266 sailors die on U.S.S. Maine: 1898

Debra Beal and Debra Beal

On Feb. 15, 1898, an explosion sank the battleship U.S.S. Maine in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, killing 266 crewmembers. Although the cause of the explosion was unknown, it was believed that a mine detonated under the ship, and this was the catalyst in the outbreak of the Spanish-American War.

The war only lasted eight months, but it was “a turning point in the history of the United States, signaling the country’s emergence as a world power,” according to a Naval Historical Center Web site.

Spain held control over Cuba since the country first began its exploration in 1492. In 1868, Cuban revolutionaries began their struggle for independence. After 10 years of conflict, Cuba obtained a treaty, although it was never honored by Spain, according to a Library of Congress Web site.

Frustrated over the neglected treaty, Cuban revolutionaries made another move for independence in 1895. Spain reacted by sending Gen. Valeriano Weyler to Cuba with orders to subdue the rebels.

In order to deprive rebels of civilian support, Weyler forcibly removed civilians from their homes located in conflict areas, and moved them near military headquarters. “This policy resulted in the starvation and death of over 100,000 Cubans,” according to the Naval Web site.

The United States then called Weyler the “Butcher,” and gave their sympathies to Cuban revolutionaries. In 1898, Weyler’s supporters instigated riots in Havana, and President McKinley decided to intervene on Cuba’s behalf.

The U.S.S. Maine was deployed to Cuba and arrived in the Havana harbor on Jan. 25, 1898. Captain Charles Sigsbee reported that the Navy’s presence appeared to have a calming effect on the tension in Cuba, at least until the fatal explosion occurred.

Most of the Maine’s crew was sleeping when the explosion occurred on the evening of Feb. 15, and only 88 lives were spared of the 354 crewmembers. The survivors were mostly officers, as they were located on the aft position of the ship that was furthest from the explosion.

United States citizens reacted with outrage. The reaction was caused partly by inflammatory reporting in yellow press newspapers. Despite uncertainty of the explosion’s origin, Hearst’s newspaper, the “New York Journal,” ran the headline “Destruction of the War Ship Maine was the Work of an Enemy.” Pulitzer’s newspaper, the “New York World” ran the headline “Maine Explosion Caused by Bomb or Torpedo?,” according to “The Media in America” by William David Sloan.

The headlines were so sensational that newspaper critics later accused the yellow press of starting and fueling the war, although the accusations were unfounded. Overall, the United States had a significant interest in Cuba for trade in sugar, and government officials sympathized with Cubans over Spain’s strong-arm tactics.

During the course of the war, Teddy Roosevelt gained widespread publicity for organizing the volunteer cavalry unit called the “Rough Riders.” The future president was made a national hero for the defeat of the Spanish army on San Juan Hill.

Most soldiers in the war found their experience to be less glamorous, according to one veteran. “We spent most of our time in Chickamauga Park [in Georgia]…and it was nothing but a…fever swamp. They lost more men there than they did in Cuba, a hell of a lot more. They died like flies at Chickamauga,” according to a Library of Congress Web site. Of the 3,000 American lives lost during the war, 90 percent died from infectious disease.

Negotiations between the United States and Spain resulted in signed a peace treaty on Dec. 10, 1898. Cuba won their independence with the support of a powerful ally.





The Media in America: A History by David Sloan