Monument to Memory of an Irish Pensacolian

by Bonnie Burnham

Pensacola News Journal, 12 July 1908

Despite the implied message in this article with the dates, the monument referred to appears to be the one erected two years earlier in Conway's hometown of Camden, Maine in 1906. A search of the archives of the PNJ for 1907 does not mention a monument erected anywhere in Pensacola, Warrington or Woolsey to him, and in a city where the KKK was operating openly and honored the Confederate side as "heroes" in public monuments, its highly unlikely one would have been erected to a defiant sailor from the Union side. Pensacola at the dawn of the 20th century did not wrap its public identity around the Navy and certain tenant commands as it does now.

One of the obscure names which has served to bring Pensacola before the gaze of the public this year has been that of a common sailor, William Conway, who, at the beginning of the war, refused point blank, in the face of ridicule which have must have seared his very soul, to haul down the United States flag which floated over the Pensacola Navy Yard, standing firm in his allegiance to right as he saw it, until the last.

The situation, obscure as it was, and bereft for years of the world's criticism or approval, stands out as perhaps on of the most dramatic incidents in the history surrounding this portion of the country.

William Conway, comparatively unknown, an Irishman station in the local yards as a common sailor, scarcely noticed at that time, and but barely remembered by the oldest inhabitants of the two ancient little towns of Woolsey and Warrington at this late date, now falls what might be termed a niche in the hall of fame of the country's brave, and one year ago on the 30th of next month, a monument in the form of a large boulder, was unveiled in his memory, upon which is fashioned a tablet telling of the brave deed of '61.

It is remarkable to note the large amount of satisfaction which is being taken by the Irish representatives of the nation in the fact that still another son of "ould sod" has been publicly distinguished for an act of valor. Accounts of the deed and, in fact of the splendid recognition which it has finally received has recently appeared in the National Hibernian and other Irish publications of consequence, and a peculiar and unusual link established between Pensacola and the outside world through a source as remarkable as it is unusual.

William Conway, according to those who remember him, he had not been in the local service a great while before the breaking out of the civil war. Ungainly and perhaps lacking in the first attributes of the popular hero, he whistled about his work and went the daily routine of duties which were his with a will which reflected the hearty determination in his clear-cut soul, all oblivious of the situation which was soon to confront him, from a most unexpected source. Well know and popular to a degree with his fellows, and Irishman through and through; with the sunny skies of the land of St. Patrick dancing in the eyes that were true - this was the man to whom the country was to erect a public memorial in years to come for valor at the time of need.

He was a good sailor, was Conway; he lived the simple life in his own simple way, and events rocked on in their regular routine until the first guns of a war that was to threaten the ruin of a nation had bellowed their ominous message around the country. In an incredibly short time a mighty struggle was on, such as had never been witnesses by the world before - a Christian nation fighting man to man, brother against brother, father in opposition to son; in one great series of conflicts which had seen their beginning in a complication of erroneous judgment, and which, when ended, was to prove the darkest blot upon the fair page of American history.

It was such times as these, in fact, that the situation grew infectious throughout the country. Even Pensacola, which was to see no real trouble in this particular conflict, began to feel the effect of the generally unsettled condition of this country, and it was such a time as this, when, one morning, when life appeared brim full of the interesting, throbbing with the weal and woe of a nation, and throughly worth living, that William Conway, a common sailor in the U. S. navy, was to be confronted with conditions which were to turn the sunlight dark to him - to put him in a position at variance with those whom he had intermingled at peace with himself and the world, and which was to place this obscure Irishman in years to come on a pedestal all his own, secured by a deed to be sanctioned with the approval of his adopted country.

Interest in the war had arrived at a white heat at the Pensacola Navy Yard and at the forts. Both federal possessions, located as they were, almost in the lap of the contest, there was bound to be a variance of opinion among the men stationed within, relative to the great question which was meanwhile rending the country in twain. While the spirit of contention at the two places was, for many reasons, kept as quiet and as far away from the public as possible, the feeling was there, and it was during the early part of the war that, when officers at the yard has renounced their allegiance to the federal government to espouse a cause which from a focal standpoint of judgment they felt and knew to be right, an order was given to haul down the stars and stripes, a representative symbol of a country which could never stand reunited before the world again, and, by such a public act, to bring about a series of events which would have tended to make history in and about the yard immediately and to have made it both thick and fast. The duty of bringing the banner down from the place where it fluttered in the breezes off the bay fell to no native of the land; the task was left to an Irishman - a sailor whose duty it was to obey the orders of his superiors, and the name of the sailor was William Conway. Conway received the intelligence with consternation in his heart. He had been bred and born amid true Irish patriotism, had this son of the mother sod; the songs of his forefathers who had fought both bravely and well, sill rung in his hears and their melody had soothed him to sleep since childhood. He had formed ideas of patriotism and perfect allegiance to that patriotism in his boyhood days, had this merry eyed son of the Emerald Isle, which he had transferred with him when he made his home in a country across the seas - an unfortunate country to be, which was to arise within itself, and to suffer the devastation of death as a result.

Reared in an atmosphere such as this, with a strict allegiance to country crooned to him through mother's lips since his earliest recollection, what other logical decision would be reached by such a man as this, but refusal - point blank and straight from the shoulder, although in that refusal to obey a superior officer, he was to bring down upon himself difficulties the extent of which he himself was in total ignorance. Doubtless the blue bay never looked more tempting in a lifetime than it did to the sailor boy as it laughed and coquetted in the sunlight on this morning of mornings, when he stood banished voluntarily from the good things of the world by an act which had spelt black disobedience in the category of regulations which bound him. White sparking shores, washed clean by the tide, never beckoned him on with more siren grace and the whole glorious scheme of nature perhaps was inviting indeed as his eyes wandered out to the world beyond - yet he took his future into his own keeping at a time when decision meant risk in a thousand ways, and stood firm as a rock for the right as he saw it. Threats might be made, cajolery attempted, ridicule might even be employed by those who wished to save him a world of trouble.

It was of no avail. Conway stood as firm as the boulder erected last year in his memory, and refused overtures from one and all.

As the struggle progressed and the situation became for the time an accepted one in districts which were not particularly affected by the war, excitement abated somewhat in Pensacola and in the course of subsequent events, the sailor Conway was lost track of entirely. There were those, however, who were ready and willing to tell of the time when he had stood white faced and determined in his splendid young manhood, and had remained firm in his allegiance to his adopted home land. In this way the matter became known, and on the 30th of last August, a fitting memorial was finally erected in his memory.