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26 June, 2013
The Great Republic by the Master Historians
Our Action on the Maine Disaster
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The warlike trend of affairs and of public opinion was suddenly brought to a climax when the mysterious destruction of the Maine was reported. The following narrative, taken from "American History," by Joseph M. Rogers, is interspersed with official and personal records.]

The administration resolved to maintain friendly relations, and, as an earnest of its good intentions, sent the battle-ship Maine (Captain Charles D. Sigsbee) in January, 1898, to the harbor of Havana, on a friendly visit; and the Spanish cruiser Vizcaya was ordered to New York. Neither ship was received with enthusiasm, and the relations were formal and strained, On February 8 a sensation was created by the publication of a letter purporting to have been written by the Spanish Minister at Washington, Dupuy de Lome, to Senor Canalejas, a Spanish official at Havana. In this letter McKinley was called "a low politician," "weak and catering to the rabble," "who desires to leave a door open to me and to stand well with jingoes of his party." Canalejas was urged to agitate commercial relations even if "only for effect," and to send a man to Washington" to make a propaganda among the Senators." When de Lome saw the letter was published, he immediately cabled his resignation to Madrid, and, when questioned by the State Department, blandly acknowledged it and left the country. This caused a storm of excitement. Just how the Cuban Junta secured the letter is not known, but it proved a powerful weapon. The excitement had not cooled down on the morning of February 16, 1898, when the country was driven wild with excitement on learning that, at 9:40 o'clock the evening previous, the battle-ship Maine had been blown up in Havana harbor, killing or mortally wounding two officers and 264 men. Captain Sigsbee, who was on board, was saved, and immediately wired the Secretary of the Navy, asking suspension of judgment pending an investigation. Despite his manly appeal for judicial patience the dominant impression was that treachery had been at work and there was no particular hesitancy in expressing that opinion.

Writing after the first excitement had subsided, Captain Sigsbee told the story as follows: "On that dreadful night I had not retired. I was writing letters. I find it impossible to describe the sound or shock, but the impression remains of something awe-inspiring, terrifying, of noise-rending, vibrating, all-pervading. There is nothing in the former experience of any one on board to measure the explosion by.... After the first great shock--I cannot myself recall how many sharper detonations I heard, not more than two or three--I knew my ship was gone. In a structure like the Maine, the effects of such an explosion are not for a moment in doubt.. I made my way through the long passage in the dark, groping from side to side, to the hatchway and thence to the poop, being among the earliest to reach that spot. As soon as I recognized the officers, I ordered the high explosives to be flooded, and then directed that the boats available be lowered to the rescue of the wounded or drowning.. Discipline in a perfect measure prevailed. There was no more confusion than a call to general quarters would produce--not as much.. I soon saw, by the light of the flames, that all my officers and crew left alive and on board surrounded me. I cannot form any idea of the time, but it seemed five minutes from the moment I reached the poop until I left, the last man it was possible to reach having been saved. It must have been three-quarters of an hour or more, however, from the amount of work done.. I remember the officers and men worked together lowering the boats, and that the gig took some time to lower. I did not notice the rain of debris described by Lieutenant Blandin or others who were on the deck at the time of the first explosion, but I did observe the explosion of the fixed ammunition, and wonder that more were not hurt thereby.. Without going beyond the limits of what was proper in the harbor of a friendly Power, I always maintain precautions against attack, and the quarter-watch was ordered to have ammunition for the smaller guns ready so that in the improbable event of an attack on the ship it would have been found ready. It was this ammunition which exploded as the heat reached it."

The affair loses none of its horrors when described by eye-witnesses from the outside. The Maine was moored near the Ward Line steamer, City of Washington, one of whose passengers recorded his impressions of the explosion. He says:

"A party of us were sitting in the cabin engaged in idle conversation. It was nearly as I can recall, between nine and ten o'clock. Suddenly we were startled by a loud report. As by a single impulse our little group rushed to the port- holes and saw an immense flash shoot up in the air with a horrible, grinding, hissing noise that might have been an earthquake or a cyclone. Debris of all kinds and a large number of bodies were thrown upward. It was at first believed that the Maine was being fired upon, but afterwards, as the City of Washington was struck by what turned out to be falling debris and she careened, it was thought she was the ship attacked. A second explosion took place, and following it we heard groans and cries of `Help,' `Help us.' The boats of the City of Washington and those of the Spanish cruiser Alfonso XII. were hurriedly launched and went to the rescue. I went into one of the boats of the City of Washington, and the scenes I witnessed were heartrending beyond description.. Two of the small boats on board the City of Washington were stove in by the debris from the Maine. The battle-ship sank even with the water in about thirty minutes after the explosion. The City of Washington was converted into a hospital. Many of the rescued men were brought on board almost nude, and the passengers gave them clothing. The officers of the City of Washington did all in their power to make the rescued men comfortable.. About half an hour after the explosion Consul- General Lee, the Civil Governor of Havana, and Captain-General Blanco's chief of staff came on board. General Lee remained with us all night.

"When all was over, and the casualties were estimated, it was found that 266 seamen, including two commissioned officers, had lost their lives."

Spain asked to be allowed to join in the investigation we set afoot, but, being refused, started one of her own in a desultory manner.

A Court of Inquiry, composed of Captain William T. Sampson, of the Iowa; Lieutenant-Commander Adolph Marix, Captain French E. Chadwick, and Lieutenant- Commander W.P. Potter, began an investigation, February 26, which lasted twenty- three days. All the survivors were closely questioned; the Maine was examined by divers; the fullest testimony was obtained and sifted.

These were the conclusions of the court:

"That the loss of the Maine was not due in any respect to negligence on the part of any of the officers or members of the crew.

"That she was destroyed by the explosion of a submarine mine, which caused the partial explosion of two or more of her forward magazines and that no evidence has been obtainable fixing the responsibility for the destruction of the Maine upon any person or persons."

The Spanish Court of Investigation reported that the explosion was from the inside of the Maine.

The President sent the report of our Court of Inquiry to Congress, saying he had referred it to Spain, expecting that nation to do what was right in the premises. Under orders of the President, Consul-General Fitzhugh Lee left Havana April 9, 1898, by which time nearly all our consuls and citizens were already gone. On April 7 an unusual event took place at the White House. The diplomatic representatives of Great Britain, Germany, Austro-Hungary, France, Italy, and Russia, headed by Sir Julian Pauncefote, handed the President a joint note expressing the hope that further negotiations would bring about peace. The President replied that he was anxious for peace, and concluded: "The Government of the United States appreciates the humanitarian and disinterested character of the communication now made on behalf of the Powers therein named, and for its part is confident that equal appreciation will be shown for its own earnest and unselfish endeavors to fulfil a duty to humanity by ending a situation, the indefinite prolongation of which has become insufferable." This is generally conceded to be one of the most convincing answers to an appeal for peace ever made. It satisfied the Powers, not one of which thereafter made a protest.

On April 10, 1898, the new Spanish Minister presented a long note to the State Department, making the best of the situation from a Spanish point of view, calling attention to autonomy, the armistice, the repeal of the Weyler decree of reconcentration, and the fact that General Blanco, who had succeeded Weyler, was trying to do the best he could for humanity. It was too late. War was already certain, and the only question was as to the preliminaries. There were many members in both Houses who wanted to recognize the existing Cuban Republic, but the President opposed this, and, after a long struggle, the administration won.

On April 19 both Houses passed resolutions declaring the people of Cuba free and independent, demanding that Spain relinquish authority in Cuba, directing the President to use all the land and naval forces to carry the resolutions into effect, and specifically stating that this country entered upon the task not for its own aggrandizement, but expecting to leave the control and government of the Island to its people as soon as it was pacified. The President signed these resolutions April 20 and sent, by cable, a copy to our Minister to Spain, General Woodford, who was to wait two days for a reply. The Spanish Government had received a copy from its Minister, Polo y Bernabe, in Washington, and, without waiting to hear from Woodford, sent him his passports. He turned over the legation to the British Embassy and left on the same day for home. Thus Spain actually began the war. On the 22d the President issued an order blockading nearly all the ports of Cuba. At daylight on the 23d the fleet which had collected at Key West, under command of acting Rear-Admiral Sampson, sailed for Cuba, and the blockade was begun. On the way the Spanish merchant steamer Buena V entura was captured by the gunboat Nashville. Other captures were soon made. On the 25th, in reply to message of the President, Congress passed a resolution declaring that war existed with Spain and had existed since the 21st of April, the day Spain broke off diplomatic relations.

On the 23d the President issued a call for 125,000 volunteers for the war. While the negotiations were in progress the country had not been idle. On February 1 this country was in no condition for war; there were few reserve supplies of ammunition and equipment, and an immediate declaration of war would have found the country badly handicapped. The administration needed some time and much money to prepare for war. The President asked for $50,000,000, to be used at his discretion, for the public good. The House, on the 8th, and the Senate, on the 9th, unanimously voted the money.

Great were the preparations to be hurriedly made. The financial question was easily settled. Stamp taxes were laid intended to raise over $100,000,000 per year, and a popular loan of $200,000,000 in 3 per cent bonds was offered. Most of this was taken in subscriptions of $500, or less, and no subscription of $5,000 or over was accepted. The loan was subscribed many times over. The bonds sold at a premium long before they were ready for delivery.

The army problem was much more difficult to solve. Ever since the Civil War the army had been neglected, in spite of recommendations and protests from army officers and the War Department. Although the officers were as fine a body as ever wore uniform, Congress never looked upon them and the men as much more than ornamental police. Only in the last few years had the army been equipped with the modern small calibre rifle with smokeless powder cartridges, and there was not a large enough reserve supply at first for the regular recruits. The fear of militarism being ever before the eyes of Congress, some little good was done by a small appropriation to the various States for the National Guard. Nominally these organizations aggregated about 125,000 officers and men. In one State only was the organization perfected and used to duty. Pennsylvania's National Guard was a division of three brigades, each of five regiments of infantry, one troop of cavalry, and one light battery. These were accustomed to brigade evolutions, and had experience in division drill. In other Eastern States, and in some central States, the organization was more or less perfected, but in none of them was it adequate for war. The material was there, but it lacked the necessary training. The National Guard was equipped with Springfield rifles and black powder cartridges. Most of the tentage and material was drawn from the regular army, but the equipment was seldom complete.

When the call for 125,000 men was issued, the States furnished their quota usually by using the National Guard regiments as a basis. Those who desired to stay at home did so, and their places were quickly taken by volunteers. The new law provided for a regiment of three battalions of four companies, each company consisting of 106 men. Few militia regiments were so large, and they were consolidated or filled up to meet the requirements. It took but a short time for the States to raise the quotas in local camps. As they were filled the regiments were sent to camps of instruction in the South, so as to become acclimated, except a few which were detailed to guard powder-mills and public property. The principal camps were near Washington (Camp Alger), at Chickamauga (Camp Thomas), at Jacksonville (Camp Cuba Libre) and at Fernandina. Later there was a large camp near Middletown, Pa., and many smaller ones in Alabama and Georgia. On May 25 the President issued a call for 75,000 more men, making 200,000 volunteers, in addition to the volunteer cavalry, engineers, and immunes, not apportioned among the States. The First Volunteer Cavalry was commanded by Surgeon Leonard Wood, of the army, who had been advanced to the rank of Colonel, with Theodore Roosevelt as Lieutenant-Colonel, who left the post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy to assume the position. This regiment was nicknamed the "Rough Riders," because it was largely recruited from cowboys and frontiersmen in Texas, Arizona, and adjacent territory. It also included a large number of college athletes and clubmen from New York. Nearly every race and religion were represented, as well as nearly every State. It gained more reputation than any other volunteer organization.

This army was organized into eight corps, only seven of which were completed. Each corps was supposed to consist of two divisions, each of three brigades of three regiments - nominally about 24,000 officers and men. To officer this army, whose maximum reached about 275,000 men, all the brigadier-generals in the regular army, as well as some other officers, were made major-generals of volunteers. There was inevitable confusion and some discontent over the welding of new masses of soldiers into a compact body ready for active service. Camps of instruction and recruitment for the volunteers were opened in every State, from which regiments, after mustering, were mobilized at Chickamauga National Park, Tennessee, at Camp Alger, Virginia, and Tampa, Florida. The regular troops were collected at New Orleans, Mobile, and Tampa.

On May 4 the President appointed the army staff, including the following as major-generals: Promoted from the regular army - Brigadier-Generals Joseph C. Breckinridge, Elwell S. Otis, John J. Coppinger, William R. Shafter, William M. Graham, James F. Wade, Henry C. Merriam. Appointed from civil life - James H. Wilson, of Delaware; Fitzhugh Lee, of Virginia; William J. Sewell, of New Jersey, and Joseph Wheeler, of Alabama.

Of the civilians, General Wilson and General Sewell had been distinguished Federal commanders during the Civil War, and General Fitzhugh Lee and General Joseph Wheeler served with corresponding distinction upon the Confederate side. General Sewell did not accept the appointment, however. He was serving as United States Senator from New Jersey, and it was held that his acceptance of a commission in the army would vacate his seat in the Senate. General Wheeler, who was representing his Alabama district in the lower house, entered the service immediately without regard to the point.

It took a long time for green officers to learn the rules, and in the mean time the men were often on short rations, while few companies at first had good cooks. In spite of all drawbacks, by July 1 there was an army of over 200,000 men, nearly all equipped, and all eager to fight. In spite of all complaints made by persons ignorant of war, this army was assembled and equipped in a shorter space of time than had ever been known before.

An effective auxiliary navy was more easily constructed. Four of the American Line steamers, the St. Louis, St. Paul, New York, and Paris (the latter two were re-named the Yale and Harvard), were turned into armed cruisers. The Morgan line contributed four more, and many yachts were turned into scout and fighting boats. Within two weeks there were eighty-eight effective fighting ships in active service, and Congress authorized the building of fifty-one new ships of war.

Joseph M. Rogers

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