The sinking of the USS Maine has been a highly controversial issue that is still debated to this day. You can read the history here, but the BLUF is that USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, Cuba on February 15, 1898 under dubious circumstances. Spain, who was in charge of Cuba at the time claimed the USS Maine sank as the result of a coal bunker fire that caused an explosion. The U.S. Navy and the American media claimed the USS Maine was sunk by a Spanish mine. In the end, the cause didn’t matter as the result was the 1898 Spanish American war that saw the Spanish military destroyed and America launched on its path to becoming the superpower. After the war, the USS Maine was raised, most of the crew recovered, and the hulk was towed to sea and sunk with full military honors. There was an outpouring of sympathy across the United States for the sailors who lost their lives which resulted in a large amount of material from the Maine being preserved around the Washington D.C. Metro area.
The USS Maine (ACR-1) was a new type of armored warships designed to match cruisers that were being built in countries such as England, France, Italy, Spain, and being sold to America’s geopolitical rivals such as Brazil. For the United States, The USS Maine was first in a line of ships that would eventually lead to building true battleships as we know them today. The USS Maine’s design was a balancing the hull with two massive armored turrets that sat off center on the fore and aft parts of the ship. This design limited the guns arc of fire and rapidly led to the USS Maine becoming obsolete as armored warships became faster and better armed. While the USS Maine was no longer a first rate warship by 1898, it was still a formidable vessel that could show the flag when the interests of the United States were at issue. It was in this capacity that the USS Maine visited Havana harbor as a full scale Cuban uprising was underway against Spanish rule. The visit was a routine trip for the USS Maine but fate intervened.
After the Maine had been raised, a large amount of material from the wreck made its way to the Washington Navy Yard. There were requests from around the United States for pieces of the Maine to be donated by the U.S. Navy to become memorials. An event of this magnitude had never happened to the United States during peace time.
Within a few years, the bulk of the material that had been sent to the Washington Navy yard had been transferred to various municipalities or disposed of. What was left though is still on display at the small museum that can be found along the Washington Navy Yard’s waterfront. The main piece is one of the USS Maine’s 6-inch secondary guns that now has a healthy amount of rust. Close by is a brass blade from one of the USS Maine’s spare propellers that is engraved with the USS Maine’s name. The Museum, which bills itself as the “National Museum of the Navy,” is small and only open to visitors who hold a valid DoD ID or their guests who travel with them.
The crew of the USS Maine, after being interned and disinterred at various cemeteries, eventually made their way to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia which is just across the Potomac River from Washington DC. This is by far the largest memorial to the U.S.S. Maine which uses the USS Maine’s undamaged mast as the centerpiece for the crew’s burial plot.
Arlington National Cemetery should be on your list of places to visit on any trip to Washington DC. There is a lot to see there, but it’s worth the walk over to see the Maine’s mast and to pay your respects to the crew. While most of the USS Maine’s crew was recovered from the wreckage, the bulk was never identified as too much time passed between the sinking and when the remains were recovered. Eventually, it may be possible to identify individual crew members through DNA analysis, but for the moment, most rest in mass graves.
The next big place to visit for material from the Maine is the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland. This is about a 45 minute drive from Washington D.C. and is a fascinating day trip. It is also the location of the USS Maine’s damaged fore mast. This has led to a joke in the Navy that the USS Maine is the longest ship in the Navy as it’s fore and aft masts sit in different cities. The mast is included in the public tours that are offered almost daily during the summer months and then on a limited schedule during colder months. There is a fee for the public tours but it is worth the price of admission.
While outside the Washington D.C. metro area, there is a massive memorial to the USS Maine in Columbus Circle in New York City, New York. Most people have seen the memorial in various movies but never knew it was dedicated to the USS Maine. The back story claims that the statues were cast from bronze taken from the Maine’s guns while the plaques were made from metal from the ship’s hull. While New York City is a few hours from Washington D.C., it is worth the cab ride or metro fare to see the memorial if you are in the city.