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His First Thrill of Patriotism

One hot afternoon in August of the year 1906, a little lad with sunny hair and sunny disposition, stood with a little party of veterans on the steps of the Bay View House in the little town of Camden. He was not more than nine years old and was a long way from home, so he kept a tight hold of his grand-father's strong hand, while he watched the forming of a long procession. An old-fashioned buckboard, seating nine, drew up with a flourish in front of the steps. "Come on, Doctor, here is our carriage," said one of the party and the veterans cautiously descended the steps and climbed into the high seats. It was the good fortune of the lad to sit beside the orator of the day. A famous general, former governor and ex-president of Bowdoin College was General Joshua L. Chamberlain. His thoughts were busy with the words he was to speak a few moments later and he talked very little on the way to the spot where that day they were to dedicate a massive granite boulder to one of the heroes of the Civil War, the only enlisted man in the country to have the honor of a monument erected by the public to him alone, and the only Jackie in the service who ever had a salute of twenty-one guns.

The music was stirring. Seven battleships, headed by the "Maine" of the Atlantic fleet, proudly rode at anchor in the bay, while five gray little destroyers lurked in the shelter of their huge hulk. Over all waved peacefully "the Stars and Stripes" in the sweet, summer breeze. An eager throng of young and old pressed around the veterans. Several speeches were made by town authorities. The day was hot and the lad was small. 'Try as he would, the white lids would droop over the sleepy eyes. With a start he would waken and look off at Mount Battle with its deep blue shadows or down to the curving edge of the sea, where the wavelets dimpled and danced in the sunlight.

Then the grand old General arose and began his eulogy, saying, "Why are we gathered here today?" No more desire for sleep came to the big blue eyes fastened in hero worship on the man in blue. Two small ears absorbed every word that was uttered. This was the story the General told.

"We come here to commemorate not a deed done in the body but an act of soul. The refusal of a manly spirit to bend the body to the dishonoring of his country's flag. The story in words is simple. The scene is the U. S. Navy Yard at Pensacola. The day is the 12th of January, 1861. The occasion is the appearance, on that day, of two gentlemen, one of them formerly an officer of the Navy, claiming to be commissioners of Florida and supported by a large force of armed men, demanding the surrender of that Navy Yard with all its munitions.

"It was a surprising demand. The United States was not at war with the State of Florida. This ground was never a part of that state, but was a port and naval station of the United States twenty years before Florida was made a state of the Union. The demand seemed to have stupefied the captain commanding. The disloyal sentiment in that part of the country was well known to him. Positive orders to be vigilant in the protection of his post had been sent him from Washington. He had a company of faithful marines, and two ships-of-war under his orders were lying within range. Yet upon the demand of these two men, he at once surrendered all the stores of the Pensacola Navy Yard and left its officers and men to be treated as prisoners of war.

"The order to haul down the flag of the United States was passed from the executive officer to the senior lieutenant, both of them open sympathizers with the Confederate cause; then it came to William Conway, a veteran quartermaster of our Navy, who, receiving the order, straightened himself up in body like his spirit, and to the face of his official superiors gave this answer:

"That is the flag of my country. I have given my life to it. I will not haul it down! " They threatened to cut him down for disobedience, but he stood fast in his refusal. He was placed under arrest. Other less noble hands were found and the old flag came down. The face of high noon beheld it darkened in the dust.

"Of the officers who were actors in this ignoble story, two at once entered the Confederate service. The surrendering Captain was court-martialed and mildly punished by five years" suspension from command and a public reprimand.
"A testimonial of admiration, with a commemorative gold medal, was sent to Conway by New England men in California, and was presented to him accompanied with a highly commendatory personal letter from the Secretary of the Navy, on the quarter deck of the battleship 'Mississippi" amidst the applause of the whole ship's company. Conway continued in his station in the navy quiet and unnoticed. Unnoticed, also, he died and was buried in a soon forgotten grave in Brooklyn Navy Yard.

"It is, as I have said, a simple story. The actor in it did not dream he was a hero, did not imagine he was to be noticed, except for punishment for disobedience of orders. He was not acting for the eyes of men, but from the behest of a single and manly soul, daring to be true amid every circumstance. No nameless grave could hide that manhood. Today, the man and his flag stand on high together.

''What is a flag? It is the symbol of a faith, an authority, a power, to be held aloft, to be seen and known, to be defended, vindicated, followed, borne forward in the name and token of its right. Among human rights, we hold that of country supreme. For this we reverence and love the flag and are sensitive of its honor at the cost, if need be, of our lives. If we can take in this thought, we can appreciate the conduct of William Conway. He exemplified honor, truth to trust, keeping of faith, loyalty to principle.

"He could not have been legally blamed, if he had obeyed the orders of his superior officers. It was not the simple hauling down of the flag. That came down with tender glory at every sunset. He disobeyed orders, to obey the greater covenant with his country! This is what I call a lofty loyalty. Then, too, it was heroic courage. This one man, William Conway, born in far-away Camden, Maine, taking life from the breath of your mountain and your sea, he alone refusing to be the creature of his environment, because he was the creature of his God! Think you we can confer honor on him? He it is who has done us honor and we tell the world that he is ours. That is our glory, all the rest is his.''
The General ceased speaking amid great applause. The exercises were over.

The little lad had heard war stories often and he knew the Greek and Roman tales of wandering Ulysses and burning Troy. The knights of old and the Vikings bold were household words; yet, never in his nine brief years had he been so thrilled by voice or story. Schools had taught him to salute his flag and home had taught him to honor his country, but the gray-haired General had brought to his little heart its first real throb of patriotism.

His trying moments of speech-making over, the General felt in a social mood. "Tell me. Doctor," said he, "whose child is the boy?" "My daughter's," answered the old surgeon. "Yes, yes, surely, I knew that. But I mean, who is his father? "The Doctor gave the father's name. The General smiled a slow, sweet, satisfied smile. "I knew I saw a resemblance. Yes, he was one of my boys at Bowdoin. I never forget them and I meet them wherever I go."

The buckboard drew up in front of the hotel once more and before they descended, the General laid his hand with a caressing firmness on the bright hair of the child. "My boy," said he, "I want you always to remember this day. The ranks of our Loyal Legion are fast thinning out. Never again will it be your good fortune to ride in the same carriage with so many military men of the Rebellion. Take a good look at ns and never forget us or the love of country I have tried to put into your heart to-day."

The child looked around him. First he saw his dear friend, General Charles K. Tilden, from whose lips he had heard of that marvelous escape from Libby Prison, a man honored by all who knew him. Next there came that hero and well-beloved Governor, General Selden Connor. On the seat beyond was Rear-Admiral Robley D. Evans, whose war vessels were waiting for him in the offing. Next came General Charles Hamlin, the son of a still more noted man, and the number was completed by Gen. Chamberlain and his own kind grandfather, who was a colonel and a surgeon all through the War.

And the little lad never forgot the General's words. When the time came he, too, was ready to give to his country the best there was in him.

Louise Wheeler Bartlett


Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

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