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Remembering Hagerstown's USS Maine victim

January 24, 1998

Remembering Hagerstown's USS Maine victim

By AMY WALLAUER

Staff Writer

Exactly 100 years ago today, the battleship USS Maine arrived in Havana, Cuba, to protect American lives during the conflict between Cuban revolutionaries and the Spanish Colonial government. Three weeks later it blew up, killing about 260 men on board and sparking the Spanish-American War.

Among the nine Maryland men killed that night in the explosion was Hagerstown's E.B. Suman.

Suman was one of three Maryland natives declared dead. Six others were listed as missing, likely lost in the sea as the battleship sank.

The news that a Hagerstown native was among those killed surprised John Frye, historian with the Washington County Free Library.

"I'm surprised we don't have something. The fact is, amazingly enough, up until a couple years ago we didn't know there was a man from Washington County who received the Medal of Honor (William O. Wilson at Wounded Knee, S.D.)," Frye said.

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Many of the smaller battles and shorter wars receive limited attention in history, Frye said, and because Suman and others died before an actual war broke out there was less information gathered about the Maine's crew.

"That was before the war and that would be just like an Air Force plane crashing today: You have a pilot and a navigator who were killed, but were not in a war so you don't hear as much as about that," Frye said. "That would be the main reason why Suman wasn't mentioned."

There is also no cemetery records for Suman in Hagerstown, Frye said.

"(The Spanish-American War) was almost like a skirmish compared to the Civil War or the first World War, which came later," Frye said. "There's very little written on it - people don't even study it in schools."

Dieter Protsch, former secretary of the Joint Veterans' Council for Washington County, said poor record keeping could also be to blame.

"In those days, records were not kept as meticulously as you did in Europe. You didn't have birth certificates. In Europe, churches kept adequate records but here it was awfully hard to keep track of anybody," Protsch said.

Researching is still difficult, he said; it took Protsch six years to collect the names of 200-plus veterans from World War I and World War II.

On Feb. 15, 1898 - the day the Maine blew up - Havana was a Spanish port.

A naval court of inquiry concluded that a submarine had caused the explosion. At the time, no one knew who - if anyone - had sabotaged the ship, but Americans believed it was the Spanish, although the Spanish crew of the Alfonso XII had worked fervently to save drowning Americans.

They began calling for war against Spain, with the battle cry of "Remember the Maine." On April 25, 1898, Congress declared the state of war the people wanted.

Not sabotage

Because the deaths were not actually casualties of war, there was apparently little written about the dead by local newspapers, Frye said.

"He would be just another ensign in the Navy who lost his life and it wouldn't be that impactful because the war wasn't declared as of yet," Frye said.

In 1976, the U.S. Navy studied the incident again and concluded the ship was not sabotaged. The report said heat from a fire in a coal bin ignited a nearby supply of ammunition.

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