Expert Helps ANC Identify Artifact from the USS Maine

By Kevin M. Hymel, Historian on 4/14/2023


In February of 2023, Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) curator Rod Gainer needed to verify a relic from the wreck of the USS Maine. New Jersey’s Pascack Historical Society had offered to donate the artifact to ANC with limited provenance. So Gainer contacted Steve Whitaker, who has studied the famous ship and its place in history for the last eight years.

USS Maine, an armored cruiser, blew up in Havana Harbor, Cuba, on February 15, 1898, killing 260 sailors and marines; six additional service members later died from wounds. Several investigations followed. Although the exact cause of the explosion was never determined, the tragedy ignited the Spanish-American War. Today, the USS Maine Memorial stands in ANC’s Section 24, where the remains of 230 crewmen are buried.

The Pascack Historical Society’s staff was not completely sure that the artifact, a wooden pole with a metal collar around its waist and a ring on one end, came from the wreck of the Maine. That’s why Gainer called Whitaker.

Whitaker—who earned a history degree from Vanderbilt University and spent 33 years in the U.S. Navy before dedicating himself to researching the Maine—traveled to the Pascack Historical Society from this home in Connecticut to learn how the artifact got into their collection and why they believed it was part of the famous battleship. “I took a bunch of photographs of the relic,” said Whitaker. He then matched it to an index he kept and spotted it to its location on the ship.

Whitaker identified several clues that connected the relic to the Maine. First, the metal collar piece consisted of forged iron, which was only used for a limited time in naval construction. “The time window when that was made was in the same time window of the USS Maine,” he explained.

Next, Whitaker checked the artifacts against photographs of the Maine from the National Archives and Records Administration, most of which were taken by photographer John C. Hemment. This was no easy task, since most of the photographs from that time were taken from a distance and with great variation in focal length. However, one of the photographs showed a crossmember, a wooden pole angling out of one of ship’s mast. The dimensions matched.

The surviving flecks of paint on the relic also pointed to the Maine. According to Whitaker, the ship was originally painted, in 1895, with a whitewash on its masts and crossmembers.  In 1896, the same crossmembers were painted a straw color, according to the records of the captain, Charles Sigsbee. This intermediate color was painted with a lead-based paint provided by the King Manufacturing Company of New York. By the time Maine entered Havana Harbor on January 25, 1898, the cruiser was painted a darker color. “It was dark enough to be black,” explained Whitaker. The darker paint scheme resulted after an 1897 nighttime naval blockade exercise revealed searchlights could easily spot white-painted ships.

Whitaker easily noticed flecks of white and yellow paint on the artifact, along with poorly applied oil-based dark paint. He theorized that a junior member of the ship probably crawled up the crossmember to paint it black. “You got a black tar-based paint over what is an intermediate coating, over a white-wash base in some spots,” he said.

The last clue came from another picture of the Maine, which showed the crossmember cut off. But this was not a picture taken by Hemment. “One of the crew members or a salvager after the Navy divers completed their investigation must have taken the picture,” said Whitaker. “There was a one-week period in March of 1898 when someone could cut it off with a saw.” The base of the relic reflects a hand cut by saw event.

With those puzzle pieces put together, Whitaker could declare with almost complete certainty that the Pascack Historical Society’s artifact truly was a part of the USS Maine. On March 7, 2023, Gainer, accompanied by ANC’s command historian, Dr. Stephen Carney, came to the Historical Society to accept the now-identified piece of the Maine and bring it to the cemetery. 

Whitaker was happy that the artifact was going to ANC and not to a private collector. When asked about the piece of the Maine being sent where so many of its crewmembers lay at rest, he said, “It’s going to the right home.”

Learn More: 

•  ANC Education Program: The Spanish-American War

•  USS Maine Memorial

•  "Remember the Maine": 125th Anniversary Discussion (YouTube)

Contract Historian
Kevin M. Hymel