In many ways, today marks the 115th anniversary of the beginning of the American “Empire.” In early 1898, the battleship USS Maine was dispatched to Havana, Cuba to protect American interests as Cuba was wracked by a war for independence from Spain. On the evening of February 15, 1898, an explosion ripped through the forward section of the Maine. The ship quickly settled to the bottom of Havana’s harbor taking with her 261 of 355 man crew.
Six weeks after the catastrophe, a US Naval Court of Inquiry determined that the sinking could be attributed to a naval mine. Popular opinion was quickly inflamed by the popular press and “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain” became a rallying cry for war with Spain. Two months later, in April 1898, war began as Spain declared war on the United States after the US issued an ultimatum to Spain demanding it grant Cuba independence. The war was an overwhelming American victory and had numerous domestic and international consequences. First, the war helped heal the wounds of the War Between the States as former Confederate General Joseph Wheeler (along with Robert E. Lee’s son Fitzhugh Lee, himself a former Confederate commander) proudly led US troops into battle. Second, the war helped propel Teddy Roosevelt to national prominence and ultimately the White House. Finally, the war in many ways marked the rise of the US as an international power as the US gained control of Cuba, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.
The true cause of the sinking of the Maine remains a mystery, but modern inquiry by none other than the US Navy’s own brilliant Admiral Hyman Rickover has led many to conclude that the sinking was the result of spontaneous combustion of the ship’s coal bunkers and not a Spanish mine. The Maine was later removed from Havana harbor and scuttled off the coast of Florida in 1912.