Admiral of the Navy

Some background

As with most military officers of the 19th century, George Dewey was born into a prominent family that offered him the resources and support that he needed to achieve great success in life —and George Dewey did exactly that.  George’s father Julius was a physician in Montpelier, Vermont; an astute businessman (one of the founders of the National Life Insurance Company), and a devoted Christian.  George had two older brothers and a younger sister—all of whom received a good education.  When George reached his fifteenth birthday, his father sent him to the Norwich Military School (now Norwich University), where he studied for two years.

In 1854, George received an appointment to the U. S. Naval Academy; it was a time when the cadet corps was small —averaging only around one-hundred midshipmen per class.  Of course, the naval and military academies aren’t for everyone; each class experienced a significant attrition rate, which made the graduating class about a small percentage of its freshman populations.  George’s graduating class advanced fourteen young men, with George finishing fifth.  From then on, George Dewey served with distinction on several ships.  At the beginning of the American Civil War, Dewey served as an executive lieutenant on the USS Mississippi, a paddle steamer frigate assigned to the Gulf Blockading Squadron and later participated in operations at New Orleans, Port Hudson, and Donaldsonville.  In 1864, Dewey was transferred to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron for service on USS Colorado under Commodore Henry K. Thatcher.  Colorado took part in the two battles at Fort Fisher (Wilmington, North Carolina).  It was during the second battle that Dewey’s tactical ability and courage under fire led to favorable mention in the New York Times.

Following war time service, Dewey followed the normal progression of a naval officer.  Promoted to Lieutenant Commander, Dewey served as the executive officer[1] of the USS Colorado, served at the USNA at Annapolis, and as a shore survey officer with the Pacific Coast Survey.  While serving in this billet, George lost his wife due to complications of childbirth.

After four years of survey work, Commander Dewey received orders to Washington where he was assigned to the Lighthouse Board.  It was an important assignment and one that gave him access to prominent members of Washington society.  By every account, Dewey was popular among the Washington elite.  The Metropolitan Club invited him to apply for membership; it was a leading social club of the time.

In 1882, Dewey assumed command of USS Juniata with the Asiatic Squadron.  Promoted to Captain two years later, he assumed command of USS Dolphin, which was one of the original “white squadron” ships of the Navy[2].  In 1885, Dewey was placed in command of USS Pensacola, where he remained for three years.  Pensacola was the flagship of the European squadron.  From 1893-96, Dewey served as a staff officer at Naval headquarters.  He was advanced to Commodore[3] in 1896.

When the navy began looking for a new Asiatic Squadron commander, no one seriously considered Commodore Dewey because he was too junior in rank.  As it turns out, though, Dewey’s Washington-area assignments and his membership in the Metropolitan Club paid off.  Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt interceded with President McKinley for Dewey’s assignment as Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Squadron.  It was a fortunate turn of events for the United States.

Dewey assumed command of the Asiatic Fleet in January 1898 and departed for Hong Kong to inspect US warships at the British colony.  Upon arrival in Hong Kong, Dewey learned of the destruction of USS Maine in Havana Harbor.  Even though skeptical of the possibility that the United States would go to war against Spain[4], Dewey readied his squadron for war.  Washington dispatched USS Baltimore to Hong Kong and Dewey purchased the British colliers Nanshan and Zafiro, retaining their British crewmen.

Spanish-American War

At the time Congress declared war against Spain, the United States military was a shamble.  The Army was barely capable of confronting hostile Indians in the American west, much less a major European power.  The Army was understrength, underequipped, undertrained, and worse than this, an incompetent officer corps led it.  The Navy was in a rebuilding process (thanks to Roosevelt), and the strength of the Marine Corps was small and widely distributed throughout the world.  The only edge the United States had against Spain was that the Spanish military was in far worse shape.

When the United States declared war, the United Kingdom quickly asserted its neutrality.  As a neutral power, the British governor ordered the US fleet out of the harbor.  Dewey removed his squadron into Chinese waters near Mirs Bay, north of Hong Kong.

The congressional declaration came on 25 April, retroactive to 21 April.  Five days before the Congressional declaration, however, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long ordered the formation of an expeditionary battalion of Marines.  By 21 April, the First Marine Battalion[5] was already embarked aboard ship and headed for Key West, Florida for staging and final preparations for war.  Meanwhile, the US Army was still trying to figure out how to organize regiments for duty in the field.

On 27 April, Dewey sailed from Chinese waters aboard his flagship USS Olympia with orders to attack the Spanish Fleet at Manilla Bay.  Three days later, the Asiatic Squadron was poised at the mouth of Manilla Bay.  He gave the order to attack at first light on the morning of 1 May 1898.  Dewey’s squadron soundly defeated the Spanish in a battle that lasted only six hours.  The Spanish fleet was either sunk, captured, or scuttled; fortifications in Manilla were rendered moot.  Only one American sailor died in the assault, an older chief petty officer who suffered a heart attack.  Owing to his success at Manilla, Dewey was advanced to Rear Admiral on 1 May 1898. 

The U. S. Coast Guard Joins the Fight

At the time of the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, US Coast Guard Revenue Cutter McCulloch was at sea on an extended shakedown cruise from Hampton Roads to her assigned station at San Francisco.  On her arrival in Singapore orders were received to proceed with all possible speed to Hong Kong and report to Commodore Dewey for further duty.  The ship arrived on 17 April and sailed with the fleet for Mirs Bay and a week later, to Manila.  While a smaller vessel and not built for naval service she was a very welcome and valuable addition to the Asiatic Squadron.  McCulloch performed excellent patrol and dispatch services throughout the period of hostilities and until November 1898 when she resumed her voyage to San Francisco.

On 29 June 1898 McCulloch received a signal from Olympia; which read “Spanish gunboat sighted bearing north-west apparently attempting to reach Manila, intercept and capture.”  McCulloch broke her record getting under way and set a course to get between the gunboat and the foreign shipping of Manila.  The unidentified ship changed her course to meet the cutter head on flying a flag at the fore, a pennant at the main, and a flag at the gaff, all of which were indistinguishable because of the light.  However, upon closing with the ship, McCulloch discovered that she was flying a white flag at the fore. After heaving to, a boarding officer discovered that the ship was the Spanish gunboat Leyte, which had escaped during the early morning of 1 May.  Leyte had remained in hiding in one of the numerous rivers emptying into the bay but could neither escape to sea or avoid the attacks of the Filipino insurgents and so her commanding officer decided to surrender.

McCulloch’s prize crew hauled down the Spanish flag and raised the US flag.  The prize crew promptly proceeded to Olympia and anchored off her starboard quarter. McCulloch accompanied her and sent a whale boat to the Leyte to take her commanding officer and the prize master to the flagship.

That morning, McCulloch had refueled in a manner customary to the Coast Guard, but not to the Navy.  Moreover, a heavy rain squall had kicked up a choppy sea.  When the whale boat came alongside Olympia, the prize master and captured Spanish captain mounted the gangway and were promptly escorted to Admiral Dewey, who was sitting, as usual, in a wicker chair on the quarter deck.  The prize master saluted and said, “Sir, I have to report the capture of the Spanish gunboat Leyte.  I herewith deliver the officer commanding on board.”  If the prize master anticipated a hero’s welcome, he was disappointed.  Admiral Dewey looked up sharply and said, “Very well, sir … and I want to tell you that your boat’s crew pulls like a lot of damn farmers.[6]

From that wicker chair on the quarterdeck there was very little that went on in Manila Bay that escaped Admiral Dewey’s sharp eyes.  His tongue was known as rapier sharp[7].

Philippine Occupation

All was not going well for the Americans in the Philippines.  With the defeat of Spain, Philippine nationalists revealed themselves and they were not entirely pleased about having to exchange one colonial master for another.  In 1895, Emilio Aguinaldo joined other nationalists seeking to expel Spanish colonials and achieve national independence through armed force.  While Dewey was attacking the Spanish from the sea in 1898, Aguinaldo was attacking them from land.  Initially, Dewey and Aguinaldo enjoyed a cordial relationship, but within six months, Dewey was threatening to shell Aguinaldo’s forces in order to allow the unopposed arrival of US Army forces under the command of Major General Wesley Merritt[8] who was tasked to take formal possession of Manilla on 13 August 1898.

In May, Major General (of volunteers) Elwell S. Otis, U. S. Army was dispatched to the Philippines with reinforcements for Merritt.  In late August, Otis replaced Merritt as Commander, Eighth Army and military governor of the Philippines.  As the military governor, first Merritt and later Otis were supreme in all matters ashore.  Because the Philippine Islands was America’s first extraterritorial possession, there was an associated learning queue; mistakes were made, and occasionally, American arrogance got in the way.

Of issues pertaining to jurisdiction and policy in the Philippines (generally) and to the local vicinity of Manila (particularly), there was no single point of view and not all questions were settled to everyone’s satisfaction.  Under these circumstances, there were occasions when someone stepped on someone else’s toes  Admiral Dewey had wanted to subdue Manilla, but in lacking enough land forces to achieve it, had no other option than to wait for the arrival of the US Army.

The affairs of the newly acquired territory were conducted by a joint board in which Admiral Dewey and General Otis were its most influential members. Meetings were held on shore and were usually agreeable affairs, but not always.  Admiral Dewey had little patience for long-winded discussions; on one occasion, having listened to blather long enough, stormed out of the meeting and returned to his ship.

In order to properly police the Pasig river and the adjacent back country it was necessary to have an efficient riverine force.  This duty fell to the Army.  Four vessels were so employed: the Oeste, a large tug given to the Army by the Navy; the Napindan, the Covadonga and the larger Laguna de Bay, which served the river patrol’s flagship.  The two latter-named boats were chartered or commandeered vessels.  Laguna de Bay had sloping casemated upper works and looked like a small edition of the confederate Merrimack [later, CSS Virginia].  All four vessels were protected with boiler plate and railroad iron.  This small fleet was manned by the 3rd US Artillery[9].

Occasionally this non-descript collection of river boats, which were mission-sufficient (but far from “ship shape”) would come out of the Pasig river for a turn in the bay on some business or other.  Now, since the waters of the bay were within Admiral Dewey’s domain, each time one of the river craft went beyond the lighthouse Dewey became apoplectic with rage and would order them back.  It happened too frequently, which prompted Dewey to send Otis a terse note warning him that the next time he found a river craft operating in the bay, the Navy would sink it.  The river craft never again reappeared in Manilla Bay.  General Otis was the better man in this instance by not challenging Dewey’s warning.

Admiral Dewey was ordered back to the United States on 27 September 1899.  Upon arrival, he received a hero’s welcome, which involved parades in New York City and Boston.  By an act of congress, Dewey was promoted to the special rank of Admiral of the Navy in 1903, his date of rank retroactive to 1899.  The congressional act provided that when such office became vacant, upon Dewey’s death, the office would cease to exist.  He was, therefore, the only officer of the United States Navy to serve in that rank, one he retained until his death on 16 January 1917.  George Dewey served as a naval officer for 62 years.

Sources:

  1. Adams, W. H. D.  Dewey and Other Great Naval Commanders, a Series of Biographies. New York: G. Routledge, 1899.
  2. Albion, R. G.  Makers of Naval Policy 1798-1947. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980.
  3. Barrett, J. Admiral George Dewey: A Sketch of the Man. New York: Harper, 1899.
  4. Dewey, G.  Autobiography of George Dewey, Admiral of the Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987.
  5. Ellis, E. S. Dewey and Other Naval Commanders. New York: Hovendon Press., 1899.
  6. Love, R. W. Jr.  History of the U.S. Navy, 1775-1941. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1992.

Endnotes:

[1] Second in command.

[2] The squadron of evolution (white squadron) was a transitional unit in the late 19th century.  It was composed of protected cruisers (Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago) and dispatch boats (Dolphin and Yorktown).  Bennington and Concord joined the squadron in 1891.  USS Chicago served as the squadron admiral’s flag ship.  Having both full rigged masts and steam engines, the White Squadron was influential in the beginning of steel shipbuilding.

[3] In 1896, Commodore was a one-star rank junior to Rear Admiral.  In 1899, the navy abandoned the rank (revived during World War II) and used it exclusively as a title bestowed on US Navy captains placed in command of squadrons containing more than one vessel or functional air wings not part of a carrier air wing.  Today, the equivalent rank for commodore is Rear Admiral (Lower Half), and even though such persons wear two stars of a Rear Admiral, they are equivalent to the one-star rank of brigadier general in the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

[4]  Dewey believed there was little to gain from a war with Spain.  Dewey had a short view of the situation because there was much at stake in this conflict.

[5] Five days before the declaration of war, Acting Secretary of the Navy John D. Long ordered Major General Charles Heywood, Commandant of the Marine Corps, to organize one battalion of Marines for expeditionary duty with the North Atlantic Squadron.  The battalion was named the First Marine Battalion and placed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, a 40-year veteran of service as a Marine.

[6] It is the responsibility of seniors (officers or enlisted men) to lead and mentor their subordinates.  There can be little doubt that Admiral Dewey was an irascible fellow; I have worked under such men myself.  But I believe Dewey’s snappishness resulted from his own training, his uncompromising insistence that subordinates exhibit pride in their seamanship and strive for perfection in the art and science of the naval profession.

[7] Story related and passed down from Captain Ridgley, U. S. Coast Guard, who at the time served aboard McCulloch.

[8] Merritt served in the Civil War as a cavalry officer with additional service in the Indian wars and the Philippine-American War.  After Dewey’s destruction of the Spanish Fleet, Merritt was placed in command of the newly formed Eighth Army Corps.  Merritt, with all available troops in the United States, departed for the Philippines form San Francisco in early June 1898.  In August 1898, Merritt became the first American military governor of the Philippine Islands.

[9] It was no small matter to train artillerymen to operate water craft.

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

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