The USS Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 15, 1898. That began a string of events that resulted in the United States truly becoming a world power. The repercussions of that event affect us today because had we not prosecuted the war with Spain, the United States would not have entered the international scene as early as it did. By gaining the Philippine Islands, we became a world power. There’s really no way to tell the changes that would characterize the world without the Maine sinking, but there are lessons if not cautions to remember.
President McKinley sent the Maine to Havana because the Cuban people were in revolt against their colonial masters, the Spanish.
Many people in the United States were sympathetic to the people of this neighboring land struggling against a foreign power in order to gain independence. The American press was anti-Spanish and whipped up emotions. American citizens in Cuba were at risk due to the fighting.
President McKinley sent the Maine with the approval, begrudgingly, of the Spanish government. When the battleship first arrived on Jan. 25, 1898, the commanding officer helped prevent any clash between his crew and Spanish authorities by restricting the enlisted men to the ship. However, during the evening of Feb. 15, an explosion sank the ship. The Navy Heritage and History Command website on the tragedy relates that 260 sailors died in the initial blast. Another six sailors died from their injuries a few days later. Only two officers were killed because their sleeping quarters were aft (that’s to the rear, for you landlubbers) of the part of the ship destroyed.
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The initial Navy report indicated an external explosion caused the damage. The American people were outraged and demanded action. Public support for the people struggling against a colonial power that now had apparently attacked one of our ships drove the Congress to declare war. Volunteers overwhelmed the Army’s ability to process and train them. Nonetheless, we were off to war. We won that one, of course, but it was not pretty. I recently received a casualty listing from the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle, Pa., indicating that 2,446 American servicemen died in the Spanish-American War. Of those who died, only 385 were killed in combat. Another 2,061 died of non-battle causes like disease and injury. As a word of caution, every casualty list is open to question because different authors, official or otherwise, can generate different numbers depending on who counts what and when. Nonetheless, the point I want to make is that we lost many more Americans to non-combat injuries than we did to combat. The wounded total was 1,662. Regardless of the casualty count, there are several lessons worth remembering.
Beware of popular sentiment. Clearly the American people supported the war with Spain. However, since that initial Navy report, several investigations have occurred. The best that can be said is most folks will believe the report they want to believe. Causes have ranged from a mine to coal dust to ammunition. No one really knows today and no one really knew in 1898. Public opinion fanned by the media and sympathy for the Cuban people caused us to go to war.
Beware of the first report. It is almost always wrong, or at least incomplete. The previous discussion of the confusion and disagreement among various investigations as to the cause of the sinking should explain this.
Good intentions can backfire. No one can know if Americans would have died as a result of the Cuban revolution anyway or if the Maine would have blown up in its home part had the ship not deployed. However, we do know that since the Maine was in Havana harbor when it sank, American sailors died and the country went to war. The cause of freedom for Cuba may have been just, but we must always remember that if we stick an American service man or woman on the pointy end of the spear in a foreign land, something might happen that we did not anticipate nor want. Good intentions do not always bring the expected outcome.
The American military will persevere. Even though our forces really were not prepared for this war, the volunteers and regulars went about the fight with the determination to win. They always do. So we should always maintain faith with those young folks that we send out to do our bidding. They will do their best regardless of their preparation. The spirit of the American soldier, regardless of gender or service, is hard to beat.