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Montpelier’s Military Hero; America’s First Celebrity 

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Dewey Day in Montpelier, Oct. 12, 1899. Image courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society.
From time to time, the American public latches onto a military leader who brought victory in a current war or engagement. Generals Grant and Eisenhower moved on to the Presidency after successful military careers; in the last century, Norman Schwarzkopf from Operation Desert Storm and David Petraeus from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq found some measure of adulation from the public. We hunger for heroes.

George Dewey (1836–1917), Montpelier’s most famous native son (so far), was not only a military hero in the press and in the public eye, but also, according to Professor David A. Smith, America’s first celebrity in the popular culture and a pivotal figure during a turning point in American history. 

In a Feb. 15 webinar sponsored by the Vermont Historical Society, Smith, from Baylor University in Texas, traced George Dewey’s rise from a reportedly rowdy kid in Montpelier to the “Hero of Manilla Bay.” For Admiral-for-Life Dewey’s triumphant return from the Philippines on Oct 10, 1899 — “Dewey Day” — hundreds of thousands of Vermonters gathered to honor him. Citizens read odes to Dewey, performed skits, sang songs, and gave speeches. Andrew Liptak, public relations and guest services coordinator at the Vermont History Museum, called Dewey Day “the equivalent of a blockbuster movie. In our archives, we have his dress uniform, medals, and hats, and many trinkets of popular culture, including advertisements for soap.” Liptak encountered Smith’s book researching publications of interest in Vermont to add to the bookstore offerings and invited him to speak at their virtual Speakers’ Series. 

Smith’s newest book, “A New Force at Sea: George Dewey and the Rise of the American Navy,” offers a new look at the life of Dewey, beginning with his childhood living across the street from the Statehouse, reportedly a terror to teachers, and a generally rowdy kid. According to Smith, the boy enjoyed racing up and down the massive staircase on the Capitol blindfolded, and nearly drowned in the Winooski during a breath-holding contest with other boys. His appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis (arranged by his father) did the trick. Young George found the purpose and sense of duty he lacked running free in Montpelier or resisting student life at Norwich University. 

Professor Smith, using period photographs and contemporary drawings, traced Dewey’s rise as a naval leader, serving in the Civil War with Admiral David Farragut in the capture of New Orleans (“Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”). Farragut became Dewey’s model. According to Smith, throughout his life when facing a difficult military situation, Dewey would ask, “What would Farragut do?” 

In honoring the “Hero of Manilla Bay,” Smith remarked, many of the citizens flocking to Dewey Day had no idea where Manilla was, but just read in the newspaper that Dewey had defeated the Spanish fleet on a Sunday morning. Children (and family pets) were named Dewey, and commemorative medals and everyday products were marketed with his name. This was the beginning, Smith asserted, of our current celebrity mania. 

In that period of empire building, the annexation of the Philippines and the adulation of Admiral Dewey served as another acknowledgment for the public that America was indeed becoming a world power. 

And Dewey continued to influence military planning, Professor Smith explained. Dewey worked during 1907–09 to develop war plans in case America might fight Japan. And on the way home from the Philippines, the Admiral actually predicted a future war with Germany, whom he encountered trying to take the Philippines away from the Spanish and the Americans (and, of course, the Filipino people.) When newspapers quoted the Admiral in August 1899 speaking of a future war with Germany, Dewey’s comments were considered ill-advised and unnecessarily alarming to the public. 

Non-military details about Dewey in the one-hour presentation described his married life, interest in fashion, his relationship with his son George — and the fact that his dog was named Bob. The man became a human being, dedicated but also with human frailties, like all heroes. 

The next Virtual Speakers’ Series offering, on Feb. 27, is “Virtual Roundtable: Collections Conundrums,” which the VHS describes as: “Mystery items? Unclear donation procedures? Too many spinning wheels? We’ll be talking about a grab-bag of collections issues. Bring your questions, your quirky concerns, and your thinking caps to this discussion.” Further information is available at vermonthistory.org. 

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