Library DrawingThe CONNector

NOVEMBER 2002 Volume 4 Number 4

"Fighting Bob"

Howard Miller, Curator, Mueum of Connecticut History

Photo of Admiral Robley D. Fighting Bob Evans.
Admiral Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans

Visitors entering the main lobby of the State Library and Supreme Court Building pass by a large ship model of the USS Connecticut. This ship played an important role in American history after its commissioning in 1905. The Connecticut was flagship of the "Great White Fleet" sent on a round the world cruise in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Commanding this fleet was Admiral Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans. The Museum of Connecticut History has recently acquired a color postcard depicting Evans at the height of his career.

Evans was born in Floyd County, Virginia on August 18, 1846. At the outbreak 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 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 USS Pequot led by Acting Ensign Anthony Smalley. The wounded were taken to the USS Nereus and 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 his life.

After the Civil War, he was medically retired from the U.S. Navy because of his injuries. Years later, 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 that country. 

In command of the gunboat, USS Yorktown, Evans arrived in Valparaiso to safeguard the interests of the United States. His forceful yet tactful handling of tensions between the Chileans and U.S. sailors earned him the nickname "Fighting Bob."

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

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

On the 3rd of July 1898, the USS Iowa was in its blockade position at the entrance of Santiago de Cuba. The Spanish ship Infanta Maria Teresa, Admiral Cervera's flagship, was sighted coming out of the harbor.  She was followed by the Vizcaya, Cristobol Colon, and the Almirante Oquendo. The Iowa headed for the Infanta Maria Teresa and fired at her until she moved beyond range, then the Iowa concentrated on the Vizcaya. The attack went against the Cristobol Colon and the Almirante Oquendo. Of the Oquendo, Evans commented in admiration 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]."

The Oquendo and Maria Teresa were both on fire when sunk by the guns of other American ships. The Iowa continued firing on the Vizcaya until she struck her colors and ran aground. With other ships of the fleet involved in the pursuit of the escaping Cristobol Colon, Evans chose to go to the aid of the crew of the Vizcaya. While trying to escape the burning vessel and climb onto the beach, the Spanish crewmen were being attacked by the Cubans. Evans was incensed by this 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 USS 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 also became ill and 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.

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