Department of State Records Relating to the Destruction of the USS MAINE

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Last month, the National Archives joined the Naval History and Heritage Command and the Arlington National Cemetery in a commemoration of the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor 125 years ago (February 15, 1898).   Representatives of the three organizations discussed the historical context of the Maine’s visit to Cuba, the explosion and investigations, the recovery and burial of the crew, the removal and later rediscovery of the wreckage, and the records relating to those events.  The following is an expansion of the discussion of the Department of State records.  You may also view the entire presentation.

The Department of State’s records on the Maine fall into three different iterations of its central files.

The earliest of those recordkeeping systems was in effect from 1783 to 1906.  Under that byzantine system, records were generally arranged by source.  For more details about the records of this period, see the State Department Central Files page.

The most immediate records on the destruction of the Maine are found in the despatches from the U.S. consulate general in Havana.  In 1898, because Cuba was a colony of Spain, the highest ranking American there was Consul General Fitzhugh Lee in Havana.  Lee was the nephew of Robert E. Lee and a former Confederate general himself.

Among Lee’s despatches, or reports, from Havana we find his account of the explosion and immediate follow-up.  Those reports begin with this telegram announcing the explosion. 

"Maine blown up and destroyed tonight at 940 PM"
Telegram from General Fitzhugh Lee, Feb 16, 1898

Lee’s subsequent despatches deal with recovery and burial of the bodies and initial planning to deal with the wreckage.  His reporting ends fairly soon as the consulate general closed with the advent of war with Spain.  Upon his return to the U.S., Lee became one of four former Confederate general officers who became major generals of United States Volunteer Troops during the Spanish-American war, although he saw no action.  You will find the complete run of Lee’s despatches from Havana in our online catalog.

A selection of documents from the larger corpus of records about the incident, including some of Lee’s despatches, is printed in this section of the 1898 volume from the Department of State series Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS).

Also in the records are the messages of condolence from other countries.  Those messages were transmitted to the U.S. either through American diplomatic officials overseas or by foreign diplomatic officials in the United States.  They are scattered throughout the files, depending on the point of origin and how they were transmitted to the Department of State.  Conveniently, the Department of State compiled those condolence messages into a section of the FRUS volume for 1898 which is online here.

Documentation on the USS Maine continues in the Department’s Numerical File (NAID 654171), which covers the years 1906 to 1910.  Within that large set of records, File 11893 deals with the subject of wrecks of Spanish warships on the Cuban coast and the Maine. Among the issues discussed in the file are what to do with the wrecks and who owns them.  An example is this letter to Congress.

re: legal right to raise the Maine wreck w/o Cuba consent
Letter from Huntington Wilson to Congressman Paul Howland, March 10, 1909

The entirety of that file is online here. For more details about the records of this period, see the webpage on Numerical and Minor Files

The Department of State adopted a new filing system – the Central Decimal File (NAID 302021)- in 1910.  For more details about the records of this period, see the webpage on the Central Decimal Files. Within those records there are two different files on the subject of the Maine.

  • File 811.304M28 is the continuation of Numerical File 11893.  It carries on the documentation about dealing with the wreckage of the Maine.  The file also includes reports on Spanish reaction to those activities. 
  • File 837.413M28 is about the USS Maine memorial in Cuba.  In later years, that file includes documentation on the anniversary commemorating the sinking.  The following despatch from the U.S. embassy in Cuba describes the 1928 ceremonies.
re: Cuban govt ceremony at the Maine monument
Despatch No. 172 from Noble Brandon Judah to Secretary of State, April 10, 1928


  • USS Maine telegram – RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, Despatches From U.S. Consuls in Havana, Cuba;
  • Letter to Congress – RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, Numerical File, file 11893/12;
  • Despatch from Havana – RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, file 837.413M28/16.  The entire file is on National Archives Microfilm Publication M488: Records of the Department of State Relating to Internal Affairs of Cuba, 1910-1929, roll 55.

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