Sinking of the Maine

From New World Encyclopedia

USS Maine
History (US) United States Navy ensign
Ordered: August 3, 1886
Laid down: October 17, 1888
Launched: November 18, 1889
Commissioned: September 17, 1895
Status: Sunk by explosion February 15, 1898
General characteristics
Displacement: 6,682 tons
Length: 319 ft (97 m)
Beam: 57 ft (17.4 m)
Draft: 22 ft (6.7 m)
Speed: 17 knots (31 km/h)
Complement: 374 officers and men
Armament: 4 × 10 in (250 mm) guns
6 × 6 in (150 mm) guns
7 × 6 pounders (3 kg)
8 × 1 pounders (0.5 kg)
4 × 14 in (350 mm) surface torpedo tubes

USS Maine (ACR-1), the first ship of the United States Navy to be named for the state of Maine, was a 6682-ton second-class pre-dreadnought battleship originally designated as Armored Cruiser #1. Maine and Texas were unusual in that their armament was mounted en echelon, projected off to either side. This severely limited their ability to fire on a broadside. Maine was the stronger of the two ships, but inferior in every way to the later Indiana-class coastal battleships and subsequent ships.

Congress authorized her construction on August 3, 1886, and her keel was laid down on October 17, 1888, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She was launched on November 18, 1889, sponsored by Miss Alice Tracey Wilmerding (granddaughter of Navy Secretary Benjamin F. Tracy), and commissioned on September 17, 1895, under the command of Captain Arent S. Crowninshield.

The sinking of the Maine on February 15, 1898, precipitated the Spanish-American War and also popularized the phrase "Remember the Maine!" In subsequent years, the sinking of the Maine has been an area of great speculation. The cause of the explosion that sank the ship is still a mystery that remains unsolved.


The Maine spent her active career operating along the East Coast of the United States and the Caribbean. In January 1898, the Maine was sent from Key West, Florida, to Havana, Cuba, to protect U.S. interests during a time of local insurrection and civil disturbances. Three weeks later, at 9:40 on the night of February 15, an explosion on board the Maine occurred in the Havana Harbor. Later investigations revealed that more than five tons of powder charges for the vessel's six and ten-inch guns ignited, virtually obliterating the forward third of the ship. The remaining wreckage rapidly settled to the bottom of the harbor. Most of the Maine’s crew were sleeping or resting in the enlisted quarters in the forward part of the ship when the explosion occurred. Two hundred and sixty-six men lost their lives as a result of the explosion or shortly thereafter, and eight more died later from injuries. Captain Charles Sigsbee and most of the officers survived because their quarters were in the aft portion of the ship. On March 28, the U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry in Key West declared that a naval mine caused the explosion.

The explosion was a precipitating cause of the Spanish-American War that began in April 1898, and which used the rallying cry, "Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!" The episode focused national attention on the crisis in Cuba but was not cited by the William McKinley administration as a casus belli, though it was cited by some who were already inclined to go to war with Spain over their perceived atrocities and loss of control in Cuba.

Wreckage of the Maine, 1898

Causes of the sinking

Because of the uproar the sinking of the Maine caused in the United States, President McKinley demanded an immediate investigation into the cause of the explosions. A U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry arrived in Havana and began its investigation. Survivors and eyewitnesses testified for the court, and several navy divers explored the sunken ship, hoping to find clues as to what may have caused the disaster. All parties involved concluded without a doubt that the explosion of the forward six-inch ammunition magazines had caused the sinking. Why those magazines had exploded, no one could determine conclusively, and doubt remains as to the exact cause to this day. There have been four major investigations into the sinking since 1898. From the four inquiries, two hypotheses have emerged: One, that a mine in Havana Harbor had exploded underneath the battleship, causing the explosion of the magazines; and two, that spontaneous combustion of the coal in bunker A16 created a fire that detonated the nearby magazines.

External mine hypothesis

The overall destruction of the ship was due to the explosion of some of her magazines. What caused the magazines to explode, however, has been debated since the day the ship sank. Some evidence suggests that the initiating cause of the magazine explosion was an external explosion. The hypothesis that a mine, allegedly planted by the Spanish as a way to deter the efforts of the United States to take Cuba, is the assumption that some Americans came to immediately after the sinking. This also provided the stimulus for war that many Americans had been seeking, though the McKinley administration rejected that line of thinking.

If there were a mine, was it exploded by accident, by insurgents, by an insubordinate Spaniard, or by Spanish authorities acting under orders? The last possibility is least likely because no testimony or documentation or specific accusation has ever been found. The mine could have been placed to defend the harbor and unintentionally drifted to where the Maine was moored. Alternatively, the mine could have been used by Cuban rebels in the hopes that the attack on the Maine would be blamed on the Spanish and so trigger a war between the United States and Spain.

Some of the witnesses stated that they heard two distinct explosions several seconds apart. They believed if anything else besides a mine had triggered the magazine explosion, then witnesses would have only heard one blast, because the only explosion would have been of the magazines, unless all of the munitions contained in the magazine did not explode in the primary explosion and instead exploded sequentially in the resulting fire (which did occur). They thought the only reason that two explosions would have been heard was if something besides the magazine had exploded, such as a mine. However, due to the difference in the speed of sound through water and through air, some witnesses may have sensed a single explosion twice—first shock through the water, followed by the airborne sound of the blast.

Another piece of evidence of an external mine were the observations of divers who examined the bottom plates of the Maine. Three bottom plates were bent inward. If an internal explosion had occurred, the bottom plates, they thought, would have been bent outward, away from the explosion, and an external blast would have blown the plates inward, consistent with the evidence. Also, a large hole was noticed on the floor of Havana harbor, and was presumed from the theorized external explosion. Although, it could be argued that an explosion of the magnitude caused by the Maine's magazines could also have put a hole in the harbor floor.

Nevertheless, problems with the external mine theory remained. One was the absence of dead fish in Havana harbor the next day. Assuming that fish lived in the polluted waters of the harbor, many of them should have been killed if a mine exploded in their habitat, but no one reported seeing any floating in the harbor. Second, no one reported seeing a jet of water thrown up during the event. If the initial blast was from a mine, a common sight when mines explode underwater is a column of water emerging on the surface above them. Third, some contemporaneous experts believed that the few bottom plates found to be bent inward could be just as plausibly explained by the physical forces acting on the sinking ship, and thus did not necessarily indicate an explosion external to the ship.

Coal bunker fire hypothesis

Since the time of the explosion in 1898, many have advocated the theory that an internal explosion had sunk the Maine, basing their conclusion on the coal bunker fire theory. Supporters of this theory believe that spontaneous combustion of the coal in bunker A16 created a fire that detonated the nearby magazines, which shared a common uninsulated steel wall with bunker A16.

Spontaneous combustion of coal was a fairly frequent problem on ships built after the American Civil War. This type of fire occurs when the surfaces of freshly broken coal are exposed to air. The coal surface oxidizes, producing heat. When the coal reaches a temperature of about 750-800°F (400-425°C), the coal will begin to burn. The heat from the fire could have transferred to the magazines, which would have triggered the explosion. And in fact, during the Spanish-American War several ships sustained damage when the bituminous coal in their bunkers ignited. These fires were difficult to detect because they could smolder for hours at low heat, giving off no smoke or flame or raising the temperature high enough to trigger the alarm systems on board.

Reports indicate that bunker A16 on the Maine had been inspected for the final time on February 15 at 8:00 a.m. This would have allowed ample time for a coal bunker fire to smolder and cause the type of disaster that befell the ship later. Still, when bunker A16 was inspected that morning, the reported temperature was only 59 degrees Fahrenheit, and the Maine's temperature sensor system did not indicate any dangerous rise in temperature later. Furthermore, the discipline on the Maine was reported to be excellent, and regular inspections of coal bunkers for hazards, as well as the implementation of precautions for preventing bunker fires, were diligently carried out under the supervision of the ship's cautious executive officer Richard Wainwright.

Investigations and impact

Four major investigations have been conducted to find the actual cause of the sinking of the Maine. Two Naval Courts of Inquiry were held in 1898 and 1911, and two major private investigations commissioned by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover in 1976, and the National Geographic Society in 1999, all revealed different conclusions. The debates on the sinking of the Maine rest on evidence uncovered through these four investigations.

1898 Court of Inquiry

1898 Sampson Board

Immediately after the sinking in 1898, President William McKinley ordered a naval inquiry into what caused the Maine to explode. This 1898 Court of Inquiry, headed by Captain William T. Sampson, began its work on February 21. Survivors and eyewitnesses testified for the court, and several navy divers explored the sunken ship, hoping to find clues as to what may have caused the disaster. Though several volunteered, no experts outside the Navy were called upon for advice. The Sampson Board concluded that the Maine had been blown up by a mine, which in turn caused the explosion of her forward magazines. The official report from the board, which was presented to the Navy Department in Washington on March 25, specifically stated that, "The court has been unable to obtain evidence fixing the responsibility for the destruction of the Maine upon any person or persons." This, of course, did not stop the U.S. from pinning the destruction on the Spanish, and war was declared one month later. Ever since the ship sank, doubts about the validity of the Navy's 1898 and 1911 findings have been expressed by historians and scientists.

1911 Court of Inquiry

By 1908, the war drums had long stopped beating, and many parties demanded that the Maine be raised from Havana harbor. Cuban officials became worried about the safety of having a sunken ship in their harbor, U.S. officials wanted the remains of the sailors trapped in the wreck recovered and buried, and a few people wanted to confirm the cause of the sinking. Begun in December 1910, a huge waterproof cofferdam was built around the wreck and water was pumped out, finally exposing the wreck by late summer 1911. Sections of the hull of the Maine were numbered, many photographs were taken, and models of the Maine and her wreckage were built by the single Navy employee assigned to the job in Havana. Except for many souvenir items retained by the Navy and frequently distributed to the public, most of the tangled wreckage was dumped into the sea off the coast of Cuba. Between November 20 and December 2, 1911, a court of inquiry headed by Rear Admiral Charles E. Vreeland visited the wreck. The conclusions of the Vreeland Board differed with the Sampson Board only in detail. The Vreeland Board agreed that the explosion of the magazines was triggered by an external blast, but the damage to the Maine was much more extensive than the Sampson Board had thought. It was also concluded that the initiating blast occurred further aft on the ship, and a lower powered explosive breached the hull than was originally thought. After the investigation, the newly located dead were buried in Arlington National Cemetery and the hollow, intact portion of the hull of the Maine was refloated and ceremoniously scuttled at sea on March 16, 1912.

Tombstone of unknown sailor from the Maine at Arlington National Cemetery

1976 Rickover investigation

The argument was not touched for another half a century, until a private investigation, in 1976, was triggered by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover after he read a newspaper article on the sinking. He and several scientists from the U.S. Navy launched an investigation based on the evidence collected during the two Courts of Inquiry. Rickover believed that the new knowledge collected since World War II on analyzing ships damaged by internal and external explosions would shed new light on the sinking of the Maine. The Rickover analysis came to a completely different conclusion than the Courts of Inquiry. Rickover found that the cause of the explosion did not originate outside the ship. The cause of the explosion originated within the ship, but what actually happened could not be precisely determined. Rickover believed that the most likely cause was a fire within a coal bunker, which had heated the magazines to the point of explosion. His 170-page book, How the Battleship Maine Was Destroyed, was first published in 1976. The world accepted this new conclusion, and for more than a quarter of a century, the coal bunker fire theory reigned over the external mine theory.

1999 National Geographic investigation

In 1999, to commemorate the centennial of the sinking of the Maine, National Geographic Magazine commissioned an analysis by Advanced Marine Enterprises, using computer modeling that was not available for previous investigations. The AME analysis examined both theories and concluded that “it appears more probable than was previously concluded that a mine caused the inward bent bottom structure and the detonation of the magazines.” Some experts, including Admiral Rickover’s team and several analysts at AME, do not agree with the conclusion, and the fury over new findings even spurred a heated 90-minute debate at the 124th annual meeting of the U.S. Naval Institute.

Unsolved mystery

A gun recovered from the USS Maine overlooks Portland, Maine

The day after the Maine was sunk in Havana harbor, Assistant Secretary to the Navy Theodore Roosevelt stated that "we shall never find out definitely" the cause of the disaster. Roosevelt's words have proved particularly enduring. Without the video or audio evidence that experts have come to rely on when investigating disasters like this, the truth may never be known.


Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery

In February of 1898, the recovered bodies of sailors who died on the American Battleship Maine were interred in the Colon Cemetery, Havana. Some injured sailors were sent to hospitals in Havana and Key West. Those who died in hospitals were buried in Key West. In December 1899, the bodies in Havana were disinterred and brought back to the United States for burial at Arlington National Cemetery where there is a memorial to those who died and which includes the ship's main mast. Some bodies were never recovered and the crewmen buried in Key West remain there under a statue of a U S. sailor holding an oar. There is also a memorial, consisting of the shield and scroll work from the bow of the ship, in Bangor, Maine. A shell from the main battery was placed along with a small plaque as a memorial at the Soldier's Home in Marion, Indiana (now a VA Hospital and national cemetery), and a shell from the main battery is located just inside of the Pine St. entrance of city hall in Lewiston, Maine. The explosion-bent fore mast of the Maine is located at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. There is a traditional in-joke among midshipmen at the Academy that the Maine, with its main mast in Eastern Virginia and its fore mast in Central Maryland, is the longest ship in the Navy.

On August 5, 1910, Congress authorized the raising of the Maine to remove it as a navigation hazard in Havana Harbor. On February 2, 1912, she was refloated under supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers and towed out to sea where she was sunk in deep water in the Gulf of Mexico on March 16, 1912, with appropriate military honors and ceremonies.

In 1914, one of the Maine’s six anchors was taken from the Washington Navy Yard to City Park in Reading, Pa., and dedicated during a ceremony presided over by Franklin Roosevelt, who was then assistant Secretary of the Navy. The ceremony commemorated those who died in the explosion.

Wreck of the USS Maine, June 16, 1911

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Alden, John Doughty. The American Steel Navy; A Photographic History of the U.S. Navy from the Introduction of the Steel Hull in 1883 to the Cruise of the Great White Fleet, 1907-1909. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1972. ISBN 9780870216817
  • Blow, Michael. A Ship to Remember The Maine and the Spanish-American War. New York: Morrow, 1992. ISBN 9780688097141
  • Friedman, Norman. U.S. Battleships An Illustrated Design History. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 1985. ISBN 9780870217159
  • Foner, Philip Sheldon. The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism, 1895-1902. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972. ISBN 9780853452669


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