By R.R. Keene - Originally Published April 1998

The Florida Strait is turquoise, pretty and treacherous. Marines and sailors should always beware. In bygone years, the harbor of Havana was friendly and warm unless one sailed in USS Maine.

It was six bells, or 11 a.m., Jan. 25, 1898. On the holystoned quarterdeck of the battleship Maine (BB-2) stood First Lieutenant Albertus W. Catlin, who in another war would win the Medal of Honor. He was the picture of a Marine officer, at attention, in dark-blue jacket with gold-braided sleeves and Mameluke sword indicative of his rank and station. Behind him, resplendent in the Caribbean sun, under white, spiked helmets, dress-blue bedecked leathernecks of his detachment stood in armed formation. Around them were white-jumpered tars and their officers, 354 in all, aboard Maine as she steamed proudly beneath the Span- ish guns of Morro Castle through Canal del Puerto and into colonial Cuba's Havana Harbor.

Indeed Maine was awesome to behold. She was unique in that she was totally designed and built by Americans. In an age when man thought machines could conquer and accomplish anything, Maine, at 319 feet and displacing 6,682 tons, was the largest vessel to be actually built in a U.S. Navy Yard. One of the country's first steel warships, she symbolized man's faith in technology at the height of the Industrial Age and, more importantly, America's emergence as a naval power.

Yes, Catlin and the rest of Maine 's complement had every reason to be proud. The 45-star national ensign fluttered over the alabaster hull, gold trimmed, with 10inch breech-loading rifles, 6-inch guns, rapid-firing 6-pounders and torpedo tubes bristling all under her scarlet-painted dual smokestacks. How could the Spaniards, Cubans and indeed the world not be impressed?

America had come of age.

USS Maine was entering Havana on only a few hours' notice. The Spanish government was hoping to negotiate an end to a bloody three-year rebellion which had cost more than 100,000 lives. By allowing some "self-governing" within the colony, the Spaniards wanted to appease Cuban guerrilla forces led by Jose Marti seeking full independence.

The rebellion had strained relations between Madrid and Washington. The newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and rival Joseph Pulitzer, under sensational headlines, told Americans of the bitter struggle between the Cuban people and their imperial rulers led by Governor General Valeriano "Butcher" Weyler. Americans' sympathies naturally lay with the rebels, American volunteer "filibusters" went south to fight for the Cuban cause, and there was some talk in Washington circles of annexing the island. Adding to Spain's problems were similar native revolts half a world away in the Philippines.

Spanish Queen Regent Maria Cristina knew the last thing the throne needed was a war with the United States. And yet, there was USS Maine heading for anchor at Buoy #4 which was reserved for warships, only 250 yards to starboard of the Spanish cruiser Alfonso XII and north of the American passenger steamer City of Washington.

Maine was in Havana at the behest of American Consul General Fitzhugh Lee (Gen Robert E. Lee's son), who'd been a Confederate cavalry commander during America's War Between the States and who had sympathy for the guerrillas. Citing tensions between the Spanish and Cuban patriots and tensions between Spain and the United States, Lee asked that the Navy be alerted, suggesting American war vessels and Marines be dispatched to protect American citizens.

Told that Maine's visit was a courtesy call, the Spanish were surprised, but cordially received the ship by sending a case of sherry to the officers' mess.

Maine's skipper, Captain Charles D. Sigsbee, prudently ordered Catlin and the Marines to establish increased security for the ship while in the harbor. Further, there would be no liberty in Cuba. That would have to wait until they docked in New Orleans during the Mardi Gras. Sigsbee and a few of his officers were, however, invited by the Spanish government to view a bullfight which Sigsbee ordered be attended in civilian attire.

The afternoon at the "plaza de toros" was uneventful except that someone handed Sigsbee an antiAmerican propaganda leaflet that complained of "Yankee pigs who meddle in our affairs" and that "the moment of action has arrived.. .Death to the Americans." On it also were scrawled the words: "Watch out for your ship!" Sigsbee advised Catlin, who, in turn, ordered his armed sentries to be extra watchful and alert at night.

Catlin had every confidence in his Marines. They belonged to a time when leathernecks were, as a reporter from the Manchester, N.H., Union noted in 1895, of "a hard character," in a Corps where promotions were slow and life Spartan. Their ranks were of "some toughs," and at least a quarter of all enlisted men were new immigrants. The reporter also found the men "respectable, their barracks neat and clean, and their discipline and drill flawless."

Enlistments were for five years and open to unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 35 who could read and write and who were "well made, sound as to senses and limbs." (The Corps also allowed the enlisting of 14-year-old boys as field musics.) Recruit training took place at Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Mare Island, Calif. New Marines were then transferred to Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C., for "polishing" and then sent to a ship's detachment.

Training was done by the books, and the leathernecks' bible was "The Marines' Manual," the Corps' first handbook on military subjects which advised bathing and washing the feet "at least twice a week" and good marksmanship consisted of taking "the best position for holding the rifle. Aim it correctly, hold it steadily, and pull the trigger without deranging the aim."

Novice leathernecks were trained "in skirmishing; at target practice; at bayonet exercises; and in ceremonies." Seagoing Marines became proficient with "the great gun or artillery drill," learned to swim and became proficient with boats, signals and broadsword.

Discipline was iron-clad. A Marine suspected of being less than sober could draw five days on bread and water. A typical court-martial sentence for deserting included a year's confinement shackled to a 12-pound ball on a four-foot chain. One officer wrote: "Waste of any kind was not abided....Orders were to be obeyed. Work was to be done. No excuses. No explanations. No quarter to be given or expected."

If it was a harsh Corps for enlisted men, it was agonizingly slow in recognizing its officers. For them, promotions came after a decade of service. Officers who had been commissioned during the Civil War were still captains having served 18 years as lieutenants. They could look forward to major's leaves after spending another 21 years in grade.

Captain George C. Reid, a 53-year-old veteran of 30 years of service, testified in 1894 to the Congressional Joint Committee on Naval Personnel. He said, "When he [an officer] passes the age of 45 and still has the duty of officer of the day to perform on a day on and two days off, he feels it very much.... He will not have that cheerfulness, that interest, that energy and industry that every officer should have."

Although most of the Corps' officers were graduates of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and long on practical experience, many of the senior captains were too old for active field duty. (Congress would eventually solve the problem with the Military Retirement Act.)

Enter Colonel Commandant Charles Heywood, who took the helm of the Corps in 1891. Then 52 years of age with service ashore and afloat during the Civil War, Heywood was considered by his contemporaries "a mere lad." He, however, wasted no time in taking inventory of the Corps' needs.

Although the Navy had begun to modernize, the Corps had not kept pace. Heywood asked for and received an increase of 500 men. War, however, would come before the Corps could substantially meet its new authorized strength. The Corps entered the Spanish-American War with only 77 officers and 2,900 Marines manning 14 shore stations on both coasts and aboard 35 men-of-war vessels and five receiving ships (permanently moored vessels that received, processed, quartered and fed transient enlisted personnel).

When the Navy considered removing Marines from its warships, Heywood fought back. He believed that Marines ashore would always be as essential as sentries and as emergency infantry during civil disorder. However, he also believed that Marines were most useful at sea. "It is as Artillerymen aboard our new floating batteries that their importance must be felt and acknowledged in the future."

He organized the School of Application where new officers and hand-picked enlisted Marines were taught infantry drill, tactics and general field service subjects. More importantly, the 10-month course also included naval gunnery, mine warfare, electricity and high explosives as well as instruction at the Navy's Washington gun factory and Torpedo School at Newport, R.I.

Further, he told barracks commanders to de-emphasize ceremonial drill and increase rifle marksmanship proficiency. He dumped the Navy standards of rifle qualification and adopted the more challenging Army course which required shooters to fire from 200 to 1,000 yards and ordered that all Marine officers become expert riflemen so they could, in turn, properly instruct their men.

He then gave them the high-velocity, clip-fed, bolt-action, .236-caliber (6-mm.) Lee Navy rifle which used smokeless powder (the first in the U.S. Armed Forces). Unit armories were also stocked with two rapid-fire weapons which gave infantrymen the capability of great destruction: the Gatling gun and the Hotchkiss revolving cannon.

When the Secretary of the Navy authorized the awarding of Good Conduct Medals on July 20, 1896, Heywood designed the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal. The late Corps historian, retired Col Robert Debs Heinl Jr. later wrote, "Anyone familiar with his character would immediately recognize [Heywood] from the medal's legend-Fidelity, Zeal and Obedience."

Thus it was in this setting on the night of Feb. 15, 1898, that Catlin, his Marines and crew of Maine would come to war.

Aside from the note handed to Capt Sigsbee, warning him to watch his ship, Maine's presence in Havana had been uneventful. The lack of liberty challenged the ship's cooks and Japanese mess stewards to creatively come up with interesting meals while the crew concentrated on maintenance and drills of general quarters and repelling boarders. Maine's pride in teamwork was exemplified by its All-Navy champion baseball team captained by Seaman Bill Gorman. They were becoming anxious to unlimber on a real ball diamond of terra firma.

That night the team's third baseman Marine Trumpeter C. H. Newton made his way to his station on Maine's superstructure to play "Taps." It was moonless and quiet. The lights of old Havana, Regla and Casa Blanca reflected off the water, smooth and mirrorlike. Below Newton in the forward berthing decks 327 sailors and Marines talked quietly or rested in their hammocks.

At 9:10 Trumpeter Newton sounded "Taps," and it was, as some later recalled, a uniquely haunting and lilting version. The ordnance officer, Lieutenant John Hood, smoking a cigar, paused to reflect. Catlin, preparing to write a letter, stopped to listen. Those in the berthing area undoubtedly listened as men of arms always do when "Taps" is played. In his cabin Capt Sigsbee, not known to be particularly romantic, wrote in a letter: "I laid down my pen to listen to the notes of the bugle, which were singularly beautiful in the oppressive stillness of the night. The marine bugler, Newton, who was rather given to fanciful effects, was evidently doing his best. During his pauses the echoes floated back to the ship with singular distinctness, repeating the strains of the bugle fully and exactly."

Afterward it was uncommonly still.

At 9:40 Capt Sigsbee finished his letter to his family. Lt Catlin looked for his pen among the papers. Navy veteran Lt John Blandon, who'd been cited for bravery while on board USS Trenton during a typhoon, felt a bit melancholy and walked to the starboard side of the ship. Lt Hood approached him and asked laughingly if he was asleep. Blandon answered: "No, I am on watch."

Then USS Maine exploded.

It was a dull, sullen roar followed by a sharp explosion, although some would later say numerous detonations. Blandon would remember only one which came from the port side. "Then came a perfect rain of missiles of all descriptions, from huge pieces of cement to blocks of wood, steel railings, fragments of gratings, and all the debris that would be detachable in an explosion." He was struck on the head by a chunk of cement, but was basically unhurt. He and Hood ran to the poop deck to help lower boats. When they got there, water was up to their knees and the quarterdeck was awash.

In his cabin Sigsbee felt the crash of the explosion and trembling and lurching motion of the huge vessel, and the lights went out.

Lt Catlin thought he heard two explosions, one sounding like the "crack of a pistol and the second a roar that engulfed the ship's entire forward section." Then darkness. He groped his way out and made for the weather decks to join the other ship's officers. (All but two survived the blast.)

Private William Anthony, Capt Sigsbee's orderly and 14-year veteran, left the safety of the weather decks and jumped through flames to find his captain. He worked his way through the black, smoke-filled compartments and found Sigsbee in a darkened passageway. Anthony snapped to attention, saluted and made his report: "Sir, I have to inform you that the ship has blown up and is sinking" or words to that effect.

The orderly had merely stated what his captain already knew. When both men reached the weather decks, Maine was already settling in the harbor's mud. One of her stacks lay in the water, and the entire bow was gone; water rushed into the hole where the bow had been. Ammunition was exploding overhead. Wounded men littered the black water.

The berthing area had been only two decks above the powder magazines where 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of powder had ignited.

Hood later recalled his horror: "The whole starboard of the deck, with its sleeping berth, burst out and flew into space, as a crater of flame came through, carrying with it missiles and objects of all kinds, steel, wood, and human...all was still except for the cries of the wounded, the groans of the dying, and the crackling of flame in the wreckage."

Sigsbee directed his executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Richard Wainwright, to post sentries around the ship and then realized "that there were no marines available, and no place forward to post them." His command and souls that made it such were, for the most part, gone.

Gigs from City of Washington and Alfonso XII quickly came alongside what was left of Maine. Sigsbee ordered the ship be abandoned and was the last to leave. He ordered the boat to circle Maine again and again in his attempt to find survivors. He could be heard calling: "If there is anyone living on board, for God's sake say so!" No one ever answered.

Indeed, 28 Marines were among the 266 killed, including Trumpeter Newton and all but one of Maine's championship All-Navy baseball team. Of those rescued, eight died later of injuries.

Only 88 survived.

News of the disaster ignited the American press to scream for vengeance.

Sigsbee thought it was a mine that set off the explosion. Others in the Navy weren't so sure. The Navy Department cautioned: "Public opinion should be suspended until further report."

Although USS Maine was considered state of the art, she had one flaw that may have claimed her. Coal bunkers lined much of her hold, and eight of the bunkers were next to the magazines where powder was contained in copper containers. In January an investigative board had reported on dangers of spontaneous coal fire to the Secretary of the Navy and warned of bunker-to-magazine fires, which had been discovered-in time to prevent disaster on the armored cruiser New York (ARC-2) and gunboat Cincinnati. Spontaneous combustion in the coal bunkers was a common, real concern to the Navy who, for various reasons, in 1881 stopped using anthracite coal in favor of the more volatile bituminous coal.

The newspaper editors, if they did hear of such speculation, chose to disregard it and trumpeted their jingoistic "exclusives."

The New York World two days later asked in a banner headline: "MAINE EXPLOSION CAUSED BY BOMB OR TORPEDO?" While the New York Journal proclaimed: "THE DESTRUCTION OF THE WAR SHIP MAINE WAS THE WORK OF AN ENEMY," and stated USS Maine "was split into two by an enemy's secret Infernal Machine." There were illustrations showing the ship anchored over a mine with wires connecting to a Spanish fort.

No one will probably ever know what actually happened. However, in New York City a man, whose name has been since lost in time, lifted his glass in a Broadway bar and intoned to the patrons, "Gentlemen, remember the Maine!" A Hearst reporter picked up on it, and the "Yellow Press" had their battle cry. While Congressional Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed said, "A war will make a large market for gravestones," the majority of politicians and the American public accused the Spanish of treachery and were sparked by the headline: "Remember the Maine. To Hell with Spain!"

Although peppermint candies appeared carrying that message, and Tin Pan Alley cranked out the song "My Sweetheart Went Down With the Maine" the newspapers and public needed a hero. When the Navy and Marine Corps recognized Pvt Anthony's actions by promoting him to sergeant, the press joined in and made him a national hero. (It was more than the veteran Marine could handle. Haunted by the death of his comrades and overwhelmed by the publicity, he took to heavy drinking and was retired the following year as a sergeant major. Despondent and out of work, he committed suicide at age 46. The New York police found his body on Nov. 24, 1899, in Central Park. He was Maine's last casualty.)

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt was eager for a fight and on Feb. 25 cabled his friend, Commodore George Dewey with the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hong Kong, the following: "Secret and confidential.... Keep full in coal. In the event of declaration of war with Spain, your duty will be to see that the Spanish squadron does not leave the Asiatic coast and then offensive operations in Philippine Islands. Keep Olympia [cruiser (C-7)] until further orders. Roosevelt." It was also at that time that Secretary of the Navy John Davis Long ordered the white hull of American warships repainted battleship gray.

Spain made futile attempts to conciliate. But war fever had taken the American nation. On April 11, President William McKinley, although he was against war, asked Congress to support an ultimatum that Spain "clear out of Cuba and allow Cuba to be independent." On April 19, Congress recognized Cuba's independence and carefully promised not to annex the island. Then, on April 21, a reluctant President McKinley ordered a naval blockade of Cuba, and Congress formally declared war. (Spain answered with a declaration of war on the United States.)

It was a war the United States was not ready for.

On April 23 the President called for 125,000 volunteers.

The U.S. Army had 28,000 men whose ranks contained veterans of Indian wars on the plains. However, as with the Marine Corps, decades of peace and slow promotions had taken its toll on the best officers. Further, the War Department had become mired in red tape. Although the Regular Army was quickly enlarged to more than 61,000 volunteers, it had neither stockpiles of supplies nor trained reserves to realistically meet the challenge of coming campaigns.

The U.S. Navy wasn't much better off. It possessed only five battleships and two armored cruisers. That the warships were spread thin between the Orient and the States was demonstrated when USS Oregon (BB-3) was forced to steam at flank speed, 11,000 miles from Puget Sound, Washington, down to the Strait of Magellan (as there was no Panama Canal at the time) and up to Key West, Fla.

The Marines, meanwhile, stripped posts and receiving ships of leathernecks. They ordered every available man west of the Mississippi River to New York's Brooklyn Navy Yard.

They arrived in only a few days: 23 officers and 623 enlisted men, mostly recruits. They mustered as a battalion before their commander. He was Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, a bearded relic of the Civil War, but an officer who had not lost the courage to command with age or his ability to lead in the years of relative peace. His efforts to form and ready the battalion of Marines helped build the Corps' reputation for combat valor and readiness.

As further impetus, Colonel Commandant Heywood came up from Washington to work and supervise preparations. The battalion "was supplied with all the equipment and necessities for field service under conditions prevailing in Cuba, including mosquito netting, woolen and linen clothing, heavy and light weight underwear, three months' supply of provisions, wheel barrows, pushcarts, pickaxes, shovels, barbed-wire cutters, wall and shelter tents, and a full supply of medical stores."

Huntington quickly found his best non-commissioned officers and had them hone the battalion into a force resembling combat-ready Marines. He provided the five rifle companies with new Lee Navy rifles and added four 3-inch rapid-fire guns to the artillery company's inventory.

As the battalion formed and prepared for war, a former merchantman vessel, rechristened USS Panther (AD-6), was quickly fitted to serve as transport and destroyer tender. Between Brooklyn, and eventually Cuba, Huntington ensured his leathernecks trained nonstop.

After some delay, the battalion was ready to board USS Panther for the fleet base at Key West, to be in readiness for duty on the Greater Antilles island of Cuba. No other unit of comparable size (with the possible exception of the "Rough Rider" cavalry regiment) would see as much action or receive as much newspaper coverage during the Cuban campaign.

On April 22, Huntington paraded his battalion, laden heavily with the tools of war, through cheering throngs in Brooklyn and boarded USS Panther while a Navy band played "The Girl I Left Behind Me."