Maine Monument

Maine Monument

February 15, 1898: Explosion Aboard the Maine

At 9:40 p.m. on February 15, 1898, five tons of gunpowder aboard the USS Maine exploded, virtually obliterating a third of the ship and killing 266 of the 350 men on board. Captain Sigsbee reported:

It was a bursting, rending, and crashing roar of immense volume, largely metallic in character. It was followed by heavy, ominous metallic sounds. There was a trembling and lurching motion of the vessel, a list to port. The electric lights went out. Then there was intense blackness and smoke. The situation could not be mistaken. The Maine was blown up and sinking. - Capt. Sigsbee

Nearby Spanish vessels rushed to pick up survivors, but many of the crew died instantly as they slept.

The cause of the explosion aboard the Maine has never been proven, despite thorough investigations at the time and as recently as 1976. Some authorities say it was caused by a mine, others that the ship’s coal supply spontaneously combusted and set off the gunpowder.

But the New York sensational press didn’t wait for formal investigations. Leading the pack was the New York Journal, run by William Randolph Hearst and his minion Arthur Brisbane, which published drawings of Spanish saboteurs fastening a mine to the underside of the Maine. Frederic Remington, later famous as a painter and sculptor of the American West, cabled his employer Hearst, “There is no war. Request to be recalled.” Hearst replied, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” The Journal devoted eight pages a day, every day for weeks, to theMaine story. Other New York papers, striving to equal the Journal’s circulation, matched theJournal’s sensational fury. Soon Americans were shouting, “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain.”

 The Maine had been sent to Havana in January 1898, when riots between pro- and anti-independence factions led to concern for the safety of American citizens in Cuba. That war was declared in April 1898 was due more to the rabble-rousing of the New York tabloids than to any proof of Spanish guilt in the Maine's explosion. When the Spanish-American War ended in August, Spain ceded to the United States Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. The United States had lost only 460 soldiers in battle, although thousands had died of disease. A friend of Theodore Roosevelt described it as “a splendid little war.”

The Allegorical Meaning of the Maine Monument

The Monument’s complex allegorical program reveals as much about the America at the beginning of the 20th century, when it became a world power, as it does about the tragedy aboard the Maine. Crowning the Monument is a woman, Columbia Triumphant, drawn in a seashell chariot by three seahorses. (The figures were cast from bronze recovered from the guns of the Maine.)

At the front of the pedestal, on ground level, are two complimentary sets of statuary. The reclining men on the left and right symbolize the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the theaters of the four-month-long Spanish-American War. At the front, a young boy at the prow of a ship holds two wreaths (frequently stolen) symbolizing victory. Behind him, against the pedestal, is a female figure representing Peace, with a male figure of Courage to the left and a female figure of Fortitude to the right. The group is (rather long-windedly) entitled The Antebellum State of Mind: Courage Awaiting the Flight of Peace and Fortitude Supporting the Feeble. At the back of the pedestal is a blind-folded female figure of Justice flanked on the left by a warrior, on the right by a female figure representing History. This group is entitled The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War.

The Monument is inscribed on the front: “To the valiant seamen who perished on the Maine, by fate unwarned, in death unafraid.” The names of those who died aboard the Maine are listed above the sculptures of the Atlantic and the Pacific. Hearst’s Journal raised $100,000 for the Monument via donations ranging from hundreds of dollars from wealthy patrons to pennies from schoolchildren.

The Sculptor

Piccirilli and Magonigle also collaborated as artist and architect on the Firemen’s Memorial, 1912. The Piccirilli family studio in the Bronx carved (to designs by other artists) those regal lions in front of New York Public Library at 42nd Street, the Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C., and theWashington Square Arch in Greenwich Village.

For more on this sculpture, see Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan.