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Who Destroyed the USS MAINE - An Opinion

(Part Two)

By Edward P. McMorrow

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The battleship USS MAINE  was sunk by an explosion in the harbor of Havana, Cuba on the night of February 15, 1898, three weeks after her arrival for a friendly visit.  Afterwards, two official US Navy boards of inquiry, the Sampson Board of 1898 and the Vreeland Board of 1911, investigated the incident.  Both reached the same basic conclusion, that the ship had been destroyed by a magazine explosion which was triggered by an external blast.

Spanish Responsibility ?

The Sampson Board's finding was interpreted by President McKinley and other American leaders as indicating that the ship had been destroyed by a mine, for which  the Spanish authorities were responsible, and most Americans agreed with this in 1898. At that time, it was widely believed that the ship had been destroyed by a Spanish naval mine planted in a harbor defended by the Spanish authorities.  This interpretation of the Sampson Board's conclusions did not, however, mean that the Spanish had intentionally destroyed the ship.  Because Havana harbor was under Spanish jurisdiction, the Spanish authorities were responsible under international law  for the safety of all friendly ships in the harbor.  Thus, even if the Spanish had not destroyed the MAINE, they were regarded as responsible under commonly accepted practice for having failed to protect her in their harbor.  However, since Cuba was unstable at that time, with an insurrection against Spanish colonial rule in progress, it seems unfair to have labeled the Spanish as guilty for failing to protect the ship in such circumstances.

The Spanish could have had several motives to attack the MAINE.  They may have felt threatened by the presence of such a large foreign warship in Havana harbor.  Some observers believed that the explosion occurred on a night when, for the first time in three weeks, the MAINE had swung at her mooring so that her main battery guns were pointed at Morro Castle and the other Spanish fortresses and coastal batteries which defended the city. In response to this perceived threat, the Spanish could have triggered a mine.  Another motive could have been that the Spanish wanted revenge against the United States, which they blamed for having supported the Cuban rebels for twenty-five years.  In addition, the Spanish could have believed that the MAINE was imposing on their sovereignty  in Cuba,  having been sent to Havana to place pressure on their policies there.

Arguments Against Spanish Responsibility

While the Spanish could have destroyed the MAINE by mining the anchorage where she  was moored, there are several arguments against this.  One is that, while mines were used to defend Havana and other ports, they were usually placed in the channels into the harbors, not in the anchorages.  If a mine were placed there, it would have posed a threat to other ships using the harbor.  In addition, the more detailed conclusions of the Vreeland Board indicated that the external blast was caused by a small, low-explosive charge, while the Spanish naval mines at that time were armed with large, high-explosive charges.   There were even stronger political arguments against an intentional Spanish attack on the MAINE.  While the Spanish may have felt threatened or insulted by the presence of the MAINE, they had nothing to gain from such an incident.  The Cuban insurrection had already placed the Spanish colonial authorities in a tenuous position in the Americas, on the other side of the Atlantic from Spain.  The United States was the wealthiest and militarily most powerful nation in the Americas, and geographically much closer to Cuba.  As a result, an intentional Spanish attack on an American ship in Havana harbor would have been virtual suicide.  In addition,  by 1898, both Washington and the general public in the United States looked very unfavorably on the Spanish colonial authorities in Cuba as a result of the very uncomplimentary press coverage accusing them of having committed  atrocities there.  Americans favored the Cuban rebels who  were supported by American smugglers and American mercenaries.  Because the Spanish in Cuba were already suffering from poor relations with the United States, it seems highly unlikely that they would have wanted to make those relations even worse by creating an incident with a US warship in Havana harbor.

In addition to these general arguments against Spanish responsibility, there is another argument against such an incident in the middle of February, 1898.  At the same time as the MAINE was destroyed in Havana harbor, the Spanish armored cruiser VIZCAYA was on her way to New York for a reciprocal friendly visit.  She was scheduled to proceed to Havana after leaving New York, and was carrying 150,000 pesetas in cash for troop payments and supplies in Cuba.  When the VIZCAYA arrived in New York on February 18, she had not received word of the MAINE disaster because, like most other vessels at that time, she was not equipped with wireless telegraphy.  Her commander did not learn of the incident until he arrived in New York and found his ship surrounded by hostile New Yorkers.

Because the Spanish navy was much smaller than the US Navy at this time, the armored cruiser VIZCAYA was a relatively more valuable ship to Madrid than the second class battleship MAINE was to Washington.  At this time, the strength of the Spanish battlefleet was based on one battleship and four armored cruisers, while the US Navy had four first class battleships, two second class battleships, and two armored cruisers.  Thus, it would have been quite foolish for Madrid to have ordered thedestruction of  the least powerful American battleship when one of their most valuable ships, carrying the payroll  for the Spanish forces in Cuba, was en route to an American port where she would be vulnerable to attack.   Fortunately for the VIZCAYA and the Spanish government, the New York Police Department was able to maintain security around the cruiser during her abbreviated visit there.

Sabotage ?

Of course, a Spanish naval mine was not the only potential cause of the external blast which triggered the magazine explosion on board the MAINE.   Some observers outside the United States suspected that the incident had been set up by Washington in order to provide a reason for American  intervention in Cuba.  While  a fake "incident" might have made sense for those who wanted to annex Cuba, it would hardly have made sense to have destroyed  one of the US Navy's six most powerful  warships when trying to provoke a war.  Such an "incident" could  have been created using either a far less important warship with a smaller crew or a merchant ship. Also, it would have been counter-productive to have killed two hundred and sixty of her experienced crew members as a provocation for war, when those well-trained men would be most needed.

The blast could have been caused by sabotage, a bomb or mine placed by one of the  factions fighting for control of Cuba in 1898.   There were the Cuban rebels, fighting for independence, who could have attempted anything which they felt would hurt Spanish colonial rule.  In opposition to the rebels, with the  Spanish authorities,  there were also right wing radicals who favored continued Spanish rule.   They hated the United States for aiding the rebels and trying to influence Spanish policy.

The Weylerites

Many of these right wing radicals were Spanish army officers who only wanted to defeat the rebels and maintain Spain as a colonial power.   They  were partisans of the former Spanish commander, General Valeriano "the Butcher" Weyler y Nicolau, known as Weylerites, and they resented his recall.  Weyler had been a very controversial figure with a reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness who had attempted to combat the  Cuban rebels using scorched earth tactics aimed at the perceived popular support for the rebellion.  By his order, hundreds of thousands of  Cuban peasants had been moved into concentration camps with poor living conditions where many died.  The American press published graphic descriptions of Weyler's atrocities and  labeled him "the most cruel and bloodthirsty general in the world," causing the  American public to oppose these Spanish tactics, and to sympathize more and more with the Cuban rebels.These descriptions generated a great deal of indignation towards Weyler and the Spanish in the United States.  Weyler was recalled  in October 1897 when a new, Liberal government came to power in Madrid.  He was replaced by General Ramon Blanco y Erenas in November 1897.

While Weyler had been hated by civilians in Cuba, the United States, and elsewhere, he had been very popular with the Spanish military forces in Cuba.  They saw him as the most successful of their commanders, and they believed that he would have achieved complete victory if allowed another six months in charge.  The Spanish junior officers were especially angry at Weyler's recall, having regarded him as  their only chance to regain Spanish glory.  In particular, they blamed the United States and the American press for having generated international indignation toward Weyler and his policies.  In January 1898,  there had been a series of riots in Havana by these "Weylerite" radicals, aimed specifically at the destruction of  Spanish  press offices in Havana.

In addition, the Spanish military resented the United States for interfering in their war by aiding the Cuban rebels and further hindering the success of the Spanish army.  They also interpreted the MAINE 's "friendly" visit as an attempt to place pressure on Spanish policies in Cuba.  Thus, these radical conservatives had motives for an attack on the MAINE.

The Threatening Message

Shortly after their arrival with the MAINE, Captain Sigsbee, four of his officers, and  American Consul General Fitzhugh Lee had been invited to a bullfight by General Parrado, the senior Spanish officer in Havana at that time.  While they were at a train station en route to the bullfight, an unidentified person thrust a pamphlet  into Sigsbee's hand.  The pamphlet contained a violent outburst in Spanish against both the administration of Weyler's successor and the presence of the Americans and their battleship.  It said, in part:

Spaniards !  The moment off action has arrived.  Do not go  to sleep.  Let us teach these vile traitors that we have not yet lost our pride, and that we know how to protest with the energy befitting a nation worthy and strong, as our Spain is, and always will be ! Death to the Americans !  Death to autonomy !  Long   live Spain !  Long live Weyler ! *
Spaniards! ... What  are you doing that you allow yourselves to be insulted in this way? ... And, finally, these Yankee pigs who meddle in our affairs, humiliating us to the  last degree,  and, for a still greater taunt, order to us a man-of-war of their rotten squadron, after insulting us in their newspapers with articles sent from our own  home.
                *John Edward Weems,  The Fate of the MAINE.  (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1958) p. 54.

Apparently, it was a message from the "Weylerites."   When the ship blew up three weeks later, despite the tight security precautions taken by Sigsbee and the crew, the pamphlet was remembered and reinterpreted as having called for the blast which would destroy the ship.

The American consular staff had also received warnings of Weylerite plots against the MAINE, including one received two days before the ship was destroyed.  One came from  a former Spanish officer who met in secret with Alexander Brice, American Consul in Matanzas.  The officer told Brice that he had learned of Weylerite plans to blow up the MAINE.  He begged that Brice not disclose his identity as the source of the warning because he was sure that he could suffer  reprisals from his former Weylerite comrades.   However, because Consul General Fitzhugh Lee  had received  a large number of other warnings of Weylerite violence which never materialized, he apparently disregarded these warnings of threats to the MAINE.

There was other, somewhat shaky evidence for the involvement of Spanish military officers in the destruction of the MAINE.   When one witness, probably a Cuban, testified before the Sampson court, he said that he had overheard a conversation between three Spanish army officers and a civilian while seated in a ferryboat in Havana harbor on the morning of February 15.   One of the officers told his companions that,while in a military club, he had heard that the MAINE's presence in Havana harbor was "a shame  to Spain," and that her sinking, without any threat to the city, was "nearly arranged."

Arguments Against "Weylerite" Responsibility

Thus, there seems to be a strong argument for Weylerite guilt based on their hostility towards the United States,  and evidence of intention to attack the MAINE in particular. However, such an act against an American warship would have been a foolish move for a group of Spanish nationalists who were trying to maintain Spanish colonial rule over the island, for the same reasons that would have made it a foolish move for the Spanish authorities.  As officers in the Spanish army who were locked in a difficult war with the Cuban rebels,  they would have known that the last thing they needed was Americanintervention in support of the rebels.  They must have recognized that this would be the result of any incident involving the MAINE in Havana harbor.  As much as they may have resented the American presence, the Weylerite officers would have understood that they had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, from an attack on the MAINE.

The Cuban Rebels ?

Of course, the Weylerites were not the only group which could have sabotaged the MAINE.  The act could also have been committed by the Cuban rebels who were fighting to overthrow Spanish colonial rule and gain their independence.

At first, it would seem strange that the rebels would have attacked a warship belonging to their closest friends, reducing American military strength, and killing American sailors.  Also, they would have run the risk of having been caught in the act, resulting in a withdrawal of American support from their cause.  This would have been unlikely, though, because the Spanish authorities would have had trouble positively identifying the perpetrator as a rebel.   Even if this identification were made, the Americans could still have blamed  the Spanish authorities for failing to adequately police the harbor and provide security for the visiting warship.

On the other hand, the Cuban rebels were the one group which had the most to gain from such an incident.  While the MAINE was an American ship, she was not directly helping the rebels in any way by sitting in Havana harbor, other than acting as a disincentive to further Spanish atrocities.   With the rebellion moving so slowly that the rebels were not aware of  the extent of their success againt the Spanish colonial authorities, they felt that they  needed help if they were to overthrow Spanish rule and achieve their independence.  Although they did not want to exchange Spanish imperialism for American imperialism, they may have been willing to risk American intervention if that seemed to be the only way to achieve their primary goal of freedom from Madrid.  Thus, they needed an incident which would cause the United States to intervene against the Spanish.  Knowing that the Spanish would be blamed for an incident happening in the harbor under their jurisdiction, and that anti-Spanish feeling was already strong in the United States, the rebels probably wanted to create such an incident.

The rebels also had the ability to make and use the sort of device which destroyed the MAINE.  Explosive materials and detonators were among the munitions smuggled to them from the United States, and some of the American mercenaries helping them had experience with explosives.  Based on the conclusion of the Vreeland Board that the blast was caused by a small charge of low explosive, the device could have been an ordinary wooden sugar barrel packed with basic black gunpowder.  This fundamental mine could have been attached to an anchor and then dropped from a small boat where it would be struck by the battleship as she swung at her mooring. Although sentries had stood watch on board the MAINE, Havana harbor was so busy that this could have been done from a passing boat which had gone unnoticed.  Alternately, a basic mine couldhave been brought to the side of the ship by a swimmer and directly triggered by the same person in a suicide attack. Thus,  it seems most likely that the Cuban rebels were the guilty party because they had the most to gain from the incident.

As a result, one hundred years later it appears that Washington made a mistake in blaming the Spanish for the disaster, a finding which led to the American declaration of war and intervention in Cuba.  Even before the loss of the ship, however, there was already a strong American public opinion in favor of  intervention in Cuba based on the "yellow press" coverage of the Cuban insurrection.   Thus, there is a good chance that even if the MAINE had not been destroyed, some other incident would have caused an outbreak of hostilities between Washington, growing and expanding in economic and military power, and Madrid, struggling to maintain their decaying empire in the


(As a service to our readers, clicking on title in red will take you to that book on

Bailey, Thomas A. A Diplomatic History of the American People. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1980.

___________.   The Battleship in the United States Navy. Washington, D.C.: Naval History Division, Navy Department, 1970.

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

Duncan, John E. "Remember the Maine, One More Time." Naval History (Spring 1990) pp. 58-62.

Gibbons, Tony.  The Complete Encyclopedia of Battleships. New York: Crescent Books, 1983.

Potter, E.B. The Naval Academy Illustrated History of the United States Navy. New York: Galahad Books, 1971.

Rickover, H. G. How The Battleship Maine Was Destroyed.  Washington, D.C.: Naval History Division, Department of the Navy, 1976.

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

Weems, John Edward. The Fate of the Maine. Reprint, College Station:
Texas A&M University Press,1992.

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