“Steve, we’re on the State House lawn (in Montpelier),” Mike Hoey said. “And this cannon — and the reason why it’s here — are what bring us here this week.”
Vermont Historical Society executive director Steve Perkins asked, “Why is there a naval gun on the lawn of (the capital of) a landlocked U.S. state?”
“Doesn’t make sense,” Hoey answered.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Perkins agreed. “There is a reason, and we’re going to go up onto the porch of the State House (to learn what it is).
“We have Andrew Liptak with us. Andrew works with me at the Vermont Historical Society and happens to be a bit of a military history expert, so he’s going to chat with us today about why those naval guns are sitting out here on the lawn. A bit of a mystery.”
“The two naval guns are from the Battle of Manila Bay, which is part of the Spanish-American War,” Liptak said. “And they were (salvaged from Spanish ships sunk in that battle) led by — at the time, Commodore — George Dewey, who was a Montpelier native. He was actually born right across the street from the State House and was, by all accounts, a wild child. In his autobiography, he talked about how he would pelt his teachers with snowballs and cause a lot of pranks.
“He was eventually shipped off to Norwich University in Norwich, Vermont and then spent a couple of years there before heading off to the U.S. Naval Academy. And then from there he joined the Navy, was part of the Civil War, didn’t really have a distinguished career until a little bit later, and then worked his way up the ranks until the Spanish-American War.”
“So when we think of the Spanish-American War, I think a lot of folks (through) that fog of history think back and say, ‘oh, Teddy Roosevelt, Rough Riders,” Perkins said.
“San Juan Hill,” Hoey noted.
“San Juan Hill — you know, Cuba,” Perkins continued. “But we’re talking about the Pacific, so what was going on over there?”
“Spain held colonies all over the world, including the Philippines, and what Dewey was tasked with was taking a squadron of ships and neutralizing that Spanish (Pacific) fleet,” Liptak replied. “He sailed into Manila Bay (on May 1,) 1898 and basically destroyed it in one go. They sailed in on that morning and basically began firing on the Spanish emplacements and warships and destroyed them, and they only lost one person — due to a heart attack on his own ship.”
“(The battle was) so famous in its time that (the) image of of Dewey standing on (his flagship) entering Manila Harbor is in the Vermont State House,” Perkins observed.
“It is,” Liptak said. “And he’s known for these really famous words, ‘you may fire when (you are) ready, Gridley’, which is what kicked off the battle about 5:00 in the morning. The level of fame that he had was incredible. We have artifacts at the Vermont Historical Society bearing his image — plates, metals, bars of soap — and the reason for that was because of that victory at Manila Bay. It was a decisive battle in the Spanish-American War.”
Commodore Dewey’s heroism at Manila Bay got him promoted in 1899 to a rank that no one else in the United States Navy has ever held. We’ll look at that part of his story next week.