By Patrick McSherry
Marine Detachment, Battleship MAINE
Private Charles Dorwart enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps under the alias of Charles Ehler Johnson. Dorwart was lost when the Battleship MAINE was destroyed in Havana harbor, Cuba on February 15, 1898.
In late March of 1898, Lancaster, Pennsylvania was abuzz with a mystery. The Battleship MAINE had exploded over a month before in the harbor of Havana, Cuba under mysterious circumstances. In the wake of the disaster, amid the national outpouring of grief over the loss of the ship and crew, the Battleship MAINE Relief Association set out to collect funds for the families of the victims . This effort was followed up with an attempt to reach all of the families of the victims of the MAINE explosion in order to distribute the funds collected on their behalf .
The crew of the MAINE had on its roster a private in the United States Marine Corps named Charles Ehler Johnson. Johnson’s hometown was listed as Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Nothing more was known about him. He had listed no next of kin . No bereaved family members had contacted the Navy inquiring into his whereabouts, hoping against the obvious facts that he had somehow managed to survive the carnage. No one had contacted the government concerning a pension claim. The death of Charles Ehler Johnson was met with deafening silence. In an effort to contact Johnson’s family, the Battleship MAINE Relief Association sent a letter to Lancaster Postmaster Ellwood Griest explaining its efforts to locate Johnson’s family and asking for his help. Greist had just started his second term as postmaster the day after the MAINE went down and did what he could to aid the Association, bringing the issue to the attention of Lancaster Intelligencer newspaper.
Initially, it was thought that Johnson may have actually been a man named Charles Dorwart of Lancaster. However, Dorwart’s family checked into the possibility and felt assured that Charles Dorwart was alive and well elsewhere, and that the similarities of serving in the navy, the first name and hometown were mere coincidental occurrences between Dorwart and the MAINE victim. Time would show that they were sadly mistaken.
Apparently, time passed and the Dorwart family did not hear from Charles. When they arrived at the eventual conclusion that Charles Dorwart did, in fact, go down with the MAINE is not known. It was not until 1910, twelve years following the disaster, that John W. Dorwart, as the father of the MAINE crewman Charles Ehler Johnson, applied for a pension from the United States government for his son’s loss .
The story of Lancastrian Charles E. Dorwart, or Charles Ehler Johnson of the MAINE, is a bit of a mystery. The family stated that his birth occurred in March of 1880. However, the records for Johnson’s enlistment state that he was born on December 6, 1874. Census records show that the family was correct and that Charles provided false information on his enlistment form. Charles was born while his family - his father John W. Dorwart , his mother Annie Hoover Dorwart , brothers Emanuel and John and sister Blanche – lived at 520 North Queen Street in Lancaster. Dorwart’s father generally worked as laborer for most of Charles’ life only later becoming a watchman for the Pennsylvania Railroad . At the time of his enlistment, Charles listed his occupation as that of a paper hanger . John S. Dorwart, apparently Charles’ grandfather , was a plasterer and paper hanger by trade, and eventually lived with Charles’ family. Charles seems to have worked with him. Charles’ older brother, Emanuel, had been a painter since at least the age of thirteen , and presumably also worked with his grandfather.
In April of 1893, when Charles was thirteen, his mother passed away . It was about this time that Charles’ grandfather moved in with the family or vice versa, indicating that perhaps the situation was not going well, and additional help was needed with the children or there were financial difficulties. Perhaps the situation at home had grown difficult, or perhaps Charles had a desire for adventure. For whatever reason, Dorwart signed up to join the navy on July 21, 1896 in Philadelphia under the alias of Charles Ehler Johnson. It is not clear why he used an alias, and no explanation was ever given.
Dorwart’s family, by 1898, knew Charles was in the navy, so he was apparently on terms with them that were good enough for him to remain in contact. He was, therefore, not trying to disappear, as was often the case with men who joined the navy under an alias. The most likely reason for Charles’ use of an alias was the issue of his age. Being born in March, 1880, he would have been only sixteen years of age at the time of his enlistment. To join the navy or its branch called the United States Marine Corps he would have had to have been eighteen years of age to avoid having to obtain parental permission . In 1896 he would have been two years too young. Perhaps he did not believe he would be given the permission and chose a course which would avoid his having to obtain it.
Dorwart may have looked older that his sixteen years. The records of his enlistment at Philadelphia describe him as being almost five feet, ten inches tall, with brown eyes, black hair and a dark complexion. He listed his date of birth as December 6, 1874, which made him twenty-two years old, not sixteen. This would have made him legally old enough to join the navy, and not require any sort of parental permission. As he listed no next of kin, and used an alias , there was no way for the navy to verify his information even if the recruiter felt the need to do it.
Some bits of information can be gleaned concerning Dorwart’s brief naval career. From July 21 to November 30, 1896, Dorwart was at the Marine barracks at Philadelphia’s League Island. This was followed by a period, to February 13, 1897, at the Marine barracks at Newport, Rhode Island and then the Marine barracks at New York City. From here, on May 18, 1897, he received the fateful orders to join the crew of the Battleship MAINE. His total enlistment was for five years. He would serve just over a year and a half .
Dorwart’s time aboard MAINE would not be without its periods of excitement and even enjoyment. Probably one of the most exciting moments occurred on July 29, 1897 when the MAINE was heading out to sea from New York City. In the vicinity of the Brooklyn Bridge the ship met a large amount of river traffic. In the confused mass of excursion ships and commercial traffic, MAINE had to veer to avoid a collision with a bumbling excursion ship, the ISABEL, carrying eight hundred members of the Alligator Club from Newark, New Jersey. The MAINE’s collision alarms rang and watertight doors closed as the battleship unavoidably plowed into Pier 46, trading damage to the warship and pier for the lives of the Alligators. Despite the clamor, the shock, and the severe jolt given to the many unsuspecting crewmen, the ship suffered little damage continued on it way after a short delay . August of 1897, found the MAINE at Bar Harbor, Maine, the summer resort playground of the rich. This would be a contrast to the next destinations which were visits to Key West and the remote Dry Tortugas .
Dorwart’s exact activities aboard ship are a matter of speculation. The existence of the Marines in the late 1890’s was unknown to most people outside of the navy. Its reputation was not as it is today. The duty of the Marines were to serve as a naval landing force, quelling rebellions and protecting American interests. However, when not serving in this capacity, which was the majority of the time, the Marines served to help maintain order aboard ship by guarding supplies, guarding the brig and doing other jobs that made them less than popular with the remainder of the naval crews . The Marines did, however, get the opportunity to man some of the ship’s guns , served as sharpshooters and also acted as a line of communications, echoing range information for the gunners and echoing orders that could otherwise be lost in the tumult of battle . The animosity between the seamen and the Marines grew until there were even attempts in the 1890’s to abolish the Marine Corps itself, since the duties of its members could be fulfilled by the naval crews with less onboard hostility. Given the situation, Marine morale was low, and the corps lost twelve per cent of its number to desertion each year . Perhaps this is why the Navy was willing to accept a possibly underage Charles Dorwart who wanted to be a Marine, without question. Also, it can be supposed that Charles may have known someone in the Marines who recommended his joining, otherwise it is unlikely that he would have left Lancaster to assume the role of Marine, a somewhat unknown and much maligned branch of the military at that time.
As if a piece in a calculated international chess game being played by the old world power Spain, and upstarts Germany and the United States, the MAINE arrived at Havana on January 24, 1898 on a “friendly” visit. The situation was quite tense, since it was not known how the ship’s arrival would be received. The crewmen were in a very high state of alert. Ammunition was placed on deck, battle stations manned, and the gun crews nonchalantly stationed near the guns so as to not look threatening, but to be ready in case their immediate action was required to defend the ship from a Spanish attack from the surrounding fortifications and naval forces in the harbor . In spite of the tense mood, the MAINE entered the harbor and moored without event. Soon, the crew settled into a tense but uneventful three weeks on tedious duties and no shore leave .
On February 15, 1898, the crewmen were delighted with the expectation that they would soon be departing Havana and spending Mardi Gras in New Orleans as they had the year before . Undoubtedly, Dorwart’s shipmates would have told him wild tales of their adventure the previous year when they and the crew of the Battleship TEXAS were the toast of the Mardi Gras, with some MAINE crewmen even taking part in one of the parades, marching in the royal precession of the celebration’s King Rex . By 9:30 on that sultry night, the majority of the crewmen were in their hammocks in the forward portions of the ship .
At 9:40, a series of tremendous explosions occurred, dooming the vessel in a fraction of a second. The decks in the forward portion of the vessel, including the deck where Charles was probably drifting off to sleep, were crushed as the steel keel, the bottom structure of the ship, shot up through the decks, coming to rest thirty-one feet above its normal position . The MAINE was ripped and torn in an instant forming a virtually unrecognizable mass of wreckage lit only by tremendous fires, and the continuing explosions of its ammunition magazines. Two hundred sixty crewmen out of a crew complement of three hundred fifty-five would die in what is still the U.S. Navy’s largest peacetime naval disaster. Officially Charles Dorwart’s death was attributed to “Asphyxia in submersion .” In fact, he was probably instantly crushed to death. Regardless, no one would know for sure. His body was not among those that were recovered . He was one of over one hundred eighty crewmen simply listed as “missing .”
Charles Dorwart’s father, John W. Dorwart of 327 North Mulberry Street, was awarded a pension in 1910 under the dependent father act . In a final bit of irony, John Dorwart had to resort to enlisting the aid of Congressman W. W. Greist , the son of the postmaster who had received the original letter indicating that a mysterious Lancastrian had gone down on the MAINE, in the effort to obtain the pension.
Since Charles Dorwart’s body was never identified as being recovered, his remains may still lie in Havana harbor, or his remains may rest in Arlington National Cemetery, near the main mast of the MAINE, in a grave marked “unknown” with his fellow crewmen.
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