The second half of the twentieth century is often called the “American Century.” It was this period that saw the United States become the world’s preeminent superpower, defeat the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and bring down the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union. The country’s unrelenting defense of liberty and democracy led to its position as “leader of the free world.” While the U.S. rose to its global zenith during the twentieth century, it first emerged on the world stage at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1898 the nation flexed its muscles against a respected world power during the Spanish-American War. The war is often remembered today in light of one event — the charge of Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in Cuba. The war was not, however, limited solely to Cuba. It was also fought on the other side of the world. Months before Teddy Roosevelt won fame, an American naval officer attacked the Spanish Philippines. This officer had seen action in America’s bloodiest conflict, and now he sought to win a battle that would earn his country a true presence in world affairs. His name was George Dewey. This is the story of how he launched America’s rise to prominence with his victory at the Battle of Manila Bay.
As a young officer during the American Civil War, George Dewey first demonstrated the courage that earned him national fame forty years later. He was born in Montpelier, Vermont in late December 1837 to a prosperous physician, but having no desire for a life on land, he entered the fledgling U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland in 1854. After graduation, he spent three years in the Mediterranean before being thrust into battle in the country’s most lethal war. Arriving home from Europe, he was ordered aboard the steam frigate U.S.S. Mississippi in April 1861, and a year later he joined Flag Officer David G. Farragut’s squadron as it was preparing to attack the Confederate citadel of New Orleans, Louisiana. Named the ship’s executive officer, Lieutenant Dewey stepped onto the Mississippi’s hurricane deck on the night of April 23rd and ordered the ship to sail past Confederate Forts Jackson and St. Philip guarding the entrance to the Mississippi River. Artillery rounds exploded all around him, but he continued to confidently stride the deck. Not even the appearance of the feared Confederate ironclad ram Manassas unnerved him. His coolness so impressed Farragut that Dewey was specifically chosen to join in the March 1863 attack on Port Hudson, Louisiana, one of the last Confederate bastions on the Mississippi River. As he had at New Orleans, the lieutenant stood tall on the deck while directing fire on Confederate batteries on the shoreline. Suddenly, Dewey heard a loud crash as the Mississippi ran aground on a mud bar, and he watched as Confederate fire on the ship increased as gunners took advantage of such a tempting target. Still, Dewey refused to panic. Instead, he calmly ordered the officers and men to abandon ship, with himself being one of the last to disembark. He left the Mississippi theatre soon after, and in January 1865 he joined Admiral David Dixon Porter in attacking Fort Fisher, outside Wilmington, North Carolina. For his valiant actions, Dewey was promoted to lieutenant commander, but the years to come were to be trying ones as he struggled to find his place in the peacetime Navy.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Dewey watched as the country’s rapid return to peace threatened not only naval power but also his own career. He toured northeastern navy yards and was alarmed to find construction on new warships had stopped. Most work centered on repairing ships. He was further dismayed at the sight of both wooden ships and ironclads rotting and rusting away in the harbor, and he no doubt began to wonder if he too was doomed to such a fate. In 1873 his suspicions seemed to be confirmed when he assumed command of the U.S.S. Narragansett with orders to chart the coastal waters of the Gulf of Lower California. There were occasional bouts of excitement, such as when he threatened to destroy the regional governor’s home if he did not send troops to protect an American businessman who was being harassed by Mexican workers, but mostly, the mission required hours of drudgery. In 1875 he was recalled to the U.S. to serve as inspector of the Second Lighthouse District, which ran from New Hampshire to Rhode Island, and he spent the next few years serving as the naval liaison to the Lighthouse Board. During this time, he frequently indulged in fine dining, a lifestyle that caught up with him in late 1882 when he had to undergo surgery for abscess of the liver. His condition was worsened by typhoid fever to the extent that Dewey wrote his sister, “At one time I fully expected to die.” Upon recovering, he was promoted to captain and assigned to Europe aboard the Pensacola, a ship he remembered from his Civil War years. In Europe he saw how U.S. ships paled in comparison to those from other foreign powers, and he came to understand the Navy had to be revitalized before it could seek a spot in world affairs.
With new determination, Dewey returned to Washington, D.C. in 1889 where he joined the Navy Department as chief of the Bureau of Equipment and Recruiting. He enthusiastically supported the Navy’s construction of new steel ships, but he chafed under the orders to salvage old equipment rather than purchase newer, more expensive allotments due to a lack of funds. He was also distressed to find a shortage of coal, which severely limited naval operations. Dewey vigorously appealed to Congress to increase allocations to his bureau, and the Navy soon had enough coal to sustain lengthy maneuvers. After leaving the bureau, he became president of the Board of Inspection and Survey, in which capacity he examined America’s first modern battleships and ensured each met the standards set by Congress. He then supervised the sea trials of the battleships, including the U.S.S. Maine, and watched as they were inducted into the U.S. Navy. While his efforts were vital to the formation of a modern American Navy, newly promoted Commodore Dewey yearned for a return to sea duty. In October 1897 his wish was granted when he received command of the Asiatic Squadron. He boarded his flagship, the U.S.S. Olympia, at Nagasaki, Japan on January 3, 1898 — just over a month before the Maine was sunk inside the harbor of Havana, Cuba, allegedly after hitting a submerged Spanish mine.
As war loomed between America and Spain, U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt cabled Dewey orders to concentrate the squadron at Hong Kong and make preparations to defeat Spanish forces in the Philippines. Since Spain remained a recognized world power, upon reaching his new base the commodore set to work repairing his ships and collecting provisions for up to three months of military operations. All was ready when, on April 24th, he received word from Secretary John Long that war with Spain had begun and he was to “commence operations at once, particularly against the Spanish fleet.” At the same time, Dewey met with the region’s American consul and learned that coastal defense guns were located along the Manila water front as well as on nearby Corregidor and Caballo islands. There were also mines in the channel entrance. Most important, the Spanish squadron, comprising two cruisers and five gunboats, had withdrawn from Manila Bay thirty miles north to Subic Bay where it most likely awaited the American fleet. Seeing no reason for further delay, Dewey raised anchor at 2:00 p.m. on the afternoon of April 27th and steamed for the Philippine coast.
Dewey’s fleet reached Subic Bay on the afternoon of April 30th, but seeing no sign of the enemy, the commodore realized the squadron had undoubtedly returned to Manila. As night fell, therefore, he ordered his ships to run past the forts guarding the entrance to Manila Bay. A brief firefight ensued between two American ships and Spanish batteries on the island of El Fraile, but otherwise, the operation was accomplished without incident. By 5:00 a.m. on May 1, 1898 all American ships were inside the bay. Seven miles away, Admiral Patricio Montojo’s ships rested at anchor in the harbor of Cavite. From the deck of the Olympia, the commodore spied two large warships, the Reina Cristina and the Castilla, along with several smaller gunboats. With battle imminent, Dewey assumed his battle station on the ship’s bridge. Those around him must have inwardly laughed, for his regulation white uniform contrasted starkly with the golfer’s cap he was forced to wear due to the loss of his officer’s cap the day before. Still, he cut an imposing figure as he and the Olympia led the American line of battle toward the enemy. Spanish batteries along the waterfront opened fire on the Americans, but Dewey refused to return fire, wishing to conserve his limited amount of ammunition. When he was only 5,000 yards from Montojo, he ordered his gunners to open fire. Within moments, both sides were thundering away at each other.
Showing the same courage under fire he had during the Civil War, Dewey ordered the Olympia to steam past the Spanish ships five separate times with guns blazing. Spanish gunners trained their sights on the American ship, but inaccuracy ensured many rounds passed harmlessly overhead. Several, however, did find their mark, as shown by one fragment hitting the forecastle deck just below Dewey. Still, the commodore continued to coolly direct fire on the enemy ships. American fire became so intense that by 7:00 a.m. Montojo desperately sought to escape the onslaught, so he ordered the Reina Cristina to close with the Olympia. Olympia’s guns now trained on the Spaniard, and Dewey watched as shells raked the ship from fore to aft, igniting fires. An American shell also struck the Reina’s steering gear, preventing rapid escape. With the enemy flagship out of action, Dewey and his gunners turned their sights on the Castilla.
In the midst of this fight, the ship’s fire control officer warned Dewey each gun only had 15 rounds of 5-inch ammunition left. Consequently, Dewey moved back into the middle of the bay — though the story later was so his men could eat breakfast. Upon finding the situation was not as dire as first thought, the commodore used the lull to evaluate the situation. He questioned his captains as to losses and was pleasantly surprised to discover the squadron had suffered less than ten casualties. He then turned his gaze to the Spanish fleet, which was all but destroyed. The Reina Cristina was burning, and the Castilla had just blown up. As well, several gunboats were sunk. Shortly after 11:00 in the morning Dewey returned to finish off the remaining ships, and when that was done, he turned his attention to the batteries on Manila’s waterfront, which had been firing on him the entire time. Over the next three days, he consolidated his hold by forcing the Spanish troops at Cavite and in the forts surrounding Manila to surrender. With the bay under American control, Dewey dispatched his official report back to the United States, which greeted the news with jubilation. Not only was he granted a coveted promotion to rear admiral, but he was also voted the “Thanks of Congress” for his heroism. It was not long before his was a household name all across the country.
As the country celebrated his astounding victory, Dewey struggled to bring Manila itself under American authority. For three months following the Battle of Manila Bay, he imposed a naval blockade of the city, but Spanish officers rejected his demand to surrender, claiming they could not admit defeat without first satisfying their “honor.” Consequently, Dewey coordinated with U.S. Major General Wesley Merritt in attacking the city on August 13th, which forced the Spanish to capitulate. He remained in the Philippines during the first months of American rule, and in early 1899 he engaged in the opening fights between American troops and Filipino rebels. His heroism garnered such admiration from the American public he was promoted to the rank of full Admiral of the Navy — a rank only David G. Farragut and David D. Porter, both of Civil War fame, had previously held. He returned to the U.S. amid much fanfare in September 1899, and he spent the remaining seventeen years of his life serving on the Navy’s General Board and enjoying the social life of Washington. The Hero of Manila died in January 1917 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in a ceremony officiated by Chaplain John Brown Frazier, a man who had stood beside him on the Olympia and seen him achieve his greatest triumph.
With his conquest of the Spanish at Manila, George Dewey profoundly altered the course of America’s destiny. The raising of the Stars and Stripes over the Philippines signified the U.S. was no longer a second-rate power confined to the geography of North America. Now it could stand as a leader of nations and use its influence to give hope to those suffering from the dark forces of oppression which were to arise in the coming years. Who knows what course would have followed had the courageous admiral not shown what Americans were capable of with his smashing victory over the might of a respected European power. Undeniably the product of the nineteenth century, George Dewey paved the way to American greatness in the twentieth.