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Spanish-American War: Commodore George Dewey

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Spanish-American War: Commodore George Dewey

Admiral George Dewey, USN

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center

Early Life of George Dewey:

Born December 26, 1837, George Dewey was the son of Julius and Mary Dewey of Montpelier, VT. The couple's third child, Dewey was an active boy who was educated locally until entering 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. Leaving Norwich in 1854, Dewey, against his father's wishes, accepted an appointment as an acting midshipman in the US Navy and enrolled at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis.

George Dewey at Annapolis:

Entering the academy that fall, Dewey's class was among the first to progress through the standard four-year course. 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. Serving on the Mediterranean station, Dewey was respected for his devoted attention to his duties.

Dewey in the Civil War:

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 Annpolis 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. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Dewey was assigned to USS Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico.

Part of Flag Officer David G. Farragut's West Gulf Blockading Squadron, Dewey participated in the 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 Forts Jackson and St. Philip, as well as forced the ironclad CSS Manassas 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 and briefly commanded USS Monongahela after its captain and executive officer were lost in a fight near Donaldsonville, LA. Brought east, Dewey saw service on the James River before being appointed executive officer of the steam frigate USS Colorado. Serving on the North Atlantic blockade, Dewey took part in both attacks on Fort Fisher (Dec. 1864 & Jan. 1865).

Postwar:

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 before receiving an assignment to the Portsmouth Navy Yard. While in this posting, he met and married Susan Goodwin in 1867.

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 that same year, he spent nearly four years working with the Pacific Coast Survey. Returning to Washington, he served on the Light House Board, before sailing for the Asiatic Station as captain of USS Juniata in 1882. Two years later, he was recalled and given command of USS Dolphin which was frequently used as the presidential yacht. Promoted to captain on September 27, 1884, Dewey was given USS Pensacola 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.

Dewey in the Spanish-American War:

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.

In the resulting Battle of Manila Bay, Dewey destroyed Montojo's entire fleet of older warships, without sustaining a single death in battle. 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.

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).

Selected Sources

  • US Naval Historical Center: Commodore George Dewey
  • Spanish-American War: Commodore George Dewey
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