July 20th, 2011: Nathan "Shanks" Evans

Posted on: 07/20/2011

150 years ago today was a day destined to be the eve of a great battle.  Opposing army commanders Irvin McDowell and P.G.T. Beauregard both planned to attack on July 21st, though of course neither knew it.  Beauregard’s plan involved moving his force across several fords along Bull Run to turn the union left flank and push the federals north towards Centreville, Virginia.  Almost all of Beauregard’s force would be committed to this assault, with one exception being a small brigade marking the left flank of his own army under Nathan “Shanks” Evans.  As events unfolded the next day, Evans would perform a role in the battle that could not have been farther from what his commanding general had in mind.

Evans was a native South Carolinian who was well educated in his upbringing.  In order to attend West Point a candidate had to be nominated by a member of congress, and Evans had the distinction of being nominated by John C. Calhoun, the outspoken fire-eater and symbol of the secession movement.  Evans graduated in 1848; too late to gain combat experience in the Mexican War.  He was commissioned in the 2nd United States Dragoons and served on the frontier for the following decade.  Being a South Carolinian, he likely did not hesitate to resign his commission when his state seceded and by the summer of 1861 he found himself a colonel in the Confederate Army.

150 years ago today Evans was commanding a diverse brigade of South Carolinians, Louisianans and Virginians on the banks of Bull Run.  His men overlooked a stone bridge that crossed Bull Run and in the event of a federal movement south from their camps around Centreville was a likely avenue of approach.  His command also was the left flank of P.G.T. Beauregard’s Army of the Potomac, which was an important position to maintain.

Also 150 years ago today P.G.T. Beauregard issued a set of orders for his army to execute the next day, July 21st, 1861.  If you’ve ever wondered what exactly the orders for a Civil War army on the eve of a battle looked like, here is what Beauregard dispatched to his commanders:

Reading over the above order you may notice that Nathan Evans’ command in never directly mentioned.  The attack that Beauregard describes in his order was a flanking movement to be executed by the rightmost half of his army, while the left of his force would remain in place and advance after the main assault as a support and follow up any gains made.  While all of this was being planned, union commander Irvin McDowell had chosen against a frontal assault across Bull Run after confederate strength along the creek was revealed at Blackburn’s Ford two days previous on July 18th.  McDowell settled on a flanking movement that would envelope the confederate left flank, causing them to abandon the fords and bridges across Bull Run to meet his threat. 

Here is a rough (very rough) approximation (very approximate) map of what the two generals had planned for July 21st:

If the battle had gone exactly as planned by both commanders, the battle of First Manassas would have been a complicated, and somewhat comical day in which both armies launched flank attacks only to find the enemy’s main body had switched sides of the creek with them.  The red “E” marks the location of Evans’ Brigade.  This, of course, is not the way things happened. 

Looking back at Beauregard’s order, the sentence “The order to advance will be given by the commander-in-chief” follows every paragraph.  This is referring to Joseph Johnston, who brought his Army of the Shenandoah east to reinforce Beauregard.  This put the generals in an awkward situation since Johnston out ranked Beauregard, but yet was reinforcing him instead of vice versa.  Beauregard’s inclusion of that sentence acknowledges Johnston’s superior rank, and the next morning Johnston dispatched this message:

At 4:30 a.m. on July 21st, 1861 Johnston gave the nod for the assault.  But, the movement never got off the ground.  McDowell’s force had made its move first, and was moving around the confederate left flank guarded by Colonel Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans’ brigade of about 1,100 men.  Evans suspected the movement and was officially notified of the union movement by Captain Edward Porter Alexander, who was in command of a signal station behind the lines observing the unfolding situation.  Evans reacted quickly, rotating his men 90 degrees to face west, and awaited the union column.  Instead of being a reserve force in a large confederate assault, Evans found himself ordering the firing of the first volleys of the first major land battle of the Civil War.

Evans was soon attacked by the brigade of Ambrose E. Burnside made up of men from Rhode Island, New York and New Hampshire.  The above sketch was made by eyewitness Alfred Waud, and shows Colonel Burnside mounted in the foreground while his men fight their way over Matthew’s Hill and fire at Nathan Evans’ brigade.  Evans had been swiftly reinforced by two other brigades, but they were soon overwhelmed by federal numbers and forced to retreat towards a place known as Henry House Hill. 

We will pick up the story of the Battle of First Manassas tomorrow, and will now return to our profile of Nathan Evans.

Evans’ brigade had been badly mauled at First Manassas, but was now a combat experienced command.  Evans would remain with his men in Northern Virginia through the fall of 1861, and he would play a critical role in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in October where another disastrous defeat was inflicted on the Union.  Afterwards he was promoted and sent south to his home state of South Carolina, but returned to Virginia at the head of a new brigade made up of all South Carolina regiments in July of 1862.  He would lead his men at Second Manassas, South Mountain and Antietam before being sent back south to North Carolina by the winter of 1862.

One of Evans’ well known traits was his abrasive personality and his disposition to enjoy a drink from time to time.  He was involved in a little known battle in Kinston, North Carolina in December of 1862 which was a confederate defeat.  He was accused of drunkenness during the battle but was never convicted.  Evans was then moved again to take a command under Joseph Johnston during the Vicksburg Campaign, but his poor people skills forced conflict with fellow commanders.  In addition, he found himself back under the command of P.G.T. Beauregard, who doubted his abilities.  He was sent back to South Carolina without a command until the spring of 1864.

A buggy accident in Charleston prevented him from taking another field command in Virginia, but he was able to find a position in Richmond in the Confederate War Department.  He fled Richmond when the city fell in April 1865 and eventually surrendered to union forces.  After the war he became a high school principal in Alabama, but his injuries from the 1864 buggy accident lingered, and he died at the age of 44 in 1868.  He is buried in Tabernacle Cemetery in Cokesbury, South Carolina.

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