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U.S.S. Maine

On the evening of February 15, 1898, the quiet of Havana Harbor was shattered by a tremendous explosion forceful enough to break windows and tear doors off their hinges. Only minutes before, the crew of the U.S.S. Maine had turned in for the evening, after the last notes of taps. Captain Charles Sigsbee, writing a letter in his quarters, heard "a bursting, rending, and crashing sound," felt "a trembling and lurching motion of the vessel," and "knew immediately that the Maine had blown up and she was sinking." Captain Sigsbee and most of the other officers escaped serious injury; the crew was not so fortunate. The explosion was concentrated in the forward superstructure of the vessel, adjacent to the sleeping quarters. Most of the men died instantly; others suffered grievous injuries and died shortly afterward. In all, 266 men lost their lives, the largest loss of life in the United States Navy from a single incident until the U.S.S. Arizona in World War II.

Two separate courts of inquiry were set up to investigate the destruction of the Maine. The U.S. commission, one of whose members was Admiral William T. Sampson, determined that the Maine was blown up by an underwater mine, presumably placed in the harbor upon the Maine's arrival in late January. The Spanish commission came to the opposite conclusion, that the explosion had been internal, caused by overheating in one of the ship's magazines. (The sinking of the Maine was investigated two more times--once in 1911 and again in 1974. The 1911 inquest reached the same conclusion as the 1898 court of inquiry; the 1974 study, headed by Admiral Hyman Rickover, agreed with the Spanish.)

Regardless of the findings, many Americans had already deemed the sinking of the Maine to be a deliberate act on the part of the Spanish. This was due in part to the barrage of sensational literature put out by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer in the World and the Journal newspapers. Daily reports of plots and intrigue by the Spanish strengthened the conviction that the United States must avenge the Maine. Calls for war had reached a fever pitch by April, so much so that President McKinley and Congress made a formal declaration of war on April 25, 1898.

 

 

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