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November 16, 2018

History Lesson: The Admiral George Dewey Memorial

The Admiral George Dewey Memorial is a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” homage, a sliver of a monument that looks more like a tombstone than grandstanding tribute. It was erected in 1973 on Admiral George Dewey Promenade, just a short walk from The Battery (and Wagner Battery Park) to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Manila Bay. But who exactly is this general and what went down in that fateful battle? Let’s find out.

As it happens, the Battle of Manila Bay was one of two major American naval victories in the Spanish-American War. It occurred on the morning of May 1, 1898, only days after the war had been declared. The American Asiatic Squadron, under Commodore Dewey had engaged the Spanish Pacific Squadron under Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasaron and scored a decisive victory. This battle ended any threat from the Spanish naval forces involved in combat. All major Spanish ships were destroyed or captured, without any significant damage occurring to the American forces.

Within moments of this stunning defeat, General Dewey became a hero of the navy, which seems appropriate given his experience in the Civil War. Years earlier, Dewey was served in the Mississippi River campaign, fighting at the Battle of Fort Jackson and Saint Philip, two fortified Confederate garrisons on the Mississippi River in April 1862. Later that same month, the Union Navy captured New Orleans, where he served as an executive lieutenant on the USS “Mississippi.” In May 1863 the Union fleet sailed up the Mississippi River to Port Hudson, Louisiana and after fierce fighting, they hid out for 48 days before the Confederates surrendered, after hearing of the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi to Union forces.

For his actions during the initial battle, Dewey was highly complimented by superiors. In January 1865, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-commander. He remained in active service after the Civil War. On April 30, 1898 he arrived at Manila Bay and early the following morning, he ordered the attack on the Spanish Pacific fleet by saying the now famous words, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” Within six hours, the American fleet had sunk or captured the entire Spanish Pacific fleet. In 1899 Dewey returned to the US where he received a hero’s welcome, with a two-day parade in New York. As part of the ongoing “Dewey mania” that pervaded the US, his image was used to promote many products, including Hershey chocolate. A special military decoration, the Battle of Manila Bay Medal (commonly called the Dewey Medal), was struck in honor of Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay.