1898: The Birth of the American Centuryby David Traxel
At the heart of this vivid, anecdotal history is a/i>
In 1898: The Birth of the American Century, David Traxel tells the story of a watershed year, a year of foreign conflict, extravagant adventure, and breakneck social change that forged a new America—a sudden empire with many far-flung possessions, a dynamic new player upon the global stage.
At the heart of this vivid, anecdotal history is a masterly account of the Spanish-American War, the "splendid little war" that garnered the nation Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. From the sinking of the Maine in waters off Havana to Teddy Roosevelt's rough riders and the triumph of Admiral Dewey, here is the lightning-swift military episode that transformed America into a world power. Here too are many stories not so often told—the bloody first successes of the new United Mine Workers, the tentative beginnings of the Ford Motor Company, the million-dollar launch of the Uneeda Biscuit—each in its way as important as the harbinger of the American century. Compulsively readable, frequently humorous, utterly fascinating in its every detail, 1898 is popular history at its finest.
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"Engaging, compelling and gracefully written."-Los Angeles Times
"Entertaining... A fund of good stories."- The New York Times Book Review
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1898The Birth of the American Century
By David Traxel
Vintage Books USACopyright © 1999 David Traxel
All right reserved.
Hail thee, city born today,
Commercial monarch by the sea,
Whose throne is by the Hudson's way,
'Mid thousands' homesteads join'd to thee.
Opening of "Ode to Greater New York"
FREEZING RAIN HAD BEEN punishing the crowd for hours, but tens of thousands of people continued to jam their way into the streets, eager to celebrate New York's historic moment; at precisely midnight on this Saturday, just as the year 1898 was born, a colossal new city would come into being, instantly leaping from thirty-nine square miles to 320, raising its population Of 2,000,000 to 3,400,000, and attaining the status of second-largest metropolis in the world as Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx lost their independence and became absorbed into Greater New York. Only London, center of a world-encircling empire, would be larger, and New Yorkers, who had voted this giant city into existence through a referendum, were confident they would soon catch up; they already took pride in having twice as many telephones as that city.
All afternoon New Year's Eve festivities had disrupted normal routine; in the financial district the saloons put out delicacies to accompany the champagne punches they "brewed ... for all comers." The exchanges, perhaps under this bubbling inspiration, grew rowdy with "joyful horseplay," according to a New York Times reporter, who noted that the most lively of them was the Produce Exchange, where there were "the usual football games, and some throwing of grain, flour, and dough. On such occasions the main effort is to cast the pigskin into the wheat 'pit.' This was more than successful, as on one rally of the players two balls were launched into the clamoring brokers."
At the old Brooklyn City Hall, now only to be seat of a borough, there was more an air of mourning; the "City of Churches" was to be self-governing no more. Ex-mayors held an "observance" of the change that filled the council chamber and was addressed by the pastor of the oldest local congregation, who spoke on the history of the area. Will Carleton then read his poem "The Passing of Brooklyn," which began:
Now while the bells of the steeples turn golden,
Now as the year has waxed sacred and olden,
And as the new century clearer and clearer
Flashes its headlights another mile nearer
And moments are nigh
When the fierce gongs and the steam trumpets
Once more the triumphs of time are displaying,
Why does a feeling of sadness surround us?
As when the blade of bereavement has found us?
As Mr. Carleton went on at some length to detail for his listeners their reasons for sadness as the speeding headlights of the new century drew nearer, a far different atmosphere filled the streets of Manhattan, in spite of the nasty weather. Umbrellas helped against the wet, although gusty wind made their shelter uncertain; many men sought more reliable protection and warmth in saloons, where, a journalist reported, "liquor flowed ... in reality like water." Powerful searchlight beams crisscrossed dark clouds as elaborately decorated floats, the carriages of dignitaries, and numerous marching bands were organized into a parade at Union Square.
A decision to postpone was reversed, and right on schedule, at 10:15 p.m., the procession set out down Broadway. First came the grand marshal, Colonel George Moore Smith of the Sixty-ninth Regiment, with an escort of fourteen mounted policemen, then the band of the Seventh Regiment, then five open carriages containing a large Chicago delegation. The Chicago Democratic machine had earned this place of honor by helping Tammany Hall beat back a reform movement to win the recent mayoral election. Falling into line from the immediate side streets were marching units like the Robert Anderson Battery in their long gray coats and fire helmets, Veteran Firemen's Associations, rifle-carrying Irish Volunteers, German societies, United Italian societies, Hungarian societies, the Garde Lafayette, and bicycle clubs.
Floats called forth the greatest enthusiasm from the crowd. The fruit-trade float was a huge colorful cornucopia spilling forth a bountiful harvest; another advertised the Bijou Theater's production of Uncle Tom's Cabin with a depiction of a log shanty and a Southern plantation. The Tammany Hall political machine was represented by a giant tiger with electric lamps for eyes, flanked by pictures of Mayor Robert Van Wyck and of the Boss himself, Richard Croker. One favorite, no doubt because of the self-satisfaction it provided citizens lining the route, showed a gigantic figure of Liberty enlightening a world that was rising from a nest of fountains "all brilliantly lit by electricity" No reporter mentioned whether this allegorical figure of democracy came before or following the Tammany Hall predator, but it was an advertisement not just for the American political way but also for the new Siegal-Cooper department store and bore the invitation, "Meet me at the fountain," after an architectural detail of that commercial palace.
Broadway was crammed with more than the parade; there were impatiently clanging cablecars full of passengers along its eastern side that were backed up for blocks. All went well, however, until the lead sections reached the Broadway Central Hotel, near Bleecker Street, where there was a bottleneck. Horses already nervous from noise and excitement became difficult to control, and a team drawing a carriage full of Chicago politicians swerved in front of a rumbling cablecar, which startled them back toward the waiting ranks of marchers. A sudden explosion of fireworks then stampeded the team through the Seventh Regiment band and up onto the sidewalk, where they panicked, kicking and plunging violently, "throwing men and women in all directions" until Policeman O'Donohue of the West Forty-seventh Street Station caught the bridle of one and steered the team against a lamppost, "where they stuck fast." The injured were carried into the lobby of the hotel, and after some frantic minutes the parade reorganized and continued its march, leaving behind, gleaming on the wet pavement, a tuba and several smaller brasses now in two-dimensional form.
Ethnic singing societies had made their own short procession from the Stadts Zeitung building to City Hall, each man carrying a tall staff to which was attached a varicolored paper lantern. As they marched and sang, the men rhythmically shifted the lanterns, providing a beautiful light-and-sound show that was overwhelmed by the weather, the noise, and the powerful electric displays all around them.
City Hall Plaza blazed with the national colors. Clusters of red, white, and blue lights were attached to fence posts around the park, and mounted on the Hall itself were two American flags, twenty feet by thirty, made up of thousands of tinted incandescent bulbs that through some miracle of technology made the banners appear to wave in the wind. Over the center of the front portico was an anchor thirty feet long, symbolizing New York's maritime trade, and at the ends of the structure were two giant representations of the Shield of the Republic. The surrounding buildings, every window crowded with onlookers, were illuminated, and on their roofs were mighty searchlights; all this brilliance reflected off the slick asphalt and the badges and brass buttons of the police, who stood shoulder to shoulder on the streets, keeping the crowds from the square.
Slowly, however, their ranks were pushed toward the park by the sheer numbers of people pressing forward to view the spectacle. Often the happy crowd sang along when one of the bands played a familiar tune, thousands of male and female voices echoing among the tall buildings. Everyone was in such good spirits, including the police, that even staggering drunks were only told to go home. "If they talked back the police men laughed," a journalist wrote in amazement. "Few arrests were made and those only by direction of Captains or Sergeants."
As the choral groups marched into place in front of City Hall, they began competing for a sterling silver cup, but the wind, the oompah bands, exploding firecrackers, and dazzlers made hearing, let alone judging, difficult for the celebrities who were to pick the purest assembly of voices. Ten gleaming trophies were being offered for categories besides singing, including best float, best bicycle company, best costume; competition in all of them was fierce as the stinging rain beat down.
The silver loving cups, the fireworks, some of the drinks, and even the fierce radiance of the lights had been provided for the public celebration by a tall, awkward, fabulously wealthy thirty-five-year-old Californian who had come to New York because it was the great national model of sophistication and style as well as the arena for success in America, especially in his chosen field of journalism. Locked in a fierce competition of his own, a circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer of the World, he craved any publicity that might give him an edge. "Putting out a newspaper without promotion is like winking at a girl in the dark," William Randolph Hearst believed, "well-intentioned but ineffective." Nothing involving the journal or its city was going to be done in the dark if he could help it.
Some Manhattan civic leaders had initially resisted the idea of a celebration; one, unhappy over the successful referendum, had argued instead that a "funeral service" be held for old New York. Politicians had dithered and disagreed over the form an official ceremony should take, so Hearst, as private individual, had stepped in, raising money from a variety of rich metropolitan types, such as financier J. P. Morgan and Tammany boss Richard Croker, as well as reaching into his own bottomless pockets. The elaborate festivities were organized by Journal staff while under an enormous press of other work, which ranged from mounting a special Christmas dinner for five thousand Journal newsboys, many of them orphaned and living at the Roosevelt family--supported Newsboys' Lodging House, to sustaining Hearst's energetic crusade to start a war between the United States and Spain. The publisher himself was too shy to face such an enormous crowd, but watched all the festivities from the offices of his newspaper, which overlooked the square.
At ten minutes to midnight, the harbor contributed its part to the carnival with every ship, boat, and ferry pulling its steam whistle; more and more people crowded into the area around City Hall Park and the surrounding streets; choral groups shifted to "Auld Lang Syne" while bicyclists demonstrated their skill and daring by speeding up and down the hall's steps. But all this chaotic activity ceased and the crowd fell silent at the stroke of twelve, as the searchlights, buzzing with electricity, flooded the flagstaff mounted on the City Hall cupola in a bath of white, while the chimes of Old Trinity Church sounded in the background. At that very instant, the mayor of San Francisco, standing over three thousand miles away by the Golden Gate, pushed a button that sent an electric charge speeding through the line from the Pacific coast to this Atlantic maritime city, which then triggered a motor that shot the newly designed blue-and-white flag of Greater New York up the pole. Skyrockets streaked overhead, the cheers of a hundred thousand citizens resounded through the streets, and round after blank round was fired by a battery of artillery pieces drawn up by the Post Office, gunsmoke eddying and swirling through the choking crowd before rising in great billows to join the low clouds. The tremendous roar went on for fifteen minutes, "a saturnation of light and sound" the Times called it, before snow started falling so fast that the mass atomized into thousands of individuals struggling homeward.
AND IN SUCH MANNER, to one degree or another, the New Year was heralded around the nation. Big cities held celebrations to match their size; small towns held their own, quieter observances. Adventuresome inhabitants took trains to the nearest metropolis if they desired more excitement.
San Francisco held a particularly noteworthy festival. Even as early as nine o'clock Pacific Time, when the mayor pushed his button sending a playful electric current racing across the country to raise the national symbol in New York, "All the town and his wife were out, bent upon having a good time." Citizens felt they had a victory to celebrate, since just a few days before they had elected a slate of "freeholders" to draft a new charter that might result in elimination of the corrupt political machine dominating city government. "The bosses, however," reported the New York Times, "are much annoyed at the result, and it is feared ... that when the charter comes to a vote [ballot box] stuffing will be resorted to."
THERE WERE THE USUAL unusual events that the nation's journals made a point of reporting to entertain their audience: A couple in Missouri made the front pages by exchanging wedding vows over the telephone, a use of the instrument that William McKinley, as the first president to actually conduct the nation's business over the "wire," must surely have approved of. He had recently told a reporter that he thought this technological marvel was valuable primarily because it "is bringing us all closer together." Also in evidence on this Sunday morning were the traditional New Year admonitions and frettings by intellectuals. One running debate in the New York Times was over "A Burning Question in Literature"--whether the recent great increase in the number of books being published was an enrichment of civilization, or a "growing evil." Another article inquired, "Has New York Advanced in the Fine Arts?"
But of course not all was joy, ingenuous wonder, or intellectual pondering, as eager newspaper readers were quickly informed. One shocking incident occurred in Lonoke, Arkansas, when a mob attacked the store of Oscar Simonton, an African-American who had ignored warnings to leave town. As the mob broke down his door, Simonton escaped through a window. "No less than thirty shots were fired at him, three of which took effect, one in his left side and two in the thigh and shoulder." Badly wounded, he managed to escape to Little Rock, but the New York Times recalled that just a few months before, a Professor Hollingsworth, who had persisted in conducting a school in Lonoke for Negro children, had been found dead, hanging on a fence with sixty-nine bullet holes in his body.
Alcohol, as well as racism, was a constant source of problems in American society, and several national temperance efforts were launched on this first day of the new year. Even though the police of New York had been tolerant at the gala in City Hall Park, there were two or three hundred drunks arrested on the East Side alone, most singing in their defense the old refrain of "bin celebratin'." One, Patrick McLaughlin, who was charged with fighting because there were a number of large scratches on his face, claimed to have only been drinking.
"You say you were only drunk, and that you were not fighting," said the puzzled magistrate, "while the officer says you were fighting. How's that?"
Mr. McLaughlin felt he had a perfectly reasonable explanation: "Judge, you can see I wasn't fighting. Up our way when there's a fight, somebody gets hurt. I'm as sound as a dollar."
Either because he was charmed by the savage innocence of this defense or because it fit so amusingly into the prevailing stereotype of the Irish-American, the judge released Patrick McLaughlin without charges.
Disease still carried off the innocent, no matter how rich or how beautiful. Lucille Pulitzer, teenage daughter of one of the country's most powerful men, died on New Year's Eve at Chatwold, the family home in Bar Harbor, having suffered greatly for four months as a mysterious disease ravaged her body; Joseph Pulitzer had brought in the most prestigious physicians in the country, but, for all his wealth and influence, was unable in the end to do anything more effective than what the poorest parent of the poorest child might have done.
Accidents, too, were thick on newspaper pages, although here class was more of a determinant. Anyone might be run down by a stampeding horse or speeding bicycle, or burned in the frequent house fires, but it was the unprotected workplace, full of clanging, banging, smashing machines, that maimed and killed tens of thousands every year. Other dangers also awaited working men and women. In Lattimer, Pennsylvania, indictments were being prepared against deputy sheriffs who had gunned down dozens of miners during a strike in September of 1897, killing twenty
Bessie Potter and Christopher Robert, along with many others, had not been able to bear the thought of living another day, let alone facing a new year. Women in this state of desperation seemed to prefer drinking carbolic acid, a particularly horrible way to die, while men usually favored a gun to the head. Both Potter and Robert left reporters, readers, and those who knew and loved them mystified as to why an attractive brunette of twenty-five ("The dead woman's feet and hands are small. She has a beautiful set of teeth, and her fingernails are well kept. The general appearance ... was that of a person of refinement and scrupulously neat personal habits") and a wealthy builder would choose to end their lives.
As fascinating to the reading public as suicides was crime of all sorts, and there were a number of dramatic accounts of burglary, robbery, and murder, two of which were particularly troubling. Eli Shaw was jailed in Camden, New Jersey, accused of murdering both his mother and his grandmother. This was such a doubly intriguing but unthinkable crime that the trial would claim major attention all year. An outraged son of a mother decided to torment the accused at the start of the new year by sending him a bomb wrapped as a present. It fizzed when opened, then put out an acrid smoke; there was no explosion, but it left Shaw so terrified he could not sit still for days.
An incident on a Broadway cablecar involving a pickpocket caught by Patrolman Frederick Probst was also given a great amount of space. The criminal, who turned out to be a wanted member of the deadly Whyo Gang, put up a violent resistance, finally in desperation shoving a revolver against Probst's head and pulling the trigger. The gun misfired, but the fight continued for several blocks until other officers came to their comrade's rescue, having to club the Whyo until he finally quit chewing on one of Probst's fingers. The truly shocking detail to a nation that relied on individual initiative was that of all the passengers on board the car, "Not one of them came to Probst's assistance." When the crook was safely in custody, however, a crowd gathered and began shouting, "Lynch him! Lynch him!"
But stories of potential rather than actual violence claimed the biggest headlines at the dawn of 1898, and they had to do with dangers outside the borders of the United States. A serious threat of war between the Great Powers had developed in both China and Africa, and these threats would never really disappear in the coming months, even while the United States itself was engaged in deadly combat. Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Japan were all rivals for international empire, a Darwinian struggle that left Americans troubled about how to respond. Exactly where Kiao-Chau, Hai-Nan, and Fashoda were located was a mystery, but people understood the growing reliance of their economy on foreign markets that these imperial powers threatened to close. American businessmen were particularly fond of contemplating "the illimitable markets of China," but there were many other spots on the globe that also promised good profits.
The same technology that Americans were celebrating with telephone marriages and waving flags constructed from incandescent bulbs added to their unease as one new weapons development quickly followed another. Huge modern battleships were being built that could cross the once-protective waters of the Atlantic and Pacific in a matter of days, steel ships with powerful cannon capable of leveling cities from miles off shore; and recently the press had been full of stories about an exciting new craft that raised even more unsettling questions about how to defend the country. Torpedo boats were fast and small, yet reportedly armed with devices able to sink the largest dreadnoughts. As if to emphasize the country's unreadiness to meet a serious challenge like the one the European nations were presenting to one another, an editor of the Times sent a reporter to inspect the battle-scarred Civil War era "monitors" at the League Island Navy Yard. Though admittedly obsolete, a subhead proclaimed they were ALWAYS READY FOR SERVICE.
New weaponry was now often threateningly close to American cities in places like Haiti, where the Germans were making demands on the local government to pay compensation for supposed indignities visited on one of their citizens, and Cuba, where Spain was ruthlessly suppressing the populace's desire for independence, while blaming the United States for what success the rebels had enjoyed.
While contemplating geopolitical developments, some Americans began to feel not fear but the stirrings of resentment and ambition. Though relatively weak now, why shouldn't the country arm with modern weapons? Why refrain from the race for empire? The United States should take its rightful place on the world stage. What better way to protect itself than by projecting strength overseas? And how better to improve the world than by being a champion for good, ensuring the spread of liberty, democracy' Protestant Christianity, efficiency, and, certainly, "unrestricted commerce." It was time, a growing minority felt, for "the Eagle to spread its wings and scream.
Those wings, at least economically, were already spreading too wide for some European leaders, who had traditionally looked with scorn on the United States as a country with great resources and potential, but little real understanding of power. They saw this weakness as springing from a foolishly broad democratic system that produced leaders more concerned with mouthing abstract moral platitudes than with intelligently applying force and diplomacy. But even during the worldwide depression of the 1890s, which was just beginning to loosen its grip, American exports continued to flow abroad, causing Count Agenor Goluchowski, the Austrian foreign minister, to warn in the last weeks of 1897 against this threat from American energy and organizational talent:
The disastrous war of competition which we meet with at every step and in every field of human activity, upon the part of countries beyond the seas, a contest which is now going on but which will become greater in the near future, calls for immediate and comprehensive resistance unless the nations of Europe are to be seriously crippled in their most vital interests and are willing to fall victim to a disease which will surely lead to their destruction. They must fight shoulder to shoulder against this common danger, and they must go into this contest armed with every weapon of defense that their resources afford.
FOR THE FIRST TIME in decades the White House was dark, and quiet, on New Year's Day, 1898. Normally there would have been a constant flow of flag-bedecked carriages delivering elegantly dressed ambassadors and attaches in full uniform to the main entrance, while a thick line of patient men, women, and children watched and waited for their turn to shake the hand of their president and offer best wishes for the coming year. This was a citizenry that felt a personal connection to government. The Executive Mansion, though structurally so rotted and weak that engineers had repeatedly warned its floors could not support such weight, was traditionally a welcoming venue to "all citizens who are sober, washed, and free of bodily advertising." But this year the White House was in mourning, large iron gates closed and locked, because William McKinley's eighty-seven-year-old mother had just died.
The president was an early riser, usually leaving his twin bed around six and, after shaving and washing, walking down the corridor to the Cabinet room, where he had appropriated one end of the large conference table as work space. There he went over papers and reports for a couple of hours before his invalid wife, Ida, made her way to the breakfast table, when he would hurry to be at her side. Ida McKinley's health had been broken by the deaths of their two young daughters many years before, and since those tragedies he had made her happiness his major concern. This devotion to his wife was well known, as had been the president's strong ties to his mother, and these loyalties were important wellsprings of his popularity with the American people. "In honoring your mother and your wife, you have honored womankind," one female supporter had pronounced during the election of 1896. Others, considering his unselfish honesty and old-fashioned sense of honor along with his domestic virtues, pronounced him a "Christian gentleman" or, using one of the favorite images of the time, "a medieval knight."
Though handsome in a virile "matinee idol" style, the president did not radiate charisma or any sort of sensual excitability; instead, his calm gray eyes and dignified presence gave the American people a reassuring perception of serene maturity and sober judgment. He had marked his rise to the dignity of his office with a new, fancier style of dress--white pique waistcoats--and refused to allow the public to see him chewing the cigars that he always kept handy and that sometimes had stained his satin labels back in the days when he had been a congressman and then governor of Ohio. A man of regular habits, he was marked by a few startling eccentricities. One, born of supreme, though quiet, self-confidence was his style of shaving his fleshy, unlined face. Striding about a room, never even glancing at a mirror, he would often dictate correspondence to a secretary while taking rapid, dextrous strokes with a well-honed straight-edged razor.
A conservative Republican who believed in the cooperation of government and big business, McKinley had been sworn into office the previous March after winning a bitterly divisive campaign against William Jennings Bryan. His immediate goal had been to return prosperity to a nation devastated by the great depression that had begun in 1893. In the worst financial collapse in U.S. history to that time, banks and businesses had failed by the score; tens of thousands of farmers had declared bankruptcy; millions of workers had lost their jobs; and bloody pitched battles had been fought between striking union men and guards hired by corporations.
But now some of that class anger was receding, as gold from the huge Klondike strike of 1897 was flowing into the banks, providing a basis for credit and economic expansion. A different threat to public happiness had elbowed its way onto the nation's front pages, and this was causing the president great difficulty.
Spain's ruthless suppression of a revolt that had started in its colony of Cuba in 1895 outraged the American people, who feared that they were passively allowing the same kind of large-scale atrocities to take place just off their shores that the Europeans had allowed the Turks to commit on the helpless Armenians just a few years before. Valeriano Weyler, the Spanish governor-general, had rounded up peasant farmers and unemployed sugar-plantation laborers from the countryside and confined them in what amounted to prison camps, reconcentrados, in order to deprive the rebels of their support. The result was a victory of sorts--these tactics had weakened the rebellion--but at tremendous human cost. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children had died of starvation and disease during confinement.
American newspapers had made a moral crusade of the story, both from genuine revulsion and from recognition that it was a circulation-builder. Increasingly, many citizens were willing to see the nation go on an actual military crusade to stop the horror that lay just ninety miles from the American shore. McKinley, who had risen from teenage private to twenty-two-year-old major during the Civil War while taking part in some of its bloodiest battles, was doing all he could to keep the United States at peace while trying to ameliorate conditions in Cuba.
Pressure was being applied to the Spanish government of Praxedas Mateo Sagasta, who had recently replaced the assassinated premier Antonio Canovas del Castillo. Reforms had already been instituted: "Butcher" Weyler had been ordered home, and been succeeded as governor by General Ramon Blanco, who had orders to conduct more humane policies; a compromise program of political autonomy for Cuba went into effect on January 1. Although Spaniards, and especially the military, resented what they saw as unwarranted American interference, it increasingly looked as if war could be avoided, unless something unexpected happened.
Clara Barton, "Angel of the Battlefield" during the Civil War and founder of the American branch of the Red Cross, had met with the president the last week in December, seeking his advice on how to help; on New Year's Day she presided at the organizing of the Central Cuban Relief Committee in New York City. Now seventy-six years old, she had recently, returned from months spent in the Ottoman Empire providing relief to Armenian survivors of the Turkish massacres. Barton was sure that her experience dealing with a government guilty of such great persecution would help her conduct an effective aid program in Cuba.
* * *
LESS OPTIMISTIC ABOUT a peaceful end to Cuban misery was the assistant secretary of the navy. Theodore Roosevelt was one of those who believed the United States needed a more aggressive foreign policy, and a strong military force to back it up. He had been responsible for two recent decisions that he thought would strengthen the country's position if the dispute with Spain worsened.
On January 1, Commodore George Dewey was rowed out to the cruiser Olympia, then riding at anchor in the harbor of Yokohama, Japan, to assume command of the U.S. navy's Asiatic Squadron. Roosevelt had engineered his selection because he believed Dewey to be an officer of fighting spirit, one who, in the event of war, would prove resourceful and independent enough to carry the day against the Spanish fleet guarding the Philippines, even though he and his ships were thousands of miles from a home base.
Closer to Washington, another naval officer was also preparing for action. For more than two weeks the battleship Maine, commanded by Captain Charles Sigsbee, had been waiting at the naval installation at Key West, just five hours' steaming from Havana. Out of sensitivity to Spanish feelings, no official American vessel had visited Cuban ports for three years, and even the routine exercises of the Atlantic Squadron had been moved north. Now, however, maneuvers had been scheduled for January in the Dry Tortugas just off the Florida coast, and the Maine was on semialert. Assistant Secretary Roosevelt had supported both renewed exercises and the presence of a capital ship in case Fitzhugh Lee, American consul-general in Havana, needed such support to protect American lives.
While waiting to be summoned, Captain Sigsbee was using his ship's steam launches to patrol against any filibustering expeditions that might try to sneak across the ninety miles to the island to deliver arms or other aid to Cuban rebels; nearly every day he and Fitzhugh Lee exchanged cables to ensure that telegraphic communication remained open. In case of potential trouble, a coded message would alert Sigsbee to build steam in the Maine's triple expansion engines, then a second one would order him to come quickly. The captain, proud of his huge, gleaming white battleship, felt able to meet any challenge, and in letters to his wife compared himself to the American world heavyweight champion "Fitz" Fitzsimmons.
Such a small, isolated base as Key West meant boring liberties for the "Jackies," or enlisted men, who spent what free time they had supporting their "baseball 9" in a league made up of teams representing individual ships. A cold spell dampened their spirits, as did meager rations, but even more disturbing to the crew was the Maine's reputation as a "Jonah" or "Hoodoo" ship, the result of men having been swept overboard and drowned on earlier missions.
Some excitement and a lift to morale had been sparked during the holiday season, when Captain Sigsbee ordered the installation of a scintillating technological marvel for Key West along the same, if more moderate, lines that William Randolph Hearst provided for New York City. The Maine was "illuminated" with hundreds of electric lights strung fore and aft along the mastheads and funnels and encircling the superstructure decks. The local newspaper wrote it up as "One of the finest displays of electricity ever witnessed in the city."
A NEW YEAR'S EVE event in Cuba was probably missed by most readers of the New York Times since it was reported in small type and buried at the bottom of an interior page. A "torpedo" or mine had exploded in Havana harbor, just off the floating dock, "but no damage was done."
Excerpted from 1898 by David Traxel Copyright © 1999 by David Traxel.
Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
David Traxel received his B.A. in history from the University of California, Berkley, and earned his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has been the recipient of Fulbright, Smithsonian, and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, and is the author of An American Saga: The Life and Times of Rockwell Kent. Currently at work on a biography of the American journalist Richard Harding Davis, Traxel lives with his wife, Rosemary, in Philadelphia.
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