In 1886, Congress sanctioned the construction of two seagoing armored vessels, double-bottomed, displacing about 6000 tons each, and steaming 16 knots. Designs for these vessels were invited from English as well as American shipbuilders, and thus by entering late upon the field, and by making the fullest use of foreign experience, the United States' government was able to avoid mistakes which had been made in England France, and Italy. Of the two ships, one was to be a battleship, and the other, though virtually a battleship, by the specification an armored cruiser.
Originally classified as an armored cruiser, she was built in response to the Brazilian battleship Riachuelo and the increase of naval forces in Latin America. Maine and her near-sister ship Texas reflected the latest European naval developments, with the layout of her main armament resembling that of the British ironclad Inflexible and comparable Italian ships. Her two gun turrets were staggered en échelon, rather than on the centerline, with the fore gun sponsoned out on the starboard side of the ship and the aft gun on the port side, with cutaways in the superstructure to allow both to fire ahead, astern or across her deck. She dispensed with full masts thanks to the increased reliability of steam engines by the time of her construction.
Despite these advances, Maine was out of date by the time she entered service, due to her protracted construction period and changes in the role of ships of her type, naval tactics and technology. It took nine years to complete, and nearly three years for the armor plating alone. The general use of steel in warship construction precluded the use of ramming without danger to the attacking vessel. The potential for blast damage from firing end on or cross-deck discouraged en échelon gun placement. The changing role of the armored cruiser from a small, heavily armored substitute for the battleship to a fast, lightly armored commerce raider also hastened her obsolescence. Despite these disadvantages, Maine was seen as an advance in American warship design.
The MAINE was authorized at the same date as the Texas, August 3, 1886, was launched November 18, 1890, and put in commission September 17, 1895. Her limit of cost, like that of the Texas, was fixed at $2,500,000. She was built by the government at the Brooklyn Navy-Yard, her keel being laid October 17, 1888. The ship was commissioned in September 1895.
For the cruiser Maine, an American Navy Department design was preferred, and she was laid down in 1888. USS Maine was laid down as Armored Cruiser # 1, and completed as a Second-Class Battleship [it appears that the Heavy Cruiser designation CA-1 was implicitly allocated to the Maine, but not actually assigned, since the Heavy Cruiser nomenclature came into use after the loss of the Maine].
The Maine was an enlarged copy of the Brazilian Riachuelo, a ship which had at that date attracted some attention. She had two turrets placed en echelon, plated with 8-inch armour, and carrying four 10-inch guns. The Maine was a twin-screw steel vessel, with a length on load-line of three hundred and eighteen feet and a breadth of fifty-seven feet, her mean draft being twenty-one feet six inches, and displacement 6682 tons, somewhat less than that of the Texas. Her engines were of the vertical, triple-expansion type, their maximum development of horse-power being 9293 and her record of speed 17.45 knots. The trial speed was 19.9 knots on a draft of 6650 tons. Her coal-carrying capacity was sufficient for a journey of seven thousand knots. The ship was unrigged, like the Texas, having two military masts, and two funnels.
The turrets of the Maine carried each two 10-inch breech-loading rifles. Her turrets differed in position from those of the Texas, standing diagonally amidships, and were plated with 8-inch steel, the barbettes from which they rose being protected by 12-inch steel armor. The turrets were placed, one forward on the starboard beam, the other aft on the port beam. In order to afford the fullest effect to her guns under this arrangement, the intervening or superstructure deck was cut away so as to give full play to the four great guns, allowing their fire to be concentrated ahead or astern, or on either beam, at will. Each turret stood upon a separate redoubt plated with 10-inch steel. The four heavy guns fired right ahead and right astern, while on the broadside they ccould be brought to bear through an arc of about fifty-seven degrees.
The auxiliary battery comprised six 6-inch guns, placed two forward, two astern, and two on the superstructure amidships. The six 6-inch rapid-fire rifles protected by shields of 2-inch steel, and so arranged that three of them could be trained at once on any given spot. In addition she carried seven 6-pounder and eight 1-pounder rapid- fire guns, four Catlings, and four Whitehead torpedo-tubes.
She was protected for a length of one hundred and eighty feet by side armor of steel 11 or 12 inches thick at the upper edge; above which was the usual armour deck 4 inches and 2 inches thick. The deck plating was two inches in thickness, increasing to four inches on its sloping sides. The bow was sheered into a formidable ram. She was the first American ship to be provided with cocoa-fibre for protection against water, having a lining of this material covering four thousand seven hundred and thirty-seven cubic feet.
Her high speed and ready handling, in connection with her complement of four guns of large caliber, whose fire could be concentrated on any spot, made the Maine a very effective ship.
Her active career was spent operating along the U.S. east coast and in the Caribbean area. In January 1898, Maine was sent to Havana, Cuba, to protect U.S. interests during a time of local insurrection and civil disturbances. Three weeks later, on 15 February 1898, the battleship was sunk by a massive explosion that killed the great majority of her crew.
The US Navy Department immediately formed a board of inquiry to determine the reason for Maine's destruction. The inquiry, conducted in Havana, lasted four weeks. The condition of the submerged wreck and the lack of technical expertise prevented the board from being as thorough as later investigations. In the end, they concluded that a mine had detonated under the ship. The board did not attempt to fix blame for the placement of the device. When the Navy's verdict was announced, the American public reacted with predictable outrage. Fed by inflammatory articles in the "Yellow Press" blaming Spain for the disaster, the public had already placed guilt on the Spanish government.
The destruction of Maine did not cause the U.S. to declare war on Spain in April 1898, but it served as a catalyst, accelerating the approach to a diplomatic impasse. In addition, the sinking and deaths of U.S. sailors rallied American opinion more strongly behind armed intervention.
In 1911 the Navy Department ordered a second board of inquiry after Congress voted funds for the removal of the wreck of Maine from Havana Harbor. U.S. Army engineers built a cofferdam around the sunken battleship, thus exposing it, and giving naval investigators an opportunity to examine and photograph the wreckage in detail. Finding the bottom hull plates in the area of the reserve six-inch magazine bent inward and back, the 1911 board concluded that a mine had detonated under the magazine, causing the explosion that destroyed the ship.
Technical experts at the time of both investigations disagreed with the findings, believing that spontaneous combustion of coal in the bunker adjacent to the reserve six-inch magazine was the most likely cause of the explosion on board the ship. In 1976, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover published his book, How the Battleship Maine Was Destroyed. The admiral became interested in the disaster and wondered if the application of modern scientific knowledge could determine the cause. He called on two experts on explosions and their effects on ship hulls. Using documentation gathered from the two official inquiries, as well as information on the construction and ammunition of Maine, the experts concluded that the damage caused to the ship was inconsistent with the external explosion of a mine. The most likely cause, they speculated, was spontaneous combustion of coal in the bunker next to the magazine.
Some historians have disputed the findings in Rickover's book, maintaining that failure to detect spontaneous combustion in the coal bunker was highly unlikely. Yet evidence of a mine remains thin and such theories are based primarily on conjecture. Despite the best efforts of experts and historians in investigating this complex and technical subject, a definitive explanation for the destruction of Maine remains elusive.
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