America’s decisive victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898 led the U.S. to be widely recognized as a world power for the first time. Montpelier native Commodore George Dewey was considered a national hero for helping to bring that about. He sank Spain’s entire Pacific fleet at the battle of Manila Bay while losing only one American sailor in the process to a heart attack.
Within a year of the battle, Dewey was promoted twice. Last week’s This Place in History installment left off with a brief reference to his second promotion, in which he rose to the brand-new rank of Admiral of the Navy.
“Congress gave him a special rank,” Vermont Historical Society executive director Steve Perkins said.
“That no one else had,” Mike Hoey noted.
Perkins added, “Or has ever had!”
“He is a very unique individual, and the level of fame (he had) is just extraordinary,” Vermont Historical Society public relations and guest services coordinator Andrew Liptak said. “As I said, there’s lots of items his face was plastered on. He went on a nationwide tour, and by the time that tour wrapped up and he returned home to Montpelier, there (were) 40,000 people out in front of the State House lawn to honor him.”
“Wow…now, of course, we have a lot of that material at the Vermont Historical Society — and Mike, we’ll go take a look at some of that a little bit later,” Perkins continued. “That celebration here in Montpelier — I’ve read about it. It was something else. I mean, huge bonfires on the ridges of the Green Mountains that were lit as he entered, and then a huge — bonfire? Pyre? I don’t know what you’d want to call it — on the hill above the State House. It’s wooded now; it wasn’t wooded then.
“And then the State House itself was lit up with electric lights, which is this brand-new thing! It’s just spectacular. All the buildings up and down this street were just covered in buntings and people and parades — so much so that there were some political aspirations as well?”
“I think so, but he ended up dying on the eve of (U.S. entry into) World War I, 1917, and so that did not happen.”
“He wanted the Democratic nomination for president in 1900,” Hoey observed. “But I think — not that there were primaries, but the (prospective) delegates (to the Democratic National Convention) didn’t favor him.”
“He lost because he made some really not-great remarks (that led to public relations blunders),” Perkins added. “But anyway, Dewey was so popular, when he came back to Montpelier we had this whole celebration — but it continued. There was a holiday!”
“Yes, Dewey Day,” Liptak said. “We’ve got pictures of the State House decked out in buntings, the Vermont Historical Society Pavilion building decked out in buntings, and it was actually even most recently celebrated in 2018, when Governor Phil Scott signed a proclamation naming the day Dewey Day.”
“So, here we are in a landlocked state, Vermont, and we have arguably one of the most famous admirals in U.S. (Navy) history born here,” Perkins summarized. “How quickly we forget these things — but it’s wonderful to talk about it.”