October 31, 2008
Remembering Mainers on board the USS Maine
by Harry Gratwick
On February 15, 1898 the battleship USS Maine was sunk in Havana harbor. The ship had been sent to Cuba to protect American interests during a period of intense local unrest against the Spanish government on the island.
Most of the 266 men who died were crew members, sleeping or resting in the forward part of the ship at the time of the explosion which occurred at 9:40 p.m. Ironically, taps had been played at 9:10 p.m. Officers were quartered aft and most, including the captain, were ashore. Only two officers died in the explosion.
Of the eight young men from the state of Maine on board, six died in the mysterous explosion that sank the ship 110 years ago.
One casualty was a 20-year-old apprentice seaman from Bath, another was a fireman first-class from Portland.
More than a century later, the cause of the explosion continues to generate controversy. Was it internal combustion from the coalbunker located next to the powder magazine, or was a mine detonated outside the ship's hull? Whatever the cause, the explosion of five tons of powder in the magazine virtually obliterated the forward third of the ship.
Not surprisingly, the event was widely publicized by the American press, which inflamed public opinion, contributing to the outbreak of the Spanish American War.
What the history books don't give us is much information about the crew. Where were they from? USS Maine's company of 350 men were from 23 states and 15 countries. Twenty-two sailors were African Americans.
Who were the casualties from Maine? The Bath Daily Times informs us there were two "Boys from Bath" on the doomed ship, John Sweeney and Frank Talbot. Sweeney worked in the boiler shop at the Bath Iron works for ten years and left in 1897 to join the ship. For some reason he was not listed on the ship's roster and thus was not initially reported as dead. A third casualty, Clarence Lowell, was born in Bath, but moved to Augusta.
Twenty-year-old Frank Talbot's story is particularly poignant. The Bath Times tells us, "he completed his studies at the Lower Grammar School before working in Shaw & Sons mill. He was a bright boy and much liked by his friends." Talbot came from a seafaring family. His grandfather was in the navy for 20 years and his father spent three years at sea during the Civil War.
Talbot joined USS Maine on December 26, 1897 as an apprentice seaman having trained for a month on Wabash in Charlestown, Mass. His last letter home was written the night before Maine left Key West for Havana and indicated he was enjoying his work very much. "I would like to come home this spring, but I can't tell when I will get north again. We leave tomorrow for Havana. Good-bye. Your loving son." On February 22, The Bath Times reported that Talbot's parents "have not received any news and that Mrs. Talbot is nearly crazy with grief."
Another casualty, Millard Harris from Boothbay, was listed on the ship's roll as a quartermaster, third class. Harris 48, had a wife, Agnes, and is listed as a "ship master" before the war. No other information on him is available.
Three men, Bernard Lynch, William H. Tinsman and John H. Bloomer were from the Portland area. The first two died in the explosion. All we know about Lynch is that he was a fireman first-class on the battleship. Tinsman, who enlisted in 1897, also came from a seafaring family, his father, William H.H.Tinsman, having served on USS Merrimac during the Civil War. Tinsman was born in Pennsylvania, but grew up in East Deeering. He was also an apprentice seaman on the battleship.
Who survived? John Bloomer and Martin Webber survived the explosion, although both men were injured. Bloomer was a member of the ship's baseball team and, with the exception of the goat shown in the team picture, was the only member of the squad to come out alive.
In the late 19th century every ship in the navy had a baseball team and USS Maine was no exception. The photo of the team is believed to have been taken in Key West, Florida just before the ship left for Cuba. This proud, but ultimately tragic, assemblage of players, coaches and goat mascot, had recently beaten a team from the cruiser USS Marblehead by a score of 18-3 to win the Navy championship. Maine's star player was a left-handed, African American pitcher named William Lambert (upper right in the picture). Lambert was an engine stoker from Virginia who was described by a teammate as "a master of speed, curves and control."
Bloomer returned to Portland after the war where he worked as a stevedore in the summer and a trucker in the winter. He died in 1907 at the age of 35 from "a complication of diseases attributed to his experience in the disaster", according to his obituary. Bloomer was survived by a wife and three children and is buried in South Portland.
The eighth sailor from Maine, and the only other survivor besides Bloomer, was Martin Webber from Bar Harbor. Webber was also an apprentice seaman and, as noted, was injured in the explosion. Webber died in 1952 at the age of 75. His death certificate lists him as a retired truck driver. Other than this, and the fact that his wife's name was Rose, we know nothing more about the last 54 years of his life. Webber is buried in the Holy Redeemer cemetery in Bar Harbor.
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