Wednesday, January 12, 2011

January 12, 1861 - William Conway takes a stand for the Old Flag

William Conway in 1861, by William Waud
January 12, 1861

150 years ago today a force of some 600 uniformed militiamen from Florida and Alabama appeared at the gates of the Pensacola Navy Yard in Florida and demanded its surrender.

The yard was commanded by Commodore James Armstrong, a veteran of five decades of service in the U.S. Navy. Informed by commissioners from the State of Florida that they had been sent to take possession of the facility, and realizing that with the limited forces at his disposal he could not hope to hold it, he surrendered.

Orders were given to lower the U.S. flag that floated over the navy yard and the task of bringing down the colors fell to William Conway, a quartermaster of long time service in the U.S. Navy. To the surprise of all, however, Conway refused his orders to do so. His announcement was striking to all present, "I have served under that flag for forty years, and I won't do it."

Of all the officers and men in the Pensacola Navy Yard on January 12, 1861, Conway was the only man who made any effort to resist the seizure of the facility. He was arrested by the militia forces and placed in the brig, but in time was released and resumed his service in the U.S. Navy.

The story of his refusal to lower the flag became a legend of the early days of the Civil War and a group of men from California had a gold medal cast in his honor. This was presented to him by officers of the Gulf Blockading Squadron, along with a letter of commendation from U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles:

It gives me pleasure to cause to be delivered to you the accompanying letter and gold medal from your countrymen in California, presented to you as a testimonial of their high appreciation of your noble and patriotic conduct in refusing to haul down the flag of your country when others (your superiors in position) were wanting in fidelity to it.- Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells, November 11, 1861.

Conway is honored today by a granite boulder and plaque in his hometown of Camden, Maine.

Also on this date in 1861, state forces demanded the surrender of Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, Florida, but were refused by Lieutenant Adam Slemmer of the U.S. Army.

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