By 1880, the American Navy was one of the smallest and ill-equipped in the world. Even Brazil had bigger and better warships, and in 1884 Congress realized that a couple modern warships could easily seal off the U.S. coastline and leave the nation imperiled. The Maine was one of America's first battleships. Even so, it was considered a "second class" battleship, much less well-designed that those the French, Argentinians, Brazilians, and Germans had. Her two gun turrets "sponsoned" -- the side of the ship rather than on the deck, cut out of the superstructure. There was one port and aft, another other fore and starboard. She was small for a battleship, almost a cruiser in size. Yet, she was very heavily armored, so she could ram.
Sponsoning? Ramming?? These were technologies already out of date when the Maine was laid down, and her construction took almost a decade. She was launched in November 1889, but delays in obtaining her armor and fitting her guns meant that she wasn't actually commissioned until September 1895! For 18 months, she cruised the North Atlantic. On April 10, 1897, Captain Charles Dwight Sigsbee took command of Maine.
The 1890s were a period of great unrest both in Spain and in her colonies. In 1700, King Charles II of Spain died childless. His will named his 16-year-old nephew, Philip, as his successor. Philip was the grandson of Charles' half-sister, Maria Theresa -- the first wife of Louis XIV of France. Ascending the throne of Spain would unite France and Spain into a single nation, and no other country in Europe wanted that. So Philip was forced to renounce any claim to the French thrown. He ruled as Philip V. But Louis XIV of France declared that, should he have no children, Philip V of Spain should ascend the French throne to keep the Bourbon line intact. This triggered war, in which Italy, several powerful German nations, and Great Britain waged war on Spain and France. In the process, Spain lost her territories in the Netherlands and Italy. Philip V retained his throne, but he suffered from periods of insanity for the rest of his life, and Spain significantly weakened during his long, 45-year reign.
Philip's successors were weak-willed and weak-minded, and in 1807 Napoleon invaded Spain and forced Charles IV to abdicate. At first, the Spanish people loved the revolution, but Napoleon installed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as king. Rebellion quickly broke out. Napoleon was largely successful in stopping British and Portugese intervention, but then invaded Russia. With French forces split and weak and the French economy collapsing, the Bourbon king, Ferdinand VII (son of Charles IV) was put back on the throne. Spain was left ruined, and its political elites were deeply divided between Bonapartists, Bourbons (or Carlists), and republicans (who wanted no more kings at all). Rebellions among Spanish colonies in the New World quickly liberated Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and more. It barely held on to Puerto Rico and Cuba.
Cuba was in an uproar. A guerrilla war had been fought there beetween 1868 and 1878, but Spain eventually put it down. Revolutionary leader José Martí spent most of the late 1880s and early 1890s raising funds and visiting Cuban military and civilian exiles in the U.S., Central America, and the Caribbean. In February 1895, he and his followers actually invaded Cuba! Forces in Santo Domingo and Costa Rica fought their way inland, but an invasion force from Florida was stopped by the U.S. government. The Cuban colonial authorities were lackluster in fighting their own people, and General Arsenio Martínez-Campos was soon replaced with General Valeriano Weyler. Weyler believed in "reconcentrado" -- forcing peasants out of their homes and off their farms and into forts. Similar to the American strategy of "strategic hamlets" in the Vietnam War, it proved just as effective: Mass numbers of "reconcentrados" were left improverished and near starvation, and the American press accused Spain of engaging in genocide. Cuban exiles in Florida were incredibly numerous, and anti-Spanish mob violence was common and extremely worrisome to both the governor of Florida and President William McKinley. The U.S. also had extensive economic interests in Cuba, and was desperate to protect them.
McKinley successfully mediated an end to the guerilla war in Cuba, and Cuban autonomy was announced on January 1, 1898. But on January 18, a pro-Spanish riot broke out in Havana. Although the riot ended of its own accord, the U.S. worried that Spanish military officers would attempt to re-ignite the war. McKinley sent the USS Maine to Havana as a means of trying to keep things calm.
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The Maine arrived in Havana Harbor on Feburary 14, 1898. Her officers were warmly greeted by the Spanish army and navy authorities, who seemed intent to maintaining good relations with the U.S.
The Maine exploded at 9:40 P.M. on February 15, 1898. Most of her officers weren't aboard the ship, dining instead on a nearby Spanish naval vessel. The Maine's crew, however, was mostly asleep or resting, either on the berth deck or just above on the ship's deck. Of the 355 people aboard, 260 died. The entire front third of the ship was instantly obliterated. The Maine's starboard 10-inch gun flew into the air, turned over, and landed in the sea next to the ship. The upper portion of the first third of the ship flew up and then bent backward over the center third. The keel of the forward third corkscrewed in the force of the blast, and was half-upside down. The upper deck of the central third of the ship collapsed under the impact of the bent-backward foredeck. The keel of the central third was twisted into near-unrecognizable junk. Fire immediately broke out in the central third, and began racing toward the stern.
Everyone agrees that there was an initial blast that sent a huge shudder through the Maine, which was followed a split-second later by the ship's ammunition magazines exploding.
Weirdly, because the Maine was so heavily armored and constructed, her forward two-thirds broke free (at frame number 41) when the first explosion hit. So when the second explosion hit, officers in the stern felt little of the blast. Indeed, mirrors and electric light bulbs did not shatter. Officers were thrown out of their chairs or out of their beds, but few were injured. Even through the forward third of the ship was already sinking (and probably below water), the stern third stayed afloat for a few minutes. Officers in the upper two decks were able to clamber up ladders and stairs and get topside. (Not so the engine room crew, four decks down.)
Within three days, an official Naval Board of Inquiry was sent to Havana to determine the cause of the death of the Maine. Their report, presented secretly to President McKinley on March 11, officially said the cause of the explosion was not known. The secondary explosion was definitely the magazines detonating, but what set off the magazines? Unofficially the U.S. Navy -- and the American press, primarily William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who owned vast newspaper syndicates -- believed that it was a Spanish mine. The Navy report was made public at the end of March. For a while, it seemed that war was not going to come, but the Spanish government overreacted and said the U.S. had blown up its own ship.
On April 20, the United States declared war. It lasted ten weeks. The Spanish-American War led to the liberation of Cuba and American possession of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. (It also generated the Philippine-American War -- the true "forgoten war" -- in which ten times as many people died.)
Subsequent official and private investigations have said the blast was due to coal dust, a fire in the coal bunker -- and, yes, a mine.
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The explosion aboard the Maine was so powerful that most of the men in the forward Berth Deck were blown to bits. Pieces of bone, skull, and limbs were later found wedged so tightly in twisted steel they had to be cut out with an acetelyne torch. On February 19, only 19 bodies were found washed up or in the harbor. Spanish law required that they be buried immediately to prevent the spread of disease, and they were promptly interred in Colón Cemetery in Havana. Within 48 hours, the bodies -- or limbs -- of another 135 sailors washed ashore. These, too, were buried. Over the next few days, tugboats and American ships rushed to Cuba from Florida worked to try to retrieve more bodies from the wreck, as well retrieve the ship's guns and ammunition. More bodies popped to the suface as they did so, dislodged from the wreck below. In addition, a few bodies were shipped to Key West, where they were quickly buried due to the heat.
Havana Harbor is not that deep. The Maine settled into the mud at the bottom, and then sank another 30 feet into the muck. Nonetheless, at low tide, the decks of the sterns were barely covered by the waves. At high tide, a portion of the twisted bow, the ship's funnel (which had collapsed forward), the main mast, and the aft-mast still projected above the harbor.
In 1999, with Cuba independent and the war over, Congress passed legislation to disinter all the dead buried in Colón Cemetery and bring them back to Arlington National Cemetery for burial. This was done.
American military authorities helped govern Cuba during the two or three years it took to transition to independence. These generals noticed that the wreck of the Maine took up valuable space in the harbor, and was right near one of the busiest channels in the harbor. Silt began building up around the wreck, creating an uncharted shoal. They wanted the Maine removed.
After independence, Cuban officials wanted the Maine removed, too. So did Spain, which felt that if the ship were raised the true nature of the explosion would be revealed -- clearing Spain of any wrongdoing.
In May 1910, Congress passed legislation authorizing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to raise the Maine and properly dispose of the wreckage in an honorable way far out to sea. Any identifiable personal items were to be collected and returned to the survivors and the families of the dead. "Relics" -- guns, dishware, bells, capstans, doors, silverware, brass fittings, pieces of armor, etc. -- were also to be collected. Numerous patriotic, veterans', and civic groups were clamoring for pieces of the Maine, and a U.S. Navy board was set up to distribute these things to whoever wanted them.
The 1910 legislation also provided that any bodied found be brought back to Arlington National Cemetery for burial. The primary mast of the Maine was to be removed and taken to Arlington, where it was to be set "in a suitable base" as a memorial to the dead.
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I'm remembering the Maine.
The Maine Mast Memorial is a major part of Arlington National Cemetery, and it is intended to form an axis with Memorial Amphitheater and the formal garden and overlook east of it. Anyone standing at the podium in Memorial Amphitheater who looks up will see the Maine Mast Memorial.
I thought, "I've never seen a good history of the development of this important memorial. The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Maine came and went in 1998, and I didn't see squat about it. The 100th anniversary of the final Maine dead was last month, and I saw nothing about it. The 100th anniversary of the memorial itself is coming up in 2015. Time to do something!"
Good luck with that.
Here are some questions I asked:
Of the Maine dead, how many were buried in Colón Cemetery in Havana? Good luck finding that out.
Of those in Colón Cemetery, how many were identified? No one is quite sure.
How many coffins were used at Colón Cemetery (e.g., was more than one body in a coffin)? No one knows.
How many partial bodies were buried at Colón Cemetery? No one knows.
Some bodies were taken to Key West for burial. How many? No one is sure.
Were any bodies at Key West later removed and sent to their families? No one knows.
How many coffins at Colón Cemetery were disinterred? It's not clear.
How many bodies at Colón Cemetery were placed in new coffins? Not clear again.
How many new coffins created at Colón Cemetery were buried at Arlington National Cemetery? No one knows.
How many bodies (whole or in part) were buried at Arlington National Cemetery? No one knows.
When the Army Corps of Engineers raised the wreck of the Maine in 1911-1912, how many bodies were still missing? It's not clear.
How many bodies (in whole or in part) were pulled from the wreckage in 1911-1912? No one knows.
How many coffins were used to bury the whole or partial bodies in 1911-1912? No one knows.
Were parts from more than one body put in a single coffin in 1911-1912? Yes, but no one is sure how many bodies were in a coffin (two? three? six?), or how often this was done.
How many of the Maine's anchors were raised in 1911-1912? No one knows.
We know some anchors got raised; what happened to these anchors? One is in Reading, Pa., and the others... no one knows.
We know the ship's bell was found, broken in half. Were both halves founds? No one knows.
Let's assume both halves were retrieved. One half is at Arlington National Cemetery; where is the other half? No one knows.
When the dead were reburied at Arlington National Cemetery in 1899, was a memorial placed there? Yes -- an anchor and some ship's guns.
Was this a Maine anchor, a replica of a Maine anchor, or just some anonymous anchor? It's not clear.
Two American howitzer guns were placed at the 1900 Maine memorial. Did they come from the Maine, another ship, or were they just anonymous guns? No one knows.
In 1915, the Maine Mast Memorial was built near the reburied Maine dead at Arlington. It consists of a granite mausoleum in the form of a gun turret, and the main mast of the Maine thrusting up through the roof of it. The American howitzers were incorporated into this memorial. In 1962, the terrace around the memorial was rebuilt to incorporate two Spanish mortars. Where did these Spanish mortars come from? No one knows.
When were the Spanish mortars built? It's not clear.
How did the Spanish mortars get to the U.S.? No one is sure.
Who brought the Spanish mortars here? No one kept track.
Where did the Spanish mortars rest prior to 1962? Nobody knows.
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I thought most of this information would be readily available, clear, and well-defined. It was, I thought, going to be a 24-hour research project. This is a super-important event. Surely, all these details are well-known and researched. Surely, there are many, many books out there about the Maine. No, on all counts.
My research has taken a week, and more than $200 in research costs. WTF!!
And I'm not close to being done.