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USS Maine, photograph by J. S. Johnston, ca. 1890–1898

In 1895 the Navy commissioned the battleship Maine to defend the Atlantic Coast and Caribbean. Sent to Cuba in January 1898 to protect U.S. interests during Cuba’s war of independence from Spain, the Maine exploded in Havana Harbor on February 15. Though the cause of the explosion was uncertain, the incident prompted calls within the United States for war against Spain.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

USS Maine, photograph by J. S. Johnston, ca. 1890–1898

Creating a Modern Navy

The end of the nineteenth century was a time of change for the U.S. Navy as the nation became increasingly engaged in international affairs. When proponents of a “Big Navy” called for state-of-the-art steel ships to protect the United States and its interests, Congress responded with the Battleship Act of 1890, the first significant legislation authorizing construction of new battleships. Marking an era of greater U.S. naval power, the ships played a significant role in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

To carry on even a defensive war with any hope of success we must have armored battle-ships. . . . for it is not to be tolerated that the United States, with its population, its revenue, and its trade, is to submit to attack upon the threshold of its harbors

Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy, Report of the Secretary of the Navy to Congress, October 15, 1889