Dewey, George

George Dewey (1837-1917) was an American naval officer whose victory over the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in 1898 made him a national hero. Born in Montpelier, Vermont, in 1837, Dewey graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis and saw distinguished service in the Gulf of Mexico during the American Civil War. After the Civil War he chaffed at the inactivity that plagued the United States’ deteriorating navy. Over the years he was slowly promoted to become chief of the Bureau of Equipment, president of the Board of Inspection and Survey, and finally gained the rank of commodore in 1896.

 George Dewey. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Admiral George Dewey standing on the bridge of a ship,1899. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.

Despite his lackluster career since the Civil War, Dewey caught the eye of Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, when Dewey demonstrated initiative in his preparations for possible action in Chile. Impressed by Dewey’s proactive approach and dislike of red tape, Roosevelt helped to secure Dewey’s appointment as commander of the Asiatic Squadron. Roosevelt’s confidence in Dewey proved well founded when the Spanish-American War began. Shortly after receiving the announcement of war, Dewey led the American fleet into Manila Bay under the cover of darkness. Early in the morning on May 1, 1898, the Americans crushed the ill-equipped Spanish fleet and effectively neutralized the Spanish threat in the Pacific. Dewey’s victory made him an overnight celebrity. Dewey said later that when the accolades came pouring in, one of the most gratifying cables was the one that said, “Every American is your debtor. Roosevelt.”

By the end of the year, the Treaty of Paris had ended the war and transferred ownership of the Philippine Islands to the United States. But the conflict in the Philippines was just beginning. Dewey had enlisted the aid of Emilio Aguinaldo, an exiled Filipino independence leader, to assist him in defeating the Spanish. Dewey misinterpreted the Filipino aspirations for independence and did not realize that they would not submit to American control until it was too late. He gratefully sailed for the United States in May of 1899 and left the Philippines behind him.

In the United States, as Admiral of the Navy, Dewey was celebrated as a conquering hero and urged to run for president. Instead he was designated President of the General Board of the Navy in 1900. Thanks to the appointments of Secretary Moody and Admiral Taylor by the new president, Roosevelt, Dewey had superiors who agreed with him about the need to modernize and increase the United States Navy. While not as radical or visionary as some, Dewey worked diligently to update the American fleet and prepare for war from any potential enemy. When he died in 1917, Dewey was remembered as the man whose actions led the American fleet to victory over a European power and who secured for the United States the status of a world power.

Sources:

Dewey, George. Autobiography of George Dewey: Admiral of the Navy. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913. 

“George Dewey.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, Q1. 2014. 

Roosevelt, Theodore. Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1913.

Williams, Vernon L. “George Dewey: Admiral of the Navy” in Admirals of the New Steel Navy: Makers of the American Naval Tradition, 1880-1930. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013, 222-250.