close to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, we do a big UNIT on the Maine and other ships produced there. I'd love for our students to see such a unique piece of history

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