Remember the Maine!

On February 15, 1898, an explosion of unknown origin sank the battleship U.S.S. Maine in the Havana, Cuba harbor, killing 266 of the 354 crew members. The sinking of the Maine incited United States’ passions against Spain, eventually leading to a naval blockade of Cuba and a declaration of war.

U.S.S. Maine. c1897. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

Ostensibly on a friendly visit, the Maine had been sent to Cuba to protect the interests of Americans there after riots broke out in Havana in January. An official U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry reported on March 28 that the ship, one of the first American battleships and built at a cost of more than two million dollars, had been blown up by a mine without laying blame on any person or nation in particular, but public opinion in the United States blamed the Spanish military occupying Cuba anyway. Subsequent diplomatic communications failed to resolve the matter, leading to the start of the Spanish-American War by the end of April.

Restos del U.S.S. Maine, Habana. William Henry Jackson, photographer, c1900. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

The Spanish-American War is notable as the first U.S. war documented by the motion picture camera. The Edison Manufacturing Company, for example, sent cameraman William Paley to Key West, Florida, where he filmed Burial of the “Maine” Victims on March 27, 1898. In late March he also filmed the Wreck of the Battleship “Maine” in the Havana harbor, and in late April and early May of that year he filmed, in Florida, military preparations for the war. A special “War Extra,” issued on May 20, 1898, as a supplement to the Edison Manufacturing Company catalog, promised that these motion pictures “would be sure to satisfy the craving of the general public for absolutely true and accurate details regarding the movements of the United States Army getting ready for the invasion of Cuba.”

Burial of the “Maine” Victims. William Paley and Karl Decker, camera & production; United States: Edison Manufacturing Co., c1898. The Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures. Motion Picture, Broadcasting, & Recorded Sound Division

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