Robley D. Evans enjoyed a colorful Navy career, but is most often remembered as the U.S. admiral who commanded the Great White Fleet as it began its voyage on 16 December 1907 to circumnavigate the globe. He earned his nickname, “Fighting Bob,” while in command of the gunboat Yorktown in Chilean waters to protect American interests following the controversial death of two U.S. sailors in Valparaiso on 16 October 1891. But perhaps no other experience in his career better illustrated Evans’s fighting spirit than his leadership during the assault on Fort Fisher during the American Civil War.
Fort Fisher guarded the Cape Fear River and the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy’s last major terminus for blockade runners bringing in vital materials from overseas. The strong earthen fortification mounted forty-seven powerful guns and contained a fighting garrison of 1900 men. After a failed expedition to capture the fort at the end of December 1864, Union forces tried again two weeks later, under the command of Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Terry and Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter. A massive bombardment by Porter’s fifty-seven warships covered the landing of Federal troops north of Fort Fisher on 13 January. As Terry organized his units for the assault Navy ships, including five ironclads, kept up a nearly continuous fire for fifty hours, dismounting Confederate guns, blasting holes in the wooden palisades, damaging the earthworks, and making sure that the southern defenders received little rest.
Rear Adm. Porter called for volunteers to form a brigade of 2000 men from the ships’ crews to assist the Army in storming the fortifications. Sailors during the Civil War regularly trained to operate as landing parties, and Porter received an overwhelming response from his men, even being forced to turn away hundreds who were eager to take part in the assault. Shortly after noon on 15 January 1600 Sailors armed with revolvers and cutlasses, and 400 Marines landed a mile and a half north of the fort and quickly formed into three divisions to attack the key northeast bastion of Fort Fisher. Porter appointed thirty-three year old Lt. Cmdr. K. Randolph Breese to lead the Naval Brigade and coordinate his assault with the Army. After the brigade moved up to a position 1200 yards from the fort, the flagship’s steam whistle blared the signal to launch the attack. Sailors and Marines dashed forward led by their young officers. The Confederate commander of the fort, Col. William Lamb, personally led the majority of his garrison to defend the northeast bastion in the upcoming action. Porter’s ships intensified their bombardment and covered the Naval Brigade until the men were within 600 yards of the defenses.
Eighteen-year old Ensign Robley Evans ran through the sandy soil along the beach at the head of his company of Sailors. At about 500 yards from the fort, the Confederate troops opened a volley on the head of the column, and if as one, the northerners dropped to their stomachs. The Navy and Marine officers quickly rose and called for their men to follow as they charged forward. At 300 yards, another volley issued from the defenses, and the men again threw themselves to the ground. Evans rose again and rallied his men to press forward. A withering fire cut down many of the attackers, and Evans instinctively pulled his hat down over his eyes unwilling to view the flashing blue line along the fort’s parapet. A flesh wound to the chest startled him, but he shortly realized he could go on.
As he neared the remains of the wooden palisade, a Confederate sharpshooter (Lamb had instructed his best riflemen to aim for the Union officers) fired a shot that struck Evans in the left leg about three inches below the knee. After receiving help from another officer in bandaging the wound, the determined young ensign managed to get back on his feet and led his men through a breach in the palisade. As he approached the base of the parapet, another shot struck him in the right knee, inflicting a dreadful wound that bled profusely. Unable to stand, Evans focused his efforts on bandaging his knee when yet another round entered the sole of his shoe and took off the end of one of his toes and wrenching his ankle. This last act enraged the naval officer, and he responded by rolling over to face his antagonist who stood above him thirty-five yards away. Taking careful aim Evans fired a single shot from his revolver that passed through the sharpshooter’s throat, causing the Confederate soldier to topple from the parapet and land close to where the ensign lay.
A number of Evans’s men and fellow officers lay dead or dying around him. A Marine from his ship, Private Wasmouth, rescued Evans, eventually dragging him to a place of safety. A bullet soon struck the heroic Marine in the jugular causing him to bleed to death at the feet of the man whose life he had saved. As the Sailors and Marines of the Naval Brigade streamed away from the fortifications, their attack repulsed, the Confederate defenders stood on top of their works and cheered. At this point Col. Lamb looked toward the far end of the landward defenses and stared in horror at the several U.S. flags flying above the western bastions. While the Sailors and Marines were struggling and dying before the northeast point of the defenses, Federal infantry had overwhelmed and breached the fortifications at the other end of the line. Much desperate fighting remained inside Fort Fisher, but the failed attack by the Naval Brigade had focused Lamb’s attention away from the fatal blow that turned the battle. The leadership of young officers like Robley Evans forced the Confederates to take the threat to their key position seriously, giving others the opportunity to win the day.