January 25, 1898 — The U.S.S. Maine enters Havana harbor, about three weeks before it was blown up.
The battleship Maine drifted lazily at its mooring. Although the Havana night was moonless, the Maine‘s gleaming white hull — longer than a football field — contrasted against the blackness of the sea and sky. Smoke wisped from its two mustard-colored funnels. Random lights sparkled from its portholes and its bridge.
In the captain’s cabin, Charles Sigsbee sat at a table writing a letter to his wife. The trouble in Cuba, he wrote, would soon be over. The new Spanish governor of the island seemed to have the situation under control. During the three weeks that the Maine had been in Havana, Captain Sigsbee had seen no sign of Cuban rebels. He’d entertained the Spanish officers in his mess, and he and his staff had been entertained lavishly by the local officials. Although Sigsbee found the bullfights to which he’d been invited somewhat barbaric, the Spanish officers behaved as perfect gentlemen.
Even Fitzhugh Lee, the American consul, seemed optimistic. A month earlier the old general (Lee had commanded a cavalry division under his uncle Robert E. in the Civil War) had summoned a battleship to “protect American interests.” Although the Maine was only a second-class battleship, it was the largest ship ever to enter Havana harbor. To the Cubans, it was a floating American fortress right in their capital city.
Aboard the Maine, “taps” sounded at ten minutes past nine. Captain Sigsbee describes what happened next.
I laid down my pen and listened to the notes of the bugle, which were singularly beautiful in the oppressive stillness of the night. . . . I was enclosing my letter in its envelope when the explosion came. It was a bursting, rending, and crashing roar of immense volume, largely metallic in character. It was followed by heavy, ominous metallic sounds. There was a trembling and lurching motion of the vessel, a list to port. The electric lights went out. Then there was intense blackness and smoke.
The situation could not be mistaken. The Maine was blown up and sinking. For a moment the instinct of self-preservation took charge of me, but this was immediately dominated by the habit of command.
Captain Sigsbee managed to reach the deck, now slanted down sharply toward the submerged bow. He climbed aft toward the only part of the ship that was not awash. Fires had broken out all over the vessel, and they lit the harbor in an eerie red glow. In Havana lights began to shine from windows that had just been smashed by the blast. Most of the crew had been asleep in their berths at the forward part of the ship, which was already at the bottom of the harbor. The stern sunk more slowly.
Crews from nearby ships manned lifeboats to rescue the surviving crewmen of the Maine. “Chief among them,” Sigsbee wrote, “were the boats from the Alfonso XII. The Spanish officers and crews did all that humanity and gallantry could compass.” Reluctantly, Captain Sigsbee abandoned the Maine, which continued to burn and explode throughout the night.
The twisted, burnt wreckage of the Maine‘s stern and bridge was still above water in the morning. It remained there for years. Two hundred fifty-four seamen were dead, and fifty-nine sailors were wounded. Eight of the wounded later died. The navy conducted an investigation into the cause of the disaster, but it never discovered who was responsible for the explosion.
The American press, however, had no doubts about who was responsible for sinking the Maine. It was the cowardly Spanish, they cried. William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal even published pictures. They showed how Spanish saboteurs had fastened an underwater mine to the Maine and had detonated it from shore.
As one of the few sources of public information, newspapers had reached unprecedented influence and importance. Journalistic giants, such as Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer of the World, viciously competed for the reader’s attention. They were determined to reach a daily circulation of a million people, and they didn’t mind fabricating stories in order to reach their goal.
They competed in other ways as well. The World was the first newspaper to introduce colored comics, and the Journal immediately copied it. The two papers often printed the same comics under different titles. One of these involved the adventures of “The Yellow Kid,” a little boy who always wore a yellow gown. Since color presses were new in the 1890s, the finished product was not always perfect. The colors, especially the Yellow Kid’s costume, often smeared. Soon people were calling the World, the Journal, and other papers like them “the yellow press.” “They colored the funnies,” some said, “but they colored the news as well.”
A minor revolt in Cuba against the Spanish colonial government provided a colorful topic. For months now the papers had been painting in lurid detail the horrors of Cuban life under oppressive Spanish rule. The Spanish had confined many Cubans to concentration camps. The press called them “death camps.” Wild stories with screaming headlines — Spanish Cannibalism, Inhuman Torture, Amazon Warriors Fight For Rebels — flooded the newsstands. Newspapers sent hundreds of reporters, artists, and photographers south to recount Spanish atrocities. The correspondents, including such notables as author Stephen Crane and artist Frederick Remington, found little to report on when they arrived.
“There is no war,” Remington wrote to his boss. “Request to be recalled.”
Remington’s boss, William Randolph Hearst, sent a cable in reply: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” Hearst was true to his word. For weeks after the Maine disaster, the Journal devoted more than eight pages a day to the story. Not to be outdone, other papers followed Hearst’s lead. Hundreds of editorials demanded that the Maine and American honor be avenged. Many Americans agreed. Soon a rallying cry could be heard everywhere — in the papers, on the streets, and in the halls of Congress: “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain.”