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The Second Sinking Of The ‘Maine’

April 2024
10min read

Giving the men who died aboard America’s first battleship a decent funeral took fourteen years, three-quarters of a million dollars, and some hair-raising engineering. But in the end, they did it right.

On the evening of February 15, 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine rode peacefully at her mooring in Havana Harbor. Officially she was there on an innocuous diplomatic mission, but many saw her presence as a demonstration of U.S. sympathy for Cuban rebels in their struggle against Spanish imperialism.

At 9:40 P.M. a small explosion shook the port side of the ship. Immediately afterward the entire forward section of the vessel breached upward in a concussion that curled both deck steel and twelve-inch armor plating. Minutes later the Maine was settling in soft mud thirty-five feet below the boiling surface.


The New York Journal immediately proclaimed that an enemy’s “infernal machine” had split the ship in two. A Navy board of inquiry sent divers to explore the wreck and later announced that the Maine had been destroyed by two or more explosions ignited by a mine of indeterminate origin. Of 354 Marines and sailors aboard, more than 260 were killed. America declared war against Spain on April 25, 1898, and “Remember the Maine!” became its battle cry.

The war was over in a few months, long before a new Maine could be launched and outfitted for service, but the U.S. victory over Spain ensured a role for this vessel and her sisters in America’s foreign policy in the years to come.

In 1907, at Hampton Roads, Virginia, the Navy paraded sixteen powerful battleships in an armada that moved President Theodore Roosevelt to exclaim, “By George, isn’t it magnificent!” But all the gleaming hulls and gilded bow insignias of the Great White Fleet could not erase the image of a distinctive mainmast that still poked from the waters of Havana Harbor.


There boatmen were kept busy ferrying tourists out to view the rusting sepulcher, and every newsstand sold colored postcards of the wreckage. Inevitably one of these cards landed on the desk of a U.S. congressman. His constituent wanted to know why American sailors and their ship had been abandoned in foreign waters. Some asked if the Maine could be raised; others called for a new investigation into the cause of her loss.

Despite occasional overtures from Congress, top government officials opposed efforts to retrieve the ship. In 1902 Navy Secretary William H. Moody wrote Eugene Hale, chairman of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs, saying that the Navy “does not regard with favor the raising of the Maine for the purpose of entering … into a new investigation.” Senator Hale sided with Moody, and their failure to support recovery attempts fueled popular suspicions that the government had something to hide.

Others were eager to raise the ship. The Spanish government offered to do the job at its own expense and conduct a new investigation in hopes of proving what it had maintained all along: that the explosion that sank the Maine came from within the ship.

Private citizens also wanted the Maine raised, mostly for patriotic reasons; one local bard implored the government to “Take the old ship out of her filthy grave/ To the clear, blue sea and the whitecapped wave.” Schoolchildren drew sketches and sent them to the White House, and inventors proposed the use of canvas air bags, submersible barrels, tanks, barges, and a newly developed “sub-marine derrick.”

And, of course, entrepreneurs wanted a hand in the raising. In 1904 the “USS Maine Salvage Company” offered its investors “substantial dividends” by proposing to display the retrieved wreck and sell advertising space around it. Photographic rights would also be sold as the ship toured American ports. All in all, the scheme promised to be “one of the most successful show enterprises in the world.”

But the movement that finally won congressional support was led by William Sulzer, a New York representative. In a speech to the House on March 23, 1910, he gave three reasons for action: “First, because the wreck is a menace to navigation in the harbor of Havana.” Second, the Maine should be raised “to ascertain how she was destroyed, so that the truth shall be known.” Third, and most important, “the remains of the Nation’s dead now entombed in the hull [should] be recovered and brought home for burial with naval honors in the mausoleum in Arlington Cemetery.”

A deft and influential statesman, Sulzer quickly piloted his legislation through both House and Senate. On May 9, 1910, President Taft signed the act authorizing the Secretary of War and the Army Engineers to provide for the raising or removal of the wreck.

That August the Army evaluated two methods for raising the ship. The first required attaching cables to the hull, which would then be lifted. The second involved building a cofferdam around the wreck, pumping out the water, and then refloating the ship or, if that was not possible, breaking her up. As far as anyone could guess, both plans would cost about the same. But the use of cables would jar the fragile, twisted remains and thus might destroy clues to the cause of the destruction. Engineers were not convinced that the cofferdam would work either, but if it did, they would be able “to examine the wreck thoroughly just as it lies and before there has been any change whatever in the relative locations of any of [the ship’s] parts.” Thus the cofferdam was the only approach likely “to accomplish the wishes expressed in Congress.” So the Army determined to part the waters of Havana Harbor.

The cofferdam was “without precedent in engineering history,” said the Army’s chief of engineers.

As described by the chief of the Army Engineers, the cofferdam was “in area, height and the pressure to be resisted without precedent in engineering history.” It would be an elliptical ring of twenty cylinders, each fifty feet in diameter, formed by interlocking sheet-steel piles driven to a depth of seventy-five feet. The cylinders would be connected on their outer perimeter by short arcs of similar sheet piles, then filled with stiff mud and clay. As the filling settled, it would press upon the cylinder walls to create a watertight barrier around the wreckage.

The building and draining of cofferdams were common practice among engineers working on inland waterways, but the Maine project was something else. This cofferdam would have to withstand the pressure of thirty-seven feet of seawater on a harbor bed layered with some twenty feet of soft mud and sand. Moreover, it had to hold up against waves, tidal currents, and gale-force winds. The Army had no illusions about how difficult the project would be, and troubles beset it from the start.

The first sheet pilings were slated for delivery in early November, but bad weather held them up in New York. Two hurricanes in Havana damaged much of the equipment promised by the Cuban government, causing further delays and adding to the cost. In its progress report of January 11, 1911, the Army requested an additional $350,000 to supplement its original $300,000 appropriation. The wide publicity may have put the Army on the spot, but it also encouraged the government to be generous. By the time the work was finished, the cost exceeded $750,000.

The Army continued its pile driving through the spring of 1911. Electrical power for light fed by underwater cable from Havana turned the project into an island of activity that went on twenty-four hours a day. By June all twenty cylinders and arches had been constructed and filled, and the slow, painstaking process of unwatering began.

Uncertain how the cofferdam would react under external pressure, the engineers devised a system of line measurements and gauges to detect the slightest movement of the cylinders. As the water level inside the cofferdam decreased to minus fifteen feet, the walls began to bulge inward. Immediately engineers increased the water level until the filling inside the cylinders could settle and become more stable. Thus attuned to the shifting personality of their handiwork, engineers continued pumping through June and into July, when some leakage became apparent. Although the amount of water seeping into the cofferdam was minimal, eight thousand yards of stone were placed against the inside sectors of the cylinders. By midsummer most of the water had been drained out, and the cofferdam stood like a fortress around the Maine. At the end of July the ship lay exposed, pungent with marine growth drying under the tropical sun.

The Navy stuck to its original conclusion that the ship had been destroyed by an external explosion.

The Navy’s man at the site, Capt. William B. Ferguson, found the ship’s superstructure covered with two to three inches of mud and reported that three feet of sludge clogged the cabins, engine rooms, and boiler compartments. He noted that most of the visible wreckage was a “tangled mass” and that the damage was far more extensive than the 1898 investigation had indicated.

While the ship was being cleaned, Captain Ferguson photographed every aspect of the wreckage and measured the shattered plates. In November 1911 the board of inquiry met in Havana. It viewed the wreckage, studied the photographs, listened to the testimony of witnesses, and finally, after nearly two weeks, announced that the explosion that had sunk the Maine had been set off by a charge “exterior” to the ship. Although the board located the explosion farther aft than was originally believed, its findings basically those of the 1898 inquiry.

As soon as Congress had approved the Maine legislation in 1910, requests for relics began flooding into the White House and the War Department. They were turned over to Captain Ferguson, the man who had come to know the ship most intimately, with instructions that relics should go to the former officers and crew of the Maine and their heirs, municipalities, military organizations, national museums, and approved patriotic groups.

Ferguson approved only a fraction of the requests, but even these numbered in the hundreds. Most were specific— a ten-inch shell, a whistle, a bell, a chronometer, and so on —and it soon became apparent that there would not be nearly enough of the Maine to satisfy everyone. Consequently, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson instructed that commemorative tablets be produced, and for this purpose fifty thousand pounds of steel from the Maine was set aside. In November 1912 the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts appointed a New York sculptor, Charles Keck, to design the tablet, and the next year nearly fifteen hundred were cast.

By the time the tablets were ready, most of the recognizable parts of the Maine had been distributed. While the mainmast was reserved for a monument at Arlington National Cemetery, the foremast went to the U.S. Naval Academy, and the ship’s rear ten-inch guns and after turret were donated to Cuban government officials who wanted to erect a Maine memorial in Havana. Organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution received the choice smaller items: binoculars, sextants, rifles, revolvers, bells, telescopes, and cutlasses. Some valuable mementos, however, including much of the ship’s china, went to senior naval officers.

Most recipients ended up with humbler tokens. The citizens of Woburn, Massachusetts, who had hoped for “an anchor [or a] small gun,” got a ventilator cowl. Bunker plates, port covers, and powder tanks went to veterans’ groups. Women’s patriotic organizations tended to want fragments of wood (remarkably well preserved by the Havana mud) that could be fashioned into gavels. The city of Findlay, Ohio, had the good fortune to receive the captain’s enameled-steel bathtub. The revered object was first publicly displayed on May 30, 1913, when it was viewed by “thousands of curious persons.”

The sad process of excavating the dead was also a laborious one. Mud had to be removed with shovels rather than with the quicker and more efficient steam hose, so that the proximity of personal artifacts and bones could be recorded. Fragments of an officer’s uniform, cap buttons, and a Naval Academy class ring, for instance, indicated that the bones of a “young man over six feet tall” were probably those of Darwin R. Merritt, the assistant engineer on duty the night of the explosion, who was last seen alive near the spot where the remains were found. By the end of the year parts of sixtysix skeletons had been recovered, but only Merritt’s could be positively identified.

With about two-thirds of the Maine still intact, the Army decided to refloat the hull, tow it beyond the three-mile limit into international waters, and sink it in the Florida Straits. Officially this was “the best and most economical” way of removing the wreck from Havana Harbor. Clearly, however, it would have been cheaper to cut or blow up the ship where she lay. Moreover, towing the unstable wreck was a risky affair: it could capsize and sink while still in Cuban waters. This was a chance the U.S. government was willing to take in order to stage funeral ceremonies that, according to The New York Times , had “not had their like in history.”

The mangled forward section was cut up and removed, while a concrete and wood bulkhead closed off the open end. Engineers fitted valves in the hull and pumped water through them to help loosen the seal between the ship and the mud in which she lay. At the same time, seawater slowly reintroduced into the cofferdam rose around the hull. Finally, the Maine broke free. Lighter by many tons, she rode precariously on a nearly even keel, her waterline a foot higher than it had been on the night she was destroyed.

In February 1912 the commander in chief of the Atlantic fleet ordered two of his proudest battleships, the North Carolina and the Birmingham , to steam to Havana so that “a suitable force of men under arms” could transfer the bones retrieved from the wreckage. The two vessels would then escort the Maine to her resting place amid twenty-one-gun salutes and white-uniformed splendor.

The Navy meticulously orchestrated the event. It was important that the Maine perform well, but there was no guarantee she would sink gracefully. She might capsize, air pockets could make her wallow and refuse to go down, and it all would be recorded in photographs and moving pictures. As a precaution the Army wired the hull with dynamite so that if the ship needed to be blown up again, the job would not have to be done with American guns.

The dynamite was unnecessary. The uneventful trip from the harbor to international waters took two hours. At five o’clock a gun on board the North Carolina signaled the opening of the Maine’s sea valves, and a military band began playing a funeral march. Her deck covered with flowers and her jury mast flying a huge American flag, the Maine began to ship water. For ten minutes the hull pitched heavily on the rolling seas, with no apparent change. Gradually, the forward end began to dip; the stern rose until the ship was almost vertical. There was a flash of spray and color as the American flag slid under the surface, snapping briskly until it hit the water. ‘The Maine then quickly disappeared to her last rest,” said a witness, “leaving no trace, save flowers on the surface of the sea.”

The escorting battleships fired three volleys from their big guns; a lone bugler played taps. The radiogram from the captain of the North Carolina to the Secretary of the Navy read simply: “MAINE sank 5:23 P.M. Whole function successful and impressive.” And in his final report the captain specified that the ship went down “forward end first,” while onshore a “wonderful crowd” of about one hundred thousand people stood silently along the waterfront and on balconies and housetops.

The elaborate funeral in the Florida Straits was followed by an even grander one in Washington, D.C., on March 23, 1912. Thousands turned out in the bitter March rain to stand bareheaded as a procession of thirty-four horse-drawn caissons moved past and headed into Arlington National Cemetery. There President Taft read the eulogy paying a nation’s belated tribute. The lost crew of the Maine was no longer a side-show attraction in alien waters.

In the 1970s engineers found that the ship had been killed by spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker.

But had the men whom Taft called “martyred defenders” of the Republic indeed been the victims of an enemy attack? Questions about the cause of the explosion that had killed them lingered on for three-quarters of a century, until in the 1970s Adm. Hyman Rickover stepped in. Rickover enlisted a team of engineers who conducted a thorough scientific investigation of the cause of the Maine’s explosion. The group had access to the Navy’s 1898 and 1911 investigations, as well as the benefit of modern knowledge of marine explosions and, of course, Captain Ferguson’s detailed photographs. Rickover’s study disproved the Navy’s earlier findings; in all probability the explosion that destroyed the Maine had come from deep inside the ship.

All the evidence indicated that combustible fumes in one of the coal bunkers spontaneously ignited, setting off a chain of explosions in adjacent magazines that sent the Maine to the bottom. It was not an enemy’s “infernal machine” but an unlucky and probably avoidable mishap that propelled America’s foreign policy into the twentieth century.


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