John Bell was the steward aboard the battleship MAINE.
In war, sadly the combatants on all sides are usually made up of good people, who fight and die for the good of national governments. Often the common soldier or sailor is not noted in the history of the battle, yet it is the lives of these individuals that make the greatest difference to humanity. Who knows what good could have been done by the many individuals had they not been killed in war?
After the battleship MAINE was lost in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, requests poured in from all quarters for information about relatives and friends who served on the ill-fated ship. The requests came to the MAINE’s chaplain John Chidwick, himself a MAINE survivor. Chidwick noted that of all of the crewmen on the MAINE, more requests concerning the welfare of John Bell came to him than concerning any other crewmen. John Bell was not one of the officers of the vessel. He was not one of the gallant gunners or other noted crew members. John Bell was the black man who served as the steward to Capt. Charles Sigsbee. In a time of strong prejudice, what about this man brought out such an outpouring of concern when the MAINE was lost?
The background of John Bell is somewhat obscure. Stories indicate that he had began his association with the navy as a servant to a naval officer during the Civil War. The officer had lost his life, but because of Bell’s loyal service, he was always welcome in the home of the officer’s family. It was here that he always considered his home to be, and it was here that he would go to visit for about three months every three years. He spoke of the officer’s children as his own, and proudly commented about them, their attending college, etc. Bell himself joined the navy in approximately 1871. It became his career.
What caused so many people to inquire about John Bell after the loss of the MAINE was simple. It was his kindness to everyone who strode the same deck as he. Bell’s actions did not make the Secretary of the Navy’s annual reports, or the reports of his commanding officers. They come down to us through anecdotes from those who served with him.
One man who wrote of John Bell was Fred Buenzle, who joined the navy as an apprentice in 1889. Buenzle reported aboard the receiving ship ST. LOUIS in Philadelphia, PA. As he spent his first night aboard ship and away from home, he noticed a black man dressed “in a blue uniform resembling that of an officer but without any brass or gold.” The man wore sideburns and a goatee, and, importantly, a friendly smile. Buenzle quickly learned that this man was John Bell, the captain’s steward. Later that evening, when Buenzle made his first attempt to climb into his swinging hammock slung on hooks attached to the overhead, he promptly fell on the deck - the usual outcome of a sailor’s first attempt at this tricky maneuver. His action was a source of ridicule and laughter from the other crewmen. One man came to his aid - John Bell. Bell picked him up, showed him how to adjust the hammock so that it was more manageable and told him ‘Never mind those fellows….There isn’t one of them who didn’t fail, more or less, at everything he ever attempted.”
Later that evening, while the other men lay in their hammocks after a meal only a sailor could love, John Bell slipped Buenzle something worth its weight in gold - a plate full of chicken, the same meal as was served to the captain himself. This kindness during his first dark, damp night aboard the receiving ship was never forgotten by the young apprentice.
On another dark night aboard ship, Buenzle found himself on deck during a moment of excitement. In the confusion in the darkness, he spoke to the man next to him rather harshly. Only moments later did he realize that this person was the captain, an entity who was all-powerful aboard ship and was never questioned. Buenzle ran below assuming that he would be in severe trouble. In his concern, he spoke to John Bell about the incident. To Buenzle’s surprise, nothing ever came of the offense. He believed Bell had smoothed things with the officer, explaining the mistake of the lowly apprentice.
On his last day aboard the ST. LOUIS, as he was being transferred, Bell approached and gave Buenzle a package. It contained sandwiches. Bell knew that during the transfer and until issues were squared with his new messmates, the young apprentice may miss a meal or two. He again attempted to ease the way.
It would be several years until Buenzle was would again cross paths with the steward. This time it was aboard the USS LANCASTER in the early 1890’s. When the “berth deck slusher” of Buenzle’s mess (the man charged with obtaining supplies) absconded with the funds of the mess, the remaining two dozen men of the mess were looking at a long cruise with little food beyond the very basics provided by the government. Again, it was John Bell who came to the mens’ aid, seeing to it that the men were provided with supplies, apparently from the officers’ stores.
Bell was said to be a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War veterans’ organization. When on duty overseas, he always took the time to visit the local cemeteries where naval veterans were buried who had died over seas. Bell made it a point to remember these men, many of whom he had never met, with flowers on their graves.
In difficult times, John Bell would remind the men of things that were not obvious to them, but that were obvious to the officers for which he served. He would remind crewmen that discipline was harsh and life difficult in the navy. However, the navy was on its way to making great changes. The harsh life was necessary if the nation was going to build a new navy. He welcomed Theodore Roosevelt's ascent to become assistant secretary of the navy, expressing the belief that Roosevelt “was sure to become a world figure.”
As he grew late in years, Steward John Bell obtained a new position.
He became the steward to Captain Charles Sigsbee,
who had been placed in command of the battleship MAINE.
Bell was now walking with more of a stoop, and his hair was turning white,
but his attitude was unchanged. Captain Sigsbee
was soon to note the kindness of Bell. Sigsbee
“He had not much merit as a chef, excepting that he could always find delicate lettuce. He was honest and true to his duties. I could object only by delicate suggestion or subterfuge. Periodically he would make me pound-cake. I would cut from it a single slice, which I would secretly throw away. The cake would then adorn my sideboard in its remaining integrity for many days to Bell’s evident pride. His range of desserts was small. When he felt he had run through his gamut and needed time to think, he would make an apple-pie, a colossal monstrosity I abhorred. I would eat of his apple pie - the same pie - day after day, until it neared its end, when immunity would be claimed on the ground of its extreme richness. No man can do more than his utmost best, and old Bell did habitually.”Undoubtedly when the famous founder of the Red Cross came aboard the MAINE for luncheon while the vessel sat quietly in Havana Harbor, and commented on the spotless table, the fine china, and the excellent meal, she was making a silent tribute to John Bell who was the man responsible for it.
Once, Steward Bell had commented “I shall never die ashore. I’ll be buried deep in the sea I love, in clean water.” On February 15, 1898, a terrible explosion shook the MAINE. She went to the bottom in minutes, with two hundred sixty of her crew, some never to be recovered. One of those lost was the soft-spoken steward, John Bell.
In 1912, when the MAINE’s wreckage was dewatered, and the vessel’s stern refloated, amidst the carnage of the wreck was found a watch. It was inscribed “John R. Bell”. The stern of the MAINE, the steward’s last resting place was taken out of Havana harbor and sunk in deep, clear water. John Bell’s prediction had come true.
(As a service to our readers, clicking on title in red will take you to that book on Amazon.com)
Blow, Michael, A Ship to Remember , (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992).
Buenzle, Fred J., Bluejacket: An Autobiography. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1986). Reprint of the original 1939 edition.
Samuels, Peggy and Harold, Remembering
the Maine. (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995).