USS Maine Captain Sigsbee image USS Maine image

 

Personal Narrative of the "Maine"

by Captain Charles Dwight Sigsbee (Commander)

(excerpts from his series in The Century Magazine)

... The Maine got under way about 11 p.m. and stood to the southward into the Gulf Stream. I did not desire to reach Havana at early daylight, but rather to steam in when the town was alive and on its feet; therefore a landfall was made at daylight the next morning, well to the westward. That was on Tuesday, January 25 [1898]. The vessel was then slowed down and the decks were straightened up, so that she might present the usual orderly appearance for port. The crew was required to dress with exceptional neatness in blue; the officers were in frock coats. When all was ready, the Maine was headed to the eastward, nearly parallel to the shore-line of the city, and toward the entrance. She was sent ahead at full speed as she passed the city, and the United States national ensign was hoisted at the peak, and the "jack" at the foremast-head. This disclosed at once the nationality and purpose of the vessel; that is to say, the Maine was a United States man-of-war that desired a pilot to enter Havana harbor. All pilotage in and out of Havana, or within the harbor, is under the direction of the captain of the port, who is a naval officer. The pilot service is entirely official....

For about two days after the arrival of the Maine, her officers were not permitted to go ashore; after that they went freely, day and night. During the whole visit the crew remained on board, with the exception of an occasional visit to the shore, on duty, by some well-trusted petty officer. I regretted very much to retain the crew on board, because it had been my custom to give liberty freely before visiting Havana....

Before reciting the details immediately connected with the destruction of the Maine, it may be said that I did not expect she would be blown up, either from interior or exterior causes, although precautions were taken in both directions. Nevertheless, I believed that she could be blown up from the outside, provided a sufficient number of persons of evil disposition, and with the conveniences at hand, were free to conspire for the purpose. It was necessary to trust the Spanish authorities in great degree for protection from without. I believe that the primary cause of the destruction of the Maine was an explosion under the bottom of the ship, as reported by the court of inquiry. How it was produced, or whether it was produced by anybody intentionally, I do not know; therefore I have carefully avoided accusation....

On the night of the explosion... The members of the crew, three hundred and twenty-eight in number, were on board as usual. One of the steam-launchers was in the water, and riding at the starboard boom. The crew, excepting those on watch or on post, were turned in. The men of the quarter-watch were distributed around the deck in various places, wherever they could make themselves comfortable within permissible limits as to locality. Some of the officers were in their state-rooms or in the mess-rooms below; others were on the main or upper deck, in or about the officers' smoking-quarters, which were abaft the after-turret, on the port side, abreast the after-super-structure....

I was inclosing my letter in its envelop when the explosion came. The impression made on different people on board the Maine varied somewhat. To me, in my position, well aft, and within the supersturcture, it was a bursting, rending, and crashing sound or roar of immense volume, largely metallic in character. It was followed by a succession of heavy, ominous, metallic sounds, probably caused by the overturning of the central superstructure and by falling debris. There was a trembling and lurching motion of the vessel, a list to port, and a movement of subsidence. The electric lights, of which there were eight in the cabin where I was sitting, went out. Then there was intense blackness and smoke.

The situation could not be mistaken: the Maine was blown up and sinking.... I groped my way through the cabin into the passage, and along the passage to the outer door. The passage turned to the right, or starboard, near the forward part of the superstructure....

The after-part of the poop-deck of the Maine, the highest intact point above water, was then level with the gig's gunwale, while that boat was in the water alongside. We had done everything that could be done, so far as could be seen. It was a hard blow to be obliged to leave the Maine; none of us desired to leave while any part of her poop remained above water. We waited until satisfied that she was resting on the bottom of the harbor. Lieutenant-Commander Wainwright then whispered to me that he thought the forward ten-inch magazine had been thrown up into the burning material amidships and might explode at any time, with further disastrous effects. He was then directed to get everybody into the boats, which was done. It was an easy operation; one had only to step directly from the deck into the boat....

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....

The Maine sank in from five and a half to six fathoms of water, and day by day settled in the mud until the poop-deck was about four feet under water. The first matter to engross the attention of the government and of the officers of the vessel was the care of the wounded, the recovery and burial of the dead, and the circulation of information among the relatives of the officers and crew....

At first, bodies were found almost from hour to hour, and were buried as soon as prepared for burial. It was a sad sight at the Machina landing, where bodies were to be seen in the water alongside the sea-wall at all times. To relieve the public eye of this condition of affairs, a large lighter was obtained and anchored near the wreck. On its deck, there was always a great pile of burial cases. To this lighter all bodies were then taken as soon as recovered, and after being prepared for burial, were at first taken to the Colon Cemetery, and toward the last to Key West...

On the 21st the Mangrove returned from Key West, bringing the members of the court of inquiry, and the court convened on board that vessel....

General Blanco had been promised that no American newspaper correspondents should be permitted to enter into any investigation of the Maine. His request was hardly necessary, but I saw that his wishes were fulfilled. The ubiquitous American newspaper correspondent could not be denied, however. It caused our officers some amusement to see occasionally a certain newspaper correspondent sitting in the stern of the Spanish divers' boat while it was working on the wreck. I made no objection. The incident put me on the better side of any contention that might arise, and it was not believed that the correspondent would gather much information worthy of publication. This particular correspondent afterward said that the Spaniards knew that he was an American, but allowed him to make his visits, believing that he was actuated only by a purely scientific spirit of observation.

It was fortunate that Ensign Wilfred V.N. Powelson was serving on board the Fern. His services to the court were of inestimable value... His system was admirable. He would have the divers measure different parts of the submerged structural features of the vessel, and, in case of doubt, would have more than one diver take measurements of the same parts. Then he would refer these measurements to the detailed drawings of the Maine, which we had in abundance. In this way he would show beyond question the precise position that the several parts had occupied in the structure of the Maine... Through this careful method of investigation it was ascertained that at frame 17 the bottom plating of the ship had been forced up so as to be four feet above the surface of the water, or thirty-four feet above where it would have been had the ship sunk uninjured; also that the vertical and flat keels had been similarly forced up in a way that could have been produced only by a mine exploded under the bottom of the ship....

While in Washington I was directed to appear before the Committees on Foreign Relations in the Senate and the House.... When the investigation took a hypothetical character, I explained a mechanical means whereby the Maine could have been blown up, and referred to persons who were in a position which would have enabled them to blow her up had they been so inclined.... Under a decked lighter of large capacity is slung a mine so loaded that its specific gravity, as a whole, is only slightly greater than that of the harbor water. Let it weigh, say, one hundred pounds in water. It is slung from a tripping-bar within the lighter, the slings passing through tubes which are let into the bottom of the lighter and extend upward above the level of the outside water. Insulated wires lead forward from the mine and through a similar tube to a reel mounted within the lighter. If a lighter, so prepared, is slowly towed through the water, or preferably driven slowly by a noisy geared engine, of the type seen in Havana, she can drop her mine on ranges, unobserved, as she may choose. The mine being wholly submerged, no wave will be noticed on letting go...

In conversation with many Americans, and, notably, with a distinguished citizen who has held high public office at home as well as high diplomatic office abroad, I have gathered points in what the latter gentleman calls an indictment... Spain, in respect to Cuba, was not friendly to the United States. Havana was heavily fortified on the sea-front, not against Cuba, but, obviously, against the United States. The Maine was not welcome at Havana. Her coming was officially opposed on the ground that it might produce an adverse demonstration. By officials she was treated with outward courtesy; otherwise, she was made to feel that she was unwelcome. She was taken to a special mooring-buoy - a buoy that, according to the testimony given before the United States naval court of inquiry, was apparently reserved for some purpose not known. She was taken to this buoy by an official Spanish pilot, and she was blown up at that buoy by an explosion from the outside. Therefore there must have been a mine under the Maine's berth when she entered the harbor, or a mine must have been planted at her berth after her arrival. In either case, the Maine should have been protected by the Spanish government. She was not informed of the existence of a mine at her berth, or cautioned in any wise against danger from mines or torpedoes. In her attitude of initial and reiterated friendship, she was powerless to search her mooring-berth. She was obliged to assume a due sense of responsibility on the part of the Spanish authorities. Yet it has not appeared that they took any measures to guard her. Mining plants for harbor defense, and their electrical connections, are always under the express control of governments, and in charge of a few people who alone have the secret of position and control. Therefore responsibility for accident, or worse, is centralized and specific. At Havana the regulations were severe against the ownership of explosives by private parties. The government controlled the importation and sale of explosives with great rigor. It was seemingly impracticable to obtain any large amount of explosives, except through the acquiescence of some official. A knowledge of the secret operation of large mines as against due official vigilance was not likely to be possessed at Havana by private parties acting alone. After the explosion the Spanish authorities endeavored to control access to the Maine and to prevent an independent investigation by the United States. Although they demanded an investigation of the interior of the Maine for themselves, they objected to an exterior investigation by the United States. The Spanish government in Cuba had allowed rioters to go unpunished. The Spanish investigation was superficial and its findings were prejudged by officials. After the explosion there was not a free-handed demonstration that no mines had existed in the harbor of Havana at the Maine's berth at the time of the explosion. A general declaration by General Weyler that there were no mines planted during his administration was not acceptable to the people of the United States. The war developed the fact that the Spaniards had mines in large number in Cuba. It was known in the United States that there were mines, planted or unplanted, at Havana....

Notwithstanding the influence on public opinion in the United States flowing from these considerations, the war was officially prosecuted independent of the affair of the Maine. Certainly no American is likely to feel more deeply than I in respect to any policy growing out of that great disaster; but it is very gratifying to my national pride that we, as a nation, have been proof against all suspicion and against all argument, short of actual demonstration. We have heard much of the motto, "Remember the Maine". If we are satisfied that the Maine was blown up from the outside we have a right to remember her with indignation; but without more conclusive evidence than we now have, we are. not right if we charge criminality to persons. Therefore I conceive that the motto, "Remember the Maine," used as a war-cry would not have been justifiable. I should like to make the point here, as I have made it elsewhere, that this great and free country, with its education, good intention, and universal moral influence, may go to war to punish, but not to revenge. Improperly applied, the motto, "Remember the Maine," savors too much of revenge, too much of evil for evil; but it maybe used in an entirely worthy sense.

During the recent war with Spain about seventy-five men were killed and wounded in the United States navy. Only fifteen were killed. On board the Maine two hundred and fifty-four men were killed outright and others died later - more than seventeen times as many as were killed in the United States navy by the Spanish land and naval forces during the entire war. In the way that the men of the Maine died and suffered there was enough of the heroic to provide a sound foundation for the motto, "Remember the Maine."