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.