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#PeopleMatter: Admiral of the Navy George Dewey

April 23, 2014
Today marks 116 years since Spain's declaration of war against the United States. Congress in turn declared
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 160927-N-ZW259-5737

had been prepping his fleet since February, so when war was declared, he made a beeline for the Spanish Navy at Manila Bay in the Philippines. Who was this man who would lead the U.S. Navy to its first major, strategic victories overseas? Known for his quick temper, Dewey had no problem making quick decisions. Nothing went unobserved from his wicker chair on the quarterdeck of his flagship stationed on the North Atlantic blockading squadron under Commodore Henry Knox Thatcher.
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 160927-N-ZW259-5738

Dewey again rose to the occasion during the Battles of Fort Fisher. Even The New York Times spoke admiringly of the Union victory as "the most beautiful duel of the war." Commodore Thatcher wouldn't take the credit and remarked to his superiors, "You must thank Lieutenant Dewey, sir. It was his move."

After the war, he returned to the Naval Academy as an instructor and was then later granted rest ashore status in Washington, D.C. He found the assignment listless and believed the environment in D.C. was "harmful to his health." He could not resist the call of the sea. Over the course of the next thirty years, he commanded USS Narragansett, USS Supply, USS Juniata, USS Dolphin, and USS Pensacola. He also served as a Lighthouse Inspector, a member of the Lighthouse Board, and Secretary of the Lighthouse Board. Additionally he served as the Chief of the Bureau of Equipment as President of the Board of Inspection and Survey. On Nov. 30, 1897, he was ordered to Asiatic Station and, proceeding by steamer, he assumed command on Jan. 3, 1898, his flag in the protected cruiser, USS Olympia, Captain Charles V. Gridley, commanding.

Victory for the United States
Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt had urged him to prepare for the possibility of war with Spain and telegraphed him on Feb. 25, 1898, just ten days after USS Maine mysteriously blew up in Cuba, to immediately prepare the Asiatic Station at Hong Kong. Less than a week after the declaration of war, on May 1, 1898, Dewey sunk or captured the entire Spanish Pacific fleet in a battle lasting just over six hours (including a three-hour lunch break). In that short amount of time, he also defeated the shore batteries. The Battle of Manila Bay was one of the Navy?s greatest success stories against an imperial European empire.

On May 10, 1898, Dewey was given a vote of thanks by the U.S. Congress and was commissioned Rear Adm. That promotion was an advancement of one grade for "highly distinguished conduct in conflict with the enemy as displayed by him in the destruction of the Spanish Fleet and batteries in the harbor of Manila, Philippine Islands, May 1, 1898." After defeating the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay, Dewey met with the Army to work out the preliminaries for the occupation of the Philippines.

Most of the meetings went well, except on one occasion, Dewey practically leapt to stand and bolted back to his barge, Cristina, to board USS Olympia. He found meetings detestable, and his frustration grew with the Army's decisions on how to govern the Philippines. Dewey later let the Army know his personal opinion of its style of management, especially with the Army's barges that policed the Passig River. In no subtle form or fashion, Dewey delivered tirades complaining to the Army on the condition of the barges being far from "ship shape and Bristol fashion," and went as far as to issue a direct order to General Otis warning if any of them were seen outside of the river and in open water in Manila Bay, the Navy would sink them. The barges never appeared outside of the confines of the river.

On Jan. 17, 1917 President Woodrow Wilson delivering Dewey's eulogy, offered an apt description of Adm. Dewey's personality and legacy: "It is pleasant to recall what qualities gave him his well-deserved fame: His practical directness, his courage without self-consciousness, his efficient capacity in matters of administration, the readiness to fight without asking questions or hesitating about any detail. It was by such qualities that he continued and added luster to the best traditions of the Navy. He had the stuff in him which all true men admire and upon which all statesmen must depend in hours of peril. The people and the Government of the United States will always rejoice to perpetuate his name in all honor and affection."