After a period of uneasy peace, Cuban rebels in 1895 renewed their struggle against the Spanish rulers of the island. To quell this latest insurrection, Spain sent General Valeriano Weyler, who forced thousands of Cubans into concentration camps. Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal thundered with demands for U.S. intervention to aid the Cuban guerrillas. The sensationalist newspapers dubbed Weyler "the Butcher" and published stories—some true, some not—about his atrocities against Cubans. Spain, reacting to U.S. loathing of Weyler, removed him, temporarily easing tension between the two nations. But in January 1898, anti-American rioting broke out, and U.S. Consul Fitzhugh Lee (nephew of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and himself a Major General in the Confederate Army) urged official Washington to protect the lives of U.S. citizens on the volatile island. President William McKinley ordered the Maine to Cuba.
On 25 January 1898, the battleship steamed into Havana Harbor. McKinley, trying to still the war drums, wanted the Maine to show the flag, prove that U.S. warships had the right to enter Havana, and then get out. On 15 February the Maine was to head for New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. By then, McKinley hoped, anti-Spain fervor should have died down.
But at 2140 on the night of 15 February, a massive explosion tore through the ship, killing 250 men and two officers. (Mortal injuries raised the final toll to 266.)
A Court of Inquiry questioned survivors—including commanding officer Captain Charles D. Sigsbee—and interpreted the reports of divers. The theory that a mine had destroyed the ship stemmed primarily from eyewitness testimony. The report of diver W. H. F. Schluter was particularly significant. He said he could see green paint on a bottom plate that was "all torn ragged and it looked to be inward." Bottom plates on the outside were painted with antifouling green paint. So this produced the image of a plate being blasted from the outside and turned inward.
"You are sure they were not bent out?" the court asked Schluter.
"Yes, sir; I am sure," he replied.
"And the green paint you saw was on the part bent inward?"
"The green paint was on the part bent inboard. . . . My opinion is, I believe that she was blown up from the outside and in, because there was no explosion from the inside [that] could make a hole like that, from the way them plates stood around in different directions." The Court concluded that the extensive damage "could have been produced only by the explosion of a mine." But it was "unable to obtain evidence fixing the responsibility . . . upon any person or persons." After the court's finding was revealed in March, McKinley no longer could ignore the call for war. "Remember the Maine and the hell with Spain" became a rallying cry.
But was it a mine?
The question lingered until 1911, after the U.S. Corps of Engineers, in an unprecedented feat, built a cofferdam around the ship, pumped out the water, and exposed the wreckage. A Board of Inquiry based much of its analysis on photographs of physical evidence that the previous investigation had sensed but not seen: bottom plates that were bent inward, presumably by an external force, such as a mine. The board focused on a section of outside plating that "was displaced inward and aft and crumpled in numerous folds."
Although the 1911 report placed the location of the explosion farther aft, the 1911 inquiry's conclusion agreed with that of 1898: "The board believes that the condition of the wreckage . . . can be accounted for by the action of gases of low explosives such as the black and brown powders with which the forward magazine were stored. The protective deck and hull of the ship formed a closed chamber in which the gases were generated and partially expanded before rupture."
The question disappeared. Historians writing after 1911 took for granted that someone—Spanish sympathizers, perhaps, or disgruntled guerrillas hoping to goad the United States into war—had set a mine that blew up the Maine.
After reading a newspaper story in 1974 about the sinking of the Maine, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover decided to reexamine the issue. He recruited historians, archivists, and two Navy experts on ship design: Robert S. Price, a research physicist at the Naval Surface Weapons Center at White Oak, Maryland, and Ib S. Hansen, assistant for design applications in the Structures Department at the David W. Taylor Naval Ship Research and Development Center at Cabin John, Maryland. Among Price's Navy projects had been an analysis of the wreckage of the nuclear-propelled submarine Scorpion (SSN-589), which was lost in May 1968.
The Hansen-Price analysis, as Rickover called it, was the heart of a short book published in 1976. The 23-page analysis reached this conclusion: "We found no technical evidence . . . that an external explosion initiated the destruction of the Maine. The available evidence is consistent with an internal explosion alone. We therefore conclude that an internal source was the cause of the explosion. The most likely source was heat from a fire in a coal bunker adjacent to the 6-inch reserve magazine. However, since there is no way of proving this, other internal causes cannot be eliminated as possibilities."
Again, historians rallied around the Rickover solution, and after 1976 most discussions of the Spanish-American War concluded that there was no mine.
As the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Maine approached, David W. Wooddell, senior researcher on the editorial planning council of National Geographic magazine, suggested that the magazine commission an analysis of the disaster based on computer modeling not available to Rickover and his team. Advanced Marine Enterprises (AME), a marine engineering firm often used by the U.S. Navy, accepted the mission.
The AME analysis, which was announced in the February 1998 issue of National Geographic, examined both the mine and the coal bunker theories. The report declared that "it appears more probable, than was previously concluded, that a mine caused the inward bent bottom structure and detonation of the magazines."
Some experts, including Rickover's researcher Hansen and respected analysts in AME itself, do not accept the conclusions of the AME report. Following are excerpts, published in cooperation with National Geographic, to give readers a chance to judge for themselves.
1. Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, Rickover: Controversy and Genius (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982).
2. H. G. Rickover, How the Battleship Maine Was Destroyed (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1976). A revised edition was published in 1995 by the Naval Institute Press, with a new foreword by Francis Duncan, Dana M. Wegner, Ib S. Hansen, and Robert S. Price. A new appendix gives details of World War II ship damage not available in 1976. The authors use this data to bolster their findings that a mine did not destroy the Maine.
3. Handbook 1081, Primer On Spontaneous Heating And Pyrophoricity (U.S. Department Of Energy (DOE).
4. Environment Safety and Health Bulletin EH-93 -4, The Fire Below: Spontaneous Combustion in Coal; U.S. Department Of Energy.
5. Handbook 1081 (U.S. DOE).
6. William H. Garzke Jr., David K. Brown, Arthur D. Sandiford, John Woodward, and Peter K. Hsu, "The Titanic And Lusitania: Final Forensic Analysis," Marine Technology, October 1996.
7. Fire Protection Handbook, 16th edition (National Fire Protection Association [NFPA]).
9. Handbook 1081 (U.S. DOE).
10. Fire Protection Handbook (NFPA).
11. The Report of the Naval Court of Inquiry Upon the Destruction of the United States Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor February 15, 1898, Together With Testimony Taken Before the Court (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1898-Library of Congress).
12. The Report of the Naval Court of Inquiry, 1898.
13. Report on the Wreck of the Maine, 14 December 1911.
14. All figures in table from Cooper and Kurowski, Introduction to the Technology of Explosives (VCH Publishers, 1996) or Explosives and Demolitions (Department of the Army, FM 5-25, Feb. 1971).
15. T. L. Davis, The Chemistry of Powder and Explosives (New York: J. Wiley & Sons, 1941).
16. Cooper and Kurowski, Introduction to the Technology of Explosives.
17. Sax and Lewis, Hazardous Chemicals Desk Reference (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1987).
18. N. Cary, Head, Curator Branch, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
19. S. Hering, M. Mat. Sci., B. Met. E., Advanced Marine Enterprises, Arlington, Virginia.
20. D. A. Fisher, The Epic of Steel (New York: Harper & Row, 1963) Chapter 18.
21. D. Wegner, Curator of Models, Carderock Division, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Bethesda, Maryland.
22. H. Keith, Ph.D., Forensic Metallurgist, Marathon, Florida; T. Foecke, Materials Scientist, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, Maryland.
23. The Report of the Naval Court of Inquiry; Rickover.
24. Robert H. Cole, Underwater Explosions, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1948).
25. Rickover analysis.