The Spanish-American War: The USS Maine Explosion

USS Maine exploded at Havana
USS Maine explodes on February 15, 1898. Public Domain


The explosion of the USS Maine contributed to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April 1898.


USS Maine exploded and sank on February 15, 1898.


Since the late 1860s, efforts had been underway in Cuba to end Spanish colonial rule. In 1868, the Cubans began a ten-year rebellion against their Spanish overlords. Though it was crushed in 1878, the war had generated widespread support for the Cuban cause in the United States. Seventeen years later, in 1895, the Cubans again rose up in the revolution. To combat this, the Spanish government dispatched General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau crush the rebels. Arriving in Cuba, Weyler began a brutal campaign against the Cuban people which involved the use of concentration camps in rebellious provinces.

This approach led to the death of over 100,000 Cubans and Weyler was promptly nicknamed "the Butcher" by the American press. Stories of atrocities in Cuban were played up by the "yellow press," and the public put increasing pressure on Presidents Grover Cleveland and William McKinley to intervene. Working through diplomatic channels, McKinley was able to defuse the situation and Weyler was recalled to Spain in late 1897. The following January, supporters of Weyler began a series of riots in Havana. Concerned for American citizens and business interests in the area, McKinley elected to send a warship to the city.

Arriving in Havana:

After discussing this course of action with the Spanish and receiving their blessing, McKinley passed his request to the US Navy. To fulfill the president's orders, the second-class battleship USS Maine was detached from the North Atlantic Squadron at Key West on January 24, 1898. Commissioned in 1895, Maine possessed four 10" guns and was capable of steaming at 17 knots. With a crew of 354, Maine had spent the entirety of its brief career operating along the eastern seaboard. Commanded by Captain Charles Sigsbee, Maine entered Havana harbor on January 25, 1898.

Anchoring in the center of the harbor, Maine was afforded the usual courtesies by the Spanish authorities. Though the arrival of Maine had a calming effect on the situation in the city, the Spanish remained wary of American intentions. Wishing to prevent a possible incident involving his men, Sigsbee restricted them to the ship and no liberty was given. In the days after Maine's arrival, Sigsbee met regularly with the US Consul, Fitzhugh Lee. Discussing the state of affairs on the island, they both recommended that another ship be sent when it was time for Maine to depart.

Loss of Maine:

At 9:40 on the evening of February 15, the harbor was lit by a massive explosion that ripped through the forward section of Maine as five tons of powder for the ship's guns detonated. Destroying the forward third of the ship, Maine sank into the harbor. Immediately, assistance came from the American steamer City of Washington and the Spanish cruiser Alfonso XII, with boats circling the burning remains of the battleship to collect the survivors. All told, 252 were killed in the blast, with another eight dying ashore in the days that followed.


Throughout the ordeal, the Spanish showed great compassion for the injured and respect for the dead American sailors. Their behavior led Sigsbee to inform the Navy Department that "public opinion should be suspended until further report," as he felt that the Spanish were not involved in the sinking of his ship. To investigate the loss of Maine, the Navy swiftly formed a board of inquiry. Due to the state of the wreck and a lack of expertise, their investigation was not as thorough as subsequent efforts. On March 28, the board announced that the ship had been sunk by a naval mine.

The board's finding unleashed a wave of public outrage across the United States and fueled calls for war. While not the cause of the Spanish-American War, shouts of Remember the Maine! served to accelerate the approaching diplomatic impasse over Cuba. On April 11, McKinley asked Congress for permission to intervene in Cuba and ten days later ordered a naval blockade of the island. This final step led to Spain declaring war on April 23, with the United States following suit on the 25th.


In 1911, a second inquiry was made into the sinking of Maine following a request to remove the wreck from the harbor. Constructing a cofferdam around the ship's remains, the salvage effort permitted investigators to probe the wreck. Examining the bottom hull plates around the forward reserve magazine, investigators found that they were bent inward and back. Using this information they again concluded that a mine had been detonated under the ship. While accepted by the Navy, the board's findings were disputed by experts in the field, some of whom put forward a theory that the combustion of coal dust in a bunker adjacent to the magazine had sparked the explosion.

The case of USS Maine was reopened in 1976, by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover who believed that modern science might be able to provide an answer to the ship's loss. After consulting experts and reexamining the documents from the first two investigations, Rickover and his team concluded that the damage was inconsistent with that caused by a mine. Rickover stated that the most likely cause was a coal dust fire. In the years after Rickover's report, his findings have been disputed and to this day there has been no final answer as to what caused the explosion.

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