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What Destroyed the USS MAINE - An Opinion

By Edward P. McMorrow

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The Significance of the Destruction of the MAINE

The explosion which destroyed the battleship USS MAINE  in the harbor of Havana, Cuba on the night of February 15, 1898 was a blast which would continue to echo around the Americas for many years to come.  In response to the destruction of the ship, Washington sent American troops and warships to intervene in the Cuban revolt against Spanish colonial rule, and to attack other parts of the Spanish colonial empire, including the Philippines. This attack on Spanish possessions was  the first American war against a foreign power since the Mexican-American War of 1845-48.  It marked a major change in American foreign policy away from isolationsim and toward a more active role in international affairs, a trend which has continued through the twentieth century.  The American victory over Spain, a great power since the time of Columbus which  had once dominated much of the world,  marked the entrance of the United States into the arena of world powers.  As a result, Washington assumed a greater role in the Americas, well beyond the immediate borders of the United States.  Americans now had interests in the entire Western Hemisphere, and were no longer occupied with the westward expansion across North America.

The war also marked the beginning of American international involvement beyond the Americas.  The achievement of new, world power status  brought increased respect from the other European world powers to the United States, and gave the United States a much larger role in the international affairs of the new century. For example, the United States would intervene in the First World War,  becoming directly involved in a conflict between the European great powers for the first time.    Due to the impact of this one event, in both the short and long term, it is appropriate to attempt to determine the cause and responsibility for the blast which destroyed the ship, on its one hundredth anniversary.  Based on any conclusions reached in response to this question, we can also decide if the United States had a valid reason for going to war with Spain in 1898.

The Arrival of the USS MAINE in Havana Harbor

This entire process of the United States assuming the roleof a new great power began with the arrival of the battleship MAINE in Havana harbor as a result of a problem which had begun the year before.  Having lived under Spanish colonial rule for four hundred years, the people of Cuba had launched the latest in a series of rebellions, with American sympathy and support, beginning in the late 1860's.   In 1897, the senior American diplomat in Havana, Consul General Fitzhugh Lee, was becoming concerned for the safety of Americans in Cuba during the insurrection.  There was a fair number of them, both businessmen interested in the sugar trade and rebel sympathizers  working as mercenaries or smugglers of munitions and supplies.

Beginning in December 1897,  the MAINE was based at Key West, Florida in response to the Cuban situation, and for six weeks held in readiness to go to Cuba if Lee called for help.  When no call for help had been received by the third week in January 1898, the commander of the MAINE, Captain Charles D. Sigsbee, had been told to join the other ships of the Navy's North Atlantic Squadron when it arrived there, and go with them to their winter base at the tiny islands of Dry Tortugas at the tip of the Florida Keys.  The  Squadron arrived at Key West on January 23, 1898, en route to Dry Tortugas, but they brought with them orders for Sigsbee from Washington, telling him to procede with the MAINE to Havana on a "friendly" visit.  While the intention of this  visit may have been no more than sending the MAINE on the completion of her mission to protect Americans in Cuba, it may also have been an attempt to influence Spanish policy in the rebellious colony, an early example of American battleship diplomacy.   Another reason for the presence of the American warship was to enforce the Monroe Doctrine and ensure that another European power such as Germany did nt attempt to take advantage of the instability on the island during rebellionto seize Cuba.

The USS MAINE in Havana Harbor

Wreckage of the Battleship MAINE in Havana harborWhatever the motive, every attempt was made to make the visit appear friendly.  The  ship arrived in Havana harbor on January 25, 1898.  Then, after sitting  in Havana harbor for three weeks, the MAINE was torn apart by one or two explosions at 9:40 PM on the night of February 15, 1898,  two days before the ship had been scheduled to leave Havana and return  to New Orleans to show the flag at the upcoming Mardi Gras.   Out of acrew of 374, approximately 260 Americans were killed.

What Sank the Ship ?  An External Explosion ?

 Ever since this catastrophe, there has been a mystery about what  sank the ship.   At first, it seemed that the ship had been attacked, either by gunfire or a mine in the harbor.  Once it was determined that it  had been a magazine explosion which actually destroyed the ship,  the question remained of what caused the magazine to explode.  There were two basic categories for all answers to this question.  The explosion could have been triggered by a blast outside the ship, or by a blast or accident inside the ship.

One possible cause for an external blast was a mine.  It could have been a part of the harbor defenses which had broken loose from its mooring and accidentally drifted into the ship. It could also have been deliberately  placed where it would explode under the ship's keel.  This second explanation of the intentional use of a mine was favored, based on the extent of theanti-Spanish feeling in the United States at that time, and on the coverage of the event by the "yellow press".    Many people felt that when the MAINE arrived in Havana harbor, she had been directed by the Spanish authorities to a mooring where a mine had been planted for use against her.

Another possible cause of an external explosion was sabotage.  A saboteur could have placed a homemade bomb on the hull of the ship or he could have left a homemade mine floating in the water near the MAINE, where she would strike it as she swung at her mooring.  Because Cuba was in the midst of a violent revolution, this saboteur could have come from one of the factions fighting for control of the island.  There were the Cuban rebels who were trying to gain their  independence and could have attempted anything which they felt would hurt Spanish colonial rule.  Fighting the rebels, in addition to the Spanish authorities, there were right wing radicals who also favored continued Spanish rule and  hated the Americans for aiding the rebels and trying to influence Spanish policy.

An Internal Explosion ?

While most people have reached the conclusion that the MAINE was sunk by the external explosion of a mine, there was also the possibility that the explosion of the magazines was triggered by an internal fire or explosion.  Like all warships, the MAINE was loaded with explosives and flammable materials, including the shells and powder for her guns, the coal used to fuel her engines, and paint supplies.   As a result, the explosion could have been caused by an internal accident or intentional internal sabotage.  Immediately after the explosion, this explanation was  favored both by  the Spanish authorities in Havana, as the one for which they could not have been blamed,  by other foreign naval experts, and by some American observers. This disagreement over the cause of the disaster was a primary reason for the extent of the official and unofficial investigations into the disaster.

When the first investigation into the event was being conducted, there was evidence against the external blast of a mine which seemed to indicate that the explosion was internal. While most members of the MAINE's crew and other witnesses reported having heard two explosions, some did say that there was only one explosion.  Before it had been determined that the magazine had exploded, one explosion could have indicated that all the damage had been caused by one large, powerful mine.  Once it had been proven that the magazine had exploded, a single explosion would have indicated that  the magazine explosion had not been triggered by the external blast of a mine but rather by a fire on board the ship or by an accident in the magazine itself.

The validity of these conclusions is based on the assumption that the witnesses were able to distinguish the explosions.  If the magazine explosion was indeed sparked by the external detonation of a mine, the two blasts could have occurred in such quick succession that some witnesses thought that they saw or heard one long, drawn out explosion rather than two distict blasts.  One hundred years later, lacking the audio or video evidence upon which we have come to rely in so many more recent cases, there is no way to determine the nature of the explosion(s).

In addition, two circumstances had been missing which many observers believed would have been noticed in the event of an external, underwater explosion.  One was a splash or geyser of water which none of the witnesses reported having seen being thrown up beside the ship at the time of the explosion.  Many felt that this would have been indicative of an external explosion of a mine.  The other was dead fish, which no one reported having found floating in Havana harbor on the morning after the disaster.   Assuming that there were fish living in the polluted water of the harbor, it seemed that if there had been an explosion in the water, quite a few fish would have been killed and then found the next day.

Spontaneous Combustion

An internal explosion could have been caused by  a fire on board the ship.  One possible source for such a fire was spontaneous combustion  of the coal in the bunkers, some of which were located  next to the magazines, separated only by a bulkhead.   This was a frequent problem on board coal-fired warships during the late nineteenth century.   When a ship like the MAINE was carrying soft, bituminous coal, and the temperature in the bunker reached a high level, the coal could spontaneously ignite.  This could be particularly dangerous in the bunkers near magazines.  If there were a fire in such a bunker, it could heat the magazine enough to ignite the powder and cause an explosion.   This explanation has been favored by those who believed that the blast  was internal, from the time of the disaster.   More recently, this was the theory which Admiral Hyman Rickover presented  in his book, How the Battleship MAINE Was Destroyed,  in 1976.

Spontaneous combustion in coal bunkers was a problem which had affected several US Navy ships built since the Civil War, apparently making this a reasonable explanation for an internal fire which could have triggered the magazine explosion. However, unlike the MAINE, none of  these ships was known to have been  lost as a result of these fires.  Two years earlier, there had been spontaneous combustion on board the cruiser CINCINNATI while she was based at Key West.  The fire had started in a bunker next to a magazine, heating the magazine to the point where the wooden boxes containing shells burned, and the loaded shells  became charred, but they did not explode.  It was soon noticed that a bulkhead had become red hot, and the bunker and magazine were quickly flooded.   The CINCINNATI carried old-fashioned but chemically stable brown powder which did not explode even when heated to this point.   Although the MAINE was armed mostly with  the same type of powder when she exploded in 1898, she was also carrying  between 1500 lbs. and one ton of less stable black powder, used for saluting, in the Reserve magazine.  Apparently, the CINCINNATI  was not carrying any black powder at the time of her fire.

In addition, experience with the hazard of spontaneous combustion had made the Navy aware of the problem, causing officers and crew to periodically check coal bunkers.  The MAINE and other Navy ships also carried a thermostatically controlled fire alarm system in the coal bunkers which was designed to trigger fire alarms if the temperature in the coal bunkers reached a certain level, indicating that spontaneous combustion had occurred.   These alarms could have been disregarded, however, because they had been known to have been triggered when temperatures in the bunkers reached levels below that at which they were set.

In the months after the MAINE disaster, there were at least two cases of spontaneous combustion on board other Navy ships, the battleship OREGON and the armored cruiser BROOKLYN.  In mid-March 1898, the OREGON had been ordered to leave San Francisco and travel around Cape Horn to reinforce the US Navy in Caribbean.  Spontaneous combustion occurred one week later, while she was steaming off the coast of Peru during this voyage.  Her crew noticed smoke and heat in the forward section of the ship, which were traced to a coal bunker.  A damage control team was then able to dig into the bunker, expose the smoldering coal, and douse the fire.

There was a similar fire in a bunker next to a magazine on board the BROOKLYN on May 16, 1898 while she was en route from Charleston, South Carolina to Key West in the middle of the night.  The fire was detected by the thermometers in the bunkers, which activated the alarm system, giving the crew enough time to remove ammunition from the adjacent magazine and spew steam into the bunker to extinguish the fire.  Since the same alarm system had been fitted on board the MAINE, it would seem that it would have been effective if spontaneous combustion had occurred on board the battleship in Havana harbor.  In addition to these standard Navy procedures which would have reduced the likelihood of a bunker fire, there were other arguments against such an occurrence that night on the MAINE. While there were coal bunkers next to the magazines which exploded, some of these bunkers were not full on the night of the blast, and  had been recently cleaned and painted.  Also, Commander Wainwright, executive officer of the MAINE,  had a reputation for caution and thorough safety procedures.  As a result, the crew members had instructions to check the coal bunkers at regular intervals and to feel the bulkheads of bunkers for any sign of unusual heat when in passageways beside them.  However, there was one bunker, A-16, which was full ofcoal and abutted the Reserve magazine.  It could have been the site of spontaneous combustion because ventilation, though good enough to allow combustion to occur, was not sufficient to prevent heat from rising  to the point at which the coal could have begun  to smolder.

Magazine Explosion

Another possible cause of the blast was the explosion of a magazine beginning in the magazine itself.  This was the cause of accidental explosions which heavily damaged or destroyed nine other battleships around the world between 1900 and the end of the Second World War.  There was one significant difference between these other, later explosions and the explosion on board the Maine in Havana harbor.  Most of the later accidents involved ships carrying early smokeless powders which were chemically unstable and prone to explode as a result of chemical deterioration.   The Maine, however, still carried the old fashioned brown and black powders which, though smoky when used, were much more stable and safer on board ship than the early smokeless powders.  This made such a magazine explosion less likely.

Other factors against the possibility of an internal magazine explosion on board the MAINE were the strict safety procedures ordered by the cautious Captain Sigsbee.  Whenever the magazines were opened,  lights were put out, cigarettes extinguished, and the galley was sealed off.  Sigsbee had even gone so far as to devise an item which he had added to the regular safety procedures.  Anyone who went into the magazines had to wear soft cloth "antistatic slippers" over their shoes, which were intended to prevent the generation of static electricity sparks by regular shoe soles scraping the deck.

Other Causes of an Internal Explosion

There were several other possible causes of an internal explosion.  One of these would have been a fire in  the other flammable materials carried on board, such as the large quantity of paint needed each time the ship was painted, stored in the paint locker on board the ship.  There was also little chance of this, though, because no one could gain access to this material without Sigsbee's knowledge, the key to the paint locker having been kept  in the cautious Captain's cabin.  The use of flammable paint  in the recently painted coal bunkers near bunker A-16 could also have been a cause for trouble.  If  the combustibles which had  entered the air as the paint dried had entered A-16, this could have increased the likelihood of spontaneous combustion there.

Another possible cause could have been internal sabotage, if a visitor to the ship had managed to smuggle a bomb on board and leave it where it would ignite a magazine, a coal bunker, or the paint locker.  This could have happened if the crew of the ship had not watched visitors closely enough and had allowed them access to sensitive areas of the ship.  Commander Wainwright's  strict safety procedures also meant that there was little chance of internal sabotage on board the ship in Havana harbor.  Because the visit was a friendly one, the ship could not be kept sealed off and visitors had to be allowed on board.  Sigsbee had ordered several tight security measures while in Havana, though.  One of these was that all visitors to the ship had to be kept under close surveillance, greatly reducing the possibility  that one of these visitors could have left a bomb on board without being noticed. Thus, while an internal explosion was possible, it seems unlikely given the arguments against the possible causes for such an event.

The Sampson Board's Court of Inquiry

This question of what destroyed the Maine was addressed by the two official inquiries conducted by the US Navy into the matter.    The first US Navy Court of Inquiry to investigate the MAINE disaster,  known as the Sampson Board and consisting of Captain William T. Sampson and  three other officers,  arrived at Havana on February 21, 1898.  They listened to testimony from Captain Sigsbee, the officers and crew of the Maine, and other witnesses of the explosion.  In addition, they also listened to the statements of divers who had been sent down to examine the wreck of the MAINE.  These divers  had a very difficult job, working around the jagged wreckage in the dirty, dark, almost opaque waters of the harbor.

After the Sampson Board completed its investigation and inquiries in 1898, it came to the conclusion that the MAINE had been destroyed by the explosion of the forward and reserve magazines of six-inch ammunition, both located in the forward part of the ship.  The divers had  reported that the port side of the ship where the forward reserve magazine for six-inch ammunition had been located was entirely gone.  Apparently that magazine of secondary battery ammunition was a location of the explosion.  Most of the testimony of the witnesses and the observations of  the divers seemed to indicate that the explosion of these magazines had been triggered by an external blast.  The majority of the witnesses testified  that there had been two explosions, as would have been the case if the explosion of the magazines had been triggered by the blast of a mine outside the ship.  Lt. John Blandin, officer of the deck at the time of the explosion, reported that he heard an explosion coming from the port side, forward.    Another officer, Cadet Cluverius,  was in his cabin writing a letter when the explosion occurred. He recalled hearing a report like the firing of a gun, followed by all the ship's lights going out, and then there was an "indescribable roar, a terrific crash, intense darkness ..."

Other witnesses on board other ships in the harbor alsoobserved two explosions. The American passenger steamer CITY OF WASHINGTON was moored aft of the MAINE.   After 9:30 PM, two American tobacco dealers were sitting in deck chairs on her deck.  One of them had just joked that they were well protected with the guns of the Maine commanding the city when he heard a sound like a cannon shot.  He looked up and saw the bow of the MAINE rise up out of the water, apparently as a result of the force of the first blast beneath the forward end of the ship. Then he saw a huge, fiery explosion in the center of the ship, followed by thick black smoke and debris falling everywhere as they ran for cover.   At the same time, the captain of their ship, Frank Stevens, heard a muffled blast which seemed to comefrom underwater, followed by a second explosion.  When he saw what had happened, he ordered the ship's boats launched.  Frederick Teasdale, captain of the British bark DEVA, was below deck on board his ship,  berthed about one half mile south of the MAINE at a wharf in Regla, across the harbor from Havana. He felt his ship stagger, and he was afraid that she had been rammed by a steamer.  This was apparently caused by a shock wave from the first blast, under water.  He then ran on deck, in time to see the explosion of the Maine's magazines hurling debris and smoke across the harbor.

While inspecting the wreckage on the day after the disaster, several officers of the MAINE had noticed bottom plates, identifiable by their green anti-fouling paint, thrust up out of the water.  Later, the divers had found the keel of the ship  in an "inverted V" shape thrust upward to within eighteen inches of the harbor surface, more than thirty feet above its original position.  They placed this bent section of the keel at about frame eighteen, near the bow, and it was interpreted as having been driven into the ship, and upwards, by a powerful outside force, such as the explosion of a mine, beneath the keel.   Based on this evidence of an external explosion, the Sampson Board reached the conclusion that the MAINE had been destroyed by an external, submarine mine.  If the mine had been  a Spanish naval mine, it assumed that the mine was large, with a charge of several  hundred pounds of high explosive guncotton which triggered the explosion of the magazines.  With  deliberations completed by the third week in March,  their report was delivered to the Navy Department in Washington on March 25, 1898.

Frames 17, 18 and 19 of the Battleship MAINE
The plating at frames 17, 18, and 19 protrude from the water  above and to the right of the small boat.

In addition, there were two pieces of  information which the Sampson Board did not accept as evidence.  One was that otherdivers had reported finding  a hole in the ship's side with the edges bent inward, which seemed to indicate an external blast. The second  was a hole in the harbor floor, filled with soft mud, opposite the hole in the ship's side, which some observers interpreted as having been caused by the same external blast. The Vreeland Board's Investigation

Twelve years later, in 1910, a second inquiry into the fate of the MAINE was begun.   At this time, many Americans wanted the remains of the men which had been left on board the Maine removed from the wreck and brought back to the United States for burial.  Others wanted a second, more thorough investigation of the disaster.  In addition, the Cubans wanted the wreck removed from Havana harbor, where it was a hazard to shipping.   In response,  Congress authorized the raising of the MAINE and appropriated funds for the project.

The job was given to the US Army Corps of Engineers, which constructed a water-tight elliptical cofferdam on the floor of Havana harbor around the wreck of the MAINE.  After its completion in November, 1911, the water was pumped out from around the wreck inside the cofferdam.  This left the wreck in the open air, where it was more easily and thoroughly examined by the new investigators, for the first time since it had sunk.   A second board of inquiry, lead by Rear Admiral Charles E. Vreeland met on November 10.  Their investigation was finished  in several weeks and the report was sent to President Taft on December 14, 1911.  The remains of the crewmen had been removed from the ship and taken back to the United States on board the armored cruiser NORTH CAROLINA for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.  The wreck of the ship was then refloated, towed out to sea, and ceremonially scuttled on March 16, 1912.

When the Vreeland Board began their investigation in 1911, they were able to take a much better  look at the wreck of MAINE.  They reached essentially the same conclusion as the Sampson board, differing only in detail   They agreed that  the magazine explosion had been triggered by an external blast, but that that the original charge was a low form of explosive, and that the original blast did not occur at frame eighteen as decided by the Sampson court.  Instead, they placed the explosion further aft, between frames twenty-eight and thirty-three, where about 100 square feet of plating was dented in as much as two feet and torn irregularly, with the torn edges bent inward into the ship.  According to the Vreeland Board,  a large high explosive charge would have punched a clean hole in the side of the ship, rather than the large dent and ragged tear which they found.  They decided that the bending of the keel into the "inverted V" shape had been caused by the explosion of the magazines.

Thus, the conclusion that the explosion which destroyed the ship was triggered by an external blast, as reached by both the Sampson and Vreeland inquiries, seems to be a valid one.  Having reached that same conclusion, we still don't know what actually caused the blast.  Was the MAINE destroyed by a Spanish mine, as so many believed in 1898, by  sabotage, or by some kind of "infernal machine" ?

Proceed to Part Two

Bibliography at end of Part Two

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