Incidents of War - "I Will Kill Six"
At about 1:00 pm on January 15, 1865, 18-year old Ensign Robley Dunglison Evans, U.S.N., found himself commanding a boatload of sailors and marines who were pulling hard at the oars as part of a “Naval Brigade” bound for a stretch of North Carolina beach about 2,600 yards from the northeast bastion of Fort Fisher, which covered the approaches to Wilmington, the Confederacy’s last open port.
No stranger to danger, “Bob” Evans had already had an unusually exciting life. He secured an appointment to the Naval Academy in 1859 by trekking at the age of 13 from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Salt Lake City, on the way hunting buffalo, elk, and other game, enduring harsh weather, hunger, and bandits, while fighting off some Indians and being befriended by others. Admitted to Annapolis in 1860, although Virginia-born and bred, he sided with the Union on the outbreak of the Civil War. By age 16, Acting Midshipman Evans was commanding the armed yacht America (for which the famous race is named) on blockade duty with a crew of two dozen more junior naval cadets. Commissioned an “acting ensign” in October of 1863, he served in the steam frigate USS Powhatan with the West India Squadron, escorting Union shipping and pursuing Confederate raiders, involving long, boring, fruitless patrols under tropical heat, with frequent false alarms, periodic outbreaks of fever, rare days of shore leave, and the occasional hurricane. In late 1864 Powhatan joined the North Atlantic Squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral David D. Porter, who had orders to capture Fort Fisher in cooperation with the Army. An attempt to take the fort over Christmas in 1864 failed, due in large part to poor coordination between the Army and the Navy.
The second attempt to take Ft. Fisher began on January 13, 1865, with a lightly opposed landing by some 9,000 troops under Major General Alfred Terry. Once ashore, the troops began emplacing artillery and digging entrenchments and approaches.
On the 15th Porter’s fleet (the largest concentration of U.S. warships for a combat mission until the invasion of North Africa in November of 1942) commenced bombarding the fort’s seaward face, and by about noon had disabled most of the guns there. This initiated the assault phase. At 1:00 pm some 2,000 sailors and marines, Evans among them, landed from long boats under fire northeast of the fort and at 3:00 pm commenced an attack from about 1,200 yards. This was a diversion intended to pull Confederate attention from the landward face, where the main assault would take place.
Ensign Evans was one of the more than 1,300 Union soldiers, sailors, and marines killed or wounded during the capture of the fort. Charging across the beach, he took a bullet across his chest, then one in his left leg, a third in his right knee, and a fourth in his foot, which finally brought him down, all the while trading shots with a Confederate soldier who seemed intent on killing him; but as Evans put it, “I persuaded him with my revolver to change his mind”. Hauled to some safety among the dunes by a marine, Evans nearly drowned as the tide came in, dodged stray rounds, and had a ringside seat as the army’s troops commenced their attack, “handsomely” as he put it.
At about 9:00 pm, Evans was pulled off the beach, still under desultory Confederate fire. With his wounds barely dressed, he was put on a ship for the Norfolk Naval Hospital, arriving the next day. At about 10:00 pm that night the groggy Evans “distinctly heard” the chief surgeon tell an assistant surgeon “Take both legs off in the morning.”
Evans spent a very restless night.
The following morning, the assistant surgeon, a man whom Evans knew personally, officially broke the news to him. Evans replied that he’d rather die than lose his legs. After repeated pleas that he undergo the amputation, Evans reached under his bed. He pulled out a pistol he had stashed there. Aiming at the surgeon, he said, “If you or anyone else enters my door with anything that looks like a case of instruments, I mean to begin shooting, and you may rest perfectly sure that I will kill six before they cut my legs off.”
Evans kept his legs, and returned to duty. He rose to command a battleship in the Spanish-American War, then the Asiatic Fleet, followed by the Atlantic Fleet, and finally the “Great White Fleet”, retiring as a rear admiral in 1908.
Evans never recovered full use of his legs. Always in pain, he walked with a cane, causing his friends to nickname him “Gimpy Bob”, though the public always called him “Fighting Bob.” He died in 1912.