The explosion of the battleship Maine on the evening of 15 February 1898 lit up Havana Harbor. Captain Charles D. Sigsbee, writing in his cabin, heard what he thought was a rifle shot, followed seconds later by a powerful, steel-rending blast. Fire tore across the sinking vessel as ordnance exploded. Confused men scrambled along smoke-filled corridors in search of ladders and hatches, but they were hampered by rising water and debris. The Maine’s chaplain, Father John P. Chidwick, never forgot the “heartrending cries of our men: ‘Help me! Save me!’” echoing into the night. Some sailors survived, reaching lifeboats or swimming past wreckage and dismembered bodies, but others perished, their remains too burned or fragmentary to identify. Most problematic of all, the bodies of many remained entombed belowdecks.1
Two hundred and sixty men were killed or missing in the aftermath of the explosion. Six more died later from their injuries. Among the fatalities was Lieutenant Friend W. Jenkins, a Pennsylvanian who had graduated with honors from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1888. He might have made it to relative safety on deck but instead devoted his energies to encouraging “bewildered marines to make a brave fight for life.”
William Lambert, a fireman, had tended the boilers belowdecks when not playing for the ship’s baseball team. As an African-American, he could not break the color barrier in major-league baseball. However, when pitching against the Key West ball club on one occasion, he showed a combination of speed and control that garnered respect.
Then there was Irish-born Michael Harrington, a New York City waiter, who enlisted in the Marines as John Bennet. Whatever his reasons for employing an alias, Harrington/Bennet won Father Chidwick’s praise in a letter to a relative as a devout member of the Sacred Heart Society and someone who faithfully said the rosary. These were some of the men the explosion claimed, drawn from various walks of life.2
A Nation Mourns
“Remember the Maine!” became a powerful national rallying cry, fueled by the ship’s 266 fatalities. Convinced a hidden mine was responsible, the New York World and New York Evening Journal, jingoistic mass-circulation dailies, blamed Spain. Public opinion seethed and angry congressmen demanded action. A naval court of inquiry that met in Havana and Key West, Florida, heard testimony and declared that the Maine’s destruction was the result of an external explosion. By April, Congress had pushed a hesitant President William McKinley to declare war on Spain. What Secretary of State John Hay termed a “splendid little war” would result in an impressive array of Army and Navy victories, marking the United States’ emergence as a world power.3
In Key West, some 90 miles from Cuba, the Maine’s destruction registered more deeply. Residents were well acquainted with the vessel. In 1896, during breaks from chasing local gun smugglers trying to arm Cuban insurrectionists, she had spent 52 days in Key West. The following year she enjoyed a two-week Christmas holiday there. Officers and sailors sampled the isle’s hospitality, and crew members played against the local baseball team. As an established naval port and home to an Army fort and hospital, Key West was the first U.S. city to welcome and tend to the survivors of the Maine. Fittingly, its cemetery received the ship’s dead as the drumbeats for war paused to honor them.4
Recovering the Dead
Burying the Maine’s sailors first involved the task of recovery. Spanish authorities quickly assisted in the recovery of the wounded and dead. Even so, a dismayed Captain Sigsbee blanched the next day at the sight of 19 shipmates roped together and floating in Havana Bay. In Sigsbee’s words, the bodies were “lashed together like logs, uncovered and unattended in the water in front of Admiral Vincente Manterola’s palace. No provision had been made for their disposition.” Father Chidwick soon took charge of the corpses.
Meanwhile, U.S. senators and congressmen wanted the dead brought home, but that request, as Sigsbee repeatedly stressed, was impossible to honor due to the lack of metal coffins and inadequate Cuban embalming procedures. The first recovered fatalities lay in state in Havana before receiving a solemn funeral on 17 February with dignitaries aplenty in attendance, including Havana’s mayor and bishop.5
More bodies surfaced in the days ahead. U.S. divers searching for intelligence codes and cipher machines instead discovered corpses embedded in the twisted wreckage. While papers such as the New York Evening Journal published lurid details certain to horrify the crewmen’s families, The New York Times more somberly announced the recovery of a dozen sailors from below deck.6 The dead were “necessarily dismembered in the course of the removal,” the Times reported, the result of the extensive wreckage. Some days it was more difficult to recover remains. At one point in late February, divers worked three hours to dislodge one body intact, only to have one of their numbers suffer a bad fall. Other divers became entangled in their own air tubes. The body could not be recovered that day; too much debris hindered the operation.7
Choosing a Resting Place
Captain Sigsbee managed to acquire hermetically sealed zinc coffins for the bodies found during the recovery operation, and he obtained the necessary health permits to land them in Key West, the nearest American port. Because Cuban law forbade removal of corpses for fear of spreading contagion, Sigsbee also navigated Havana’s diplomatic channels to win official approval from the authorities. In a cable to Secretary of the Navy John Davis Long, he urged speed: “Probable that bodies hereafter cannot be recognized. Probable bodies will not remain intact. Condition of bodies requires immediate action.” Secretary Long readily agreed, instructing the naval station at Key West to take the necessary steps to receive the remains. It was expected to be a temporary arrangement until the dead could be transferred to the mainland.8
Between 17,000 and 18,000 diverse residents called Key West home; whites, blacks, Americans, Cubans, and Bahamians engaged in industries ranging from wrecking to cigar making. Navy, Marine, and Army personnel complemented the civilian economy, with the imposing but badly aging Fort Taylor symbolizing the military presence. The community boasted electric streetlights and streetcars, urban amenities familiar to affluent turn-of-the-century towns. Yet to some visiting newsmen, the island was a rustic backwater. Sidewalks were few. Cats, dogs, goats, and wild hogs wandered the streets. An 1898 newsman described Key West as composed of “dingy houses and coral rock” and lacking any semblance of society. Few Army or Navy men brought their wives there, he declared; the conditions were too primitive.9
The community cemetery, located northeast of Passover and Windsor lanes, managed to escape sharp scrutiny. However, earlier interment sites had drawn criticism.The first burial ground on the town’s western beach, distinguished by a “few plain stones to tell the possessors of the little tenements below,” according to an 1830 visitor, was a modest affair. Inscriptions were difficult, if not impossible to read, since “the majority [of gravesites] have merely the stones marking the length of each but who sleeps below? Who sleeps below? Is an idle question now.”10
Perhaps the lament inspired the town to select a new site the following year, but the new cemetery suffered a worse fate than its predecessor. An 1846 hurricane that flattened the island’s houses sent wind and water blasting into the low-lying burial ground. Stephen Mallory, the port inspector (and future Confederate Navy secretary), discovered the graveyard “was entirely washed away, and the dead were scattered throughout the forest, many of them lodged in trees.” Shortly thereafter the town purchased the current cemetery site for $400.11
A Dignified End
A Key West funeral possessed a certain dignity. Whatever outsiders thought about the town’s ramshackle appearance, they could hardly fault its citizens’ treatment of the deceased. A funeral procession stopped business, no matter what the time of day. As one historian noted:
A custom prevails in Key West, not practiced elsewhere in the United States, of closing the doors of stores while a funeral procession is passing. All business along the line of march is suspended, and the last tribute of respect thus paid to the dead.12
As military dead, the Maine sailors were not native citizens, of course, but residents embraced them as though they were.
Naval funerals typically followed certain protocols. During sea burials, more frequent perhaps in wartime and the Age of Sail, officers and crew assembled, the body sewed in sail canvas with a cannonball or perhaps placed in a weighted coffin. The reading of prayers was followed by the descent of the body or the coffin over the side. Land burials required a detachment of officers and crew, a flag-draped coffin, and prayers said ashore. Tombstone inscriptions could enshrine the deceased’s character, reflecting his standing among crewmates. The firing of three guns and sounding “taps” in time became part of the ritual. For the Maine dead, Key West provided an alternative to foreign burial. This way American and naval funeral rites would not be subject to Cuban scrutiny or legislation.13
The Navy secured a portion of the Key West cemetery. The sealed zinc coffins alleviated worries about water seepage in the graves, the result of the Keys’ porous coral soil. Besides, the Navy expected to transfer the bodies to the mainland at a future date. Less confidence existed about the expected reception: Rear Admiral Montgomery Sicard, the North Atlantic Squadron commander, desired a private funeral ceremony; Key West locals “wanted to pay a tribute of respect to the Maine’s dead.” Fears of demonstrations by Key West Cubans, anti-Spanish to the core, prompted the concerns. Mayor John B. Maloney agreed to display only American flags during funeral processions, prohibiting Cuban colors and demonstrations.14
The first unidentified sailor from the Maine arrived in early March. Fears of a noisy Cuban protest proved groundless; only a small crowd gathered at the dock. The coffin went onto a plain wagon—the hearse in waiting was too small for the job—covered with the American flag. A drummer and bugler along with 30 sailors from the U.S. cruiser Marblehead led the procession; the chaplain from the armored cruiser New York followed in a buggy; and then came the coffin, four sailors on each side, accompanied by Commander B. H. McCalla, the Marblehead’s captain. A growing crowd that numbered in the thousands respectfully watched the procession with hats off. Surviving Maine crewmen also attended. The chaplain presided over a short service followed by the lowering of the coffin and Marines firing a volley salute. The bugler sounded “Taps” to signify the end.15
Additional interments followed. A regular routine evolved including the landing of the coffins, the solemn procession, the chaplain reading the service, and finally the gun salute and “Taps.” At one ceremony on 7 March, only 400 or so people attended to observe the interment of six sailors; perhaps the novelty had worn off. Still, the bodies kept coming, prompting the commandant of the Key West Naval Station, Commander James M. Forsyth, to order additional graves dug on 16 March. Five or six more sailors awaited interment.
Naval officers also enlisted civilian help, using B. P. Baker, a Key West cabinetmaker, as funeral director. Baker met the bodies off the ship and probably arranged transport. As a local merchant, he knew the challenges awaiting him since the city marshal had his hands full keeping the streets “free of noisy and obnoxious characters.” City aldermen had to hire six policemen. Maintaining a respectful silence during the ceremonies was becoming harder.16
One piece of remarkable visual evidence of a subsequent Maine interment still exists. William Paley, a pioneering cameraman employed by Edison Films, went to Key West on assignment. On 27 March his camera shot 150 feet of film, recording the procession of nine flag-draped coffins. In what is, arguably, the earliest U.S. military funeral captured on film, small groups of people can be seen walking parallel to the caskets along the street. The sailors march by the coffins four to a side, followed by the citizenry two abreast at the rear. The naval pallbearers occasionally adjust their strides, their pacing more casual than regimented.17
Key West also welcomed the remains of other fatalities once war started. On 12 May, several men from the U.S. torpedo boat Winslow, including E. J. “Isaia” Tunnel, the ship’s cook and the first African-American fatality in the Spanish-American War, received a majestic sendoff. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Key West’s pioneer denomination, hosted the service before the procession to the burial grounds. A newspaper account observed that men, women, and children lined the entire route. Hundreds of city flags stood at half mast. The troop transport Panther supplied 16 Marines, a drummer, and a bugler for the four coffins, while 200 sailors from various warships in the harbor attended. The Episcopal rector delivered a final benediction before rifle volleys and “Taps” closed the ceremony.18
Finalizing the Cemetery
Twenty-four bodies from the Maine, 17 of them unidentified, had found a home in the Key West cemetery. On 2 June, Commander Forsyth asked local officials to enclose the ground. An iron fence soon appeared. The Navy Department sent tombstones in early 1899, the first government efforts to memorialize the sailors. The markers identified them by name when possible, and the unidentified received a number. Plans to disinter the remains for mainland reburial, part of the original government strategy, ran into spirited local resistance. Key West residents petitioned the Navy Department to keep the bodies. Impressed, the Navy Department agreed in November 1899.19
Efforts by Key West residents to commemorate the slain sailors probably factored into the Navy’s decision. An 1898 subscription drive by citizens to memorialize the gravesite underscored their strong sentiments. A monument to the Maine would be a symbolic beacon, drawing attention to the cemetery. It could also serve as a backdrop for commemorative events. Accordingly, Alphous Pelzer, a sculptor employed by the W. H. Mullin Company of Salem, Ohio, crafted the memorial. On 15 March 1900, 10,000 people watched the monument’s procession from the naval station to the cemetery. In a display of civic pomp and pride, the Key West Cornet Band along with Key West Guards, the Knights of Pythias, Knights of the Golden Eagle, naval and Army units, and “hundreds of school children” participated, according to the Jacksonville Florida Times Union. The mayor presided over the ceremony, and Alfred LeRoyce, the senior chaplain of the Navy, offered a prayer.20
The monument’s unveiling occurred after the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” to mark the official handover of the monument site to the Navy. Loud cheers erupted as onlookers gazed upward at a bronze sailor, his hand by his forehead looking out, the other hand holding an oar pointing skyward. The monument’s granite base contained a simple but poignant message:
IN MEMORY OF THE VICTIMS OF THE DISASTER OF THE U.S. BATTLESHIP ‘MAINE’ IN HAVANA HARBOR FEB. 15, 1898, ERECTED BY THE CITIZENS OF KEY WEST, FLA.21
In the years ahead, additional bodies would be recovered. The remains buried in the Havana cemetery had been exhumed and transported for reburial in late 1899 to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. A more ambitious effort, the result of a cofferdam built around the Maine in 1911 and 1912, uncovered more bodies for interment in Arlington. Impressive ceremonies marked the two internments, which were attended by President William Howard Taft and cabinet members. Yet Key West residents could claim a more intimate acquaintance with the crewmen than Washington politicos and military brass could. They had visited their town, sampled island hospitality, and played baseball against a local team. In life, and appropriately in death, some Maine sailors had been welcomed to their second home.22
1. Henry T. Cook, Remember the Maine: An Historical Narrative of the Battleship Maine as told by its Chaplain: Right Reverend Monsignor John P. Chidwick (Winchester, VA: Winchester Printers and Stationers, 1935) no pagination. Ivan Musicant, Empire By Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1998), 137–40. Peggy and Harold Samuels, Remembering the Maine (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 106–7.
2. Rebecca Livingston, “Sailors, Soldiers, and Marines of the Spanish-American War: The Legacy of the USS Maine,” Prologue, vol. 30, no. 1 (Spring 1998), 62–72. Cook, Remember the Maine, no pagination. Friend W. Jenkins, www.uniondalecemetary.org. James Otis, The Boys of ’98 (Boston: D. Estes & Company, 1898), 10. Bennet Letter, www.spanamer.com.
3. John Edward Weems, The Fate of the Maine: Biography of a Celebrated Ship (New York: Henry Holt, 1958), 97–98, 102–9, 113–17. On the war itself, see Ivan Musicant, Empire by Default, and Gerald F. Linderman, The Mirror of War: American Society and the Spanish-American War (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1974).
4. Wright Langley and Joan Langley, Key West and the Spanish-American War (Key West, FL: Langley Press, 1998), 23–24. Cook, Remember the Maine, no pagination. On the baseball game, see: Maureen Ogle, Key West: History of an Island of Dreams (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2003), 102–3. Walter J. Schellings, “Key West and the Spanish-American War,” Tequesta: The Journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida, no. 20 (1960), 19–20. The New York Times, 18 February 1898.
5. Quoted in Samuels and Samuels, Remembering the Maine, 117. New York Times, 20 February 1898.
6. New York Evening Journal, 23 February 1898. The New York Times, 26 February 1898.
7. The New York Times, 23 February, 1 March 1898.
9. Maureen Ogle, Key West, 10–12, 87, 92, 107. Walter C. Maloney, A Sketch of the History of Key West, Florida (1876; reprint, Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1968), 9–10. Trumbull White, Our War with Spain for Cuba’s Freedom (Chicago: Freedom Publishing Co., 1898), Chapter 18. The New York Times, 9 May 1898.
10. Maloney, Sketch of the History of Key West, 52.
11. Jefferson B. Browne, Key West: The Old and the New (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1972 repr. of 1912 ed.), 48–49. Maloney, Sketch of the History of Key West, 52–53. See www.keywestcity.com, “Cemetery History,” for quote by Mallory.
12. Browne, Key West: The Old and the New, 49.
13. William P. Mack and Royal W. Connell, Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions, 5th ed., (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980), 174–83. George Jones, Sketches Of Naval Life With Notices Of Men, Manners And Scenery On The Shores Of The Mediterranean In A Series Of Letters From The Brandywine And Constitution Frigates, 2 volumes (Charleston: Nabu Press, 2014 repr. of 1829 ed.), vol. 1, 10–11, 36, 207–8.
14. The New York Times, 2 March 1898.
15. Ogle, Key West, 104. The New York Times, 4 March 1898.
16. The New York Times, 8 March 1898. Langley and Langley, Key West and the Spanish-American War, 38–39.
17. American Memory, Burial of the Maine Victims, Thomas A. Edison, Inc., Library of Congress video, http://memory.loc.gov.
18. Langley and Langley, Key West and the Spanish-American War, 52–53.
19. The New York Times, 28 January 1899, 30 November 1899. Langley and Langley, Key West and the Spanish-American War, 54.
20. Ibid., 63.
21. Ibid., 62.
22. Michael Blow, A Ship to Remember: the Maine and the Spanish-American War (New York: WIlliam Morrow & Co., 1992), 410–411. The New York Times, 17 March, 19 March, 23 March, 24 March 1912.
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