February 16 1898: Battleship U.S.S. Maine Explodes
At 9:40pm on February 15, 1898, the battleship U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, killing 268 men and shocking the American populace. Of the two-thirds of the crew who perished, only 200 bodies were recovered and 76 identified.
The sinking of the Maine, which had been in Havana since February 15, 1898, on an official observation visit, was a climax in pre-war tension between the United States and Spain. In the American press, headlines proclaimed "Spanish Treachery!" and "Destruction of the War Ship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy!" William Randolph Hearst and his New York Journal offered a $50,000 award for the "detection of the Perpetrator of the Maine Outrage." Many Americans assumed the Spanish were responsible for the Maine's destruction.
On March 28, 1898, the United States Naval Court of Inquiry found that the Maine was destroyed by a submerged mine. Although blame was never formally placed on the Spanish, implication was clear. Recent research suggests that the explosion may have been an accident, involving a spontaneous combustion fire in the coal bunker. Some conspiracy theorists have even suggested that sensational journalist William Randolph Hearst may have set the explosion in order to precipitate a war. While historians will never know exactly what happened the night the Maine went down, it is clear that the incident was a significant force that propelled the United States into the Spanish-American War.