Friday, February 15, 2013

The Day We Lost The USS #Maine

February 15

The Day We Lost The USS Maine

Launching, at the New York Navy Yard, 18 November 1889.
Engraving copied from Scientific American magazine, Vol. 45, 1898.
She was unique for her time. At 319 feet long and 6,682 tons, the USS Maine was the largest ship to ever have been constructed in the United States Naval Yard. Yet what made her unique wasn't her enormous strength but the fact that she was designed and built by Americans for the American Navy. She was commissioned by Congress on August 3, 1886. The USS Maine was only our second "second class" vessel but all eyes shone on this steel constructed beauty. She launched on November 18, 1889 at the New York Naval Yard. The USS Maine became the pride of the American Navy and was mainly used for ceremonial purposes to show off the might of the United States Navy. 

A Cuban Disaster 
The United States had been interested in Cuba for political and economical reasons long before the Civil War. In 1823, President James Monroe signed the Monroe Doctrine which stated:

We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.

The only problem with the Monroe Doctrine is that it left Cuba out. Some southern states had proposed to Congress that we should free Cuba from the Spanish and add them as a slave state. This proposal failed and many soon forgot about Cuba as the national attention turned towards the Civil War.

A few years after the American Civil War, Cubans began to rebel against their Spanish held government claiming they wanted independence. The battle for independence, Known as the Ten Years War, lasted from 1868 - 1878. Although the war had ended it didn't quiet the rebel activity. Some rebel leaders continued to plan attacks while they were living in exile. Spain had long seen Cuba as one of their provinces and not a colony. They strive to maintain hold on their province. In 1897, Spanish Prime Minister C├ínovas del Castillo was assassinated leaving the Spanish government in chaos. The Cuban rebels revolted soon afterwards. Newspapers throughout the United States reported on the Spanish-Cuban situation, only causing Americans to panic over what would happen to American businesses and their owners who were in Cuba. On January 1, 1898, the Cubans began autonomous government. Eleven days later, a riot broke out in Havana. In an effort to promote peace and protect American interests, President McKinley ordered the USS MAINE to Havana, Cuba. 
Retouched image of a photograph by A. Loeffler,
 with an inset portrait of her last Commanding Officer, Captain Charles D. Sigsbee, USN.
This print was published as a memento following the ship's loss on 15 February 1898.
The Sinking 
 The USS Maine arrived to Cuba on January 24, 1898 under the command of Captain Charles Sigsbee with a friendly mission. Although the Spanish authorities were suspicious of the American vessel's appearance on their shores, they did allow Sigsbee and his officers every courtesy. Sigsbee did not allow his men to leave the vessel. The appearance of the USS Maine did seem to have a calming effect on the riots. So much so that Sigsbee and the American counsel had advised Washington to send more ships when it came time for the Maine's relief to arrive. 

On February 15, 1898 at 9:40pm, while anchored in the Cuban harbor, more than five tons of gunpowder were ignited and exploded in the forward portion of the ship eliminating a third of the forward decks. Another explosion happened soon afterwards. Shattered, the Maine quickly sank to the bottom of the harbor. Most of the Maine's crew had been sleeping or resting in the forward area of the ship. The explosion took the lives of 260 men while six men were left injured. Captain Sigsbee and the officers survived the incident because their quarters were located in the aft section. Ammunition from the ship continued to burn for hours after the initial explosions. The Spanish officials and the civilian steamer, City of Washington, acted very quickly in rescuing the crewman and officers of the USS Maine. Afterwards, Captain Sigsbee informed his commander, Captain James Forsythe, Commanding, Naval Station Key West of the incident via telegraph. Forsythe then relayed the message onto his command. 

Telegram sent by Captain James Forsythe, Commanding, Naval Station Key West,
forwarding word from Charles Sigsbee, Captain, USS Maine of the sinking of his ship.
US Public Domain
American Reaction
 Newspapers were quick to release the news of the Maine's sinking claiming that the Spanish had mined the harbor and it was one of these mines that had sunk the Maine. The United States reacted by saying they could not be so quick to point a finger at another country without proof. An investigation was launched into the incident.

You can learn more about the USS Maine and what happened afterwards by following these links.

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