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February 15
1898

Prelude
to
War
 

 

 
U.S.S. Maine  (BB-2)

 

 President McKinley could have selected no finer ship from the US Naval fleet to display the colors in Havana than the vessel he dispatched from Key West on January 25th.  The U.S.S. Maine was an impressive battleship, at 319 feet long and displacing 6,682 tons it was the largest ship ever to enter the harbor at Havana.  Though only a second class battleship, the nine-year-old vessel was among the most impressive of the U.S. Naval fleet.  One of our country's first steel warships, the Maine was unique in the fleet due the fact that it had been totally designed and built by Americans.  It was the largest ship ever actually constructed in a U.S. Navy yard.  Painted the bright white of a peace-time US Naval Vessel, the impressive battleship boasted four of the huge 10-inch breech-loading rifles in additional to its smaller battery armaments.

Most of Captain Charles D. Sigsbee's 24 Naval officers were graduates of the Academy at Annapolis.  At least 20% of the 290 sailors they commanded were foreign born men who sought now to serve their adopted country.

A 40-man Marine guard brought the ship's total strength to 355 American servicemen.  The leathernecks, under the leadership of five non-coms, were commanded by First Lieutenant Albertus W. Catlin who had graduated from the US Naval Academy with the class of 1890.  (Sixteen years later as a major, Catlin would earn the Medal of Honor in the engagement at Vera Cruz, Mexico.)  Nearly a fourth of the Marines were foreign-born, American immigrants.

Upon arrival in Havana on Tuesday, January 25th, the U.S.S. Maine anchored at Bouy #4, a space reserved for war ships.  Despite this, the potential for the unrest in Cuba to turn violent, and the Maine's impressive array of military power, the mission was a peaceful one.  Captain Sigsbee informed his crew that there would be no shore liberty while in Cuba, but for the most part the men were content to spend a brief time riding peacefully at anchor under the tropical sun of the Caribbean.  After this short visit they would return to New Orleans...in time for Mardi Gras.

The Spanish welcomed, though somewhat nervously, the arrival of the Maine, and sent a case of sherry to the officer's mess along with an invitation to a bull fight at the "plaza de toros".  Captain Sigsbee and a few of his officers dutifully accepted the invite, attending in civilian attire.  On his visit ashore the commander of the Maine was at one point handed an anti-American propaganda pamphlet by someone in the crowd.  Scrawled across it was the message, "Watch out for your ship."

Beyond the scrawled message at plaza de toros however, there was little more to indicate that the crew of the Maine was facing any undue danger.  None-the-less, as a matter of prudence, Sigsbee ordered Lieutenant Catlin to keep his Marines at a careful state of alert. 

The Maine, simply by her presence, seemed to have a reassuring effect upon the American Foreign Minister.  General Fitzhugh Lee noted this in a communication to President McKinley and requested that when the Maine's tenure in Havana expired, another Naval vessel be dispatched to replace her.  By Tuesday, February 15th the Maine had been at anchor for three weeks without incident.  Though Lieutenant Catlin dutifully kept his Marines at a high state of alert, the crew of the Maine's biggest problem became boredom.

By the artificial light in his cabin that evening, Captain Sigsbee began was writing a letter to his family when Marine fifer C.H. Newton began playing "Taps" to signal the end of the day.  "I laid down my pen to listen to the notes of the bugle, which were singularly beautiful in the oppressive stillness of the night," he wrote.  "The marine bugler, Newton, who was rather given to fanciful effects, was evidently doing his best.  During his pauses the echoes floated back to the ship with singular distinctness, repeating the strains of the bugle fully and exactly."  I was a dark, moonless night as the Maine sat idly on the smooth waters of the Caribbean harbor, anchored at peace between the the Spanish cruiser Alfonso XII and the American passenger ship City of Washington.

It was ten minutes after nine when Newton blew his haunting version of "Taps", and when the last note had sounded, all was quiet.  Newton returned below deck where most of the enlisted men were billeted.  In his cabin, Captain Sigsbee picked up his pen to finish his letter.  On deck, Lieutenant John Hood was finishing the day with a fine cigar.  As he relished the smoke he noticed someone walking to the starboard side of the ship.  Approaching, Hood recognized the familiar face of Lieutenant John Blandon as the latter leaned against the railing to peer off at the lights of Havana.  It was 9:40 P.M.  

"You asleep?"  Hood asked with a slight laugh.

"No, I'm on watch," Blandon answered.

And then, 
the U.S.S. Maine Exploded!

 

 

 

 

"I was enclosing my letter in its envelope when the explosion came," Captain Sigsbee later testified.  "It was a bursting, rending, and crashing roar of immense volume, largely metallic in character.  It was followed by heavy, ominous metallic sounds.  There was a trembling and lurching motion of the vessel, a list to port.  The electric lights went out.  Then there was intense blackness and smoke.

"The situation could not be mistaken.  The Maine was blown up and sinking.  For a moment the instinct of self-preservation took charge of me, but this was immediately dominated by the habit of command."

 

Marine Private William Anthony was on the weather deck when the Maine literally erupted.  Captain Sigsbee's orderly, his first concern was for his captain.  Though the darkness of the harbor was now awash with flame, the passageways inside the ship had been plunged into total darkness, save for flames here and there that flickered amid a heavy pall of smoke.  With no concern for his own safety, Anthony search the passage ways until he found his Captain, moving towards the deck of the listing and rapidly sinking battleship.  In the dim flicker of the flames, Anthony calmly saluted his captain and reported, "Sir, I have to inform you that the ship has blown up and is sinking."  Both men then quickly proceeded to the weather deck, where Captain Sigsbee directed Lieutenant Commander Richard Wainwright to immediately post sentries around the ship.  The first inclination was that the Maine was under attack.

Lieutenant Catlin later testified that he heard the sound like the "crack of a pistol and (then) the second (was) a roar that engulfed the ship's entire forward section."  Indeed the entire forward section of the Maine had broken almost entirely in half.  

On the weather deck the officers began to organize the survivors.  All but two officers survived the explosion, their quarters being located aft on the battleship.  The enlisted seamen and Marines were quartered below deck, most of them in the forward section where the explosion had occurred and just two decks above the powder magazines.  Lieutenant Hood had witnessed the explosion from his vantage point on the deck with Lieutenant Blandon.  He later described the scene.  "The whole starboard of the deck, with its sleeping berth, burst out and flew into space, as a crater of flame came through, carrying with it missiles and objects of all kinds, steel, wood, and human.  (After the explosion) all was still except for the cries of the wounded, the groans of the dying, and the crackling of flame in the wreckage."

Lieutenant Blandon foggily remembered an explosion from the port side, followed by "a perfect rain of missiles of all descriptions, from huge pieces of cement to blocks of wood, steel railings, fragments of gratings, and all the debris that would be detachable in an explosion."  A block of cement struck Blandon in the head, but he recovered quickly and joined Lieutenant Hood on the poop deck, now ankle-deep in water, to begin lowering boats.

There were no Marine guards for Lieutenant Commander Wainwright to post about the ship per his Captain's orders.  Nearly three-fourths of the Marines were killed in the explosion.  The U.S.S. Maine was beyond hope, almost severed at the bow, and sinking badly.  Reluctantly, Captain Sigsbee ordered the few survivors on the decks to abandon ship.  As the waters of the harbor continued to reach out to claim the body of the American battleship, Sigsbee directed its evacuation.  When no one else was left alive, the Captain was the last to depart.

By the time gigs from the nearby City of Washington and Alfonso XII could be dispatched to the scene of the disaster, little of the Maine remained above water.  Through the darkness of the night the small boats searched the debris-covered waters of the harbor for survivors, Captain Sigsbee standing in one of them calling into the blackness:  "If there is anyone living on board, for God's sake say so!"  His desperate cries met only silence. 

As morning dawned across the harbor, only 103 members of the crew of the U.S.S. Maine had survived.  Two of the ship's 26 officers went down with the ship, along with 222 sailors and 28 Marines.  Of the 103 survivors, 59 were wounded, 8 of them so severely that they later died as a result of their wounds.  Total losses for the once proud battleship reached 260 dead or missing, a casualty rate of 75%.  Among the missing was Fifer Newton whose last, memorable rendition of "Taps" had been played not only for his comrades now at rest in the deep, but for himself.  In a sense it had been his own haunting eulogy.

Across the waters of the harbor, little remained of the 319-foot battleship.  Only a small pile of twisted metal and the protruding mast of the U.S.S. Maine, still proudly "displaying the Colors".

 

In the hours after the explosion aboard the Maine, the small gigs from the American passenger steamer and the Spanish warship Alphonso XII had given good account of themselves in braving the darkness, fires and secondary explosions of the sinking American battleship in search of survivors.  Having witnessed this first-hand, Captain Sigsbee was reluctant to immediately blame the Spanish.  In his first telegram to Washington he reported details of the event, then closed with the observation that "Public opinion should be suspended until further report."  

There would indeed be further reports, both officially and unofficially.  Two days after the explosion the Navy created the "Sampson Board", an official inquiry into the cause of the disaster.  On February 21 the Naval Court of Inquiry began their 4-week investigation in Havana.  Simultaneously, the Spanish began their own inquiry into the matter.

It would not be an easy process.  Captain Sigsbee remembered "a bursting, rending, and crashing roar of immense volume... followed by heavy, ominous metallic sounds."

Lieutenant Blandon remembered a single explosion on the port side, followed by "a perfect rain of missiles of all descriptions."  Lieutenant Hood, who had been next to Blandon to witness the explosion first hand remember the explosion on the starboard side. 

Marine Lieutenant Catlin reported what he thought to be TWO explosions, the first sounding like the "crack of a pistol and the second a roar that engulfed the ship's entire forward section."  Some survivors heard one explosion, others a deep rumble followed by one loud explosion, still others a series of explosions.  Reaching any kind of reasonable determination as to what caused the destruction of the Maine would be a challenge not only to the official Board of Inquiry, but to historians for the following century.  

Back in the United States there were few questions about what had caused the Maine to suddenly explode in the darkness of night, killing 260 American men.  Two days after the indicent the headline in the New Your World read:  "MAINE EXPLOSION CAUSED BY BOMB OR TORPEDO?"  

The New York Journal was more specific:  "THE DESTRUCTION OF THE WAR SHIP MAINE WAS THE WORK OF AN ENEMY."  Artists created renditions showing how Spanish saboteurs had fastened an underwater mine to the hull of the Maine, then detonated it from shore.  Randolph Hearst offered a $50,000 reward for "Conviction of the Criminals" and announced that "Naval Officers (were) Unanimous That the Ship Was Destroyed on Purpose".

On March 6th the Spanish government requested the recall of U.S. Cuban Consul Fitzhugh Lee.  In the United States citizens gathered solemnly at Capitol Hill and outside the White House to mourn the loss of 260 lives.  Tensions continued to mount while the Navy conducted its official inquiry.   In a Broadway bar in New York City a patron lifted his glass and said, "Gentlemen, remember the Maine!"  A reporter from the Journal happened to be in the bar and wrote about the incident.  When it was published America had a new slogan..."Remember The Main".    Spaniards were burned in effigy in cities and town across America and soon the slogan became a war cry:

"Remember the Maine,  and To Hell with Spain!"

 

To be sure there were cooler heads, even as the tensions mounted.  Amid the cries of the firebrands and the warhawks, U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed said, "A war will make a large market for gravestones."  Popular author Samuel Clemmens (Mark Twain) continued to speak out against any possible war, urging the United States not to become embroiled in the affairs of distant nations.

Ten days after the explosion, Under Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt cabled Commodore George Dewey with the U.S. Pacific fleet in Hong Kong.  "Keep in full coal," the communiqué stated.  "In the event of declaration of war with Spain, your duty will be to see that the Spanish squadron does not leave the Asiatic coast and then offensive operations in Philippine Islands."  Itching for a fight and convinced of the truth of his earlier remarks about the glory of war to the Naval War College, Roosevelt went so far as to refer to President McKinley as a "milquetoast".  

McKinley, who had served in the Civil War and participated at the tragic battle at Antietam in the earliest days of that war, told one visitor to the White House:  "I have been through one war; I have seen the dead piled up; and I do not want to see another."

But the makings of war could not be avoided.  As a matter of preparedness, President McKinley requested a $50 million dollar war fund.  On March 8th the U.S. Congress stunned Spanish observers when it unanimously approved the request.  In San Francisco on the western coast, the battleship Oregon was dispatched for  the Caribbean.  On March 14 the Spanish fleet under Admiral Cervera began steaming for the Cape Verde Islands.  Throughout the period the yellow journalism of competing newspapers inflamed the public with more and more stories.  (During the period the New York Journal printed an unprecedented 8 pages each day related to the U.S.S. Maine disaster.)  

Late in March the Spanish concluded its official inquiry and delivered the findings to the U.S. government on March 25.  On the same day the Spanish government informed Washington that their investigators had determined the Maine had been destroyed by "internal combustion", the President announced the results of his recently received Sampson Inquiry.  When he announced to the American public that the Naval Board of Inquiry had determined that the Maine was destroyed "by an external explosion (presumably a mine)", the war cries hit a feverish pitch.

Two days later President McKinley sent these findings to Spain.  He also issued Spain his final terms:  

Meanwhile, Navy Secretary John Davis Long ordered the peacetime white hulls of American warships to be painted with a dull battle gray.  A song titled "My Sweetheart Went Down With the Maine" became the tune-of-the-day.  Marine Private William Anthony, who had braved the explosions and fire of the Maine to seek out his captain was brought home to a hero's welcome.  Honored by both the Navy and Marines, he was promoted to sergeant and hailed as the first true hero of the war that was still looking for an excuse to happen. 

The Spanish responded with some concessions, but stopped far short of granting Cuban Independence.  From without, the President received pressure from the Ambassadors of England, Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Russia to avoid war with Spain.  On April 6th the Pope indicated to the President that he would enter negotiations with Spain, requesting that the President delay any actions pending the outcome.  The the cry from within for retaliation and U.S. support for the "freedom fighters" of Cuba continued to push the United States towards war.  On April 4th the New York Journal dedicated an edition to the war brewing in Cuba and called upon the U.S. to intervene.    The press-run was one million copies.

Finally, bowing to the rapidly deteriorating events in Cuba and the overwhelming cries for war at home, President McKinley asked Congress on April 11th to authorize American intervention to end the revolution in Cuba.  Five days later the road to war was cleared in Congress when an amendment offered by Colorado Congressman Henry Teller was ratified.  Designed to quiet the fears of those who opposed a war based upon an American imperialistic effort to annex Cuba, the Teller Amendment stated that the United States:

"Hereby disclaims any disposition of intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island (Cuba) except for pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people."

On April 20th, while Congress still debated the request for war, President McKinley signed a Joint Resolution for war with Spain, an ultimatum that was promptly forwarded to Madrid with a call for Cuban independence.  The Spanish Minister to the United States promptly demanded his passport and, with his Legation, left Washington for Canada.  

The following day McKinley received his answer from Madrid...General Steward Woodford, the U.S. Minister to Spain was handed his passport and told to leave the country.  The Spanish government considered McKinley's ultimatum a declaration of war.  With diplomatic relations suspended, President McKinley ordered a blockade of Cuba while the Spanish forces in Santiago began mining Guantanamo Bay.

The U.S. Naval fleet departed Key West, Florida on April 22nd to carry out the President's order for a blockade of Cuba.  The American Navy was well prepared for war, especially against the aging Spanish fleet.  But the Spanish had at least 80,000 soldiers stationed in Cuba that would require a ground war.  The U.S. Army, with only 25,706 enlisted men and 2,116 officers, was not prepared for war.  On April 23 the U.S. President issued a call for 125,000 volunteers.  After months of patriotic fervor generated by tales of Spanish sabotage and atrocity, the recruiting stations were immediately swamped with eager young American would-be soldiers.

 

On April 25, 1898 the war that had been looking for an excuse to happen, finally became official.  The U.S. Congress passed a resolution declaring the United States to be at war with Spain.  The Naval blockade of Cuba already underway, Congress made the declaration of war effective as of April 21, thereby legitimizing military actions undertaken in the previous four days.

Under Admiral William Sampson, who had earlier headed up the inquiry into the cause of the explosion on the U.S.S. Maine, the blockade of Cuba was already successfully underway.  On the same day that war was declared, American ships bombarded the Spanish at Matanzaras, Cuba.

On the other side of the globe, the U.S. Pacific fleet under Admiral George Dewey was already prepared for war as per the February 25th communiqué from Navy Undersecretary Roosevelt.  Cuba in the Caribbean was not the only vestige remaining of the old Spanish Empire...Spain also held much of the series of 700 islands in the Pacific known as the Philippine Islands...which had been under the rule of Madrid since Ferdinand Magellan discovered the vast Archipelago in 1521.

While few Americans gave little notice or concern to events in the Pacific Islands, and even President McKinley confessed that he could not locate the Philippine Islands "within 2000 miles", American Naval planners had long considered the value of the natural port at Manila on Luzon, the largest of the islands.  War with Spain was destined to become a global conflict, and while Admiral Sampson's ships conducted their blockade in the Caribbean, on April 27th Admiral Dewey sailed his ships out of Mirs Bay, China and set their course for Manila.  The Spanish-American war would become a battlefield on two, widely separated fronts.

 

  

Back home Marine Sergeant William Anthony struggled with his new role as an American hero.  On a horrible night in Havana harbor he had, as the public would loudly proclaim, been a brave and daring young leatherneck.  Anthony didn't think about his heroics too often, instead his nights and his nightmares were filled with the agonizing cries of his fellow Marines and sailors as they perished in a moment of terror.  Those nightmares, and the pressures of an adoring public that could never understand the true horror of war, pushed him to drink.  He may have been the first "hero" of the Splendid Little War but he would not be the LAST.

By the time the brief war ended, William Anthony would be discharged from service and overcome by his past as well as his present.  Despondent and unemployed, his body was found in Central Park on November 24, 1899.  He committed suicide at the age of 46.   For the politicians who fought their wars from comfortable desks, there might be something SPLENDID in war.  For the young men who fight in the field, WAR is HELL.

 

A Splendid Little War

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