Under Dewey at Manila/Chapter 21
SOMETHING ABOUT COMMODORE DEWEY
Larry found Commodore Dewey a well-built and well-preserved man of sixty, with black, piercing eyes, and hair and mustache which had once been dark but which were now tinged with gray. The face was a stern but kind one, and the boy had not been in the commander's presence more than a few minutes before he felt at home in spite of the difference in their respective positions.
As the commodore, afterwards admiral, is to play such an important part in the future course of our story, it will not be amiss to ascertain a few facts concerning his past career,—a career full of dash, fire, "I will," and patriotism.
The future commander of the seas was born in the town of Montpelier, Vermont, on December 26, 1837. He was the son of Doctor Julius Dewey, a man who fought his own way into the world, first by teaching school to earn enough to take a course in medicine, and then by earnest efforts to help not only himself but those around him. The doctor was the founder of the Christ Episcopal Church of Montpelier, and a man of deep religious convictions.
When George Dewey was but five years old he lost his mother, as tender and true a parent as ever boy had, and henceforth his companions of the household were his sister Mary, two years his junior, and his father. He lived in a modest cottage on a side street, and the Onion River swept through the fields in the back. It is on record that George Dewey, barefooted and ofttimes hatless, loved to play in and around that stream, and who knows but that there his first naval battles were fought, with rude wooden boats of his own jackknife designing?
When the proper time came the boy was sent to the village school, a bare enough place, with stiff wooden benches and rough desks, upon more than one of which he surreptitiously carved the initials G. D., and received for this what was considered, in those days of the ever-present birch rod, his just reward.
Whether it be a good or bad trait, it is said that the schoolboy was of rather a quick temper, and if anything went wrong he was for settling the dispute with his fists, and it is further related that he was generally victorious in his battles. Thus was the man's natural fighting nature shown from the start, but lest some of my young readers take this as a justification to "pitch in" at the slightest provocation, let me add that George Dewey was never known to fight unless he was positive in his own mind that he was in the right.
From his home school, the lad was sent, at the age of fifteen, to a Military Academy at Norwich, in his native State. Here he was for the first time brought into contact with things military, and he had not been at the Academy long before he wrote home that he should like to go to either West Point or Annapolis, with a preference for Annapolis. This communication caused his father much worry, for the doctor had hoped that the boy would take up the study of either medicine, the law, or the ministry. But the parent believed in letting his son choose his own future, and so he consented to George's wishes.
To get into either West Point or Annapolis is, as most boys must know, no easy matter, appointments ments being made either by United States senators or by the President. For a long while the lad tried in vain, but at last he was chosen as alternate to another boy. The other boy, when the time came, failed to appear for examination, and George Dewey was duly appointed.
At the Naval Academy it was found that the boy made a bright student, but that he had brought his old-time quickness of temper with him. There was a line drawn between the boys from the South and those from the North, and George was singled out as a butt for the Southern boys' jokes. It can be imagined that he stood this only for a short while. The battles that followed were short, sharp, and decisive, and after that the newcomer was left alone, although before the class graduated many of those who had been his enemies became Dewey's warmest friends.
The graduation at the Naval Academy was a trying affair, how trying my young readers will understand when I state that only fourteen out of a class of over sixty received their diplomas. Of those who passed George Dewey stood fifth—showing that he could do something else besides taking his own part.
As a midshipman the young man was assigned to the Wabash, and spent two years cruising in the Mediterranean, visiting at the same time many places of interest, including the Holy Land. He returned to Annapolis, to receive his final examination, in which he won third place, and then returned to his native home.
When Dewey was twenty-three years old the great Civil War broke out, and he was assigned a lieutenancy on board of the steam sloop Mississippi, of the West Gulf Squadron, a noble fleet of vessels commanded by Admiral Farragut. The first work of the fleet was to attempt to reach New Orleans by running past the formidable batteries near the entrance to the Mississippi River, and then by engaging the fleet beyond. This was a tremendous task, and for seven days our young lieutenant was subjected to the hottest kind of fire, which, as it was afterwards stated, he endured like a veteran. He himself is reported to have told a fellow-officer that he never enjoyed anything so much in his life. It was during this engagement that, as executive officer, he gave the quick commands which enabled the Mississippi to fire a broadside into the ram Manassas and sink her. A year later found Dewey again on the great river, and this time his craft ran aground directly in front of the Port Hudson battery and had to be abandoned. The task of getting the sailors off in safety under a galling fire was a perilous one, but the brave lieutenant commander remained aboard until no one but his captain and himself were left.
After the loss of the Mississippi, the future admiral was assigned to one of Farragut's gunboats, and fought at Donaldsonville, and from there he took part in the bombardment of Fort Fisher, acting as lieutenant on the Colorado, and it was here that he aided so vigorously in a rush in shore to silence a part of the enemy's works that he gained a special mention for bravery.
It was in 1870 that he received his first command as captain of the Narragansett. He was now a married man, having one son; and two years later the one great cloud of his life came, in the loss of his beloved wife. From the Narragansett the captain was transferred to serve on the United States Lighthouse Board, an exacting office which he filled to the satisfaction of all. From here he went to the Asiatic Squadron, and received full command of the Dolphin, one of the first vessels belonging to what has since been known as the famous White Squadron, because during the times of peace these great ships are all painted pure white. When war is declared, every warship is painted some dark color, usually a brown-green or gray or black.
Leaving the Dolphin, the energetic captain next took charge of the Pensacola, the flagship of the European Squadron, and it was on this vessel that Striker served under him. Never was a captain more beloved by his men than was Dewey, although he was strict and made every one under him "toe the mark." One thing he could not abide, and that was sullenness. An anecdote which is vouched for will not come amiss, to show the character of the commander as well as to illustrate the strictness of discipline on board of a man-o'-war.
While in command of the Dolphin, the lieutenant came to Dewey and told him that there was a paymaster's assistant on board who had refused to obey a certain order given to him, his reason being that it was outside of his line of duty. The black eyes of the commander snapped fire.
"Where is he?" he asked.
"On the main-deck, sir."
"Have you tried argument with him?"
"I have, sir, for ten minutes."
The commander said no more, but stalked to the quarter mentioned, where he found the man sulking against the mast. Going up quietly, he caught the fellow by the shoulder.
"You have refused to obey such-and-such an order," he said, mentioning the order in question.
"It ain't in my line of duty," grumbled the paymaster's assistant.
Again the eyes of the commander flashed fire, but he kept his temper. "I have been in the navy for twenty-six years, and have made naval affairs the study of my life. I tell you that it is the duty of every man to obey the orders of his superior officers. Do you intend to obey?"
The eyes of the man dropped, and he shifted his feet uneasily. "It ain't in the line of my duty—I didn't enlist for it," he muttered doggedly.
Without waiting a moment. Captain Dewey turned to the corporal standing by.
"Call the guard," he said briefly. "Order them to load with ball."
The necessary orders were given, there was a scurry of feet and a clicking of rifles, and a line of marines were drawn up on one side of the deck, while the man who would not obey orders was marched to the other.
"In refusing to obey orders you are guilty of mutiny," said the commander, sternly. "The penalty of mutiny on the high seas is death. If that order is not obeyed inside of five minutes, I will order the marines to fire upon you."
The man turned white and began to tremble. Dewey calmly took out his watch and counted off the minutes, "One—two—three—four—"
"Stop—don't shoot—I'll obey!" cried the sullen one, and rushed off to do as bidden. It took him a week to get over his fright, but in the end there was no better hand on board of that ship, nor one that thought any more of the "old man," as a commander is familiarly termed.
After a term upon the Dolphin, Dewey returned to the Lighthouse Board and was connected with the Pacific Coast Survey. It was at this time that he was promoted to be a commodore. On the first of the year which was to see the breaking out of our war with Spain, the commodore was assigned once more to the Asiatic Squadron, and he made, as my readers already know, the Olympia his flagship.
And now, with this rather long, but, I trust, interesting introduction, we will join him in his cabin, where he is interviewing Larry and our downeast friend, Striker.