George Dewey: Definition & Quotes

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Admiral George Dewey (1837-1917) was a leading naval officer between the American Civil War and the Spanish-American War. His is best known for his victory in the Philippines at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. He is the only naval officer to hold the rank of Admiral of the Navy.

Early Years

One of four children, George Dewey was born in 1837 in Montpelier, Vermont. His mother died when he was five, so his father, a doctor and founder of an insurance company, raised him. At age 15, Dewey enrolled in the Norwich Military School and eventually graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1858.

Following graduation, Dewey served aboard the U.S.S. Wabash in the Mediterranean before returning stateside. When the Civil War broke out, he served on the U.S.S. Mississippi, the flagship vessel of Union Admiral David Farragut. Dewey fought in several battles, including the noted Battle of New Orleans. Farragut made quite an impression on Dewey. In his memoirs he wrote: 'Farragut has always been my ideal of the naval officer, urbane, decisive, and indomitable. Whenever I have been in a difficult situation, or in the midst of such a confusion of details that the simple and right thing to do seemed hazy, I have often asked myself, 'What would Farragut do?

George Dewey
George Dewey

Post-Civil War Service

Following the Civil War, Dewey worked briefly with the European Squadron, before being reassigned to the Portsmouth Naval Yard in Maine. After teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy for two years, he returned to sea duty on U.S.S. Narragansett. He spent several uneventful years assigned to Pacific Coast Survey, where he patrolled and surveyed the lower California and Mexican coastlines.

After that, Dewey spent two years in Boston as a lighthouse inspector before his promotion to Naval Secretary to the Lighthouse Board in Washington D.C. Bored with administrative work, he was reassigned to sea duty in the Mediterranean, where he fell ill with and was treated for a serious case of typhoid fever.

Upon return to full-time duty, Dewey served for four years as the chief of the Bureau of Equipment. When describing this period of his life in his autobiography, Dewey noted that: 'There was nothing showy about the four years' service that followed. The detail was not exacting but vitally engrossing and important. In common with every other ambitious officer of the navy, I was feeling the pulse of the new spirit and problems.' In his role as chief, Dewey greatly modernized U.S. naval ships with the use of electric searchlights, signaling equipment, and telegraphic signaling. He was promoted to the rank of commodore in 1896, but his big break came in 1897 when he was appointed Commodore of the American Asiatic Squadron.

The Battle of Manila Bay

In 1898, the Spanish-American War broke out, and the U.S. waged war against Spanish forces in Cuba and the Pacific. The Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, ordered Dewey to move his forces from their headquarters in Hong Kong and attack the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. This proved to be a controversial move, as Roosevelt's boss, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long, was more cautious and opposed such direct a confrontation. While Long was out sick, Roosevelt ordered Dewey's relocation without his bosses' knowledge. Though Long was livid when the found out, he did not countermand the orders.

Admiral Patricio Montojo served as commander of the Spanish fleet, which was armed with ten outdated warships. By comparison, Dewey's seven modern warships were armed and staffed with well-trained crews. Dewey entered Manila Bay on the evening of April 30 and commenced his attack in the early morning of May 1, 1898. Turning to Captain Charles Gridley of The Olympia he famously stated 'You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.' The main Spanish fleet was destroyed in two hours, and after an initial pause, Dewey gave the remaining Spanish fleet time to surrender, eventually finishing them off when they refused. While Spain lost its ten warships, not a single American sailor was killed.

The U.S.S. Olympia from the Battle of Manila
U.S.S. Olympia

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