Remember the Maine:
America's First Battleships

By the early 1880’s, the United States Navy sought to replace its over-aged collection of Civil War-era ironclads and cruising frigates with modern steel warships. That mixture followed what was seen as the traditional American naval strategy, a combination of coastal defense and high-seas commerce raiding.

The new Secretary of the Navy, William H. Hunt, declared that the Navy could no longer perform its missions without new warships and in June 1881 appointed a Naval Advisory Board to recommend its reconstruction. The fractious partisan politics of the time, along with the lingering death of President James Garfield from an assassin’s bullets, kept the board from having immediate results but by late 1884 it had designed a small armored battleship.

The following year, the incoming administration threw out the board’s work, but retained the notion that the United States needed modern battleships. Brazil commissioned a modern battleship in 1883 and another, smaller ship in 1885, giving the Empire the strongest fleet in the Western Hemisphere. The Brazilians could raid the American East Coast with impunity, naval enthusiasts warned, and sink the entire U.S. Navy in the process.

With Congress now turning from indifference to enthusiasm, Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney directed the Bureau of Construction and Repair to pursue the best designs available. Whitney asked for sketches of two ships, one a 5,000-ton armored cruiser and the other a 7,500-ton battleship.

The Bureau provided the basic designs in October 1885. The battleship carried four 10-inch guns and six six-inch guns and could make 16.5 knots; the armored cruiser had two 10-inch guns, eight six-inch guns and a speed of 17.5 knots. Whitney combined the features of both into a request for proposals for two ships, both of 6,000 tons, and opened a competition for the new designs.

Maine enters Havana's harbor, January 1898.

For the armored cruiser, to be christened Maine, Whitney chose a Bureau design based on the Brazilian Riachuelo, a British-built ship widely admired when new. The new ship carried four 10-inch guns in open-shielded dual mounts, mounted amidships on either side in what was briefly a common layout for large warships. Each position could theoretically fire across the deck to provide a four-gun broadside, and could fire both forward and astern on their side of the ship, giving her four guns firing in those arcs as well. During construction, the open mounts for the 10-inch guns gave way to actual armored turrets, carried in sponsons that jutted out over the sides of the ship. Since the big guns loaded and fired very slowly, six faster-firing six-inch guns in a casemate battery supplemented them, along with an array of much lighter pieces.

The new ship would be the first American ship powered by vertical triple-expansion steam engines, then on the very cutting edge of technology. She had eight boilers, and the power plant produced 9,300 horsepower for a top speed of 16.5 knots, somewhat less than her contract speed of 17 knots. Maine had a 12-inch belt of nickel steel, a new alloy introduced during her extended construction but superseded by far more effective face-hardened armor before the ship had even received her nickel steel plates. Her upper works had only nominal protection, making her fantastically vulnerable to the high-explosive shells that entered common usage after she had been laid down but before she was commissioned.

Congress authorized the two ships in August 1886, and with plans complete by March of the following year. Brooklyn Navy Yard laid her keel in October 1888, launching her 13 months later, and then things ground to a halt. A fire destroyed her plans, while Bethlehem Steel proved unable to fulfill its contract to deliver her armor. The Navy turned to an alternative supplier, Pittsburgh’s Homestead works. Owner Andrew Carnegie sought to force lower wages on his workers, sending the mill’s union workers on strike. A retaliatory company lockout led to violent confrontations – including an open firefight – between Carnegie’s hired thugs and hundreds of armed mill hands, with work only resuming in September 1892.

The ship finally commissioned in September 1895, spending the next several years operating with the North Atlantic Squadron out of Norfolk. In January 1898 she steamed to Havana, Cuba, to “protect U.S. interests” and met her destiny a month later.

Maine would become famous thanks to the fiery explosion that killed more than two-thirds of her crew. She had been considered an unlucky ship before her end, and had been thoroughly obsolete from the moment her hull first touched the water. Between her outdated layout, low speed and risible armor, Maine was easily the most expendable major warship in the U.S. Navy when she went to Havana. Except for possibly her near-sister, the battleship authorized under the same program.

Battleship Texas, seen in 1903 when not sinking or grounded.

The battleship would be built to a British design, from the general manager of Barrow Shipbuilding, one of the elements subsumed into the massive Vickers arms combine a few years later. This ship, soon named Texas, greatly resembled Maine with single mounts for 12-inch guns though these apparently had been intended from the start to occupy armored turrets. Like Maine, she also had six six-inch guns and a variety of light-weight weapons.

Unlike Maine, Texas had a belt of the more effective Harvey hardened armor. Though of the same thickness as Maine’s (12 inches), the Harvey process gave it the same effective protection as 14.3 inches of nickel steel. Even more effective Krupp armor would be introduced in 1893, well before Maine or Texas was completed.

Like Maine, Texas had new vertical triple-expansion engines, putting out 8,600 horsepower. Unlike Maine, she met and slightly exceeded her contract speed, making 17.8 knots. She would also be constructed in a naval shipyard, with her keel laid in June 1889. Construction proceeded just as slowly as Maine, though without the excuse of late armor delivery, and she launched three years later. Proposals to re-design her on the stocks, moving her main guns to the centerline, were rejected by Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Tracy, who feared they would result in even greater delays.

Texas finally commissioned in August 1895, and almost immediately construction flaws became apparent, requiring extensive repairs to strengthen her hull. She ran aground off Rhode Island in September 1896, requiring still more repairs, during the course of which she sank at her moorings. Raised and repaired, she set out on a cruise to the Gulf of Mexico, managing to run hard aground again, this time in Galveston’s harbor.

While sailors considered Maine unlucky, they believed Texas to be cursed and gave her the nickname “Old Hoodoo.” She fought in the Spanish-American War, though not well, moving to coast-defense duties afterwards and then becoming a receiving ship and finally a target.

Plan to build sister ships for each, and then a single enlarged and improved model, went nowhere as the Navy realized it needed far better ships. And it would get them, just in time for the Spanish-American War.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.