Today in History

Today in History: December 26

George Dewey Born

On a bright May morning two years ago there came from out the ocean mist an untried naval squadron, mirroring in the rippling waves the flag of the mistress of the Western world, the lustre of whose shining stars has never been dimmed by dishonor or defeat, seeking in Manila Bay the naval pride and power of Spain…from out the din and smoke of battle there arose a colossal figure, calm and majestic, cool and self-reliant…a naval hero, the splendor and brilliancy of whose achievement have written on the eternal tablet of fame…the immortal name of Admiral George Dewey...

"Address of Hon. Josiah T. Settle, Delivered at the Reception Given Admiral and Mrs. Dewey,"
Memphis, Tennessee, May 7, 1900.
African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907

This flowery tribute captures the sense of romance with which turn-of-the-century Americans regarded the naval hero of the Spanish-American War, Commodore George Dewey. Dewey was born in Montpelier, Vermont, on December 26, 1837.

Captain on the bridge of a ship
U.S.S. Pensacola, Captain Dewey on the Bridge, circa 1890-1901.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

An 1858 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Dewey served in the Union Navy during the Civil War. He fought in the battles of New Orleans, Port Hudson, and Donaldsville, Louisiana. Dewey rose steadily through the Navy's leadership ranks. In 1897  Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, appointed Dewey commander of the Asiatic Squadron stationed in Hong Kong.

Dewey made careful preparations for a battle with the Spanish fleet in the Pacific, departing for the Philippines on April 25, 1898, the day that the U.S. declared war on Spain. Just before 6:00 a.m. on the morning of May 1, 1898, Commodore George Dewey commenced the Battle of Manila Bay, uttering the famous command, "You may fire when ready, Gridley."

Capt. Gridley
U.S.S. Olympia, Capt. Gridley,
Edward H. Hart, photographer, between 1895-1901.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Within six hours, Dewey's squadron of six ships, including the flagship USS Olympia, had sunk every ship in the Spanish fleet. There were few casualties and no loss of life on the American side. On August 13, 1898, U.S. troops occupied Manila, bringing the United States closer to an ultimate victory in the Spanish-American War.

Dewey's decisive victory at Manila on May 1, 1898, is credited with U.S. recognition as a major naval power. The acquisition of the Philippines gave the United States a strong presence in the Pacific. Commodore Dewey became a national hero, and his triumphant homecoming in 1899 was celebrated with wild enthusiasm.

Seamen lined up on a ship's deck
American Troops on Ramparts at Manila,
Edward H. Hart, photographer, between 1898-1901.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

As the Honorable Josiah Settle described it:

…when, home at last, his gallant flagship lay anchored in the bay of the second city of the world, her teeming millions were mad with joy and impatience to do such honor to the hero of Manila as was never shown mortal man before; and it can be truly said that such unlimited display of loyal affection and costly magnificence as New York gave the home returning hero was greater than was ever shown before to any other man.

"Address of Hon. Josiah T. Settle, Delivered at the Reception Given Admiral and Mrs. Dewey at the Auditorium at Memphis, Tennessee,"
Memphis, Tennessee, May 7, 1900.
African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907

Three frames of a film of a naval parade
U.S. Cruiser “Olympia” Leading Naval Parade, Thomas A. Edison, Inc., 1899.
Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies

For more resources about Dewey and the Spanish-American War: