The First Funeral of the Crew of the Battleship MAINE

By Patrick McSherry

General:

The crew members of the Battleship MAINE who died in Cuba as a result of the explosion of the vessel on February 15, 1898 were initially buried in Cuba. The following are images of their funeral and gravesite.

The Funeral:

The first funeral for the sailors of the MAINE was an official and ceremonial function. The funeral was held on February 17, 1898, two days after the MAINE was destroyed by an unknown explosion. By this time, twenty-five bodies had been recovered. The funeral would be for the first nineteen. All ceremonies were arranged by the Spanish under the direction of Governor General Blanco, the Bishop of Havana and others. The officers of the MAINE were free from having to make arrangements, and were only to take part as mourners.

By the evening of February 16, the bodies were placed in simple wooden coffins and were allowed to lie in state in the city plaza. Later, the bodies were relocated to the Governor’s Palace. Apparently it was here that the Bishop of Havana held a Roman Catholic mass for the dead. Captain Sigsbee of the MAINE had attempted to have a Protestant ceremony conducted also but was rebuffed in this regard by the Spanish officials, something that greatly disconcerted the American captain.

The parade of hearses bearing the remains of MAINEcrewmen pass through the streets of Havana

At about three o’clock in the afternoon, a string of hearses arrived to take the bodies to Cristobal Colon Cemetery. As the cortege proceeded through the city, the black hearses rode on the left of the street, while carriages of the dignitaries rode on the right. They were preceded by the marines and sailors from the ALFONSO XII and the military and governmental authorities. The cortege passed through streets lined with houses draped in black. Five thousand residents joined the cortege and fifty-thousand more lined the streets.

Captain Sigsbee and other officers of the MAINE were in the cortege. Sigsbee was dressed in a civilian suit since his uniforms had gone down with the MAINE. William Cowles, one of the officers of FERN also took part. Since he was in uniform, many people assumed that he was Captain of the ill-fated MAINE. As he rode in his carriage, Captain Sigsbee read the burial service from an Episcopal prayer book in bits and pieces, but was not able to complete this personal attempt to provide for the Protestant dead until later, in the quiet of his hotel.

Of the funeral procession, Sigsbee wrote that:

“The funeral cortege was very imposing…Even the poor reconcetrados were in line. No such demonstration had been made in Havana for very many years; in fact I was informed that it had not been paralleled, except in one instance, in the history of Havana. The Bishop of Havana went to the cemetery in person…a most unusual mark of sympathy. As the procession passed through the streets it seemed that all the people of Havana were present along the route in respectful sympathy. At a certain point the carriages were stopped; the occupants alighted and marched , as an additional act of respect, for some distance, when they again entered the carriages and proceeded therein through the suburbs to the Colon Cemetery, one of the most beautiful that I have ever seen. The carriages were left just within the entrance, and the procession continued to the grave on foot.”

At the graveside, the Catholic service was performed by Father John Chidwick, the chaplain of the MAINE, who had also survived the explosion.  Father Chidwick’s involvement at the graveside service was permitted by the Bishop of Havana at the personal request of Captain Sigsbee. The interment as held at five o’clock in ground that was thereafter given to the United States by the Spanish government.

The Officials gather at the graveside of the MAINEcrewmen in Cristobal Colon Cemetery in Havana. Included are Clara Barton (to right of man holding hat at left), Captain Charles Sigsbee (in civilian suit, five people to the right of Clara Barton, in front, uncovered, facing to the right), Fitzhugh Lee (large man with hat, two people to the right of Sigsbee) and Chaplain John Chidwick (wearing cassock, facing Lee).

By the evening of the day of the funeral, more bodies had been found – one hundred thirty-five more. Most would be buried in simple ceremonies in the same plot at Cristobal Colon Cemetery. Some would be taken to Key West. Eventually a simple cross was placed over the graves in Colon Cemetery.

In December, 1899, the bodies of one hundred and fifty MAINEcrewmen were disinterred, taken back to the United States and re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
 

Grave of the MAINE crewmen in Colon Cemetery in the Spring of 1899. The large cross reads "Victims of the Maine" The photo was taken by Robert Edward Wilkins of the 4th Virginia Volunteer Infantry


Bibliography:

As a service to our readers, clicking on titles indicated in red with take the reader to that book on Amazon.com.

Blow, Michael, A Ship to Remember , (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992) 114-115.

Cohen, Stan. Images of Spanish American War, April-August,1998.  (Missoula:Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., Inc., 1997) 44, 45.

Gibson, Merlyn Wilkins - Robert Wilkins' photo of the MAINE grave.

Samuels, Peggy and Harold, Remembering the Maine. (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995) 161-162.

Sigsbee, Capt. Charles, The MAINE - An Account of Her Destruction in Havana Harbor. (New York: The Century Co., 1899) 109-112.


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