Feb. 15, 2022

The Sinking of the USS Maine

The Sinking of the USS Maine

February 15, 1898. An explosion in Havana Harbor sinks the USS Maine battleship, killing hundreds of American seamen and precipitating the Spanish-American War.

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Cold Open

It’s the evening of February 15th, 1898, in Havana Harbor, Cuba on board a US Navy second-class battleship.

Settled inside his quarters, Captain Charles Sigsbee sits at his desk composing a letter to his wife. As he writes, he can hear a young bugler on deck playing Taps; a song used to signal “lights out” for the men on board. Sigsbee briefly lays down his pen and listens to the familiar notes. He finds them quite beautiful in the stillness of the night.

Captain Sigsbee is in command of the USS Maine, an armored naval ship which has been anchored in Havana Harbor for three weeks. The ship’s assignment is to protect American citizens living in the Spanish colony of Cuba in the event hostilities should break out. For decades, a bitter conflict has been simmering between Cuban rebels and their Spanish rulers. Although America is not directly involved in the conflict, public sympathy in the United States leans toward the rebels. But Captain Sigsbee is under orders to keep the peace with the Spanish while present in the harbor.

Under the electric lights of the cabin, Sigsbee picks up his pen and writes to his wife that all is well. He’s a veteran officer whose career dates back to the American Civil War. His instincts tell him that his time here in Cuba will be uneventful. In no small part because the USS Maine is an intimidating 6000-ton warship, equipped with powerful ten-inch guns. The Spanish would be foolish to attack it. Soon, Sigbee wraps up the letter and encloses it inside an envelope. But then, around 9:40 PM…

Sigbee’s peaceful evening is interrupted by a deafening explosion. He is thrown from one side of his room to the other. Landing on his bed, he feels the entire vessel lurch forward as the walls around him rattle. The electric lights flicker and then cut out, leaving him alone in pitch darkness.

Sigsbee hears the loud groan of metal as the ship begins to tilt. In the pitch black, he smells smoke filling the room. He knows if he doesn’t move fast, he will likely suffocate. So he scrambles for the door and makes his way out into the dark, smoky passages in the belly of Maine. Sigsbee is desperate to make it above deck, so he can take control of the situation, and try to save his ship.

But Sigsbee’s efforts will be in vain. Soon, the USS Maine will sink in the harbor. Captain Sigsbee will survive, but hundreds of his men will not be so lucky. In the chaos immediately after the explosion, as Sigsbee realizes his ship is lost, his mind finally turns to the question of who did this. In the days, weeks, and even decades after, what happened to the USS Maine and who's responsible will remain a subject to debate, long after the deafening explosion ripped through Havana Harbor on February 15th, 1898.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is February 15th, 1898: The Sinking of the USS Maine.

Act One: Sinking Ship

It’s February 15th, 1898 in Havana Harbor. Moments before the explosion.

On the deck of a merchant ship called the City of Washington,a group of American officers smoke Cuban cigars and enjoy the evening air. But suddenly, the dark night is lit up by a gigantic explosion, close enough for the officers to feel the heat on their faces.

They look out across the harbor and see a fireball plume into the sky above the USS Maine, anchored further out at sea. The officers cry out in alarm as debris shoots up into the air. Fragments of wood, steel, and concrete rain down onto the surrounding boats, including their own.

The crew onboard the City of Washingtonwatch in horror as thick black smoke pours out of the Maine. Then they hear a series of smaller explosions from inside the ship. They can see men hurling themselves overboard to escape the furnace. The Washington’scommanding officer, Captain Frank Stevens, gives his crew orders to dispatch lifeboats to the blazing ship.But debris from the explosion has smashed into most of the boats, hindering their rescue attempts.

Meanwhile, inside the USS Maine, Captain Sigsbee shouts orders into the smoky blackness, unsure if anyone can hear him over the deafening sounds of destruction. As he makes his way up a steep incline to the rear of the ship, the Maine lists dangerously to the portside; he can hear water rushing in from all sides. If he doesn’t get out of the belly of the Maine and onto deck soon, he will likely perish with the ship.

Sigsbee doesn’t know what caused the explosion, but it’s obvious from the ship’s tilt that the Maine was struck on her bow. Whatever might have hit her, it must have ignited the ammunition stored below deck; Sigsbee can hear the sounds of continuous explosions as the more than five tons of gunpowder it holds, erupts in bursts. As Sigsbee makes his way up the incline, his thoughts are fixed on his crew. Most were sleeping in their bunks near the front of the Maine where the initial explosion occurred; there’s no telling how many were killed.

Groping his way up the incline, Sigsbee finally forces his way out onto the deck near the rear of the ship. He is pleased to find that many of his officers have survived. Their quarters, like his, were toward the ship’s stern, far from the point of detonation. The billowing smoke and flames make it difficult to see the true state of the Maine but there is no doubt the ship is sinking fast.

From below deck, Sigsbee can hear the sounds of men screaming. Grabbing the starboard rail for safety, he peers overboard and looks down into the black sea. There, he sees faint shapes thrashing around in the water, men who have either jumped or been thrown overboard by the blast. His officers have already begun lowering lifeboats into the water to rescue them. But most of the lifeboats were destroyed in the explosion; only three remain intact.

In the midst of this bedlam, Sigsbee remains calm. Even though the ship is sinking, he is confident that the harbor is shallow enough that much of the stern will remain above water. But the deck at the back of the ship is on fire. So Sigsbee orders his officers to man the fire hoses and put out the flames.

But then, Sigsbee hears something in the distance. Hoping it might be rescue, he turns to the source of the sound. He can’t be certain, but it sounds like people are cheering. He considers the possibility that he's imagining things. The thought of someone out there in the darkness relishing this disaster enrages him to the core. Until now, Sigsbee has been too busy fighting for survival to wonder whether or not this was an accident or an act of sabotage, perhaps from an underwater mine. For the first time, Sigsbee begins to wonder who might be responsible for the attack.

But there’s no time to solve the mystery now. Sigsbee looks out over the water and sees lifeboats from other ships in the harbor. Help is on the way. So he gives the official order to abandon ship. Soon, shivering sailors are pulled out of the sea and rowed away from the blazing wreckage.Sigsbee stays behind until every single living crew member is rescued. He is the last man to leave the USS Mainealive.

As the sailors manning Captain Sigsbee’s lifeboat row him away from the scene, Sigsbee gets his first full view of the sinking vessel.By now, the bow of the ship is fully submerged; and the rest of the Maineis engulfed in flames.

Although Sigsbee still has no idea how this terrible event occurred, he knows one thing for certain: the American people will be outraged. The press will be in a frenzy, and politicians in Washington will be looking for someone to blame.

The American government has been considering military intervention in Cuba for some time, and Sigsbee knows that if it’s discovered Spain played any role in this explosion, there can be only one outcome: war.

Act Two: “Remember the Maine!”

It’s February 15th, 1898, in Havana Harbor, on board the American merchant ship City of Washington.

As crewmen help Captain Sigsbee up from the lifeboat, he is greeted with a salute by Captain Stevens, the commander of the City of Washington. Sigsbee returns the salute and thanks Stevens for the swiftness of his crew’s actions with the lifeboats, and for setting up a makeshift hospital for the wounded. Soon, Sigsbee is informed that approximately 100 men were rescued from the Maine.Hearing this, Sigsbee’s heart sinks. He had 365 men under his command.

Almost immediately, Sigsbee heads to the Captain’s cabin and composes a telegram to the US naval department. He informs his commanders that 266 men died as a result of the explosion. He relays the details of the tragic event, including that he might’ve heard people cheering from the shore as the ship burned. He is careful to state that he couldn’t see who was cheering and that he might have been mistaken.

Sigsbee understands how volatile this situation is. The newspapers at home are already hostile to the Spanish government over their severe and brutal suppression of the Cuban rebels. And there are many politicians in Washington who’ve been desperate for an excuse to go to war with Spain. Now, they may have one.

Later that night, Sigsbee tries to fall asleep in his quarters on board the merchant ship.But he is kept awake by the intermittent explosions still booming from the Maine, and the sounds of wounded men groaning throughout the night.

Early the next morning, Captain Sigsbee receives a visit from high-ranking Spanish officials. General Solano, a distinguished officer, conveys his deep sorrow for the many American lives lost. He swears as a “man, an officer, and a Spaniard” that the Spanish authorities in Cuba know nothing about what caused the tragedy. And after his conversation with Solano, Sigsbee is inclined to believe that the Spanish government is not responsible. Solano not only seems sincere but Sigsbee doesn’t see what Spain has to gain from going to war with America.

The next day, on February 17th, the Spanish authorities hold a funeral for the first 19 bodies recovered from the wreckage. A procession of hearses winds its way toward a local cemetery. Huge crowds line the streets to pay respect for the American dead. Even the Bishop of Havana attends the service.

Captain Sigsbee later writes that “no greater demonstration of sympathy could have been made.” To Sigsbee, it seems obvious that the Spanish are going to great lengths to show they had nothing to do with the disaster. But as he closes his eyes in prayer during the service, Sigsbee knows the US Government isn’t yet convinced. Even now, as he sits in the church praying, American divers are exploring the wreckage to recover more bodies, and to determine what, or who caused the explosion.

Back in America, many in the press have already decided that the Spanish government is responsible. Notably, the New York Journal,owned by wealthy media magnate William Randolph Hearst, indulges in sensationalist “yellow journalism”, casting Spain as the obvious villain without a shred of evidence. The Journal, and many other publications like it, use eye-catching headlines, gross exaggerations, and even fabrications to push anti-Spanish sentiments. The American public is already biased against Spain, and these sensationalized reports of the USS Maine only add fuel to the fire. Soon, many Americans demand a war of retribution and rally around a slogan that encapsulates their rage: 

“Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!”

But in Washington, US President William McKinley takes a more measured approach. McKinley orders the Navy to convene a court of inquiry to launch an investigation to the cause of the explosion. On March 20th, the court of inquiry determines that Mainewas likely blown up by an underwater mine and that the Spanish are the likely culprit.

But though they present no evidence to substantiate this determination, Congress still authorizes President McKinley to use military force. McKinley gives Spain an ultimatum: give Cuba its independence or suffer the consequences. And when Spain refuses, the United States Congress declares war.

The Spanish-American War, as it comes to be known, doesn’t last long. After less than three months of land and naval warfare, America will emerge victorious. The Spanish Government will be forced to cede territory to the United States, including Puerto Rico and Guam. And the Cuban people will earn their independence. But regardless of the naval court’s findings, the truth behind the USS Maine’sdestruction remains a mystery that will hang over history for decades to come.

Act Three: Investigations

It’s late November 1911 in Havana Harbor. Thirteen years after the USS Maineexploded.

At the site of the wreckage, Rear Admiral Charles E. Vreeland inspects the cofferdam; a watertight enclosure that’s been constructed around the remains of the USS Maine.The Spanish-American War is long over, but the question of what caused the USS Maine to explode, and who was responsible, is still the source of much debate. There are many, inside and outside of the American government, who do not believe Spain was behind the explosion. As a result, Navy officials named Charles Vreeland head of the so-called “Vreeland Board,” a second court of inquiry charged with investigating what really happened in Havana Harbor over a decade ago. Today, Vreeland is in Cuba in hopes of solving the mystery.

As they work, Vreeland’s team of engineers are also able to retrieve more of the crewmen's bodies. Eventually, they will be returned to America for burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. And once the investigation is complete, the remains of the USS Maine will be towed further out to sea and sunk in the depths.

But by early December 1911, the “Vreeland Board” finally arrives at a conclusion. It agrees with the previous inquiry that the Mainemust have been struck by some kind of mine or underwater bomb.

But many in the US Navy still aren’t satisfied. These skeptics argue that because no trace of an enemy mine, or any other bomb, has ever been discovered, it is wrong to assume the ship was deliberately attacked. And as decades pass, this uncertainty looms and festers until finally, one high-ranking Admiral takes matters into his own hands

Over the course of his life, Admiral Hyman Rickover became fascinated by the story of the USS Maine.And in his study of the event, he remains skeptical of the previous inquiry's findings. And so, in 1974, Admiral Rickover launches his own private investigation. He comes to the conclusion that Vreeland, and the original naval court of inquiry, both got it wrong. Rickover believes that the explosion was caused by a spontaneous combustion inside the ship’s coal bin, and concludes that USS Maine incident was nothing more than a tragic accident, but one that started a war. 

In the 124 years since the USS Mainesank into Havana Harbor, there have been countless investigations and boundless conspiracy theories about what happened and who’s responsible. In the end, the truth remains a mystery. But regardless of whether the sinking of the Maine was an accident or an act of aggression, there is no doubt that the explosion changed the course of history for Cuba, Spain, and America. In its time, the slogan “Remember the Maine” was a rallying cry for war. Today, it is a reminder of the 266 men who lost their lives in the tragedy that occurred on February 15th, 1898.


Next on History Daily. February 16th, 2003, five thieves break into the vault of the Antwerp Diamond Centre and pull off one of the biggest heists in history.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by James Benmore.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.