On 15 February 1898, the battleship Maine
exploded while visiting Havana, Cuba. The loss of the ship would drive the United States and Spain to war within a few months. However, the global significance of the disaster should not overshadow the lives lost and the many wounded. 253 men died in the explosion, and another seven died of injuries over the next few weeks. Of the 77 rescued sailors and Marines, 61 sustained injuries ranging from burns, to broken bones, to concussions.
All the survivors suffered trauma from seeing their friends and crewmates killed. As we remember this ship’s loss 125 years ago, let’s remember the men of the Maine
crew was typical for Navy ships of the era, recruited from across the country and made up of a mixture of immigrants, workers, and men from seafaring families. Almost a quarter of Maine’s
crew came from outside the United States, a marker of the heavy pace of immigration around the turn of the century.
30 of the crew were African American. Life on board Maine
was a lot like life in any Navy ship with daily musters, watch bills, gunnery drills, and constant maintenance as the ship headed up and down the East Coast. This routine was broken only by port visits for repairs, refueling, and training of local naval militiamen. The crew particularly enjoyed visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras, so much so that the ship’s log book entry for 1 March 1897 notes that of 72 men released on liberty the day before, 39 did not return for morning muster. Maine
also had some tragedies and close calls, like the time three men were washed overboard and lost in a storm off of South Carolina, or when Captain Charles Sigsbee chose to ram a pier in New York Harbor to avoid sinking a ferry full of tourists.
All in all, the sailors onboard would have had fairly typical careers in the new and expanding American navy, if it weren’t for the Cuban insurrection.
and its crew entered Havana harbor on 25 January 1898 to make a friendly port call in the city, then under Spanish administration, and protect American lives and property threatened by an ongoing civil war between Spain and the local Cubans. Captain Sigsbee kept everyone on board, except for some officers who made social calls and visited a bull fight, and some sailors sent ashore to procure provisions. The crew kept busy over the next several weeks with drill and keeping watch on the harbor.
February 15, 1898 started out as a normal day. The men ran through regular drills and, by the evening, many of the sailors took their hammocks topside to get out of the hot berth deck. Cadet Wat T. Cluverius was Maine’s
officer of the watch until 8pm that day. Once relieved, Cluverius went to his quarters to write a letter and heard the men “dancing in the starboard gangway to an accordion’s music. One of the gunners’ mates was playing a mandolin in the after turret.” Cluverius was sealing his letter in an envelope when the ship exploded. He heard a “report—the firing of a gun it seemed” followed by “an indescribable roar, a terrific crash, intense darkness and the deck giving way beneath.” He and his classmate Amon Bronson Jr. got out to the poop deck, while most of the crew, “pinned down and drowning, mangled and torn, screamed in agony.”
exploded at 9:40 p.m. local time, when the 6-inch shell magazine detonated, probably due to an undetected coal fire in an adjacent coal bunker.
Unfortunately for the crew, the magazines were in the forward part of the ship, in the middle of the crew’s quarters. The explosion killed much of the crew instantly. The survivors had to escape from a sinking, burning ship, and saw their less fortunate crewmates struggle and die. Captain Sigsbee wrote later that “none can ever know the awful scenes of consternation, despair, and suffering down in the forward compartments of the stricken ship; of men wounded, or drowning in the swirl of water, or confined in a closed compartment gradually filling with water.”
Lieutenant George Blow wrote to his wife on 16 February that “I can not write of the horrors now. Each man lived a lifetime of horror in a few seconds and all would like to forget it if possible.”
Most of the enlisted survivors were either at duty positions in the rear of the ship or sleeping on the deck. Only a few enlisted crewmen escaped from the lower decks. One of them, Coal Passer Jerimiah Shea of Haverhill, Massachusetts explained his escape thus: “I think I must be an armor-piercing projectile.”
Another, Mess Attendant John H. Turpin, was below decks in the wardroom pantry. Turpin was sitting when the ship shook. “It was a jarring explosion—just one solid explosion, and the ship heaved and lifted like that, and then all was dark. I met Mr. [Lieutenant Friend] Jenkins in the mess room, and by that time the water was up to my waist, and the water was running aft. It was all dark in there.” Jenkins and Turpin couldn’t find their way out of the pitch dark mess room. As water rose to Turpin’s chest a flash of light lit up the room, allowing Turpin to see Jenkins fall under the water. Turpin struggled to find a way up out of the ship. He explained, “by that time the water was right up even with my chin. Then I commenced to get scared, and in fooling around it happened that a rope touched my arm, and I commenced to climb overhand and got on deck.” Turpin then jumped overboard and was rescued by a Spanish barge.
Many of the survivors saw their friends and shipmates killed in the chaos. Coal Passer Thomas Melville was heading through a passage between the galley and the turret when he saw Seaman Peder Laren disappear. Melville later testified, “I couldn’t say how he disappeared. Of course, the shock took all the life out of me for a second.” Melville continued onto the starboard gangway, where he saw Fireman First Class William Gartrell praying, and Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Luther Lancaster lying dead.
Earlier, Gartrell was in the steam steering room when the explosion hit. While trying to escape the engine room, he and Coal Passer Frank Gardiner tried to escape. “The two of us jumped up, and I went on the port side up the engine-room ladder, and Frank Gardiner, he went up the starboard side—at least he didn’t go up, because he hollered to me … he says: ‘O Jesus, Billy, I am gone.’ I didn’t stop then, because the water was then up to my knees.”
Gardiner did not escape.
Those who made it into the water survived owing to quick rescue efforts by boats from the U.S. merchant steamer City of Washington
, the Spanish cruiser Alfonso XII
, and the port itself. These boat crews pulled men from the water and put themselves in great danger by getting close to the burning Maine.
Badly injured survivors were mostly taken to the San Ambrosia hospital where they were cared for by Spanish and Cuban doctors, as well as Clara Barton and some Red Cross personnel visiting the island.
survivors spent the night on City of Washington
and Alphonso XII.
The Surgeon General of the Navy later reported that “of the 77 rescued sailors and marines, only 16 were uninjured.” Five men were eventually invalided from the Navy due to back sprains, “chronic pleurisy,” “deformity of nasal bones,” injuries to a hand, and paralysis. Of the 253 killed in the explosion or by drowning, only 178 bodies were recovered in 1898, with the rest lost in the harbor or in the wreck of the ship.
The tragedy of Maine
did not end with the crew. Secretary of the Navy John D. Long wrote a few days
s loss that “the saddest thing of all is the constant coming of telegrams from some sailor’s humble home, or kinspeople, inquiring as to whether or not he is saved, or asking that, if dead, his body may be sent home.” The National Archives has eleven boxes of letters from family members of Maine
’s crew, asking about their fathers, sons, brothers, friends, and husbands. A letter from Elizabeth Denning, mother of Seaman Charles Denning is typical, as she asked for the Navy to “help a poor sobbing mother and advise me please what I have to do in case Charles died during his service.”
Some family members were not sure if their relatives were even on board Maine.
Fireman Second Class Patrick Flynn’s sister wrote to Long. She had “lost sight of [Pat] for several years” and asked Secretary Long if Flynn was dead. He was.
Family members writing to the Navy wanted many things. Some wished to find out if their loved one was alive. Many just desired closure and often asked for the body for burial. Unfortunately, the tropical climate made returning bodies impossible. Other relatives asked for help. Many of Maine
’s sailors supported their wives, families, parents, or others. Karen Anderson, widow of Coal Passer Holm A. Anderson, asked Secretary Long what to do. “I just got back from Norway and I am pennyles, I also have a little Baby, and I can not be doing much with him.”
The Navy was able to help in some cases, with pensions and other aid. Some relatives also received aid from private donations and funds.
In addition to the men killed or wounded in the explosion, the tragedy caused an immense psychological burden for the survivors. Lieutenant John J. Blandin, the officer of the watch when the ship exploded, was deeply affected by the tragedy, later writing that “the reverberations of that sullen, yet resonant roar…will haunt me from my many days, and the reflection of that pillar of flame comes to me even when I close my eyes.”
The events of 15 February troubled Blandin for the rest of his life, which only lasted a few months. After giving his testimony to the naval court investigating the catastrophe, he was put on light duty, but as his obituary put it, “he seemed utterly unable to dismiss from his mind the horrors of the fatal night which saw the destruction of the battleship and the death of so many of his comrades, and on July 1  he broke down under the strain and was removed to the hospital.” He fell into delirium and died on 9 July, another victim of Maine
crewmen processed their trauma and healed from their wounds, war broke out. The Spanish-American War only lasted a few months, but ended with the United States a global imperial power with new colonies in Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, as well as significant influence over Cuba itself. The U.S. Army occupied Cuba from 1899 to 1902. During the occupation, 165 crewmen from Maine
(63 identified, 102 unidentified) who had been buried in Havana were re-interred in Arlington National Cemetery
on 28 December 1899. 66 additional sailors and the ship’s main mast were moved to Arlington in 1911, after Maine
was raised and re-sunk off of Cuba. The dead of Maine
now rest in Section 24.
Survivors of Maine
were shaped by their experience for years afterward. Some were wounded and haunted by the horror and loss of 15 February, but at least one of Maine
’s survivors, Fireman First Class Karrl Christiansen refused to let that stop him. Christiansen was blown into the water by the explosion, breaking his leg and scarring his body. Over forty years later, he showed up at a New York City recruitment center to volunteer for Navy service two weeks after Pearl Harbor. He was rejected, as he was 69 years old. Leaving he growled “I guess the youth is only in my heart.”
These are men worth remembering.
 Report of the Surgeon-General, U.S. Navy to the Secretary of the Navy
(Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1898), 173. 355 men were on board Maine
when it exploded. Of these, 290 were sailors, 39 marines, and 26 officers. 102 survived the night of the explosion, but seven enlisted survivors died of burns and other injuries in the following days. Two officers, Lieutenant Friend Jenkins and Assistant Engineer Darwin Merritt, died in the explosion, but another officer, Lieutenant George Blow, died of shock later, leaving only 94 survivors in total.
John Edward Weems, The Fate of the Maine
(College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992), 183–95.
, Volume 3, 1 March 1897, Logs of US Naval Ships, 1801-1915, Logs of Ships and Stations, 1801-1846, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Record Group 24, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.
By 1898, Cubans had been fighting for their independence from Spain for decades. The United States became intensely interested in Cuban resistance in the face of brutal counterinsurgency tactics under the command of Spanish General Valeriano “the Butcher” Weyler. From October 1897, Maine
stood by to protect American citizens, property, and interests in Havana. President McKinley ordered the ship to Cuba in January 1898. Ivan Musicant, Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century
(New York: Henry Holt, 1998), 38–124.
Commander W. T. Cluverius, USN, “A Midshipman on the Maine
44, no. 2 (Feb 1918): 244–45.
H. G. Rickover, How the Battleship
Maine Was Destroyed
(Washington, DC: Naval History Division, 1976), 107–30.
Charles Dwight Sigsbee, "Personal narrative of the ‘Maine’ by her commander, Captain Charles Dwight Sigsbee, U.S.N.," Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine
(December 1898): 249.
Sigsbee, "Personal narrative," 255.
 The Report of the Naval Court of Inquiry Upon the Destruction of the United States Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor, February 15, 1898, Together with the Testimony Taken Before the Court
(Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1898), 191–92.
 Report of the Naval Court of Inquiry
 Report of the Naval Court of Inquiry
Barton was there to help care for Cubans harmed by Spain’s reconcentration
policy. Clara Barton, The Red Cross in Peace and War
(Washington, DC: American Historical Press, 1899), 524–26.
 Report of the Surgeon-General
Elizabeth Denning to John D. Long, 21 February 1898, Entry 98, Correspondence relating to Naval Personnel Lost in the Sinking of the Maine, 1898, Box 3, D-F, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Record Group 24, National Archives Building, Washington, DC [NAB].
Morgan Rubenstein to John D. Long, 17 March 1898, Entry 98, Box 3, D-F, RG 24, NAB.
Karen Anderson to John D. Long, 8 May 1898, Entry 98, Box 1, A-B, RG 24, NAB.
The Navy sent aid to the families of men killed on board Maine
for decades. For example, see Annual Reports of the Navy Department for the Fiscal Year 1923
(Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1924), 881.
James Rankin Young, History of our War with Spain including Battles on Sea and Land
(Washington: J. R. Jones, 1898), 59–60.
“Lieutenant Blandin’s Death,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle
(17 July 1898), 9.
Weems, Fate of the Maine