May 1

Virtues of an “Ordinary” Naval Officer: Commodore George Dewey

Saturday, May 1, 2010 12:01 AM

Commodore George Dewey won an overwhelming victory at the Battle of Manila Bay against the Spanish squadron of Rear Admiral Patrico Montojo y Pasaron on 1 May 1898 at the onset of the Spanish-American War.

With that victory he was catapulted from obscurity to become the most widely recognized name in America. Although it is popular to view naval history in terms of extraordinary figures, heroic actions, and revolutionary change, Dewey won the battle because of the planning and administrative decisions he initiated during the months prior to engaging the enemy. These actions demonstrated his foresightedness, a characteristic that all naval officers are taught to develop throughout their careers.

In the fall of 1897 Dewey was approaching what he thought was the end of his naval career. With the assistance of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, he obtained his last command at sea, the Asiatic Squadron in the Western Pacific. Dewey prepared for his new command by studying all the charts and descriptions of the Philippine Islands that he could lay his hands on and by reading selected books during his journey across the continent and the Pacific.

While war with Spain seemed remote to most Americans at that time, Dewey took seriously his duty to prepare his squadron for any crises. While examining records in Washington, D.C., he found that his ships were far below their allowance of ammunition. The commodore cut through the red tape holding up new shipments and ordered USS Concord, then fitting out at San Francisco, to transport as much ammunition as she could carry. He arranged for the old sloop USS Mohican to carry more to Honolulu where it would be transferred to the cruiser USS Baltimore, sent to reinforce Dewey the following March.

The commodore knew that the latest Navy Department war plan called for the U.S. Asiatic Squadron to tie down or divert Spanish ships in the Philippines and give the United States a stronger bargaining position at the peace settlement. As tensions heated up between Spain and the United States, Dewey decided to concentrate his squadron only six hundred miles from Manila at British-controlled Hong Kong, which was still 7,000 miles from the nearest American port. This allowed him to keep his ships’ bunkers full of coal prior to the start of the war. Dewey also purchased the British steamer Nanshan to act as a collier to provide his squadron with enough coal after hostilities began. But his efforts did not end there. Taking advantage of China’s weak national government at the time, Dewey arranged through his paymaster to get coal and provisions from a Chinese source at an isolated locality. Thinking ahead, Dewey cabled the Navy Department on 11 March 1898 to make certain that preparations to transport additional coal and ammunition from the United States were moving forward.

During the weeks at Hong Kong prior to the outbreak of war, Dewey had his vessels overhauled, and ensured that his ships’ machinery was in prime condition and his crews were thoroughly drilled. He also oversaw plans to remove woodwork and other material that could easily catch fire in battle. Dewey kept in contact with the American consul at Manila, Oscar Williams, by telegraph, asking him for information on Spanish ordnance and preparations. When forced to leave Hong Kong on 23 April by the outbreak of the war, the commodore moved his ships 30 miles up the coast, partly to wait for Williams to provide the latest intelligence before Dewey set a course for the Philippines.

Dewey’s historic victory came through foresightedness; gathering all available information and analyzing it in consultation with others. In short, he practiced the skills taught to every naval officer and exercised them well. Dewey understood these virtues when he summarized the reason for his victory: “It was the ceaseless routine of hard work and preparation in time of peace that won Manila. . . . Valor there must be, but it is a secondary factor in comparison with strength of material and efficiency of administration.”