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Analysis of Theories on How the U.S.S. Maine Was Lost


Why Did the Battleship Maine Sink?

By Patrick McSherry

Wreckage of the Battleship Maine, circa 1903
A stereoview of the wreckage of the U.S.S. MAINE. The stereocard is from 1903 (Library of Congress)

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Though technically not part of the Spanish American War, the loss of the Battleship MAINE was a pivotal moment in American history. Though many believe that the loss of the MAINE resulted in an immediate and retroactive declaration of war as occurred with the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War Two, this was not the case. It was not part of the war since the MAINE was lost on February 15, 1898, and war was not declared until April 25 and was not retroactive.

The cause of the explosion that sunk the Maine has never been definitively known. Evidence of the source was generally wiped out in the powerful explosion of several of the ship’s ammunition magazines occurring in such rapid succession that they were perceived as one blast. This massive explosion would have obliterated much of the evidence of a smaller, earlier blast, if there was an earlier blast, or other possible ignition sources.

Any major event in history – such as the assassinations of John or Robert Kennedy, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 911 attacks or even the Covid-19 outbreak – will have conspiracy theories surrounding them. This is true of the loss of the MAINE. The job of the historian is to sift through the conspiracy theories and separate the facts from fiction. The historian must use the evidence and logical methods of analysis to suggest the most probable scenario. The following is merely an introduction to these theories, and is not intended to be, in any way, exhaustive. Books can be written, and have been written on any of these theories, and many of these have been studied by the author of this brief discussion. Several works that address these possibilities are listed in the bibliography at the bottom of the article.

The Theories:

Theory #1 – Coal bunker fire

This theory was suggested in a study commissioned by Admiral Hymen Rickover of the U.S. Navy and published in 1976. Coal bunkers were the compartments in a ship where the massive quantities of coal needed to fire the ship’s boiler furnaces were stored. The bunkers were arranged along the perimeter of a warship’s hull where they could act as additional armor in battle, protecting areas such as engine rooms, boiler rooms and ammunition magazine located more towards the center of the ship from shell fire. Coal that had freshly-broken surfaces would absorb moisture, resulting in an exothermic reaction (one which generates heat). The heat could actually rise to the point that the coal would ignite and a fire would spread within the coal in the bunker. In this theory, the heat from an undetected coal bunker fire eventually rose to a point that it ignited the ammunition in an adjacent magazine, causing the explosion that sunk the vessel.

This theory has become somewhat accepted in spite of some very strong flaws. The first and most glaring issue was, unlike in the two official inquiries into the loss of MAINE in 1898 and 1911, this study did not have any actual experts on coal bunker fires on it team, yet it was this very source that the study attributed the explosion. Second, the coal in the bunker in question was in the bunker too long and was the wrong type of coal for a coal bunker fire to occur. Third, crewmen were on various sides of the bunker and in contact with the steel bulkhead of the bunker, but none reported any heat. Fourth the hypersensitive coal bunker heat detectors did not detect a fire. Fifth, the crewman who physically inspected the bunker detected no heat nor the smell of a coal fire. Lastly, one of the navy’s foremost experts on coal bunker fires was an officer aboard the MAINE – Lt. Cmdr. Richard Wainwright - and would have been monitoring the types and age of the coal to avoid bunker fires. There was no physical or eyewitness evidence to support the theory. In fact, there was much evidence against it.

Beyond that, it is true that coal bunker fires were common on some ships, though the MAINE had never actually experienced one. For instance, on her epic journey around South America at the beginning on the war, the Battleship OREGON had four coal bunkers ablaze at the same time. However no warship – American or that of any other nation - ever experienced an explosion resulting from a coal bunker fire igniting ammunition in a magazine. In one case crates holding shells were removed from a magazine adjacent to a bunker fire. The crates were charred, but the ammunition was did not ignite. If a coal bunker fire was massive, and undetected (an unlikely combination), it was theoretically possible to heat ammunition to the point of explosion, as was pointed out in a 1998 National Geographical – commissioned study. However the conditions for a coal bunker fire simply did not exist in this case.

In short, the theory lacks evidence supporting that coal bunker fire ever occurred, which is needed for this theory to be accepted.

Theory #2 – The U.S. Deliberately destroyed the
MAINE as a pretext to war.

This theory argues that the Americans deliberately, in some manner, caused the explosion. The theory often states that the American officers knew the blast was going to occur and were not aboard ship at the time to avoid being lost in the ensuing explosion, but sacrificing the enlisted men.  The loss would give the United States the opportunity to declare war. In short, the loss was pre-meditated.

The theory fails the evidence and logic tests. First, the officers were aboard ship. The explosion occurred in the forward part of the ship, which held the enlisted mens’ quarters. The officers’ quarters were aft, or in the back of the ship. Two of the ship’s officers were lost as they scrambled through the dark, flooded decks to try to get topside. Also, there was no evidence to support the theory…no witnesses, no physical evidence, etc. No document indicating such as conspiracy existed has ever come to light. In fact, documents show that those people who would have had to have been involved in such a plot, such as the Secretary of the Navy, Assistance Secretary of the Navy (Roosevelt) or President McKinley were truly shocked that the MAINE was lost and unprepared to act.

The theory is also illogical. If the U.S. wanted to create an incident involving the loss of a warship to bring on a war, is it logical to choose one of only six battleships in the U.S. Navy as the vessel, on the eve of the war where it would be needed? Would it make sense to kill off so many trained crewmen on the eve of war? Would it not make more sense to have sacrificed a smaller vessel and crew, such as the torpedo boat due to arrive in Havana shortly to replace the MAINE? That would have been a sufficient incident if the U.S. was looking for an incident. The MAINE was not a perfect vessel, having a number of issues as are explained elsewhere, but still, its ten inch guns would be needed in a possible war. Lastly, the theory does not hold water because the U.S. never officially accused Spain of blowing up the ship, nor was the loss of the MAINE listed as a reason for declaration of war. The MAINE was not used as a pretext for war as is the basis of the theory itself.

Theory #3 That Spain destroyed the MAINE with a mine.

This theory states that the government of Spain decided to destroy the MAINE, apparently considering its presence to be an affront to the nation.
This theory also does not meet the logic test. The motive is lacking. Spain would have known that such an attack was an act of war, and would likely bring Spain in conflict with the United States. Spanish authorities would have known that logistically Spain could not handle a war in Cuba with the United States. The U.S.’s supply line was about ninety miles, as that was the distance between the U.S. and
Cuba. Spain’s supply line was the width of the Atlantic Ocean. Spain was in severe financial straits, and this had impacted their military. Target practice, for instance, was deemed too expensive. As a result the Spanish military was not prepared for war. When war did break out and Admiral Cervera was directed to sortie from Santiago, he stated that he was not responsible for the “horrible and useless hecatomb which will be the only possible result.”  In short, Spain would have known that such an act would result in its loss of Cuba and humiliation for Spain.

Lastly, again, though the American government concluded that a mine was used to destroy the MAINE, it never placed blame for that mine. It never accused Spain of destroying the vessel.

Newspaper theory on the loss of the U.S.S. Maine
A newspaper illustrator's imagined theory on the loss of the MAINE. It shows unknown Spaniards preparing to set off an electronic mine under the ship. Such views incited the American public. No evidence of Spanish involvement was ever found, nor was evidence of an electronic mine ever found.

Theory #4  A rouge actor within the MAINE’s crew brought about the explosion.

There is no evidence to support the theory. This is purely a conspiracy with no evidence to support it. The ship was the home of the crew. Though the theory was suggested, no one ever suggested any specific individual, and no one ever made a claim to having done it, or to have known about it. There is a complete lack of evidence.

Theory #5 – Weylerites in Cuba brought about the explosion.

Weylerites were men in the Spanish military in Cuba who supported the former Governor General Valeriano Weyler. These men felt betrayed when Weyler as recalled to Spain. This theory states that the Weylerites, in an ultra-patriotic act, destroyed the MAINE. There were, in fact, some threats against the MAINE attributed to the Weylerites. However, this theory is also illogical. The Weylerites were military men. As incensed as they were, they would have known that the action would bring on an unwinnable war, resulting in the loss of Cuba and humiliation for Spain. This theory becomes unreasonable for the same reasons stated in theory #3.

Theory #6 – A submarine mine was used to sink the

This theory was actually that which the Sampson Board, which investigated the loss of the MAINE in 1898, and the Vreeland Board which did its investigation in the dewatered wreck of the MAINE in 1911 both concluded was the case. The reasons for coming to this conclusion were many, though no physical evidence of the mine itself was conclusively found. The two boards determined that no cause for the explosion could be found within the vessel (and both boards had experts on coal bunker fires on their boards and checked into this possibility). The ship was at anchor and the boiler fires were low, so a boiler explosion was ruled out.  After making that determination, the source of the explosion was determined to be external to the vessel. Divers found a large hole on the harbor bottom adjacent to the ship that may have been evidence of a mine, or simply have been where the force of the magazine explosion broke through the hull and some of the energy of the blast exited the ship.

Though the theory is now often overlooked, as recently a 1998 it was re-affirmed. National Geographic - commissioned a heat transfer and blast analysis computer model to analyze the likelihood of a mine or coal bunker fire as being the source of the explosion. The analysis made the assumption that a coal bunker fire was present, for which, as stated above, there was no evidence. However, when looking at the two options the study noted almost apologetically that the analysis of the mine option indicated that even a small mine could have caused the blast, and actually would explain why once strake was bent and twisted inward, something that could not be fully explained with the coal bunker fire option.

The possibility of a mine remains the option that is supported by the majority of the evidence and by the experts who studied the wreck in 1898, 1911, and using scientific modeling in 1998.

However, if the MAINE was destroyed by a mine, who planted the mine? We have already eliminated Spain and the U.S. as possible actors in the drama. What party that the motive and ability to plant the mine? The logical answer, based on means and motive, would be Cuban revolutionaries. The reasons are as follows:
First, they made the means. American filibusters had been supplying the Cuban with arms. A small black powder line with a contact fuse would have been among the types of arms supplied, and readily available. A contact fuse would be easily triggered by the movement of the
MAINE at anchor, as was documented on the day she was lost.

Second, the crew of the MAINE was on watch for ships, particularly Spanish, that may approach the ship. The 1898 Sampson Board found that they were not particularly mindful of the constant movement of small Cuban boats in the vicinity of the ship, which could have planted a mine. The Cuban Revolutionaries had also made use of mines against small Spanish vessels previously.

Third, the Cubans had the motive. It was a stated goal of some of the movement’s leaders to bring the U.S. into the ongoing conflict, knowing that the U.S. would only enter on the side of the Cubans. There was a history of destroying American interests in Cuba, believing this would force American involvement. Creating an incident with an American warship, which could be blamed on the Spanish, was a logical step in this same process. We can only guess, but it is unlikely that the plan was to destroy the MAINE. The fact that the mine would hit at a precise point that would create a chain explosion resulting in the ship’s loss, was probably not the intention. As small explosion and the incident it would create was a more likely goal.

To date, the data available would point to this as being the logical option based on the evidence available, logic, means, method and motives.

Ooohhh, but there is Theory #7


(As a service to our readers, clicking on title in red will take you to that book on

Allen, Thomas B., Remember the Maine?," National Geographic (Des Moines, IA: National Geographic Society, February, 1998) Vol. 193, No. 2, 92 -109.

Blow, Michael, A Ship to Remember , (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992).

Rickover, H. G. How The Battleship Maine Was Destroyed.  )Washington, D.C.: Naval History Division, Department of the Navy, 1976).

Samuels, Peggy and Harold, Remembering the Maine. (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

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