The Destruction of the Battleship MAINE -

The Crewmen Remember the Night...


On February 15, 1898, the USS MAINE exploded and sank in Havana Harbor. What caused the sinking has been a subject of debate ever since. What is known is that, in the tragedy, 260 American naval personnel were killed or wounded. Here are several first-hand accounts of the sinking.

To read the letters of Lt. George Blow of the MAINE, click for letter 1, letter 2

Capt. Sigsbee's account ||| Jim Rowe's (ship's cook) account
Lt. John Blandin's account

Captain Charles D. Sigsbee, MAINE Commanding Officer, recounted the following:

"I was just closing a letter to my family when I felt the crash of the explosion. It was a bursting, rending, and crashing sound, or roar of immense volume, largely metallic in character. It was succeeed by a metallic sound - probably of falling debris - a trembling and lurching motion of the vessel, then an impression of subsidence, attended by an eclipse of the electirc lights and intense darkness within the cabin. I knew immediately that the MAINE had been blown up and that she was sinking. I hurried to the starboard cabin ports, thinking it might be neecessary for me to make my exit that way. Upon looking out I decided that I could go by the passage leading to the superstructure. I therefore took the latter route, feeling my way along and steadying myself by the bulkheads. The superstructure was filled with smoke, and it was dark. Nearing the outer entrance I met Private Anthony, the ordrely at the cabin door at the time. He ran into me and, as I remember, apologized in some fashion, and reported to me that the ship had been blown up and was sinking."

"I reached the upper deck, asked a few questions of those standing about me - Lieutenant Commander Wainwright, I think, for one - then I asked the orderly for the time. He said that the exact time of the explosion was 9:40 P.M. I proceeded to the poop deck, stood on the guard rail and held on to the main rigging in order to see over the poop awning, which was baggy and covered with debris; also, in order that I might observe details in the black mass ahead. I directed the executive officer to post sentries all around the ship, but soon saw that there were no marines available, and no place forward to post them."

"Not being quite clear as to the condition of things forward, I next directed the forward magazine to be flooded, if practicable, and about the same time shouted out myself for perfect silence everywhere. This was, I think, repeated by the executive officer. The surviving officers were about me at the time on the poop. I was informed that the forward magazine was already under water, and after inquiring about the after magazine was told that it was also under water, as shown by the condition below, reported by those coming from the ward room and steerage."

"About this time fire broke out in the mass forward, over the central superstructure, and I inquired as to the spare ammunition in the Captain's pantry. That region was found to be subsiding very fast. At this time, I observed, among the shouts or noises apparently on shore, that faint cries were coming from the water, and I could see dimly white, floating bodies, which gave me a better knowledge of the real situation than anything else. I at once ordered all boats to be lowered, when it was reported that there were only two boats available, namely, the gig and whaleboat. Both were lowered and manned by officers and men, and by my direction they left the ship and assisted in saving the wounded jointly with other boats that had arrived on the scene from the Spanish man-of-war, and from the steamer CITY OF WASHINGTON and from other sources. Later - I cannot state precisely how long - these two boats of the MAINE returned to the starboard quarter alongside and reported that they had gathered in from the wreck all the wounded that could be found, and had transferred them to the other boats - to the ALFONSO XII, or to the CITY OF WASHINGTON."

"The poop deck of the MAINE, the highest point, was by that time level with the gig's gunwale while she was afloat in the water alongside. The fire amdiships was burning fiercely, and the spare ammuniton in the pilot house was exploding in detail. We had done everything that could be done so far as I could see. Lieutenant-Commander Wainwright whispered to me that he thought the 10-inch magazine had been thrown up into the burning mass, and might explode in time. I directed him the to get everything into the boats over the stern, and this was done, although there was some little delay in curbing the extreme politeness of the officers, who wanted to help me into the boat. I directed them to go first, as a matter of course, and I followed and got into the gig. We proceeded to the steamer CITY OF WASHINGTON, and on the way I shouted to the boats to leave the vicinity of the wreck, and that there might be an explosion. I got Mr. Sylvester Scovel to translate my desire to one or two boats which were at that time somewhat nearer the fire than we we ourselves were. Having succeeded in this, I went on board of the CITY OF WASHINGTON...."

Bibliography:

Everett, Marshall, (Editor), War with Spain and the Filipinos. (Chicago: Book Publishers Union, 1899) 47-49.

Account of Jim Rowe, Ship's Cook

"I turned into my hammock at eight o'clock, and heard three bells strike. I don't remember anything more until I felt myself turning over and over, falling heavily upon the deck through a mass of smoke. I got on my feet and worked my way on deck. When I got there the superstructure deck was dipping under water, and I jumped overboard to keep from being drawn down in the suction. I was picked up by a boat from the Spanish man-of-war. Four more were picked up by the same boat."

Bibliography:

Young, James Rankin, History of Our War with Spain, (Washington: J. R. Jones, 1898) p. 58.

Account of Lieutenant John J. Blandin

Click here to read the obituary of John Blandin, who died in July 1898.

"I was on watch , and when the men had been piped below I looked down the main hatches and over the side of the ship. Everything was absolutely normal. I walked aft to the quarter deck behind the rear turret, as is allowed after 8 o'clock in the evening, and sat down on the port side, where I remained for a few minutes. Then for some reason I cannot explain to myself now, I moved to the starboard side and sat down there. I was feeling a bit glum, and in fact was so quiet that Lieutenant J. Hood came up and asked laughingly if I was asleep. I said "No, I am on watch." Scarcely had I spoken when there came a dull, sullen roar. Would to God that I could blot out the sound and the scenes that followed. Then came a sharp explosion - some say numerous detonations. I remember only one. It seemed to me that the sound came from the port side forward. Then came a perfect rain of missiles of all descriptions, from huge pieces of cement to blocks of wood, steel railings, fragments of gratings, and all the debris that would be detachable in an explosion." "I was struck on the head by a piece of cement and knocked down, but I was not hurt, and got to my feet in a moment. Lieutenant Hood had run to the poop, and, I supposed, as I followed, he was dazed by the shock and about to jump overboard. I hailed him, he answered that he had to run to the poop to help lower the boats. When I got there, though scarce a minute could have elapsed, I had to wade in water up to my knees, and almost instantly the quarter deck was awash. On the poop I found Captain Sigsbee, as cool as if at a ball, and soon all the officers except Jenkins and Merritt joined us." [Editor's Note: Both Jenkins and Merritt were killed.]

"Captain Sigsbee ordered the launch and gig lowered, and the officers and men, who by this time had assembled, got the boats out, and rescued a number in the water. Captain Sigsbee ordered Lieutenant Commander Wainwright forward to see the extent of the damage and if anything could be done to rescue those forward or to extinguish the flames, which followed close upon the explosion and burned fiercely as long as there were any combustibles above the water to feed them. Lieutenant Commander Wainwright on his return reported the total and awful character of the calamity, and Captain Sigsbee gave the last sad order, "Abandon Ship," to men overwhelmed with grief indeed, but calm and apparently unexcited."

"Meanwhile, four boats from the Spanish cruiser ALFONSO XII arrived, to be followed soon by two from the Ward Line steamer CITY OF WASHINGTON. The two boats lowered first from the CITY OF WASHINGTON were found to be riddled with flying debris from the MAINE and unfit for use. Captain Sigsbee was the last man to leave his vessel and left in his own gig."

"I have no theories as to the cause of the explosion. I cannot form any. I, with others, had heard the Havana harbor was full of torpedoes [Editor's Note: Torpedo was then a synonym for mine], but the officers whose duty it was to examine into that reported that they found no signs of any. Personally, I do not believe that the Spanish had anything to do with the disaster. Time may tell. I hope so. We were in a delicate position on the MAINE, so far as taking any precautions was concerned. We were friends in a friendly, or alleged friendly port and could not fire upon or challenge the approach of any boat boarding us unless convinced that her intention was hostile. I wish to heaven I could forget it. I have been in two wrecks and have had my share. But the reverberations of that sullen, yet resonant roar, as if the bottom of the sea was groaning in torture, will haunt me from many days, and in the reflection of that pillar of flame comes to me even when I close my eyes."

Bibliography:

Young, James Rankin, History of Our War with Spain, (Washington: J. R. Jones, 1898) 59-61.


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