A navy transformed

An interview with David A. Smith, author of A New Force At Sea

A navy transformed
This interview was originally published in the Vermont Historical Society's newsletter, History Happenings, which I write and edit. You can subscribe here.

Born on December 26th, 1837 in a house across from the Vermont State House (where the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles headquarters now sits), George Dewey was a rebellious child who was eventually marched off to Norwich University and who later found a career in the U.S. Navy. He's the subject of a new biography by David A. Smith: A New Force At Sea: George Dewey and the Rise of the American Navy, which examines his life in the context of a major transformation of American influence around the world.

Smith used the Vermont Historical Society's resources while writing the book, and we recently spoke with him about Dewey and how he wrote this book. We also have copies available for sale at our museum bookstore in Montpelier (you can also buy it online).

Tell us a little about you and your background, and how you came to write a book about George Dewey.

I grew up in the Dallas area and went to Texas State University for my undergrad and master’s degrees in history.  I went to Univ. of Missouri and got a Ph.D. in modern American history in 2000. I’ve been back in Texas and teaching at Baylor University since 2002.

I came to write a book about George Dewey after I finished a short biography of Audie Murphy and was casting around for new book topics. The story of the Battle of Manila Bay has always been something I’ve taught in my classes for as long as I’ve taught the second half of the American history survey, so it’s been something I’ve returned to in a classroom setting year after year.  I’ve also been interested in the 1890s as a key period of transition in American history and well as the growth of the American Navy during the last 20 years of the 1800s.

Gradually the idea of doing a biography of George Dewey as—in part—a way of looking at the rise of the United States to Great Power status is something that just appeared in my imagination.

How did you go about writing this book? You teach in Texas and thanked Vermont Historical Society and Norwich University’s archives in the book’s acknowledgements: what were some of the challenges in conducting research for this project remotely and in the midst of a pandemic?

Right! I was lining up research trips to places like Vermont when the pandemic struck. I had already spent a week at the Library of Congress (which after the pandemic was closed to researchers) so that afforded me a sound start.

I had to contact places by email (like Norwich University and the University of Vermont) and ask for help if they were able to give it, and thankfully they were.

By contrast, there were a couple of places that I desperately wanted to go and do research but I simply was unable to. I hate to think of the stories I never discovered and therefore couldn’t put in the book.

Dewey of course, grew up here in Vermont and attended Norwich University before heading out into the U.S. Navy. How did his upbringing and education shape who he was?

Dewey’s upbringing distinctively shaped his character. As a young boy Dewey loved to be outside and was a ball of energy who was always on the go.  He also, from a young age, didn’t particularly like being under the carefully watchful eye of authority and learned how to get out of tough spots without—he believed—help from above, that is, to depend on his own wits and abilities.

His father sent him to Norwich in almost desperation, hoping to find a way to try to control his youngest son’s rebellious, misbehaving, and aimless tendencies.  It was there that Dewey first experienced the orderly patterns of military life and he liked it—responded well to it. Even though Dewey still ran into disciplinary trouble at Norwich, he shocked his father when he said that he thought a career as in the military was something he was interested in and would like to go to a service academy. He went to the Naval Academy because an opening there came up unexpectedly.

Image: U.S. Naval Institute Press

The title of your book is A New Force At Sea: George Dewey and the Rise of the American Navy. What role did he play in changing how the Navy operated, and what do you think was the biggest change that came out of his career?

Well, Dewey played the part of an adaptable, aggressive, and globally-minded commander in the transforming US Navy. He was the kind of commander that the Navy needed in charge of its new technologically advanced ships in a world that was increasingly interconnected and more easily traversed, spanned, and fought over.

The biggest change that happened while he was in the Navy (which was, after all, from 1854 when he entered Annapolis to his death in 1917), was the rise of the United States to global Great Power status and the rise of the US Navy as the institution that basically brought that about.

A more specific change that Dewey was involved with (aside from his victory at Manila which of course brought about the annexation of the Philippines) was that he was later put in charge of the General Board of the US Navy, the first agency in the US military that undertook detailed war planning in anticipation of future conflicts.

The Spanish-American War and the following Philippine-American War were particularly brutal: how do you walk that fine line of examining a person’s life, while not necessarily glorifying them or the actions they were involved in?

It’s hard to do—to walk a fine line in writing about someone whose actions might contribute to negative outcomes.

The basic answer is that you tell the truth, remember that your subject is human and fallible, and, do your best as a biographer to understand the person, his thoughts and his motivations, and approach him with a sympathy born of understanding and with the constant awareness that, while you as a biographer know how all these situations will turn out, the person that you’re writing about—that you’ve spent years with getting to know—does not know the future.

Dewey came home from the war a major celebrity: what accounted for that fame, and how did it affect him?

Dewey was the first celebrity of the mass consumer culture/pop culture era, and was celebrated with a spectacle no other had ever experienced in quite the same way before. Americans are always hungry for heroes, and the magnitude of Dewey’s victory at Manila was so complete, so unexpected, and so…nationally affirming, that Americans saw Dewey as the embodiment of all they wanted the country to be.

Americans projected onto him all the positive attributes they could imagine one heroic person having.  He was quiet and reticent—and gone from the United States for over a year after his victory—so that until he came back there were no false steps that could tarnish his image. He remained the conquering hero.

Once he returned and had the spotlight on him constantly, it was a very bad fit. The press and public turned on him for reasons that he couldn’t understand (although some reasons, like his behavior during his half-hearted Presidential “campaign,” he did understand).  When his name receded from the headlines and he could go back to doing his competent and low-key service for the Navy, it was a great relief.

What lessons can we in 2023 glean from Dewey and his life?

One lesson seemed to be the fickleness of fame and the emptiness of celebrity. One lesson seems to be the reward of quiet competence and dedication to duty.

Another lesson might to be give yourself time to relax and find little moments in which you can unwind and get relief from the pressures of the world. The only time Dewey was really unable to have regular chances to relax was when he was in command at Manila for over a year without a break, and then, in a very different way, under the 24/7 glare of the celebrity spotlight.