Monday, January 16, 2017

Admiral George Dewey dies

George Dewey, a hero of the Spanish American War and the only U.S. officer to ever hold the rank Admiral of the Navy died at age 79 on this date in 1917.  He had been an officer in the U.S. Navy since the Civil War but obtained fame during the war with Spain during which his fleet took Manila Bay, securing the Philippines for the United States.

 Dewey as a Captain while with the Bureau of Equipment.

Dewey was a Naval Academy graduate from the Class of 1858.  He saw very active service during the Civil War with service on a variety of vessels.  He married Susan Goodwin after the Civil War and had one son, George, by Susan in 1872, but she died only five days thereafter leaving him a widower with a young son.  He none the less shortly received sea duty, retaining it until 1880 when he was assigned to lighthouse administration duty, a serious assignment at the time.  His son was principally raised by his aunts and would not follow the military career of his father, becoming instead a stock broker who passed away, having never married, in 1963.  Dewey himself asked for sea duty again in 1893 as he felt his health was deteriorating with a desk job.  He was therefore assigned, at the rank of Commodore, to command the Asiatic Squadron in  1897.

Seeing the war coming and receiving what were essentially war warnings from Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt in the weeks leading up to the Spanish American War, he based himself at Hong Kong, the British possession, and began war preparations from there.  His fleet was ordered out of harbor at Hong Kong only shortly before the declaration of war with Spain as the British, knowing that the war was to come, did not want a belligerent power in their ports, which they were effectively doing in the run up to war. His squadron was therefore well situated, if not completely re-outfitted, to attack Manila Bay only a few days later, on April 30, 1898 after war had been declared.  In a one sided victory which cost only one American life (of course the "only" wouldn't mean much to that sailor) Spanish naval power in the Philippines was essentially eliminated in the battle.  As a result he became a household name and a great American hero of the era.

 Heroic painting of Dewey in the Battle of Manila in the Maine State House.

Dewey married for the second time (second marriages were somewhat looked down upon for widowers) in 1899, this time to the widow of a U.S. Army general.  The marriage to Mildred McLean Hazen would be a factor, amongst several others, in keeping him from running for President in 1900, which was a semi popular position with some people and which he entertained.  His second wife was Catholic and the marriage had been a Catholic ceremony, which angered Protestants at a time at which it remained effectively impossible for a Catholic to run for that office.  In 1903 he was promoted to the rank of Admiral of the Navy in honor of his Spanish American War achievement making him the only U.S. officer to ever hold that rank.

 Dewey in 1903.

The extent to which Dewey was a huge hero at the time cannot be overestimated.  That he would seriously be considered as a Presidential contender, and seriously consider running, says something about his fame at the time.  His promotion to a rank that is matched only to that held by John Pershing in the U.S. Army, and which of course Pershing did not yet hold, meant that he was effectively at that time holding a rank that exceeded that granted to any other American officer during their lifetime and which has never been exceeded by any Naval officer since.  A special medal was struck bearing his likeness and awarded to every sailor or marine serving in the battle, a remarkable unique military award.  That he is not a household name today, and he is not, says a lot about the fickle nature of fame.

Armour's meat packing calendar from 1899, Dewey medal, as it is commonly known, on lower left corner.

There's no denying that Admiral Dewey's death had a certain fin de siecle feel to it, particularly when combined with the passing of Buffalo Bill Cody, which happened the prior week, and also in combination with the death of another famous person which was about to occur.  It is not that Dewey and Cody had similar careers or that they'd become famous for the same reason, but there was a sense that the transition age which began in the 1890s and continued on into the early 20th Century was ending.  Both Cody and Dewey had careers that started at about the same time. Both were Civil War veterans.  If Cody became famous well before the 1890s, which he did, it was also the case that in some ways the full flower of his Wild West Show came during that period.  Indeed, Cody had modified his show after the Spanish American War to feature the "Congress of Rough Riders", building on the romantic notions that the term "Rough Rider" conveyed. That term, of course, had come up during the Spanish American War to describe members of the three volunteer cavalry regiments raised during that conflict, never mind that only one of them, the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, saw service in the war and that it was in fact deployed dismounted.

 Dewey receiving Roosevelt on board the Olympia, 1909.

Indeed, the actual Spanish American War had been a fully modern war, much like the Boer War was, and which saw the US attempting to belatedly adapt to that change.  The Navy was really better prepared for it than the Army.  That contributed to the peculiar nature of the era, however, with combat being much like what we'd later see in World War One but with the service still having one foot in the Civil War era.  By the war's end, of course, the US was a global colonial power, whether it was ready to be or not, and that was a large part of the reason that Dewey was such a celebrated figure.  His actions in the Philippines had significantly contributed to the defeat of a European colonial power, albeit a weak and decrepit one, and which helped to make the US a colonial power, albeit a confused and reluctant one.  The passing of Dewey and Cody seem, even now, to have the feel of the people who opened the door stepping aside to let they party in, just before they go back out.

Dewey in retirement, 1912.

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