Rear Admiral Robley Evans

(1846-1912)

By Jack L. McSherry, Jr.

Click here for a link to Robley Evans' account of the Battle of Santiago

General:

Robley Evans was the gruff captain commanding the USS IOWA, the U.S.'s largest and newest battleship, at the Battle of Santiago.

Biography:

Robley EvansRobley D. Evans was born in Floyd County, Virginia on August 18, 1846. At theoutbreak of the Civil War, he was a student at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis,graduating in 1863 and beginning his active service with the U.S. fleet.

Late in the American Civil War, on the 15th of January, 1865, at 10:40 A.M., a party consisting of 100 seamen and marines left the USS POWHATAN in company with detachments from other ships of the fleet  to attack Fort Fisher, North Carolina,  held by the Confederates.  The men in the naval landing force were all volunteers.  Among them was Ensign Robley D. Evans.  As he proceeded toward the fort, Evans was shot in the thigh.  Not letting the painful wound deter him, he wrapped a handkerchief around it and led his men toward the Fort.  In a short span, he was shot several more times, one of these was in the knee, which brought him down.   As the battle continued, and while under severe fire from the fort, Evans and other wounded men were rescued by a detachment from the U.S.S. PEQUOT, led by Acting Ensign Anthony Smalley . The wounded were taken to the U.S.S. NEREUS, then transferred to the SANTIAGO DE CUBA for passage to the hospital at Norfolk.

Because of  his serious wounds, as he lay helpless in the hospital, he was approached by a surgeon who suggested amputation.  Evans pulled out a pistol from under his pillow and said he would shoot at the first sign of a surgeon’s saw.  The surgeon concluded that Evans would die, and did not press for amputation.  Obviously, the young ensign survived. However, these injuries left him with a limp and severe pain for the rest of hislife.  Because of this limp, later in his life, while in command of the Great White Fleet in 1907, he was affectionately known as “ Gimpy Evans” by the crews of the ships under his command.

After the Civil War, because of his injuries, he was medically retired from the U.S. Navy.  After many years, and after appealing to Congress for reinstatement, he was again placed into active duty in the Navy.

Because of the outbreak of a revolution in Chile in January 1891, The United States Minister to Chile requested  naval forces to protect the U.S.'s interests in Chile.  The cruiser U.S.S. BALTIMORE, commanded by Captain Winfield Scott Schley, traveled from Villefranche, France arriving in Valparaiso, Chile on April 7, 1891.

Except for a brief  liberty ashore in late July or early August in Coquimbo, north of Santiago,  the crew had not been off the ship since its arrival in Chile six months earlier. On October 16th, after consulting with Chilean officials, Captain Schley, with a littleconcern and sensing that there were strong feelings and great hostility against the Americans by the Chilean people, granted liberty ashore to his crew.

Because of the ill-feeling, riots broke out, mobs ran through the streets, and many people on both sides were injured.  Two American sailors were killed. The Chilean version of the fiasco was that the American Sailors were drunk and started fights with the Chileans.  The American version was that the Chilean people disliked the Americans because of U.S. support for the recently overthrown government and attacked the American Sailors because they represented the American government.  Perhaps a little of both was true.

Captain Schley hammered away at the Chilean government to investigate the incident, and pressed for a resolution and apologies.  Schley pressed his claim that his sailors were not drunk and behaved in a very responsible manner. At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State, Blaine, and the U.S. Ambassador to Chile were also trying to resolve the issue.  This activity proceeded without much result for several months.

Shortly after the incident, The gunboat, U.S.S. YORKTOWN,  arrived in Valparaiso under the command of  the irrepressible Commander Robley D. Evans. Evans made his feelings about the affair quite clear, in very undiplomatic way.  He stated " [Schley's] men were probably drunk on shore, properly drunk; which they did onChilean rum paid for with good United States money. When in this condition they were more entitled to protection [from the Chilean government] than if they had been sober."

After the departure of the BALTIMORE,  the interests of the United States were guarded by the YORKTOWN under Evans, a determined and forceful man. He attempted to heal the differences by showing courtesy to the people of Chile.  However, according to his writings, his crew members and himself were subjected to insults from the people of Chile.

Evans advised the Chilean officials that he believed that they were incapable of maintaining order on the streets. He suggested that he would arm his crewmen when they were required to go ashore, and have them shoot anyone that threatened them or insulted them.  Evans was getting irritated with the situation and began to become nasty, which was not difficult for him to do.

For instance, one day the Chileans were practicing maneuvers and torpedo
use in the harbor.  In so doing, they came very close to the YORKTOWN, seemingly to intimidate the Americans.  Evans protested.  The president of Chile replied that the Chilean ships could travel wherever they desired in Chilean waters.  At this, Evans stated that the YORKTOWN was the property of the United States government, and if the paint of the ship was so much as scratched, he would sink the offending torpedo boat.

As the two nations argued over the events surrounding the BALTIMORE's crew, the threat of war became a strong probability.  Robley Evans received a message ordering him to keep his ship full of coal, which led him to wonder, "they regarded me at the [Navy] Department as some kind of idiot.  Of course I [as commander of the YORKTOWN] was full of coal and everything else I should need when the time foraction came".

On January 23, 1892, the Chilean government sent a message to President Harrison expressing a willingness to pay reparations for the dead and injured sailors.  This led to a cessation of hostile actions and the incident was concluded.

Because of his strong stand against the Chileans, Robley Evans was nicknamed ”Fighting Bob Evans.” Evans later commented that this nickname seemed odd, since, by his actions, he managed to skillfully avoid a fight. Evans, because of hisforthright, if gruff, manner had won the grudging respect of the Chileans.

When the Spanish American War began, Captain Robley D. Evans found himself in command of the U.S.'s newest and largest battleship, the U.S.S. IOWA. She had only been commissioned less than a year earlier.

On May 12, 1898, the U.S.S. IOWA with Evans in command, joined the other ships of the squadron and entered the firing line against the Morro Battery  and theEastern Battery at San Juan de Puerto Rico.  After firing on the Spanish batteries forabout two hours, the fleet discontinued action.  During the course of this event, the IOWA was struck by  ashell from the Eastern Battery, which wounded three men and caused some damage on deck.

On the 3rd of July, 1898, the U.S.S. IOWA, was in its blockade position at the entrance of Santiago de Cuba. The Spanish ship, INFANTA MARIA TERESA , AdmiralCervera’sflagship, was sighted coming out of the harbor.  She was followed by theVIZCAYA,CRISTOBAL  COLON, and the ALMIRANTE OQUENDO.  The IOWA headed for the INFANTA MARIA TERESA and fired at her until she moved beyond range, then theIOWA concentrated on the VIZCAYA.   The attack then went against the CRISTOBAL  COLON and the ALMIRANTE OQUENDO. Of the OQUENDO, Evans commented inadmiration that, in spite of being hit hard, she "pluckily held on her course and fairly smothered us with a shower of shells and machine gun [fire]."

 As the engagement continued, the Spanish torpedo boat destroyers FUROR and PLUTON approached and were also fired on by the IOWA.  With fire from the IOWA,INDIANA, GLOUCESTER, and other vessels of the squadron, the FUROR andPLUTON were sunk.  The OQUENDO and MARIA TERESA were both on fire and sunk by the guns of other American ships.  The IOWA continued firing on theVIZCAYA until she struck her colors and had run aground.  With other ships of thefleet involved in the pursuit of the escaping CRISTOBAL  COLON, Evans chose to goto the aid of the crew of  the VIZCAYA.  The Spanish crewmen, while trying to escape the burning vessel and climb onto the beach, were being attacked by the Cubans.Evans was incensed bythis attack on defenseless men who had fought to the best of their ability. Lowering boats, a landing party was sent ashore to defend the Spaniards against the Cubans. An officer was sent to find the Cuban commander and inform him that "unless they ceased their infamous work," Evans would turn the immense guns of the IOWA on the Cubans themselves. Lt. Cmdr. Wainwright of the GLOUCESTER similarly threatened the Cubans. The combination of forces caused the Cubans to cease their action. The IOWA's crew  rescued Captain Eulate, the commanding officer of the VIZCAYA,along with 23 officers and about 248 men of the Spanish crew.  Five dead of the Spanish crew were buried with honors, the wounded were cared for, and the remaining became prisoners of war.   As he always did, Captain Evans included complimentary statements in his reports pertaining to his “admiration for his magnificent crew”.

The IOWA had suffered no losses to the crew in the action, something that would have extra meaning to Evans. Serving under him aboard the IOWA was his son, a naval cadet.

Years later, Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans commanded President Theodore Roosevelt's "Great White Fleet" of sixteen  battleships on the first leg of its long world cruise. The fleet left Hampton Roads, Virginia on  December 16, 1907,  and after cruising around South America, passing through the Strait of Magellan, and visiting many countries along the way, the fleet, arrived in San Francisco Bay on May 6, 1908.  The cruise was not a good experience for Evans. He had spent most of his time in bed with his pain and illness.

In San Francisco, an enfeebled Evans relinquished  his command to Rear Admiral Charles Mitchell Thomas.  However, Thomas being in ill health was replaced five days later by Rear Admiral Charles Stillman Sperry.  The "Great White Fleet" then continued its triumphant cruise, stopping at ports in countries all around the world,  and verifying that the United States was indeed a world naval power.  Having circled the world, the fleet returned to Hampton Roads on  February 22, 1909.

Robley D. Evans died in 1912.



Bibliography:

(As a service to our readers, clicking on title in red will take you to that book on Amazon.com)

Clerk of the Joint Committee on Printing, The Abridgement: Message from the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress. Vol. 4, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899.

Eller, Rear Admiral (ret'd) E. M., Director of Naval History, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Vol. III., Washington: Department of the Navy, Naval History Division, 1977.

Hart, Robert A, The Great White Fleet. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1965.

McSherry, Jack L., CQM, USN, Things We Remember. printed privately, 1966 (McSherry was on the crew of the Minnesota serving in the Great White Fleet under the command of  Admiral Robley D. "Gimpy" Evans).

Miller, Francis Trevelyan, Hero Tales from American Life. New York: Louis Klopsch, Proprietor of  The Christian Herald, 1909.

Nofi, Albert A., The Spanish-American War, 1898 . (Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1996).

Rawson, Prof. Edward K., Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in theWar of the Rebellion. Series I, Vol. 11, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1900.

Reckner, James R., Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet. Annapolis, MD United States Naval Institute, 1988.

West, Richard S, Jr., Admirals of American empire.., New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1948.


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