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Maine, Sinking of the USS

Maine, Sinking of the USS (1898).In January 1898, Spain was winning its war against Cuban insurrectionists, but faced pressure from U.S. president William McKinley to make concessions. When in response to reforms from Madrid, Spanish officers and Cuban loyalists rioted in Havana, U.S. consul Fitzhugh Lee requested a warship to protect American lives and property. There was also concern about rumored Spanish intentions to turn Cuba over to Germany. These circumstances induced McKinley to dispatch the USS Maine a second‐class battleship (its keel was laid in 1888, but it was not commissioned until 1895) to Havana.

The Maine arrived off Havana on 25 January; Spanish authorities reluctantly allowed her entry to the harbor and assigned an anchorage. On the night of 15 February, an explosion ripped the ship's hull open, and she sank with over 260 men (two‐thirds of her complement) killed. Encouraged by sensationalist newspapers, many Americans believed the explosion resulted from an external mine set off by the Spaniards. On 21 March 1898, a U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry concluded that an external explosion caused by unknown persons had detonated one of the Maine's forward ammunition magazines. The court rejected an alternative explanation, that spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker set off nearby ammunition. So did a second inquiry held in 1911, when the Maine's half‐submerged hulk was raised and examined before being disposed of at sea. In 1975, another inquiry, headed by Adm. Hyman Rickover, reassessed the 1911 photographs of the wreckage, and concluded that the Maine was the victim of an internal explosion from spontaneous combustion in an inadequately ventilated bituminous coal bunker, which then exploded adjoining magazines. But the explosion's true cause remains a mystery.

Many regard the sinking of the Maine as the cause of the Spanish‐American War. This simplistic explanation ignores the fact that McKinley tried to avoid war for a month after the court finding. A combination of events led to war in April 1898.
[See also Spanish‐American War.]


Hyman G. Rickover , How the Battleship Maine Was Destroyed, 1976.
David F. Trask , The War with Spain in 1898, 1981.
Albert A. Nofi , The Spanish‐American War, 1898, 1996.

Steven C. Gravlin

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