The Maine: A 'Ship to Remember' from the forgotten pages of history

November 29, 1992|By Fred Rasmussen

A SHIP TO REMEMBER:

THE MAINE AND THE

SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR.

Michael Blow.

William Morrow.

` 496 pages. $27.50.

"In my opinion," wrote Charles Dwight Sigsbee, captain of the battleship Maine, "the arrival of the Maine has caused the United States Government to dominate the situation. It has reduced to absurdity the warnings and threats published from Spanish sources previous to the arrival of the vessel."

They would prove to be prophetic words.

The Maine had been ordered to Havana in January 1898 by President William McKinley following Cuban riots earlier that month.

"In view of the possibility of danger to American life and property, some means of protection should be at hand," he said.

His assistant secretary of the navy, Theodore Roosevelt, agreed.

At 9:40 p.m. on Feb. 15, 1898, as Captain Sigsbee sat in his cabin writing a letter, the Maine staggered from a tremendous explosion on the port side.

Stunned, he went on deck to find his ship rapidly sinking into the murky waters of Havana harbor. He lost 260 members of his crew.

This was the beginning of what Ambassador John Hay described as "a splendid little war."

The War of '98 has largely been forgotten, but author Michael Blow -- whose grandfather, George Preston Blow, was lost on the Maine -- says that the conflict swept the United States onto the world stage as a major player in international affairs, and that the burdens of that conflict remain with us.

The war lasted a little more than four months. Battle deaths totaled 379, slightly more than were lost in the sinking of the Maine.

This well-researched and highly informative history features a number of characters who rushed to Cuba to participate in the conflict, namely Richard Harding Davis, the hard-charging war correspondent; William Randolph Hearst and his "new journalism;" a young Winston Churchill, who got his first look at guerrilla warfare, and Stephen Crane, the author who was determined to live "The Red Badge of Courage."

A mine was the official explanation for the loss of the Maine. However, in 1962, Admiral Hyman C. Rickover re-examined the evidence and concluded that the cause of the explosion was spontaneous combustion from bituminous coal in a bunker that was near magazine A-14 M.

Even though his findings remain controversial, it was Theodore Roosevelt -- in a letter to John Davis Long, secretary of the navy -- who perhaps best expressed what happened to the Maine: "It may be impossible to ever settle definitely whether or not the Maine was destroyed through some treachery. . . ."

This is a beautifully written, lavishly illustrated book. It contains a handy dramatis personae of the major players in the Spanish-American War drama, and what happened to these protagonists makes for interesting reading.

In 1912, the Maine finally left Havana harbor after being raised and was towed to her resting place. She was sunk off Cuba by the Navy with great pageantry.

Mr. Rasmussen is a member of The Sun's staff.

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