In 1898 the USS Maine was sent to Cuba to guard American interests there due to rebellion by the Cubans against their Spanish rulers. It arrived in Havana January 25, on the evening of February 15, the harbor was lit by a massive explosion that ripped through the forward section of Maine as five tons of powder for the ship’s guns detonated. Destroying the forward third of the ship, Maine sank into the harbor. There have been different theories as to what caused the explosion that sank the ship.
LAST HONORS TO THE VICTIMS OF THE MAINE
On March 23, 1912, the American nation wrote the final chapter of the tragedy of the old battleship Maine, and paid its tribute to the heroes who were sacrificed on the altar of patriotism fourteen years ago. With a wealth of sentiment, the bones of sixty-seven unidentified dead resurrected from the harbor of Havana, were consigned by a reverent republic to the sacred soil of Arlington national cemetery to be mingled with the dust of the country’s hallowed dead.
President Taft and his cabinet, both houses of congress and all the other officials of the government set aside the day and did homage to the dead.
Before the services at the graves, a solemn service was held on the south front of the state, war and navy buildings. This was attended by the president and vice president and other officials and members of congress.
One by one the army gun caissons bearing the bones of the dead, in thirty-four caskets, rolled up to the plot in the cemetery and the president and every one in his party and the great crowd uncovered. From across the open chasms of upturned earth came the dirges from the marine band. A field of flowers upon the new turned sod told of the reverence in which the dead were held. Thousands who thronged the streets of the national capital when the funeral cortege made its solemn way through the streets, uncovered their heads when the coffins came and so remained until the procession had passed.
An enormous throng had gathered at the south front of the state, war and navy building when the procession reached there. The coffins had been removed from the scout cruiser Birmingham at the navy yard at noon amid much ceremony. Through crowd-lined streets they were escorted to the scene of the first ceremonial. Hushed silence paid its tribute throughout the progress of two miles.
President Taft occupied a chair in the center of the esplanade. On his right the Cuban minister sat throughout the services, an interested auditor, on his left was Rear Admiral Charles D. Sigsbee, who was captain of the Maine, and Rear Admiral Wainwright, who was executive officer of the ill-fated ship. Both bowed their heads when Father Chidwick, chaplain of the old Maine, recounted the scenes that attended the destruction of the vessel. Chaplain Chidwick spoke from a full heart. His eyes were wet when he began.
“For the aid of a new people and the advancement and glory of our own country,” he said, “these heroes gave up their lives—this sacrifice that we see before us was made. To-day we thank God we sent forth our soldiers, not with vengeance in their hearts, but with the feeling of humanity and justice, to right the wrong.
“We have placed no responsibility for the tragedy, and thank God for that. We wish everything good for the nation with which we now are at peace, and whose prosperity we desire. Nevertheless, the ship was an altar, and the men who perished, a sacrifice.”
A sharp patter of hail fell when President Taft, bareheaded, walked to the front of the platform. He did not try to shield himself from the storm and waved aside the proffer of an umbrella. The great crowd of citizens, hedged in by the military, heard him in respectful silence.
When the president had concluded, Right Rev. W. F. Anderson pronounced the benediction, the artillerymen on their horses saluting. The crowd was uncovered. This ended the exercises in the city.
The long line of cavalry, artillery, infantry, seamen and marines marched the six miles from Washington to the Virginia burying ground to the strains of dirges and slow-timed funeral marches. Along the way, a silence more impressive than cheers, greeted them.
One by one the coffins were lifted by reverent hands from the gun carriages and borne to the open graves, on a rain swept hill overlooking the Potomac river. In the center of the waiting graves stood the old anchor of the Maine. Its iron shank bore a plate inscribed:
“U. S. S. Maine, blown up Feb. 15, 1898. Here lie the remains of 163 men of the Maine’s crew, brought from Havana, Cuba, and re-interred at Arlington, Dec. 20, 1899.
The bones of the unidentified heroes to-day were consigned to earth with those whose names were known.
As each casket was lowered into the earth, one of the “jackies” who bore it remained at the head of the grave with the star spangled union jack in his hands, its trailing end covering the coffin beneath. As grave after grave received its dead, the squadron of silent sentinels increased.
Eventually the entire plot was studded with sailors standing bareheaded in the rain.
When the last casket had been lowered and the flowers, almost knee deep beside the graves, had been arranged, Chaplain Bayard read the Episcopal service for the dead.
He was followed by Maurice Simmons, commander-in-chief of the United Spanish War Veterans, who paid a high tribute to the loyalty and sacrifice of the dead. Three members of the order came forward and took up their places beside the open graves. The first cast upon the coffin a sprig of evergreen, emblematic of the undying love a country owes its defenders and the affection comrades feel for their memory.
The second veteran placed upon the casket a white rose, which he declared was indicative of the life hereafter of those who died in defense of the flag. The third placed a small United States flag beside the other symbols.
The bands played a dirge, a squad of soldiers fired a salute, and a navy bugler sounded the melancholy melody of “taps.” Then followed a national salute from the guns of the fort, and the ceremonies were ended.
Source: Illinois State Historical Society – 1913