On 15 February 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor. The exact cause would remain unknown for decades and even now is subject to some debate. But an American public driven largely by yellow journalism and a government eager to flex its new maritime muscle were quick to blame Spain. On 25 April, President William McKinley asked Congress for a formal declaration of war.
The Senate and House promptly returned one, and in the process backdated the beginning of the Spanish-American War to 21 April, when Acting Rear Admiral William T. Sampson’s North Atlantic Squadron had been ordered to implement a blockade of Cuba. Earlier, some of the squadron’s strongest ships had been organized into the Flying Squadron, led by Commodore Winfield Scott Schley and tasked with defending the East Coast against possible attack. Across the Atlantic, on 29 April a Spanish squadron under Rear Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete set out for the Caribbean to break the American blockade and defend Spain’s possessions there.