From 1868 to 1895, America recovered from the Civil War, completed the transcontinental railroad, establishment of the National Parks, invention of the incandescent light bulb and lighting up of New York City, erection of the Statue of Liberty and the formation of the AFL labor union. America was entering the industrialized age and emerging as a world power.
During the same time period, Cuban residents were trying gain independence from Spain. From 1868 to 1878, Cuba was rocked by ten years of riots and rebellions against the Spanish rulers before Spain finally ended the insurrection.
In 1895, Cuban patriots launched another rebellion against the cruel and harsh Spanish tyrants. Spain responded by sending General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau with instructions to end the rebellion as quickly as possible. Weyler was the Marquis of Tenerife, Duke of Rubi, Grandee of Spain and Governor of Cuba and the Philippines.
When Weyler arrived in Cuba, he concentrated his military efforts on the areas identified as being the centers of the rebellion. Concentration camps were built and thousands of Cuban citizens were interred into extremely harsh conditions. Between 1895 to 1898, around 100,000 Cubans died horrible deaths in the concentration camps due to the inhumane conditions. When the US and other nations began to complain about Weyler’s actions in Cuba, Spain recalled him home late in 1897.
During this time, US support for Cuba’s rebellion against Spain was increasing, however, President William McKinley was adamantly opposed to getting involved in the conflict between Cuba and Spain. The media, led by newspaper tycoon Randolph Hearst sympathized with the Cuban rebels and used the media to incite more and more support from among the American people. McKinley tried in vain to negotiate an end to the Cuban conflict.
Under pressure by the media and public, McKinley sent the battleship USS Maine to Cuba to protect American interests. The Maine with its four 10-inch guns which were impressive at the time, anchored in the harbor at Havana on January 25, 1898. The presence of the Maine seemed to help calm some of the tension in Cuban capital.
Charles Sigsbee, Captain of the Maine didn’t want create any problems between the US and the Spanish, so he restricted his entire crew of 354 to the ship. No one was allowed shore leave. Sigsbee was in regular contact with the US Consul to Cuba, Fitzhugh Lee, who urged that the US send another warship to Havana when the Maine had completed its mission.
On February 15, 1898, the night sky in Havana was lit up when the Maine exploded before its mission was completed. The US steamer City of Washington and the Spanish cruiser Alfonso XII responded to the burning Maine to help rescue any survivors. Of the 354 crew on board the ship, 252 died in the explosion of the five tons of gun powder stored on the Maine. Another 8 crew members later died of their injuries.
The liberal media immediately blamed the Spanish for blowing up the Maine and the American people were clamoring for revenge. Sigsbee did not believe the Spanish were to blame for the explosion as the Spanish official he dealt with were genuinely compassionate towards the injured US sailors and treated them in their hospitals.
The US Navy launched a quick investigation of the Maine. You have to realize that they didn’t have the forensic knowledge or tools we have today. The condition of the wrecked and sunken battleship also made an investigation difficult. On March 28, 1898, the Navy concluded that the Maine was sunk by a naval mine.
News of the conclusion of the Navy investigation swept through the nation like wildfire, spurring many to call for war spurn on by the now famous call ‘Remember the Maine!’
On April 11, 1898, McKinley asked Congress for permission to intervene in Cuba.
On this day, April 20, 1898, McKinley felt his had no alternative but to address Congress and ask for a declaration of war against Spain.
On April 21, 1898, McKinley ordered the US Navy to form a blockade around Cuba to stop all Spanish ships leaving or arriving the island. This caused Spain to declare war with the US on April 23, 1898. Two days later on April 25, 1898, Congress gave permission for McKinley to declare war on Spain, launching the Spanish-American War of 1898.
A second investigation into the explosion of the Maine was launched in 1911. This exam was more thorough but found that the forward plating of the ship had been bent inward and back, leading to a confirmation of a mine causing the explosion.
A third investigation was launched in 1976 by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. His investigation said that the explosion could have been the result of a coal dust fire. Those findings have been questioned in the years, leaving the real cause of the explosion on board the Maine a century-old mystery that has yet to be resolved.
Besides being the president that declared war Spain, McKinley is also known as the president who won the war and obtained Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico as US territories.
Sources for the above includes: McKinley asks for declaration of war with Spain; U.S.S. Maine Was Sunk February 15, 1898; Spanish-American War: USS Maine Explodes; The Maine explodes; The Spanish American War Centennial Website!; The World of 1898: the Spanish-American War; William McKinley; William McKinley Biography.