The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History - Molly Caldwell Crosby (2006)

Part III. Cuba, 1900

The prayer that has been mine for twenty or more years, that I might be permitted in some way or sometime to do something to alleviate human suffering, has been answered!

—WALTER REED, December 31, 1900

Chapter 9. A Splendid Little War

On a still and starless night, Captain Charles Sigsbee felt the ship beneath him shudder.

He had just taken a seat at his wooden desk, straightened a piece of paper and begun to write a letter to his wife. It was a warm night, and the cabin mess attendant had delivered Sigsbee’s civilian’s thin coat to wear in the heat. As the captain reached into his pocket, he pulled out an unopened letter, dated ten months ago, and addressed to his wife by a friend. Sigsbee sat down to write an apology for forgetting to deliver the note; he wrote the date at the top of the letter, “February 15, 1898.”

The sorrowful notes of taps penetrated the metallic walls of the ship to the quarters below. “I laid down my pen,” he later wrote, “to listen to the notes of the bugle, which were singularly beautiful in the oppressive stillness of the night.”

Most of his enlisted men had already fallen asleep, rocking in their hammocks, suspended like cocoons between the heavy beams of the ship. To those on the shore, the ship appeared as a great garrison of steel, measuring 319 feet, 6,683 tons and housing 328 souls. Two massive smokestacks towered over the decks, and in the scattered moonlight, water sparked as it lapped against the hull.

As Sigsbee folded his letter and slid it into the envelope, he felt the ship rise as though an enormous ocean swell had passed beneath her; then he heard the inhuman wail of twisting metal followed by the sound of screaming men. The lights went out on the USS Maine.

On the seafront of Havana, in homes and cafés, the explosion from the harbor shook furniture, shattered windows and unhinged doors. Every light in the city went dark, and people ran into the streets, drawn to the show of rockets and fireworks. Debris flew 150 feet in the air, raining paper and fragments over the ship. Gray smoke billowed in the coal-black sky, while orange flames licked below. They watched as one of the twin smokestacks of the Maineheaved over, and the bow disappeared into the blackness as fire consumed the ship. The reflection of the inferno on the water turned the harbor a glaring red.

Sigsbee groped his way through the darkened, smoke-filled quarters, feeling the Maine rolling seaward. Squinting and trying to adjust his eyes to the dark, he took in all the damage around him. The explosion had taken place near the front ammunition magazine in the forward part of the ship—right below the berth where the enlisted men slept in their hammocks. “On the white paint of the ceiling was the impression of two human bodies— mere dust,” he would later report.

As the captain made his way onto the deck, a dreadful calm and discipline prevailed in spite of all the violence. The captain was informed that the explosion had taken place at 9:40 p.m. The ship had sustained much damage, and one of the smokestacks was lying starboard. The compartments below were filling with water, and the Maine would soon go under.

Cries from men in the water echoed: “Help! Lord God, help us! Help! Help!” Sigsbee ordered his officers, most of whom had been spared in their quarters far from the explosion, to lower all undamaged lifeboats and set out to rescue the sailors of the Maine. Boats from the City of Washington, as well as Spanish seamen, paddled toward the wreckage to rescue the wounded. The Maine continued to sputter and rupture as flames ignited live rounds aboard the ship until nearly 2:00 a.m.

Newspapers would write that Captain Charles Sigsbee had heroically stayed on board the Maine until he was the last man to leave his ship. Sigsbee saw it differently: “It is a fact that I was the last to leave, which was only proper; that is to say, it would have been improper otherwise; but virtually all left last.”

The wounded were taken aboard nearby ships or carted to the hospitals on the shore. Sigsbee worried that his sailors would be taken to hospitals where yellow fever existed, but there were no hospitals in Havana that didn’t house the dreaded fever. Doctors, nurses and civilians tried to mend the crushed bones, deep cuts and hideous burns of the sailors. Many survived, but only partially, losing eyes or limbs or faces in the process. When the final death toll came in, including a number of wounded who later died, 268 had perished in the explosion.

Aboard the City of Washington, Captain Charles Sigsbee dispatched his telegram to the secretary of the navy in Washington, D.C. He ended the message with a warning: “Public opinion should be suspended until further report . . . Many Spanish officers, including representatives of General Blanco, now with us to express sympathy.”

Regardless, two days after the tragedy of the Maine, William Randolph Hearst sent forth his morning edition with a definitive yet unsubstantiated headline: “Destruction of the Warship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy.” The enemy, the paper clearly illustrated, was the Spanish.

A Spanish officer in Havana held the newspaper up to Charles Sigsbee. In it, he could see an artistic rendering of his ship, as she once was, anchored above a Spanish mine. In another illustration, wires connected the Maine to the Havana shore.

“What do you think of that?” the Spanish officer asked.

Still irritated that the Havana newspapers had been unfair to him in the past, Sigsbee remarked, “If the American newspapers gave more than the news, the Spanish newspapers gave less than the news: It was a question of choice.”

Tensions in Havana flared over the next few days as separate American and Spanish inquiries studied the remains of the Maine. Sigsbee watched helplessly as divers picked through his capsized ship and bodies were recovered. More was at stake than just the destruction of a U.S. Navy vessel and loss of seamen.

The apex of all shipping that came into the Caribbean and an island rich in sugar plantations and workers, Cuba had long been considered a piece of prime real estate for expanding America. At least four U.S. presidents had attempted to buy it. John Quincy Adams had called it a natural appendage to North America, and Thomas Jefferson believed it to be “the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States.” Before the Civil War, the South hoped to annex Cuba as a slave state; after the Civil War, the North looked to it as a source of raw materials. The latest proponents including Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and Henry Adams, a group John Hay dubbed the “Pleasant Gang,” considered Cuba part of our great manifest destiny.They quoted the likes of Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, Frederick Jackson Turner, and amid the cigar smoke in Washington salons, it seemed clear that America had not only a right but a duty, bolstered by a growing navy, to enlighten others and protect our interests in the western hemisphere. America had sprawled westward, settling the Atlantic coast to the Pacific, and it had grown restless. Cuba was the new frontier. Not all among their ranks subscribed to the idea of expansionism, but if they disagreed with it, most did so out of another sort of elitism: They feared muddying American waters with other races, uneducated cultures or sickly immigrants.

In fact, the issue of disease had become yet another facet of imperialism. Bacteriology had been dominated by Germany and France, but tropical medicine became medicine’s new frontier for England and the United States. Colonizing Africa, India and the Americas would be impossible without controlling the fevers so deadly to white settlers. What’s more, medicine itself began to take on an imperialist slant—if disease spawned and spread from tropical countries like Cuba, it was America’s responsibility to step in and clean them up for the sake of American health. As Robert Desowitz, a professor of tropical medicine, wrote: “An undercurrent of opinion had long held that the United States should take over Cuba for medical reasons, a yellow fever cleansing. The sinking of the Maine was just the ticket to do so.”

In this spirit, Americans vehemently debated the question of Cuba over dinner tables, in men’s clubs, even from the pulpit. News of Spanish concentration camps and starving Cuban prisoners softened American sentiment toward intervention, the prospect of sugar softened economic reasoning, and the thought of toppling a smug European presence just seemed appealing in general.

As the Maine—and national pride—erupted in flames and sank into a watery grave in the Havana harbor, America had its battle cry. The cause of the explosion would be publicly debated in the weeks following the tragedy, and well into the next century. A 1976 examination of the USS Maine’s records finally resolved that the explosion, an internal one, most likely resulted from spontaneous combustion: The coal had been located dangerously close to the ammunitions magazine. In the three years before the Maine steamed into the Cuban port, a number of other vessels reported fires in the coalbunker. In 1898, however, the United States Court of Inquiry found a different cause: An enemy mine situated under the bottom of the ship.

If the reason for war with Cuba was not immediately evident, it soon found its clarity in the publications of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. In the end, the Spanish-American War would be the most popular war this country ever fought. While only 1 in 6 soldiers would make it into combat, 200,000 volunteers boarded trains and waited in American military camps hoping to go. The war would be won in just 113 days, liberating Cuba, adjoining Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the United States.

In spite of this, the war would cost more lives than ever expected. Over 2,500 American soldiers would be lost—not to the Spanish, but to disease. Only 385 would actually die in action. With far more volunteers than there were accommodations to hold them, soldiers crowded into American camps hoping to make it to Cuba before the fighting ended or before typhoid or dysentery picked them off one by one.

Conditions in Cuba were no better, where not only typhoid, dysentery and malaria ran rampant but also yellow fever. As fever season encroached, one soldier wrote that taps was played continuously in the camp: “The volleys became more frequent and one bugle followed another throughout the day; they followed each other almost as if they were but echoes among the hills about us.” Eventually, the camps had to stop playing taps for dead soldiers because the unceasing bugle notes brought down general morale.