Spanish-American War: Commodore George Dewey

George Dewey
Admiral George Dewey, USN. Public Domain

Born December 26, 1837, George Dewey was the son of Julius Yemans Dewey and Mary Perrin Dewey of Montpelier, VT. The couple's third child, Dewey lost his mother at age five to tuberculosis and developed a close relationship with his father. An active boy who was educated locally, Dewey entered the Norwich Military School at age fifteen. The decision to attend Norwich was a compromise between Dewey and his father as the former wished to go to sea in the merchant service, while the latter desired his son to attend West Point.

Attending Norwich for two years, Dewey developed a reputation as a practical joker. Leaving the school in 1854, Dewey, against his father's wishes, accepted an appointment as an acting midshipman in the US Navy on September 23. Traveling south, he enrolled at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Annapolis

Entering the academy that fall, Dewey's class was among the first to progress through the standard four-year course. A difficult academic institution, only 15 of the 60 midshipmen who entered with Dewey would graduate. While at Annapolis, Dewey experienced firsthand the rising sectional tensions that were gripping the country. A known scrapper, Dewey took part in several fights with Southern students and was prevented from engaging in a pistol duel. Graduating, Dewey was appointed a midshipman on June 11, 1858, and was assigned to the steam frigate USS Wabash (40 guns). Serving on the Mediterranean station, Dewey was respected for his devoted attention to his duties and developed an affection for the region.

The Civil War Begins

While overseas, Dewey was given the opportunity to visit the great cities of Europe, such as Rome and Athens, before going ashore and exploring Jerusalem. Returning to the United States in December 1859, Dewey served on two short cruises before traveling to Annapolis to take his lieutenant's exam in January 1861. Passing with flying colors, he was commissioned on April 19, 1861, a few days after the attack on Fort Sumter. Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Dewey was assigned to USS Mississippi (10) on May 10 for service in the Gulf of Mexico. A large paddle frigate, Mississippi had served as Commodore Matthew Perry's flagship during his historic visit to Japan in 1854.

On the Mississippi

Part of Flag Officer David G. Farragut's West Gulf Blockading Squadron, Mississippi participated in the attacks on Forts Jackson and St. Philip and the subsequent capture of New Orleans in April 1862. Serving as executive officer to Captain Melancton Smith, Dewey earned high praise for his coolness under fire and conned the ship as it ran past the forts, as well as forced the ironclad CSS Manassas (1) ashore. Remaining on the river, Mississippi returned to action the following March when Farragut attempted to run past the batteries at Port Hudson, LA. Moving forward on the night of March 14, Mississippi grounded in front of the Confederate batteries.

Unable to break free, Smith ordered the ship abandoned and while the men lowered the boats, he and Dewey saw to it that the guns were spiked and the ship set afire to prevent capture. Escaping, Dewey was later reassigned as executive officer of USS Agawam (10) and briefly commanded the screw sloop of war USS Monongahela (7) after its captain and executive officer were lost in a fight near Donaldsonville, LA.

North Atlantic & Europe

Brought east, Dewey saw service on the James River before being appointed executive officer of the steam frigate USS Colorado (40). Serving on the North Atlantic blockade, Dewey took part in both of Rear Admiral David D. Porter's attacks on Fort Fisher (Dec. 1864 & Jan. 1865). In the course of the second attack, he distinguished himself when Colorado closed with one of the fort's batteries. Cited for bravery at Fort Fisher, his commander, Commodore Henry K. Thatcher, attempted to take Dewey with him as his fleet captain when he relieved Farragut at Mobile Bay.

This request was denied and Dewey was promoted to lieutenant commander on March 3, 1865. With the end of the Civil War, Dewey remained on active duty and served as executive officer of USS Kearsarge (7) in European waters before receiving an assignment to the Portsmouth Navy Yard. While in this posting, he met and married Susan Boardman Goodwin in 1867.

Postwar

Moving through assignments on Colorado and at the Naval Academy, Dewey steadily rose through the ranks and was promoted to commander on April 13, 1872. Given command of USS Narragansett (5) that same year, he was stunned in December when his wife died after giving birth to their son, George Goodwin Dewey. Remaining with Narragansett, he spent nearly four years working with the Pacific Coast Survey. Returning to Washington, Dewey served on the Light House Board, before sailing for the Asiatic Station as captain of USS Juniata (11) in 1882. Two years later, Dewey was recalled and given command of USS Dolphin (7) which was frequently used as the presidential yacht.

Promoted to captain on September 27, 1884, Dewey was given USS Pensacola (17) and sent to Europe. After eight years at sea, Dewey was brought back to Washington to serve as a bureau officer. In this role, he was promoted to commodore on February 28, 1896. Unhappy with the climate of the capital and feeling inactive, he applied for sea duty in 1897, and was given command of the US Asiatic Squadron. Hoisting his flag at Hong Kong in December 1897, Dewey immediately began preparing his ships for war as tensions with Spain increased. Ordered by Secretary of the Navy John Long and Assistant Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, Dewey concentrated his ships and retained sailors whose terms had expired.

To the Philippines

With the beginning of the Spanish-American War on April 25, 1898, Dewey received instructions to immediately move against the Philippines. Flying his flag from the armored cruiser USS Olympia, Dewey departed Hong Kong and began gathering intelligence regarding Admiral Patricio Montojo's Spanish fleet at Manila. Steaming for Manila with seven ships on April 27, Dewey arrived off Subic Bay three days later. Not finding Montojo's fleet, he pressed into Manila Bay where the Spanish were located near Cavite. Forming for battle, Dewey attacked Montojo on May 1 at the Battle of Manila Bay.

Battle of Manila Bay

Coming under fire from the Spanish ships, Dewey waited to close the distance, before stating "You may fire when ready, Gridley," to Olympia's captain at 5:35 AM. Steaming in an oval pattern, the US Asiatic Squadron fired first with their starboard guns and then their port guns as they circled around. For the next 90 minutes, Dewey attacked the Spanish, while defeating several torpedo boat attacks and a ramming attempt by Reina Cristina during the fighting. At 7:30 AM, Dewey was warned that his ships were low on ammunition. Pulling out into the bay, he soon learned that this report was an mistake. Returning to action around 11:15 AM, the American ships saw that only one Spanish vessel was offering resistance. Closing in, Dewey's squadron finished the battle, reducing Montojo's fleet to burning wrecks.

With the destruction of the Spanish fleet, Dewey became a national hero and was immediately promoted to rear admiral. Continuing to operate in the Philippines, Dewey coordinated with Filipino insurgents led by Emilio Aguinaldo in attacking the remaining Spanish forces in the region. In July, American troops led by Major General Wesley Merritt arrived and the city of Manila was captured on August 13. For his great service, Dewey was promoted to admiral effective March 8, 1899.

Later Career

Dewey remained in command of the Asiatic Squadron until October 4, 1899, when was relieved and sent back to Washington. Appointed president of the General Board, he received the special honor of being promoted to the rank of Admiral of the Navy. Created by a special act of Congress, the rank was conferred on Dewey on March 24, 1903, and back-dated to March 2, 1899. Dewey is the only officer to ever hold this rank and as a special honor was permitted to remain on active duty beyond the mandatory retirement age.

A consummate naval officer, Dewey flirted with running for president in 1900 as a Democrat, however several missteps and gaffs led him to withdraw and endorse William McKinley. Dewey died at Washington DC on January 16, 1917, while still serving as president of the US Navy's General Board. His body was interred at Arlington National Cemetery on January 20, before being moved at his widow's request to the crypt of Bethlehem Chapel at the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral (Washington, DC).