U.S.S. Maine, 1895 - 1898

The ill-fated battleship Maine

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USS Maine, shown braving the Atlantic swell in an accurate watercolor by artist R.C. Moore. The Maine and Texas were second-class battleships intended for coast defense, authorized by Congress under the 1886 program. They were America’s first modern capital ships, and being built domestically, reflected the country’s still-uncertain grasp of the new naval technologies being refined in Europe. A rather unlovely old tub, the Texas had two 12” guns, one to a side, and six 6” guns. Launched in November 1890 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the 6,682-ton Maine was originally conceived as "Armored Cruiser No. 1," and retained the graceful lines of that title, though not the speed. Her asymmetrical layout owed something to the Inflexible model: two twin 10" turrets staggered en échelon, in this case sponsoned out from the sides, with cutaways in the superstructure to permit either straight ahead / straight astern firing or crossdeck firing, with flying bridges built over the turret tops; and six 6” guns in casemate mountings (entire mounting shown). This design was derived by indirection from the European échelon turret ships: Close inspection reveals she was a near-copy of the Brazilian battleship Riachuelo, with size, speed, and guns all slightly enlarged or improved. The resurgent U.S. Navy was out to assert its primacy in the Western Hemisphere; since 1883 the Brazilian ship had been the mightiest warship in the Americas, so the U.S. built a "reply," much as Great Britain would do if challenged by a foreign power with any novel or exceptionally powerful vessel. The USS Maine was that reply, debuting 12 years after her rival.

Plan and Specifications

Profile and deck plan of the USS MAINE of 1895
Plan of the Maine as completed. Note cutaway in aft superstructure permitting cross-deck firing.

Specifications for the Maine:
Dimensions: 324'4" x 57' x 22'6"   Displacement: 6,682 tons. Armament: (4) 10"/30, (6) 6"/30, (7) 6-pdr, and (8) 1-pdr guns; (4) Gatling MG; four 18" torpedo tubes. Harvey armor: 12"/7" belt, 12"/10" barbette, 8" turret, 3"/2" deck. Coal capacity: 896 tons. Propulsion: (8) coal-fired Scotch boilers; (2) inverted vertical triple expansion engines developing 9,000 ihp, shafted to twin screw (screws were 15 feet in diameter). Maximum speed: 15 kts. Crew: 480.

The Maine's classification is a vexed issue. At various times she was called an armored cruiser and a second-class battleship. Her original designation was to be Armored Cruiser #1: the reason the New York was designated #2, later CA-2, and the Brooklyn #3; but the Maine did not survive long enough to be reclassified along with her contemporaries.

Metric specifications:
Dimensions: 98.86m x 17.4m x 6.86m   Displacement: 6,682 tons. Armament: (4) 254 mm/30, (6) 152 mm/30, (7) 6-pdr, and (8) 1-pdr guns; (4) Gatling MG; four 450 mm torpedo tubes. Armor: Harvey type throughout. 305/178 mm belt, 305/254 mm barbette, 203 mm turret, 76/52 mm deck. Coal capacity: 896 tons. Propulsion: (8) coal-fired Scotch boilers; (2) inverted vertical triple expansion engines developing 6,711.3 kW, shafted to twin screw (screws were 4.57m in diameter). Maximum speed: 27.8 km/hr. Crew: 480.

The ship was originally planned with open barbette mountings placed higher up; but as rapid-firing intermediate calibre guns were developed during the ship's long gestation, the Navy switched to turret mountings to protect the gun crews in battle. The turrets had to be mounted lower due to their increased weight. The ship was also planned with a stump barque sail rig, but the 3-mast square rig was modified during construction to a 2-mast military rig and the ship never spread any canvas. As can be seen in the painting at top, Maine had a high forecastle deck surmounted by a centrally placed searchlight platform, an unusual feature since most turret ships would have needed a clear field of fire forward of the guns. However, a clear foredeck was not necessary with the Maine’s asymmetrical mountings; there was another huge searchlight directly over the stern. On paper the guns' arcs of fire were better than those of center-mounted turrets, but in practice the blast effects when firing near superstructure elements canceled this seeming superiority, as they had in the 1882 Inflexible. The Maine carried four 10-inch guns and a secondary armament of six 6-inch guns, plus assorted 6-pdr and 1-pdr weapons, and 14" torpedoes. With no centerline after turret, her quarterdeck too was built up into a high narrow structure cluttered with large cranes, vent cowls, skylights, and boat davits. Having taken more than 7 years to build, Maine was commissioned in late 1895 -- only months before the Indiana class of heavy battleships, laid down in 1892, joined the fleet.

Ship's History

USS MAINE entering Havana Harbor, January 25, 1898
The Maine enters Havana Harbor. Her mooring was nearby, right across from the Morro.

Maine went down in history when she went down in Havana harbor. The ill-fated vessel was sent to Cuba early in 1898, ostensibly to protect American lives and interests on the island, where the local insurgents were on the verge of victory over the tottering Spanish Empire. The battleship moored inside the harbor mouth and across from the Morro Castle, and there she remained for three weeks while the “Yellow Press” in the States howled for war with Spain, publishing highly colored stories of alleged atrocities by “Butcher” Weyler, the Spanish Governor-General. In Havana, Hearst press illustrator Frederic Remington cabled New York that there was no action to illustrate, no war to be had, and asking for instructions. W.R. Hearst revealingly cabled back, "You provide the pictures and I'll provide the war." Remington obliged with lurid sketches of American women being strip-searched by subhuman-appearing Spanish customs officials, and other inflammatory matter. In the Cuban capital things were less tense. At first the Maine's presence had exacerbated relations with the Spanish authorities; but gradually things calmed down in Havana.The closest the Maine had come to hostilities was an incident where firecrackers in the market were misreported as gunshots. The visit was ending on a cordial note, with the ship due to depart for Florida within a few days.

Maine exploding, 2/15/1898Then, on the calm, still night of February 15, 1898, the Maine blew up with a tremendous blast, raining men, guns, and chunks of red-hot wreckage into the harbor. Coming from the region of the forward 10” magazine and bunkers, just under the break of the bridge, the explosion blew out the bottom of the ship, breaking her in two and sinking her within ten minutes. (Click here for a dandy enlargement of the picture.) 266 American servicemen lost their lives, and many more were injured. Captain Sigsbee supervised the launching of boats from the stern section and the saving of sailors floundering in the harbor; the Spanish cruiser Alfonso XII and other vessels in the harbor sent boats to pick up and hospitalize U.S. sailors. The Maine's hull came to rest on an even keel in the shallow waters, her keel broken and her upper deck just breaking the surface at low tide.

Although subsequent research has shown that the explosion was more likely than not an internal fault, the incident provided the casus belli W.R. Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and the hawks in the U.S. government had been looking for. “Remember the Maine!” trumpeted the headlines from coast to coast; the first half of the slogan, "Remember the Maine - To Hell with Spain!" By April, the march to war was complete. Spain stood convicted of sabotage in the court of public opinion, egged on by a curiously conducted U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry which concluded that an external mine exploding was the most likely cause for the disaster. For the United States, what followed was a “splendid little war.” In a summer-long campaign, the U.S. almost painlessly inherited a vast empire including the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico from Spain. Most of the action was naval action, many of the heroes were Annapolis alumni, and most of the glory accrued to the new steel Navy. Sigsbee was given command of the auxiliary cruiser St. Paul and covered himself in glory on the Cuban blockade. One other politician got the glory he sought: Teddy Roosevelt, Asst. Secretary of the Navy (below left), resigned as soon as war was declared and went on to raise the "Rough Riders" volunteer cavalry. Teddy rose to fame with the well-planned and better publicized Charge Up San Juan Hill -- an early and successful attempt to manipulate history as it was being made. TR was able to parlay his war-hero status into the governorship of New York and, two years later, the Vice Presidency. Meanwhile, the victory over Spain and the new colonies in Asia provided a rationale to annex the Hawaiian Islands and Midway — and to build ever more powerful warships, and the facilities necessary to provision and maintain them. In all this empire building, Roosevelt was an avid partisan. During his administration (1901-1909), an fleet of oceangoing battleships and armored cruisers gushed from American yards. Year after year the fleet grew larger and more expensive, a bully opportunity for America's war industry. When the Panamá Canal opened in 1914, the U.S. could easily transfer ships from ocean to ocean to maximize their political leverage where needed.


Wreck of USS Maine salvaged inside cofferdam, 1912

The rusting remains of the Maine were salvaged in 1911-12 and studied by marine engineers. A giant cofferdam was erected around the submerged hull and the water pumped out, leaving the wreck sitting on mud flats inside the dam. Whole portions of the foredeck had been bent backwards by the blast and curled over the superstructure, while the foremast had been shot into the sea and both stacks were flattened. The Board of Inquiry reached no definite conclusion about he cause of the explosion, but did not rule out a submerged mine. Eventually the hulk was refloated and towed out to sea for a final burial with flowers floating on the waves, prayers, and suitable military ceremony. A 1974 study commissioned by Adm. Hyman Rickover concluded that an internal explosion, possibly caused by spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker which touched off a magazine blast in the adjacent compartment, sank the ship. Several features of Maine's design were less than completely safe; and magazine explosions were far from unknown, bedeviling battleships in the French, British, Russian, Japanese, and Italian navies through the period. Such explosions could devastate a ship lying peacefully at anchor as easily as a warship in action on the high seas.


For those who accepted the approved national myth that Maine fell victim to Spanish treachery, justifying all the U.S. did subsequently, the ship's dead were reckoned as holy martyrs. Keeping faith with them had demanded an aggressive response, and no deeds could be too extreme in the cause of vengeance for the dead. The swift and overwhelming victory against Spain had a finality that discouraged too much probing into the causes. Instead, the Maine became a talisman for patriotism -- evoking the pride of faith kept with the victims of the disaster, and Americans' growing awareness of their country's power and vigor. Accordingly Maine's wreck was carefully combed for souvenirs, which were doled out across the U.S. like so many holy relics, put on display in town halls from Bangor to Biloxi. Some of the choicest bits are pictured in our page of Maine Monuments and Memorials.

USS Maine Monument in Columbus Circle/Central Pk, NYCA grandiose, 40-foot tall memorial to the Maine was erected on the Havana waterfront (where it still stands, partly dismantled, with recent bronze plaques added to reinterpret the incident in language vetted by the Castro regime). Two of the ship's 10-in guns were incorporated into the pile. Significant memorials were erected stateside at Columbus Circle, outside Central Park, New York City (right), and at Davenport Park in Bangor, ME, home since 1922 to the ship's magnificently restored bow shield and scrolls.

Meantime, welshing on its promise to the Cuban insurgents (with whom it had collaborated effectively during the war), the U.S. in effect took over Cuba for the next five years, and afterwards ran the country as a client state, intervening and invading Cuba 15 times in the next 30 years. Suitably repressive and pro-American military strongmen ran Cuba until the 1959 Castro revolution, while the country became a convenient offshore haven for American mafiosi. On the other side of the globe, Dewey’s easy win at Manila Bay was followed by a formal American accession on July 25th when an army of 12,500 under Maj. Gen. Wesley Merritt landed to receive the Spanish surrender. The Filipino insurgents, however, were not keen to exchange one colonial master for another, and soon after incited a long guerrilla war against the Americans. This rebellion, known in the U.S. as the Philippine Insurrection, was suppressed brutally over a period of ten years. Even President Roosevelt -- busy planning the takeover of Panamá and the building of the canal -- lost his stomach for the endless slaughter in the Philippines, where the heaps of skulls and bones presaged the Cambodian "Killing Fields" in kind if not in absolute quantity (5,200 U.S. dead and at least 300,000 Filipinos). Part way through his first term, T.R. wondered aloud if it were worth the trouble; its leaders captured within 3 years, the insurgency stubbornly flared up right through 1913. T.R.'s lust for “war—any war” later took a body blow when his beloved younger son Quentin, a combat aviator, was killed in WWI. Crushed by the senseless loss of his "Quinnikins," the ex-president died an embittered old man in 1919, his health as shattered as his faith in the militarized world he had done so much to create.

B&W of the MAINE--oval Sigsbee portrait cut in

Remember the Maine!

Capt. Sigsbee's commercially lithographed portrait has been conveniently cut into the photo of the ship. Sigsbee was created the first American hero of the war, and given command of the liner St. Paul, converted to an auxiliary cruiser. Although Sigsbee handled her with skill, visibly compromising the Spaniards' chances at Santiago, his fame was soon eclipsed. On May 1, Commodore George Dewey devastated the Spanish Asiatic Squadron at Manila Bay, sending many Americans into a delirium of war fever. Their pugnacious spirit was reflected in a nasty bit of doggerel:

Oh, it's Dewey! Dewey! Dewey!
He's the hero of the day.
And the Maine has been remembered,
In the good old-fashioned way.


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