Born December 26, 1837
Died January 16, 1917
American naval officer
"Gentlemen, a higher power than we has won this battle today."
George Dewey quoted in The Admiral.
George Dewey served in the U.S. Navy for over sixty-two years before his death at age seventy-nine. The Spanish-American War (April-August 1898) launched him to national fame. Without the war, Dewey might have retired without a battle command victory and without being remembered in the storybooks of American history. Victorious as he was, Dewey helped the United States capture the Philippines from Spain and become an imperialist nation.
Early life and education
George Dewey was born in Montpelier, the state capital of Vermont, on December 26, 1837. Dewey mixed the hard work of chores and the regularity of Sunday prayers and sermons with schoolboy pranks and an interest in battle tactics. In his autobiography, Autobiography of George Dewey: Admiral in the Navy, he credited the strict, righteous upbringing supplied by his father for his success.
Dewey entered military school at Norwich University at age fourteen and later attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1854. During each of his four years there, Dewey's academic performance improved until he graduated fifth out of fifteen students in 1858. After two years at sea and successful completion of a final examination, Dewey boarded the steam-frigate Wabash for service in the Mediterranean Sea.
Building a naval career
At the outset of the American Civil War (1861-65), the navy made the twenty-three-year-old Dewey a lieutenant and assigned him to the Mississippi as an executive officer. Dewey served under Admiral David G. Farragut (1801-1870) and participated in naval battles at New Orleans and Port Hudson.
Dewey received his first onshore duties at the naval academy in 1867. That same year, he married Susan Boardman Goodwin, with whom he had a son, George Goodwin Dewey. Susan died in 1872 five days after giving birth to the boy. Dewey, who had lost his own mother early in his life, became especially close to his son. He spent the next twenty-four years rising to the rank of commodore, receiving his promotion on May 23, 1896, while working in Washington, D.C., at the Navy Board of Inspection and Survey.
Appointment to the Asiatic Squadron
Dewey was thinking about retirement by 1897 and worrying that he would never get to command a squadron in battle. William McKinley (1843-1901; served 1897-1901; see entry) became president of the United States in March 1897. Also at this time, Spain was involved in an ongoing war with Cuban rebels who had launched a revolution for independence. Stirred up by prejudice and newspaper accounts of Spain's brutal treatment of Cuban civilians, most Americans sympathized with the rebels.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919; see entry) was the assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy under McKinley. Roosevelt was a jingo—someone who wanted to wage war in order to expand the territory of the United States. His boss, U.S. Navy secretary John D. Long (1838-1915), was less aggressive than Roosevelt, so the two often disagreed on matters of foreign policy.
In September 1897, Long went on vacation and left Roosevelt in charge. Before Long returned, Roosevelt intercepted a letter addressed to Long from Senator William Chandler. Chandler wanted Long to appoint Commodore John Adams Howell to replace the commander of the U.S. Asiatic Squadron, who was about to retire. Roosevelt was friends with Dewey and wanted him to get the appointment.
Roosevelt called Dewey down from the inspection office and advised him to ask Senator Redfield Proctor (1831-1908; see entry in Primary Sources section) to ask McKinley to appoint Dewey to the command. According to his own account of the event, as reprinted in The Admiral by Laurin Hall Healy and Luis Kutner, Long already had decided to appoint Dewey without instructions from McKinley. The politics of the situation, however, angered Long. When he appointed Dewey on October 21, 1897, Long called Dewey into the office and said, according to Healy and Kutner, "I am glad to appoint you, Commodore Dewey. But you won't go as rear admiral [the next higher ranking up from commodore]. You'll go as a commodore. Perhaps you used too much political influence." The insult angered Dewey.
Preparing for war
Dewey purchased every book he could find about the Philippines, where the action would take him if war came with Spain. He then boarded a vessel in San Francisco, California, on December 7, 1897, to set out into the Pacific Ocean. By New Year's Day, he had reached Nagasaki, Japan, where the flagship Olympia awaited him. Two days later, Rear Admiral Frederick V. McNair turned command of the U.S. Asiatic Squadron over to Commodore Dewey.
Dewey was sailing for Hong Kong to get close to the Philippines when the U.S. warship Maine exploded mysteriously in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, on February 15. The ship was in Cuba to protect American interests and to pressure Spain to end the revolution there. Newspapers in the United States quickly blamed Spain for the disaster, which killed more than 250 people, but no evidence ever surfaced to prove Spain was at fault.
Back in Washington, D.C., Roosevelt needed no evidence to hold Spain responsible. On February 25, when Long took a day off, Roosevelt sent a telegram to Dewey that said, according to Healy and Kutner, "Order the squadron except the Monocacy to Hong Kong. Keep full of coal. In the event declaration of war with Spain, your duty will be to see that the Spanish squadron does not leave the Asiatic coast, and then offensive operations in Philippine islands. Keep Olympiauntil further orders." Long was furious when he found the order, but he did not retract it because war with Spain felt close at hand.
Over the next two months, Dewey assembled his squadron of seven warships in Hong Kong, stocked them with supplies, and worked the crews in battle drills. He also contacted the U.S. consul at Manila, O. F. Williams, to gather information about Spain's forces in Manila Bay. Spanish admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasaron commanded a fleet there with fewer guns than Dewey's squadron. Montojo, however, had the added benefit of many smaller gunboats plus land artillery at the entrance to Manila Bay, the city of Manila, and the nearby naval station on Cavité island. Spain also was putting mines at the entrance to Manila Bay. Fearless, Dewey wrote letters to Long and family members in which he boasted that he could defeat Spain in less than a day.
The Battle of Manila Bay
Unable to avoid war as he had wanted to, President McKinley sent a message to Congress on April 11, 1898, asking for authority to end the conflict in Cuba. Congress supported McKinley and officially declared war on Spain on April 25. Dewey received a telegram the next day from Long that said, according to Ivan Musicant in Empire by Default, "War has commenced between the United States and Spain. Proceed at once to Philippine islands. Commence operations particularly against the Spanish fleet. You must capture vessels or destroy. Use utmost endeavors."
Painted in gray battle colors, Dewey's squadron steamed for the Philippines as soon as it was ready. At the entrance to Manila Bay, just three shots silenced the Spanish artilleries at El Fraile, and not one mine exploded as Dewey's ships glided into the bay.
The Asiatic Squadron reached the capital city of Manila by daybreak on May 1. To Dewey's surprise, Montojo's fleet guarded not the city but the nearby naval station at Cavité. Montojo, who did not want Manila to be damaged in the ensuing battle, began firing on the Americans as they aligned their ships for battle. At 5:41 A . M ., Dewey turned to the captain of the Olympia and, as told by Healy and Kutner, uttered his famous, calm command, "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley."
The battle was not even close. Dewey's squadron took just two hours to make five devastating passes along the line of Montojo's ships. Montojo's flagship, the Reina Christina, was the only one to charge during the encounter. Dewey repelled Montojo with blasts that killed many Spaniards, including eighty who were already in the ship's hospital. Warned that he was running out of ammunition, Dewey called for a break in the action at 7:35 A . M ., retreated out of range of enemy fire, and ordered breakfast for his men.
As the smoke cleared, Dewey's troops saw that Spain's vessels hung on by a thread. Dewey also learned that instead of running out of ammunition, his ships had more rounds remaining than they had fired. At 11:14 A . M ., the Asiatic Squadron resumed attacking Montojo's fleet, which surrendered shortly thereafter at 12:30 P . M .
Unable to secure Spanish permission to use the telegraph cable at Manila for sending news of his victory, Dewey dredged up the cable from the harbor floor and cut it. A couple days later he sent a boat to Hong Kong with a telegram announcing that he had lost not a single sailor while killing 167 Spaniards. When the telegram reached Washington, D.C., on May 7, Dewey was an instant hero.
The siege of Manila
Congress responded to Dewey's victory by promoting him to rear admiral. As the theatre of war shifted to Cuba and Puerto Rico over the next few months, Dewey and the U.S. Army made plans to take the Philippine capital city of Manila, which had strong artillery defenses.
Meanwhile, Dewey faced a growing problem with Germany. The European powers in general were surprised by the American victory over Spain in the Philippines. Germany, whose navy was superior to that of the United States, sent warships to Manila to try to prevent the United States from taking the islands. German ships ignored international rules of war, which required them to obey Dewey's blockade of the bay and to come and go only after receiving permission from Dewey.
On July 17, a lieutenant from a German ship boarded the Olympia to present a list of grievances to Dewey. Angered, Dewey replied, according to Healy and Kutner, "Do you want war with us?"
"Certainly not," said the German officer.
Dewey shot back, "Well it looks like it. And you are very near it; and, you can have it, sir, as soon as you like."
The German officer left the Olympia and returned to his ship. Dewey knew all along that in the event of war with Germany, the British fleet at Manila Bay would fight with the Americans. As soon as they learned this, too, the Germans began to cooperate with Dewey's blockade.
On August 13, the U.S. Army and Navy staged a fake attack on Manila, after which Spain said it would surrender after pretending to fight for its honor. Thanks to the cut telegraph cable, everyone was unaware that Spain and the United States had already signed a peace protocol in Washington, D.C., hours earlier. The fake battle killed many real Americans and Spaniards.
The Filipino Revolution of 1899
Spain had ended a revolution in the Philippines by reaching an agreement with rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo (1869-1964) in December 1897. Living in Singapore at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Aguinaldo now had a chance to resurrect the revolution. Some historians say Aguinaldo contacted Dewey for support. Others say that Dewey, through U.S. consul general E. Spencer Pratt, contacted Aguinaldo and asked him to assemble rebel land forces to attack Spain in Manila.
Aguinaldo arrived in Manila Bay on May 19, 1898, aboard the American warship McCulloch. Aguinaldo believed Pratt had promised American support for Filipino independence in exchange for military assistance against the Spaniards. Dewey supposedly made similar promises at Manila Bay, according to the rebel leader, though Dewey later denied this.
Aguinaldo quickly assembled a force of about one thousand soldiers and fought to take the Cavité region from Spanish troops, who had retreated into the city of Manila. The rebels also assembled a small navy, which sailed around Manila harbor with Dewey's permission. As Dewey received land forces from the United States at the end of June, however, his patience with the rebels faded. In a meeting with Filipino naval officers in July, Dewey said the United States did not recognize the Filipino flag and asked them to keep their boats away from his fleet.
After winning the Spanish-American War, the United States forced Spain to sell the Philippines to the U.S. government for $20 million as part of the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898. Aguinaldo severed relations with the Americans the following month. Responding to the growing threat of war with the Filipino rebels, Dewey telegraphed Long and asked for a diplomatic committee to negotiate for peace.
President McKinley appointed a peace committee but he received war instead. On February 4, 1899, fighting broke out between the Americans and Filipinos. It is uncertain which side fired the first shot. Two days later, in a very close vote, the U.S. Senate approved the Treaty of Paris and the purchase of the Philippines.
Dewey commanded the American naval activities during the beginning of the revolution until McKinley recalled him from the Philippines on May 1, 1899, the first anniversary of his victory over Montojo. The Filipino revolution seemed to be dying down then, but it actually lasted until April 1902.
Sailing into the sunset
From May through September 1899, Dewey enjoyed a leisurely, westward journey home through the Mediterranean Sea, visiting foreign diplomats along the way. His arrival in the United States on September 26 began weeks of parades, parties, and welcome-home addresses.
On November 9, 1899, Dewey married his second wife, a widow named Mildred McLean Hazel. Dewey agreed to seek the U.S. presidency in early 1900, but he failed to receive a nomination from any party. Instead, he became president of the General Board of the Navy, where he served until his death seventeen years later on January 16, 1917.
For More Information
Dewey, George. Autobiography of George Dewey: Admiral in the Navy. NewYork: Scribner, 1913.
Healy, Laurin Hall, and Luis Kutner. The Admiral. Chicago, IL: Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, 1944.
Long, L. George Dewey, Vermont Boy. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Co.,1963.
Spector, Ronald H. Admiral of the New Empire: The Life and Career of George Dewey. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
Dewey, George (1837-1917)
George Dewey (1837-1917)
Admiral u.s. navy, 1899-1917
The Making of a World Power. The success of Commodore George Dewey’s squadron in the Battle of Manila Bay on 1 May 1898 not only ensured U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War and made Dewey a popular American hero, but it also echoed through history, laying the groundwork for the continued role of the United States in that region of the world for the next century.
Background. Born in Montpelier, Vermont, on 26 December 1837, George Dewey graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1858, and during the Civil War he served as a Union naval officer aboard the Mississippi, one of the ships under the command of Capt. (later admiral) David Farragut in the Battle of New Orleans in 1862. During the naval expansion of the 1880s and 1890s Dewey became chief of the Bureau of Equipment in 1889, president of the Lighthouse Board in 1893, and president of the Board of Inspection and Survey in 1895. The following year he was promoted to the rank of Commodore. In 1897 he assumed command of the Asiatic Squadron in the Pacific.
The Spanish-American War. In February 1898 he received orders from Undersecretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt that in the event of war with Spain he should take his fleet to the Philippines and engageé the Spanish navy. In the early morning hours of 1 May, less than two weeks after war was declared, Dewey moved his fleet into Manila Bay. At dawn he attacked the Spanish fleet at anchor. Dewey’s squadron consisted of only four cruisers and two gunboats, but they were all more modem than were the seven Spanish ships. The Spanish fleet, how-ever, was moored behind a minefield and protected by heavy guns mounted on shore. Following a strategy he had learned under Farragut, Dewey kept his ships in a column and steamed back and forth across the Spanish anchorage, always presenting a moving target. After seven hours of fighting, all the Spanish ships were burned, sunk, or abandoned, while Dewey’s fleet escaped practically without damage. With the capture of the naval base at Cavite and the city of Manila under the guns of his ships, he accepted the surrender of the Spanish forces. The stunning victory ended forever Spanish power in the Far East. Two weeks later Congress passed a special resolution increasing by one the number of rear admirals so that Dewey could be promoted.
Naval Hero. Dewey was hailed as a national hero, and in March 1899 Congress created a new rank, Admiral of the Navy, especially for Dewey with the provision that he could choose to remain on active duty for the rest of his life or retire at full pay. When he returned to the United States in September 1899 he was honored with huge parades and other celebrations in New York and Washington, D.C., and the following April some Democrats began a campaign to win him their party’s presidential nomination. Dewey, who had little interest in politics, briefly considered running but withdrew his name from consideration in mid May. From 1900 until his death on 11 January 1917, Dewey, as the highest ranking uniformed officer of the U.S. Navy, served as president of the General Board of the Navy.
Justifying the New Navy. Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay justified, in the eyes of pronavy advocates, the seventeen-year program of building the New Navy, a fleet of modem steel, steam-powered warships. The short naval war with Spain gave immense confidence to the American people regarding the ability of the nation to be a power on the world scene, and at the same time it provided an argument for military readiness. Suddenly the United States had Pacific bases and had become a major power in the Far East.
Ronald Spector, Admiral of the New Empire: The Life and Career of George Dewey (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974).
American naval officer George Dewey (1837-1917) was the celebrated victor of the Battle of Manila Bay in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.
George Dewey was born on Dec. 26, 1837, in Montpelier, Vt. After attending the local public schools and a private military academy, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, graduating third in his class in 1858. He entered active service with the rank of lieutenant.
During the Civil War, Dewey saw hard combat at New Orleans, the opening of the Mississippi River, and the capture of Ft. Fisher. At war's end he had the rank of lieutenant commander and the respect of superiors who controlled his professional destiny.
During the 1870s and the early 1880s Dewey held routine assignments. As chief of the Bureau of Equipment and then as president of the Board of Inspection and Survey, between 1889 and 1897 Dewey played an important part in the construction of the new fleet of armored, steam-propelled steel warships.
In October 1897 with the backing of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Dewey, now a commodore, was assigned to command the fleet's Asiatic squadron. Anticipating war with Spain, Roosevelt wanted an able officer who could aggressively carry out a plan for an attack on Manila, capital of the Spanish-held Philippines.
When Congress declared war in late April 1898, Dewey sailed for Manila with six light cruisers and an assortment of auxiliary vessels. On May 1, after a daring night run past the batteries guarding the harbor entrance, he attacked a Spanish squadron in Manila Bay that was similar in strength and composition to his own. When the firing ended, Dewey's force, without losing one man or ship, had sunk or set afire every Spanish vessel. This one-sided victory paved the way for the American conquest of the Philippines, and it transformed the obscure naval officer into a popular hero who was rewarded with parades, banquets, and triumphal arches upon his return to the United States.
Dewey's first wife had died in childbirth in 1872, and in 1899 he married Mildred McLean Hazen, a longtime friend. A brief Dewey presidential boom flared and fizzled. Promoted to admiral of the Navy, Dewey assumed the presidency of the newly created General Board of the Navy in 1900. During the next 15 years under Dewey's aggressive leadership, the Board became the nation's most influential military planning agency, working out basic war strategy and guiding the enlargement of the fleet. A few weeks before the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Dewey suffered a stroke that removed him from active duty. He died in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 16, 1917.
The Autobiography of George Dewey covers his career to 1899. The most thorough biography is in Richard S. West, Jr., Admiralsof American Empire (1948). A full-length study is Laurin Hall Healy and Luis Kutner, The Admiral (1944). For the Manila campaign see French Ensor Chadwick, The Relations of the United States and Spain: The Spanish-American War (2 vols., 1911). John A. S. Grenville and George Berkeley Young, Politics, Strategy, and American Diplomacy (1966), contains new information on Manila and on Dewey's work with the General Board.
Dewey, George, Autobiography of George Dewey, admiral of the Navy, Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1987.
Spector, Ronald H., Admiral of the new empire: the life and career of George Dewey, Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1988. □
Dewey's squadron was at Hong Kong when the Spanish‐American War began in April 1898. The U.S. Navy had long‐standing plans to attack the Philippines in the event of war with Spain, and on 1 May 1895, Dewey led his squadron boldly into Manila Bay, disregarding reports of sea mines at its narrow entrance. In a few hours Dewey had destroyed the antiquated Spanish squadron in the Philippines and blockaded Manila. News of the dramatic victory in the Battle of Manila Bay, achieved without the loss of a single American life, made Dewey a popular hero and set in motion a chain of events leading to the U.S. annexation of the Philippines.
Following his return to the United States, Dewey, now promoted to the rank of admiral of the navy, flirted briefly with a run for the presidency, then settled down to preside over the General Board, the navy's first military planning organization. Under Dewey's stewardship, the board prepared plans for possible war with Germany and Japan and dealt with such questions as the location of naval bases in the Pacific, ship characteristics, and Navy Department organization. He died in January 1917 having served as a trusted naval adviser to three presidents.
[See also: Navy, U.S.: 1866–98; Philippines, U.S. Military Involvement in the.]
Ronald H. Spector