Nearly a century and a quarter ago, the battle cry “Remember the Maine!” reverberated throughout every city in the land. This referred to the sinking of the second-class battleship Maine in Cuba’s Havana Harbor on 15 February 1898—the pivotal event initiating the Spanish-American War. Lost in the hail of yellow journalism headlines was what preceded the still unsatisfactorily explained explosions that claimed the ship and 260 of her crew.
The Maine’s commander, Captain Charles D. Sigsbee, wrote extensively about his ship and the disaster that befell her. The battleship had been sent from the Norfolk, Virginia, Navy Yard to Key West, Florida, where she arrived on 15 December 1897. Sigsbee’s “confidential” orders were to wait until summoned to proceed to Havana in case of “grave local disturbances” there to provide asylum and “the usual protection.” General Fitzhugh Lee, the U.S. consul-general in Havana, would request the ship. Sigsbee immediately opened coded communications with Lee through both mail and telegraph.
On 23 January 1898, the Maine joined the North Atlantic Squadron for exercises in the winter drill ground off the Tortugas. The next night, the torpedo boat Dupont arrived with a message from Key West: The Maine was ordered to Havana. Lee had received an order from the Department of State “to resume the friendly naval visits at Cuban ports . . . [and] arrange for the friendly interchange of calls with the authorities.”
Sigsbee later wrote: “I was left to act according to my own judgment in the usual way; that is to say, it was undoubtedly assumed that I would know how to act on my arrival in Havana, and it was intended to hold me responsible for my action. The situation seemed to call for nothing more than a strictly careful adherence to the well-known forms of naval procedure and courtesy.”
Steaming to Havana took barely a day. The captain wanted to arrive “when the town was alive and on its feet,” not at early daylight. Thus, the battleship made landfall on the morning of the 25th well to the west of the Cuban capital, and, as she slowly steamed along the coast, her crew prepared the ship for the “usual orderly appearance for port.” The Maine went to full speed to pass the city, with the national ensign hoisted at the peak and the jack at the foremast. This declared her nationality as well as a request for a pilot.
It had been three years since a U.S. warship had visited Havana, and the nature of the Maine’s reception was much in doubt. While he desired a friendly reception, Sigsbee had to be ready for any exigency. The Maine was prepared for action but “presented no offensive appearance, and meant no offense.” He further noted, “On board United States men-of-war it is commonly only a short step from peaceful appearance to complete readiness.”
The pilot was thoroughly professional and took the Maine through the narrow entrance to the harbor “with such care and excellent skill” that Sigsbee complimented him and later commended him to the port commander. The pilot guided the ship to Buoy No. 4, a mooring of his choosing.
Sigsbee then prepared for the diplomatic phase, beginning with customary greetings. “Probably no forms of etiquette are more stable than those observed among navies in reciprocating courtesies,” he wrote. “They are laid down in the navy regulations, and are established by rigid international convention.” Reciprocal courtesies between naval ships and military and civil authorities were well established and known in all ports frequented by naval vessels. On the arrival of a foreign vessel in port, the host nation’s senior naval officer present sends an officer of the rank of lieutenant or below to the commanding officer of the arriving vessel with an offer of civilities, or to “express the wish of the naval authorities to give any assistance in their power.”
After that “visit of ceremony,” an officer of the visiting ship promptly is sent to acknowledge the visit and to express the thanks of his commanding officer. The next step is for the ship’s commanding officer to call on the commanding officers of and above his own rank in the host nation’s navy. These visits must be returned, by convention, within 24 hours. It is also customary to visit the highest civil officer and the highest military officer.
Thus, Sigsbee was required to visit the captain-general, who was also governor-general; the Spanish admiral in charge of the station; the port captain; and the captain of the cruiser Alfonso XII, the senior Spanish warship in port. He also exchanged visits with Lee, who, as consul-general, was entitled to the first visit.
Sigsbee “had but one wish, which was to be friendly to the Spanish authorities,” as required by his orders. He “took pleasure” in carrying out those orders, and his reports of his encounters with the Spaniards—from the first lieutenant who boarded the Maine with greetings, to General Julián González Parrado, acting governor-general in the absence of General Ramón Blanco—while clinical, were favorable.
“It is hardly to the point whether there was any great amount of actual friendliness for us beneath the surface,” he wrote. “The Spanish officials on every hand gave us absolutely all the official courtesy to which we were entitled by usage, and they gave it with the grace of manner, which is characteristic of their nation. I accepted it as genuine.”
The captain restricted all officers and men to the ship except under his orders until he tested public opinion, both private and official, with regard to the Maine’s presence. All visits were made “without friction and with courtesy on both sides” and “apparently with all the freedom of conversation and action usually observed.” He led Parrado on a tour of the battleship, and the general “seemed much pleased.”
The niceties, however, were not without their hitches. Parrado sent a case of “fine” sherry to the ship’s officers. Citing his ship’s lack of port calls before the Havana visit, Sigsbee reciprocated the gift with “a copy of my own work, Deep Sea Sounding and Dredging, published by the United States Coast Survey in 1880.”
Sigsbee wanted to gauge the tenor of the Cuban population and thus chose to attend a bullfight. At the ring in Regla, across the bay from Havana, “the forbearance of the audience was remarkable and commendable.” Back at the ship, the captain witnessed the passing of a ferry that was accompanied by derisive calls and whistles, which he believed involved fewer than 50 people on the packed ferry and none were Spanish military. “It is but fair to say that this was the only demonstration of any kind made against the Maine or her officers, either collectively or individually, so far as was made known to me, during our visit.”
Despite his recognition of general official civility toward the visit and the seeming indifference of the population, Sigsbee declared that “every precaution” that could be taken against “injury or treachery” was taken on board ship within the restrictions of his orders for a “friendly” visit. “If one, when dining with a friend at his home, were to test the dishes for poison, he would not be making a friendly visit.”
Until the explosion, “nothing whatever” caused any special need for such a level of vigilance.
Many people—at times up to 400—visited the ship, the majority of them Cubans. The Spaniards, however, would not visit the Maine socially. “They would do their official duty, but would not go beyond it.” Sigsbee “finally decided to make a very special effort.” As a result, only one officer visited. “I made no effort there after,” beyond making it known in a general sense that they were welcome on board.
After two days in Havana, officers were allowed ashore freely both day and night; however, the crew, with the exception of “some well-trusted petty officer” on orders, remained on board. The crew did not complain and took it in stride. Sigsbee reported that he moved through Havana, alone, day or night, “without hindrance of any kind.” Havana appeared “as orderly a city as I have ever seen.”
While in port, the crew remained busy with as much of their training as possible, given their peaceable mission. The Maine carried out her routine of daily drills day after day, except omitting “‘night quarters’ and ‘clearing ship for action,’ as likely to give rise to misunderstanding.”
Sigsbee admitted to unwittingly becoming involved in one case of official friction. His duty included not showing political preference and preserving good relations with the government. He believed he had completed his duties in this regard with his visits with General Parrado, but he had neglected to extend such courtesies to the civil members of the local council. Word of his oversight reached Washington, which was relayed back to him.
At a reception given by General Blanco, he was introduced to a number of civilian council members. Oblivious to the full extent of the situation, he felt he could “speak plainly” and did so. He asked to visit the council the next day and offer them the opportunity to visit the Maine and receive a salute. These both occurred and were followed by a visit on the day after by families and friends of the councilors. “It was a merry party, and many evidences of good will were given.” The friction disappeared.
At 2140 on 15 February, Sigsbee was placing a long-delayed letter to his wife in its envelope when a “bursting, rending, and crashing sound or roar of immense volume, largely metallic in character” reverberated through the ship. “I did not expect she would be blown up, . . . Nevertheless, I believed that she could be blown up from the outside, . . . It was necessary to trust the Spanish authorities in great degree for protection from without.” The captain concluded, “I believe that the primary cause of the destruction of the Maine was an explosion under the bottom of the ship, as reported by the court of inquiry.”