Feb 15

Destruction of USS Maine and the Rush Toward War

Tuesday, February 15, 2011 12:01 AM


The Spanish-American War (21 April–13 August 1898) was a turning point in United States history, signaling the country’s emergence as a world power. The sinking of the battleship USS Maine in Havana Harbor on 15 February 1898 was a critical event on the road to that war.

Many Cubans desired independence from Spain, and political instability in those countries led to riots in Havana in January 1898. Concerned for the safety of Americans there, U.S. President McKinley sent Maine from Key West to Havana to remind Spain of America’s serious interest in seeing an end to the Cuban conflict. Spanish authorities in Havana were wary of American intentions, but they afforded Capt. Charles D. Sigsbee and the officers of Maine every courtesy.

At 9:40 on the evening of 15 February, a terrible explosion on board the U.S. warship shattered the stillness in Havana Harbor. More than five tons of powder charges for the vessel’s 6- and 10-inch guns had ignited, virtually obliterating the forward third of the ship, and the remaining wreckage rapidly settled to the bottom of the harbor. A total of 266 American sailors lost their lives. Spanish officials acted quickly in rescuing survivors and caring for the wounded, allaying initial suspicions that hostile action caused the explosion. Sigsbee concluded his initial telegram with the cautionary phrase, “Public opinion should be suspended until further report.”

A Navy board of inquiry concluded that a mine had detonated under the ship, but did not assign blame for the device’s placement. The American public reacted with predictable outrage to this verdict. Fed by inflammatory articles in the media, the public had already placed blame on the Spanish government and called for the liberation of Cuba.

While modern investigations indicated that a mine did not sink Maine, the incident accelerated the growing diplomatic impasse between the U.S. and Spain, and served as a catalyst for the subsequent Spanish-American War.

  • Andy (JADAA)

    Didn’t ADM Rickover do an engineering analysis of Maine’s loss? IIRC, he was among the first to posit an internal explosion in the magazine, probably due to a poorly contained illumination source. Can someone look that up?

  • jim Valle

    According to an article in National Geographic Magazine plublished some time ago the latest thinking is that a hot spot developed in a coal bunker adjacent to the forward magazine and eventually detonated it. Another possibility is that there was a coal dust explosion since coal dust in a confined space can become highly unstable and that’s what set off the magazine.

  • CAPT William C. Beal

    Looking back on the event it seems obvious that the fading Spainish empire would have been suicidal to have planted a mine under the Maine as it would have been viewed as an obvious act of war. Spain was in no position to go to war against the United States which was emerging as a global power on the international scene. Subsequent events proved out how Spain was totally unprepared for war. Cuban rebels might have had a motive for such an act as they looked towards American intervention. I doubt, however, that they had the capability for such an act. The coal bunker fire seems the most plausable cause of the explosion.

  • Asdrúbal el Bello

    It is possible that the U.S. government owed an apology to the kingdom of Spain. To date, Spain is still an aggressor country in the “official history” of American diplomacy.

  • Ramiro Cruz

    ADM Rickover ordered a technical analysis of the USS Maine’s loss, which was published in a book in 1976, republished in 1995. This used knowledge unavailable in 1898 about the effects of underwater explosions on ships. It concluded that spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker heated a bulkhead with a 6-inch ammunition magazine on the other side. Explosion of this magazine detonated the adjacent 10-inch ammunition magazine and almost severed the ship’s bow. I have not seen any credible technical justification for any other theories.

    To refloat and remove the USS Maine, a cofferdam was built around the wreck. With the area around the ship pumped dry, the location of the explosion could be inspected. No evidence of a mine was ever found.

    The prelude to the war and its prosecution showed the Spaniards to be too fearful of American intervention in Cuba, too honorable to attempt mining the USS Maine in peacetime, and too inept to have been able to succeed, even if they had tried.

    Also, after the USS Maine arrived in Havana, the Spaniards returned the visit by sending one of their most valuable warships, the protected cruiser Vizcaya, to New York. The Maine explosion occurred while the Vizcaya was crossing the Atlantic. In that era without radio, there was no way to recall or warn the Vizcaya of a possible hostile welcome in New York. It’s difficult to imagine Spanish authorities sending a capital ship alone into a port of a nation with which they are about to start a war.