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McKinley cautious after U.S. ship sank

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

On Feb. 15, 1898, the battleship Maine sank in Havana Harbor. The press, headed by newspaper magnates William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, began a public campaign to force the president to involve the U.S. with the Cuban rebellion against Spain.

On March 28, 1898, President William McKinley sent a special message to Congress. In it, he examined events leading to the sinking as well as the actions the U.S. might take.

Prior to the Maine being brought to the harbor, U.S. consul stated the visit would allow the Cuban people to become “accustomed to the presence of our flag as the symbol of good will and of our ships in the fulfillment of the mission of protection to American interests,” McKinley wrote to Congress.

On Jan. 24, 1898, authorities at Havana and Madrid were advised the Spanish minister and the U.S. agreed to accept visits of U.S. war vessels to the Cuban ports. This act also provided protection for U.S. citizens living in Havana.

Spain accepted this announcement and also stated they would return the courtesy by sending Spanish ships to ports of the United States. The Maine entered the port on Jan. 25.

At 9:40 p.m. Feb. 15, 1898, destruction and sinking of the Maine occurred, killing 266 crewmen.

A U.S. Navy court of inquiry investigated the sinking. The investigation took 23 days.

According to the report, “the state of discipline on board and the condition of (the Maine’s) magazines, boilers, coal bunkers, and storage compartments are passed in review, with the conclusion that excellent order prevailed and that no indication of any cause for an internal explosion existed in any quarter.”

It was later determined the explosion may have been due to an internal flaw in this type of warship. A fire in the coal room occurred as a result, with the ultimate result being that the ship sank.

The president also reported on the conclusions of the court of inquiry “that the loss of the Maine was not in any respect due to fault or negligence on the part of any of the officers or members of her crew; that the ship was destroyed by the explosion of a submarine mine, which caused the partial explosion of two or more of her forward magazines; that no evidence has been obtainable fixing the responsibility for the destruction of the Maine upon any person or persons.”

McKinley then stated that he sent this finding to the Queen Regent of Spain, hoping the Spanish government would react in an honorable and friendly manner.

The press continued to pressure McKinley to send troops to Cuba. McKinley, ever a cautious man, considered he fought as a member of the Union Army during the Civil War and did not wish to send others to war. He prayed over his decision. In addition, McKinley also knew that our troops were not trained enough to go to war. For these reasons, McKinley hesitated.

Scarmuzzi is curator of collections at the National McKinley Birthplace Museum in Niles.

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