Childhood and education
George Dewey, the only officer of the U.S. Navy ever to hold the rank of Admiral of the Navy, was born on December 26, 1837, in Montpelier, Vermont. When George was five years old, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving his father, a prominent local physician and founder of the National Life Insurance Company, a widower with four young children. In 1852, when George was 15, his father enrolled him in Norwich University, a military school on the Connecticut River across from Hanover, New Hampshire.
In 1854, young Dewey received an appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. On June 18, 1858, he was awarded his diploma and commission. Deweys talent for mathematics and languages placed him fifth in his class, quite a feat when only 15 of the 60 men who entered as freshmen remained to graduate.
Early naval career
Following graduation, Dewey was ordered to report to the USS Wabash, a new steam frigate that was destined to be the flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron. The Wabash left Hampton Roads on July 22, 1858, and returned to Brooklyn Navy Yard 17 months later. After two more short cruises, Dewey returned to the academy in January 1861, to sit for his lieutenant's examination. He passed third in his class in April 1861. He was on leave in Montpelier when word of the surrender of Fort Sumter reached Vermont. A few days later, he was on his way to war.
The ship on which Dewey was to serve for the next two years was the steam frigate USS Mississippi. Dewey joined the ship in Boston on May 10, 1861, and a few days later he was on his way south to join the Union blockade in the Gulf of Mexico. In early 1862, at 25 years of age, Dewey became the executive officer of the Mississippi. The vessel participated in the victorious battle for New Orleans in April 1862.
In the spring of 1863, the Mississippi was ordered up the Mississippi River to join Admiral David G. Farragut below Port Hudson, Louisiana. During the Battle of Port Hudson on the night of March 14, the Mississippi ran onto a mud bank, where she caught fire and was abandoned. A few weeks after the Mississippi was destroyed, Dewey was made executive officer of the USS Monongahela, which was serving as Admiral Farragut's flagship. At the end of the war Dewey was a lieutenant commander, serving as executive officer of the sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge on the European Station. At 28, he had served as executive officer of six ships and participated in four major campaigns.
While stationed in Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine, Dewey met Susan Boardman Goodwin, daughter of the governor of New Hampshire. The couple was married on October 27, 1867.
After a brief leave, Dewey and his bride moved to Annapolis, where he had been assigned as an instructor and officer in charge of fourth classmen. In December 1872, Susan Dewey gave birth to a son, George Goodwin Dewey. However, she failed to recover from complications and died five days later.
Following his wife's death, Dewey was detached from the torpedo station at which he was serving by his own request, and given command of the USS Narragansett. In July 1875, he served two years in Boston as a lighthouse inspector for the Second Lighthouse District. In 1878, he was appointed Naval Secretary to the Lighthouse Board in Washington, D.C.
In July 1889, Dewey succeeded Winfield Scott Schley as chief of the Bureau of Equipment and Recruiting. Dewey's years at the head of the bureau saw the introduction of such devices as electric searchlights and signaling apparatus in all ships of the navy, as well as the introduction of a modern engine-room telegraph system, which enabled officers on the ship's bridge to order small variations in speed to the engine room. Dewey also succeeded in increasing the bureau's appropriation of funds from Congress to augment the coal allotment, owing to the fact that the newer ships were more dependent on steam engines than older vessels, which primarily relied on sails.
In his four years as head of the Bureau of Equipment, Dewey established a reputation as an energetic administrator. In 1893, he was appointed president of the Lighthouse Board, on which he had previously served. After two years, he was assigned as president of the Board of Inspection and Survey, which had the responsibility for inspecting and passing final judgment on all new warships. In May 1896, during this assignment, Dewey was promoted to commodore.
On October 21, 1897, Dewey was detached from duty as president of the Board of Inspection and Survey and ordered to proceed to Japan to relieve Acting Rear Admiral Frederick G. McNair as commander in chief of the Asiatic Squadron.
On New Year's Day, 1898, Commodore George Dewey boarded his new flagship, the cruiser USS Olympia, lying at anchor near Nagasaki. On February 11, the Olympia departed Japan for Hong Kong.
Return to war
On April 24, 1898, word was received that the United States and Spain were at war. The Asiatic Squadron was ordered by the British to leave Hong Kong, and on April 27, it departed for the Philippines. Dewey and his fleet reached Manila Bay on the evening of April 30, and defeated the Spanish fleet there the following day.
In May, following the Battle of Manila Bay, Dewey was promoted to rear admiral. With the Spanish fleet destroyed, Dewey's Asiatic Squadron blockaded Manila and awaited the arrival of the American army, the first units of which arrived at the end of June. Manila surrendered on August 15, 1898, two days after the United States signed an armistice with Spain. During the remainder of Dewey's stay in the Philippines, the navy played a relatively minor part in suppressing the Filipino uprising against the ensuing American occupation, which came to be known as the Philippine American War.
Admiral of the Navy
In March 1899, by an act of Congress, Dewey was elevated to the rank of Admiral of the Navy. On September 26, 1899, the USS Olympia reached the coast of the United States. Dewey led a victory parade in New York City on September 30, 1899. He also participated in celebrations in Washington, D.C., and Montpelier, Vermont.
In November 1899, Dewey married Mildred McLean Hazen, a Washington socialite. On April 3, 1900, caving in to pressure from those around him, Dewey announced his candidacy for president. After only a month and a half, he withdrew from the race. In the spring of 1900, Dewey was selected to become president of the newly created General Board of the Navy, whose role was to prepare for war in peacetime. Serving on that board for the next 16 years, he was instrumental in the development of a larger fleet and greater naval presence, including the voyage of the Great White Fleet in 1907.
In the summer of 1901, Dewey served as president of a Court of Inquiry and was part of the investigation into the conduct of Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Schley, prior to and during the Battle of Santiago de Cuba. In July 1903, Dewey was asked to help Secretary of War Elihu Root and Secretary of the Navy William Moody to establish a Joint Army-Navy Board. As the senior officer on the board, Dewey served as chairman. Admiral Dewey remained in the navy and served on both boards until his death on January 16, 1917, at the age of 79.
During his years of service, Dewey earned the Civil War Medal; the Spanish Campaign Medal; the Philippine Campaign Medal; and the Dewey Medal commemorating the Battle of Manila Bay. A destroyer, the USS Dewey, was named to honor the admiral. Built by the Bath Iron Works Corporation of Bath, Maine, the ship was launched on July 28, 1934, under the sponsorship of Miss Ann M. Dewey of Quechee, Vermont, great-niece of Admiral Dewey. The Dewey was commissioned at the Boston Navy Yard on October 4, 1934, and earned 13 battle stars for operations in the Pacific War theater during World War II.
Dewey's remains rest in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by George Dewey.
Regarding Spanish-American War
You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.
Instruction to the commanding officer of his flagship, USS Olympia, in Manila Bay (May 1, 1898), opening hostilities in the Pacific.