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The Maine Event

By Eugene L. Meyer
Washington Post Staff Writer


    The mast of the Maine The Maine's mainmast is near the Arlington National Cemetery grave of 229 crewmen who died when the ship sank in Havana. (By Craig Herndon/TWP)
Remember the Maine? No? What about Capt. Charles D. Sigsbee? Or Lt. Richmond Pearson Hobson? Well, then, how about the Hero of Manila, Admiral George Dewey? You remember: the man who uttered the immortal words, "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley." Still clueless? Well, surely the Rough Riders ring a bell. You know, Teddy Roosevelt and the Battle of San Juan Hill?

For the historically impaired, it was, in Secretary of State John Hay's phrase, "a splendid little war" that incidentally transformed America into an imperial world power. But 100 years after it happened, who now remembers the Spanish-American War? There's nothing approaching the huzzahs and hoopla of the Civil War centennial or even the somber remembrance occasioned by the 50th year anniversaries of World War II.

There are no veterans left to remind us -- the last died in 1992, at age 106 -- and Spanish-American War reenactments resonate in, shall we say, a very low key.

And yet, the war that marked, as a contemporary book title put it, "The Passing of Spain and the Ascendency of America," is still much with us:

A century later, our war-won "possessions" nag: Puerto Ricans clamor for statehood, Guamanians for commonwealth status. Cuba, on its own since 1902, remains problematic. Beyond the geo-political issues these territories raise, tangible if largely uncharted reminders of the conflict can be found in and around the Washington area.

From Washington National Cathedral to the Washington Navy Yard to Arlington National Cemetery and Annapolis are monuments, memorials, artifacts and ghosts of the Spanish-American War. A mere two hours north, the cruiser from which Dewey directed the destruction of the Spanish fleet sits docked on the Delaware River, the only surviving ship of America's all-steel "New Navy" of the 1880s and 1890s.

How did America find itself in this now all-but-forgotten conflict? Having fulfilled its Manifest Destiny to span the North American continent, the United States was hankering to expand beyond its borders and the Spanish empire loomed large and vulnerable. Spain had staked its global claims in the early 1500s. Though Spain had lost its Central and South American colonies, it still possessed the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and -- just 90 miles from Key West -- Cuba. Cuban insurrectos were challenging Spain's colonial rule; Imperial Spain had decided to crack down.

All that was needed was a spark. That would be the Maine, and the incendiary "yellow press" -- waging its own war of circulation in the newspapers of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst -- would further help inflame the situation.

The shooting war that swept away what remained of the Spanish empire lasted just a bit longer than the Gulf War. When the smoke cleared, the United States was in possession of most of Spain's territory and the American Century had dawned.

Many events of that watershed time are worth recalling. But first, remember the Maine!

The ship had been anchored three weeks in Havana Harbor, supposedly to safeguard American interests while Spanish colonialists and Cuban revolutionaries duked it out, when the big blast occurred on Feb. 15, 1898. Historians to this day differ on whether an accidental shipboard ignition or a Spanish mine caused the USS Maine to explode and sink. Regardless, "Remember the Maine!" became an emotional battle cry that propelled us into war with Spain three months later, and to victory shortly thereafter.

The explosion seemingly blasted the ship's pieces and contents far, far beyond the Caribbean island, since fragments and artifacts appear in so many museums in so many geographically dispersed locales. And in a sense, the explosion did have a rather tornadic impact.

The Maine itself was raised from Havana Harbor in 1912, its foremast removed to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, its mainmast to Arlington National Cemetery, where 229 crew members were reburied with much pomp. Last month, on Memorial Day, a service was held there, attended by the Spanish ambassador and an American general of Hispanic heritage. The U.S. Army band played, attracting a few tourists, and fresh wreaths were laid. The crowd was small. No American media covered the event.

The Maine monument, mainmast and graves of the crewmen are all located on or near Sigsbee Drive, named for the ship's captain. When John C. Metzler Jr., superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery, leads tours, he says, "I always make a reference to the Maine and its importance." But when he, once, raised his fist and proclaimed "Remember the Maine!" he got no response. End of shtick.

DESCRIPTION OF PHOTO Reminders of the forgotten war at Arlington National Cemetery include the Spanish-American War Memorial (above) and the soldier statue called "The Hiker."
DESCRIPTION OF PHOTO (Photos by Craig Herndon/TWP)
I visited the cemetery on a drizzly gray day. In search of specific graves, I was able to obtain a pass that allowed me to drive my car into the grounds. I wended my way around Schley Drive, named for Rear Adm. Winfield Scott Schley, of Frederick, Md., largely credited with the naval victory at Santiago, Cuba, and buried in Section 6.

I searched for Schley's grave, and also for that of Hobson, finding neither, though I did find Hobson Drive and Hobson's Gate, named for the young naval officer elevated to hero status after his capture by the Spanish at Santiago.

But, serendipitously, I stumbled onto the obelisk memorial to "Fighting Joe" Wheeler, an old Confederate general recommissioned to fight in Cuba and remembered here as "soldier, statesman, gentlest, tenderest and most lovable of men." Wheeler's grave is just below the Custis-Lee House, with a sweeping view of monumental Washington.

Further up the hill, I noted a monument to little-known Brig. Gen. Theodore J. Wint (1845-1907), a veteran of the Civil War, Indian Frontier (1866 to 1888), Cuba (1898), China (1900-1901), the Philippines (1901-1904) and the Army of Cuban Pacification (1906-1907). Here was a man, I thought, whose career encompassed a good deal of American martial history, a 20th-century link to the past -- and a Spanish-American War veteran to boot.

It's harder to miss the Maine's mast on Sigsbee Drive, near the much more visited Tomb of the Unknowns. In the same vicinity looms another monument to "the Soldiers and Sailors of the U.S. who gave their lives for their country in the war of 1898-9 with Spain." (For the record, only 379 Americans died in battle, ten times as many succumbed to disease, and another 1,415 were wounded. On the other side, 2,312 Spanish were killed in battle, 3,260 wounded.)

There are other Spanish-American War monuments in these parts: to the nurses who served in the war, to the famed Rough Riders, officially the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. Leonard Wood, commander of the unit in which Teddy Roosevelt held a lower rank but a higher profile, is buried here. So is Rear Adm. William T. Sampson, who drew up the naval battle plan used to defeat the Spanish at Santiago but received little of the credit.

And, of course, there are rows of small headstones, marking the graves of those who served and survived but ultimately were buried here. The common soldier is also memorialized in a statue known as "The Hiker" on Memorial Drive, just outside the cemetery. The statue of a soldier wearing a Spanish-American War uniform and holding a rifle in both hands was erected as recently as 1965. It just looks older.

If the USS Maine represented a humiliation that propelled America into war, the USS Olympia -- Admiral Dewey's flagship at Manila -- symbolized American triumph and vindication, the utter destruction of the Spanish fleet in just a few hours on May 1, 1898. Items from both the Maine and the Olympia are on display at the Washington Navy Yard, in a museum housed in a former breech mechanism shop. The 1898 conflict covers but a small section within the cavernous building, but it's hard to miss.

Here's a silver tray used in the wardroom of the Maine, and a commemorative spoon with "Sigsbee" on the handle and the Maine in the bowl. Here are views of Admiral Dewey, he of the thinning white hair and bushy white mustache, on the deck of the Olympia. In another display case, there are Dewey's cocked hat, dress coat, pants and shoes and the pennant that flew from the Olympia. Here, too, for local history buffs of the war, is a scroll of 93 volunteers from Washington, mustered in May 17, 1898, mustered out almost six months to the day, with just one fatality.

The Navy Yard, it turns out, was where the Olympia ended her final mission on Nov. 9, 1921, bringing with her a casket from France containing the Unknown Soldier. The ship wound up in Philadelphia and, thanks to the efforts of private citizens, was never sold for scrap with the rest of the fleet. There it sits today, docked on the Delaware River waterfront.

I'd first seen her in 1966, as a young reporter assigned to do lots of cheap fun Philadelphia things for a week. Boarding cost 50 cents then, $5 today. It's still a cheap thrill. The ship shares its berth with a World War II submarine, which must be crossed to reach her. The duo are now part of the adjacent Independence Seaport Museum, dedicated to "exploring America's maritime heritage."

The Olympia, with a fresh exterior paint job but with no ballast, was listing slightly to port when I boarded. Remarkably, tourists pretty well have the run of the 106-year old ship, which is 344 feet long and 53 feet wide. I wandered the lower and upper decks alone before meeting up with Tim Hastings, a 32-year-old former naval officer who is the ship's curator.

The Olympia's not in such great shape, he told me. It needs a $5 million overhaul to replace the steel and otherwise make her, as they say, shipshape. But it's still a sight to see. Even if none of its guns are original, there is much that is, or close to it.

The main deck exhibits what Hastings calls "cutting edge 1890s technology" in a refrigerator that used compressed air. And there's the galley, last "modernized" in 1902. There's Dewey's pantry, bathroom and cabin, and bookcases he had made in the Philippines. Throughout are display cases full of Dewey memorabilia. After the war, Dewey was awarded a mere $9,570 for defeating the Spanish squadron at Manila. How much richer he might have been if he'd simply invested in souvenir spoons, or been compensated for his image on a displayed box of Hershey chocolate cigars.

The selling of the war goes on, of course, in the Independence Seaport Museum gift shop. There, $18.99 gets you an Olympia cap, $15 a nice poster of the ship at sea, $9 an 8-by-10 photo, $6 a coffee mug, $4.99 a hot plate, $3.99 a commemorative license plate, $2.99 an ashtray. My favorite, however, for a mere $19.99, is a medal made from the propeller of the Olympia, inscribed with the date of May 1, 1898 and the words that by now you must surely remember: "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley."

I found no such inscription anywhere in Arlington National Cemetery, where there's Dewey Drive, but no Admiral Dewey. The Hero of Manila was buried there in 1917, but his wife moved his remains in 1925 to Washington National Cathedral.

There he is buried under the Bethlehem Chapel, the first part of the edifice to be constructed upon his motion in 1910 as a Cathedral board member. On the north side of the chapel is a cenotaph with four stars, his name, vital dates and highest rank: Admiral of the Navy. Two flags fly over it: a four-star flag, and the Stars and Stripes. Nearby, there's a memorial plaque for his younger son, A. Peter Dewey, a paratrooper killed in action in China in 1945.

Newspaper Graphic
The War Years

The "splendid little" Spanish-American War had both antecedents and postscripts that in retrospect make it seem somewhat less than splendid. What follows are some benchmarks along the way:

April 10, 1895 -- Jose Marti, Cuban revolutionary, launches insurrection against Spanish rule.

Aug. 26, 1896 -- Philippine revolution against Spanish rule begins. On Dec. 30, Filipino doctor Jose P. Rizal is executed for anti-Spanish writings.

Jan. 1, 1898 -- In an effort to defuse the insurrection, Spain gives Cubans limited political autonomy.

Jan. 12 -- Spaniards in Cuba riot against autonomy given to Cubans.

Jan. 25 -- USS Maine arrives in Havana Harbor to protect American interests.

Feb. 15 -- USS Maine explodes, sinks; 266 crewmen lost. The Maine's captain urges suspension of judgment on the cause of the explosion.

March 28 -- Naval Court of Inquiry says Maine destroyed by a mine.

April 11 -- President William McKinley asks Congress for declaration of war.

April 25 -- State of war exists between United States and Spain.

May 1 -- Admiral George Dewey's Asiatic Squadron, dispatched from the waters off Hong Kong by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, crushes Spanish fleet at Manila Bay.

June 10 -- U.S. Marines land at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

June 12 -- Revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo declares Philippine independence from Spain.

July 1 -- Battles of El Caney and San Juan Hill in Cuba result in American victories and instant national acclaim for Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, the former Navy Department official and future president who leads the Rough Riders at San Juan Heights.

July 3 -- Spain's Atlantic fleet, having sought refuge in the harbor of Santiago, Cuba, attempts to escape and is destroyed by American naval forces.

July 6 -- Congress, caught up in expansionist fever fed by the war, votes to annex Hawaii, which has nothing to do with Spain. Within a few years, Filipinos immigrate to the islands in large numbers to work on the sugar plantations.

July 14 -- Santiago surrenders. Yellow fever breaks out among American troops the next day.

July 25 -- U.S. Army invades Puerto Rico.

July 26 -- Spain asks for peace.

Aug. 6 -- Spain accepts American terms for peace.

Aug. 12 -- Truce is signed with Spain.

Aug. 13 -- U.S. troops occupy Manila, prevent forces led by Philippine leader Aguinaldo from entering city.

Oct. 1 -- Peace negotiations with Spain commence in Paris.

Dec. 10 -- Spanish-American War ends, officially, with signing of the Treaty of Paris. United States pays Spain $20 million for Philippines. Spain also cedes Puerto Rico and Guam and agrees to renounce sovereignty over Cuba. In 1902, the United States declares Cuba independent, keeps naval base and the right to intervene in internal and foreign affairs.

Feb. 4, 1899 -- Philippine Insurrection, also known as the Philippine-American War, begins. It is a war of guerrilla fighting, pacification and attrition.

March 23, 1901 -- General Aguinaldo captured in the Philippines.

July 4, 1902 -- President Theodore Roosevelt declares the Philippines pacified.

Not on any tour but prominent in a circle between the Cathedral and St. Albans School for Boys is the Peace Cross "raised in the Historic Year A.D. 1898," according to the inscription, "that it may please Thee to give to all Nations Unity, Peace and Concord " A 1922 guide notes that the cross was raised to mark the Cathedral's beginnings "and as a memorial of peace with Spain. Before the Cross the fair city is spread out, the Capitol being the central point of vision in the distance." From this height, I could more clearly see the Washington Monument, and even Arlington beyond.

The grounds of the Naval Academy in Annapolis are also monumental, and it was here that George Dewey graduated in 1858, perfectly in time to see service in the Civil War. With naval action dominating the Spanish-American War, it's not surprising that almost all of its heroes were graduates of the Academy. What is surprising is that, in this centennial year, so little has been done there to remember them.

This is through no fault of James W. Cheevers, curator of the Naval Academy Museum, who has mounted a splendid exhibit on the conflict inside Preble Hall.

"I hoped the visitor center would run special tours," he said, "at least on Feb. 15, May 1 and July 3," anniversaries of the Maine's sinking, and the battles of Manila Bay and Santiago, respectively. In the flush of victory, Congress had appropriated $1 million to rebuild the Academy. "It was such a popular little war in our history, the first in which all the top naval leaders were Naval Academy graduates."

But in Annapolis, this year, the Maine was forgotten, and on May 1, the frenzy over the arrival and departure of the Whitbread around-the-world sailboat race totally eclipsed the anniversary date of Dewey's triumph.

No matter. Cheevers has prepared a list of "significant historic items" located at the Naval Academy. These include the foremast of the Maine; two guns from the Spanish ship Vizcaya, captured in the Battle of Manila; anchors from the USS New York, the flagship of Rear Adm. Sampson in the Battle of Santiago, and a Sampson memorial window by Louis C. Tiffany; a memorial list of alumni killed in the war; plaques and portraits; and the stern and bow ornaments of the USS Olympia.

From 1912 to 1957, the Reina Mercedes, a Spanish vessel captured at Santiago, was moored at the Academy. It was then scrapped, as were other historic vessels of the period, for cash. It lives on, in a way. Recently, the new enlisted barrack at Naval Station, Annapolis, across the Severn River, was given its name.

Following Cheevers's list, you could consume more than a day gazing at portraits, plaques and the like (consider, for instance, that the chapel's cornerstone was laid by Dewey; few do). But with so many choices, one must set priorities.

The museum exhibit is a must. It has six paintings of the USS Maine alone, a life preserver, two porthole covers, a log glass, keys to the magazines, an electric light shade and bulb, and a bugle -- all from the ship. It even has an 1888 penny from Capt. Sigsbee's desk, his ship's inkwell and binoculars.

It has four paintings of the Battle of Manila Bay, and what are said to be the first shells shot during both the battles of Manila and Santiago bays. It has a set of 12 commemorative spoons, magazine covers of Dewey (including one with his dog), 16 postcards of naval ships, famous front pages, sheet music, ship models large and small, and more Dewey mementoes, including a plate with his famous "fire when ready" command to you know whom.

During the windup to Whitbread, I'd noted in the Naval Academy's Armel-Leftwich Visitors Center a smaller display of Spanish-American War items. It was gone now, and a docent at the information desk could provide no information. But I knew where to go.

I walked outside and along the Annapolis harbor seawall to Trident Point, where the Maine's foremast rises at water's edge, its foretop still twisted from the explosion. "Ship blown up Havana Harbor 15 Feb. 1898," the small plaque asserts conclusively. "Mast recovered 6 Oct. 1910. Erected here 5 May 1913." I thought about what a big deal that must have been, back then, and how unattended the site is today. But not completely unremarked. As I stood there, I could hear a recording blaring from a loudspeaker on a tour boat, the Harbor Queen, revealing to the tourists the identity of a curious-looking tower on shore.

On my way out of the Academy yard, I paused at the 5.5-inch diameter gun seized from the Vizcaya on July 3, 1898, its long green barrel all but buried in a grove of trees. I never did find its companion, though Cheevers assured me it is nearby.

Exiting the Academy onto Maryland Avenue, I asked the Marine guard at Gate 3 if he knew its whereabouts. "Sorry, sir. I haven't really heard anything about the gun," he said.

Arlington National Cemetery -- On the cemetery grounds are the mainmast from and a monument to the USS Maine, a monument to all American forces in the war, monuments to Spanish-American War nurses, the Rough Riders and numerous military figures prominent in the conflict. "The Hiker" is a 1965 statue, opposite the Seabees monument, on Memorial Drive just outside the cemetery. The Arlington Cemetery Metro station is a short walk from the Visitors Center. There is also paid parking, but the first 30 minutes are free if the ticket is stamped at the Visitors Center. Those wishing to visit specific grave sites may obtain a vehicle pass that allows you to drive and park your car inside the cemetery. Otherwise, for $4.75, you can ride a Tourmobile, getting off and on at will, throughout the cemetery. Open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. April through September, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through March. 703/695-3250. ("Arlington National Cemetery: Shrine to America's Heroes" [Woodbine Press, 1986], by James Edwards Peters, is an excellent guide to Spanish-American War and other monuments, memorials and grave sites at Arlington. It's for sale at the Visitors Center for $13.95.)

The Newseum -- This museum's News History Gallery contains a section on the role of journalism in promoting the Spanish-American War. Displayed are front pages that played up the Maine disaster and mongered for war. 1101 Wilson Blvd., Rosslyn (Metro: Rosslyn). The Newseum is free and open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 703/284-3544.

Washington Navy Yard -- There's a Spanish-American War exhibit in the Navy Museum, within the former breech mechanism shop of the Naval Gun Factory. 901 M St. SE. Open weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day, weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year, and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. weekends and holidays. Free admission and parking. 202/433-4882. On the grounds in Leutze Park are a number of captured bronze ordnance, including some Spanish guns from the era.

Washington National Cathedral -- The Gothic-style cathedral contains the grave of Adm. George Dewey, commander of the U.S. Asiatic Squadron and later Admiral of the Navy. He's buried beneath the Bethlehem Chapel, which contains a memorial to him. The 1898 Peace Cross, erected in part to commemorate the end of the war, is in a circle on the grounds overlooking Washington. Wisconsin and Massachusets avenues NW. Cathedral open 10 to 4:30 Monday through Saturday, and 12:30 to 4:30 on Sundays. 202/537-6200.

    Foremast of the Maine The twisted foremast of the Maine, at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. (Craig Herndon/TWP)
U.S. Naval Academy -- The U.S. Naval Academy Museum has an extensive special exhibit devoted to the Spanish-American War. It is expected to be there at least through September. The foremast of the USS Maine is located along the Academy seawall a short walk from the Armel-Leftwich Visitors Center. There are many other "significant historic items" related to the war located around the Naval Academy Yard, according to museum curator James Cheevers, who has compiled a list for tourists. The list is available at the information window on the main floor of the museum. Preble Hall, 118 Maryland Ave., Annapolis, on the Academy grounds. 410/293-2108. Museum open 9 to 5 Monday through Saturday, 11 to 5 Sundays.

National Museum of Health & Medicine -- This museum on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center has scheduled an exhibit Sept. 11-Nov. 29 on medical aspects of the Spanish-American War, especially in Cuba and Puerto Rico. 6825 16th St. NW (enter through Georgia Avenue on weekends). 202/782-2200. Open daily 10 to 5:30. Free. Web site:

U.S.S. Olympia -- Dewey's flagship is berthed at the Independence Seaport Museum, Penns Landing, Philadelphia. 215/925-5439. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Combined admission to the Olympia and World War II submarine Becuna is $7.50 for adults, $3.50 children 5-12 (younger free) and $6 seniors. Museum-only and ships-only tickets are $5 for adults, $2.50 children and $4 seniors. Web site:

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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