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July 8, 2022

Fighting Bob: The Swords of Robley Evans

By Kurt Allemeier

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Long before he was an admiral, and well before he got his nickname of “Fighting Bob,” Robley D. Evans was a fighter.

An American hero, Robley Evans had a lengthy career from being wounded in the American Civil War through commanding a battleship in the Spanish-American War to leading the White Fleet through the Straits of Magellan on its around-the-world cruise in 1908. He saw the U.S. Navy mature from sailing ships to a steel-hulled fleet that rivaled those of the European dreadnaughts.

While his life was fraught with perilous moments, he also counted meetings with significant figures in history like Brigham Young, Rudyard Kipling, and Theodore Roosevelt.

Evans’ nickname came from commanding the gunship USS Yorktown during a standoff between the United States and Chile in 1891, an event spurred by the stabbing of two sailors from the USS Baltimore outside a saloon in Valparaiso. Robley Evans was firm and diplomatic but ready to fight as the Yorktown sat at anchor surrounded by Chilean warships.

A pair of presentation swords, one given to him by the crew of the USS Iowa following the Spanish-American War and another presented to him during his command of the Great White Fleet, as well as his sword cane, are on offer in Rock Island Auction Company’s Aug. 26-28 Premier Auction.

He wrote in his book, “A Sailor’s Log,” about the sword Evans received from the men of the Iowa, calling it “a beautiful sword, which I shall value above all my earthly possessions.”

A pair of presentation officer swords, Lot 3091 and Lot 3092, given to Rear Admiral Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans and a sword cane of Evans' will be available in Rock Island Auction Company's Aug. 26-28 Premier Auction. Evans' 48-year Naval career spanned from the American Civil War to the first leg of the Great White Fleet's around the world voyage.

Robley Evans before “Fighting Bob”

Robley Evans was born in Virginia in 1846, the son of slave owners. A decade later Evans went to live with his uncle in Washington, D.C. where he eschewed his education but enjoyed watching the sailing ships on the waterfront. Robley's uncle arranged an appointment to the Naval Academy through the delegate for the Utah Territory with one catch: he had to live in the territory for a year.

On the way west, Evans traveled by train and wagon train, riding a mule. The wagon train was attacked by Indians and he took an arrow to the ankle. While in Utah, a young Robley called on Mormon leader Brigham Young, finding him a hard-looking man who was kind and wished him well.

This officer's sword was presented to Robley D. Evans after he left the USS Iowa following the Spanish-American War. Evans commanded the Iowa at the Battle of Santiago. This presentation sword is on offer in the Aug. 26-28 Premier Auction.

In 1860 Robley Evans returned east and joined the Naval Academy as a midshipman aboard the legendary frigate USS Constitution, known as “Old Ironsides.” By the next year, studies were suspended as civil war loomed. Evans’ family urged him to resign and return to Virginia.

Robley stayed and graduated from the academy in 1863. He served on a number of Union ships before being assigned to the USS Powhatan as an 18-year-old ensign.

The Powhatan was among the flotilla that attacked Fort Fisher near Wilmington, N.C., where Robley Evans was assigned to lead a landing force against the fort. Heroically, Evans charged the fort, getting shot four times, including twice in his right leg.

Early treatment aboard ship was whiskey and morphine. Transferred to a hospital, Evans spirited a revolver along and upon overhearing a conversation about amputating his legs, he refused and pulled the revolver on the doctor. Robley fought off infection and an abscess during his recovery. Trouble was, his right leg didn’t heal properly, making him unfit for duty and landed him on the retired list. He found a doctor who re-broke the right leg to make it usable again and for him to return to duty. Photos of Evans later in life showed him often with his right leg slightly bent, and he suffered occasional bouts of pain from his war wounds.

The photo of Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans, left,shows his right leg slightly bent, a result of wounds received during the Civil War. Now an admiral, Evans, in the right photo, sits for a portrait with one of his presentation swords.

Robley Evans Asia-Bound

Now a lieutenant, Robley Evans was assigned to the USS Piscatagua as it set sail on its maiden voyage to Asia. He was not impressed by the screw steamer.

“She had many bad qualities, but no good ones,” Evans wrote in “A Sailor’s Log.” When under steam, “she would fairly shake the teeth out of your head.”

Robley Evans and the Piscatagua visited China, Hong Kong, Japan, Manila, and Singapore. During a stop in Hong Kong, he visited an opium den where he sampled the drug, wanting to know what it was like.

“I inhaled three whiffs of the smoke, which was all the small pill produced, and then I was very sorry I had done it,” Evans wrote in his book. Instead of hallucinations or euphoria he got nauseous for several days.

The presentation sword given to Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans as commander of the Great White Fleet on the first leg of its around the world voyage.

Steel Ships and Lighthouses

Upon his return to the United States, Robley Evans was assigned to the Naval Academy where he served for two years before being assigned to the USS Shenandoah that voyaged to Africa and the Mediterranean Sea. Upon his return, Evans was named executive officer of the USS Congress and again sailed to Africa before it returned to the United States to represent the Navy at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

Robley Evans took command of a training ship for four years and served on an advisory board to rebuild the Navy. He submitted a resolution that all ships moving forward should be built of steel. There was pushback on the idea because steel plates weren’t made in the United States, but Evans argued that was because there was no demand. An all-steel Navy would create the demand.

This closeup of the officer's sword presented to Robley D. Evans after he left the USS Iowa shows a sea horse on the hand guard and a fouled anchor on the scabbard. The sword is for sale in RIAC's Aug. 26-28 Premier Auction.

By the mid-1880s Robley Evans was assigned as a lighthouse inspector and learned that lighthouse keepers are political appointments who return part of their pay as kickbacks. He tried to stop the practice and fell out of favor for a time, leaving him to take a position as a materials inspector for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad where he learned about steel manufacturing.

This experience led Evans, when a new administration was installed, to become chief steel inspector as the prospect of an all-steel Navy became real. He set the steel standards higher than those imposed by the British navy.

Details of the hilt of this presentation sword given to Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans as commander of the Great White Fleet. It shows an eagle on the knuckle guard, oak leaves on the hand guard, and an anchor on the scabbard. The sword is for sale in Rock Island Auction Company's Aug. 26-28 Premier Auction.

Fighting Bob: Birth of a Legend

In August 1891 Robley Evans was back at sea with the rank of commander, commanding the USS Yorktown, the lead ship of its class, a twin-screw gunboat. She was armed with six 6-inch guns and some smaller weapons. A month later Evans and the Yorktown were dispatched to Valparaiso, Chile where there was friction between the U.S. and the South American country.

The Yorktown anchored in Valparaiso’s harbor at the end of November, with tensions near a boil due to the fatal stabbing of two American sailors and 18 injured by a mob assisted by police. Forty-two sailors were arrested. Evans was cordial toward the Chileans as diplomacy played out but ready for action nonetheless.

Evans wrote in his journal: “It is not my business to make trouble here, and I don’t intend to give offence to any one until I have orders from home, and then I shall do it with my guns and not with my tongue.”

These photos show details of the pommel of the presentation sword given to Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans by the crew of the USS Iowa that features an anchor and eagle surrounded by stars. The sword is for sale in RIAC's Aug. 26-28 Premier Auction.

By Dec. 21, Evans was prepared for any order. On New Year’s Eve, the Chileans lit off fireworks and a rocket from a Chilean warship came perilously close to the Yorktown.

“I at once hoisted a large American flag and turned both my searchlights on it, so that if anyone really wanted to hit me he could know just where I was,” Evans wrote in “A Sailor’s Log.” “I was determined, if trouble came, there should be no ground for saying we had been accidentally struck in the dark.”

The scabbard of the presentation sword given to Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans by the crew of the USS Iowa features a sea monster on the scabbard. The sword will be available in RIAC's Aug. 26-28 Premier Auction.

The Chileans received warnings from Robley Evans on three other occasions: when a mob threw stones at this ship while he was ashore, when a number of refugees were brought on board and there were concerns of assassination, and as Chilean torpedo boats used the Yorktown as a target for practice runs.

As the calendar turned to February, the United States received reparation for the murdered and beaten sailors, and the Yorktown took the refugees to Peru. Evans, seeing the news from home, learned that despite not firing a shot he had gained a nickname.

The pommel of the presentation sword given to Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans as commander of the Great White Fleet features a raised anchor and two stars with four red gemstones running up the knuckle guard.

“I have nice letters from friends commending my course at Valparaiso; very satisfactory, but I wish the newspapers would let me alone,” he wrote. “Why should they call me Fighting Bob?”

Fighting Bob back in Action

"Fighting Bob" and the Yorktown then went north to enforce sealing laws around Alaska. The Yorktown put 110 sealing vessels on notice not to enter the Bering Sea to hunt and captured the British steamer Coquitlan that carried over 30,000 seal skins. The ship was taken to Sitka where it was bonded to the U.S. Treasury for $600,000.

When "Fighting Bob" returned he was promoted to captain and given command of the battle cruiser USS New York, the largest naval vessel of her time. Evans was tasked with sailing to Germany in June, 1895 to celebrate the opening of the Kiel Canal that connected the Baltic Sea to the North Sea.

Fighting Bob goes to War

Evans took the helm of the USS Indiana when it was commissioned the following year. Indiana was the Navy’s first steel-hulled battleship, small but well armored and armed, built for coastal defense. He would not helm the Indiana for long; he was soon called to serve about the USS Iowa.

As the Iowa’s second captain, Robley Evans took the Iowa to war after the sinking of the USS Maine in the harbor at Havana, Cuba. The captain and her crew participated in the bombardment of San Juan, Puerto Rico as the Navy searched for a Spanish squadron of warships.

The Spanish were found in port at Santiago de Cuba, on the island’s south side, and the Iowa and several other ships blockaded the harbor. The Battle of Santiago de Cuba on July 3, 1898 resulted in a rout of the Spanish squadron. The Iowa and another ship inflicted 70 percent of the damage to the Spanish ships, according to battle reports.

A painting of the fierce naval action at the Battle of Santiago where the U.S. Navy routed a Spanish squadron. Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans commanded the USS Iowa during the fight. A pair of presentation swords (Lot 3091 and Lot 3092) and a sword cane of Evans are on offer in the Aug. 26-28 Premier Auction.

When the captain of the Spanish ship Vizcaya came aboard the Iowa after he and the crew were rescued, he offered his sword in surrender. Evans declined the sword and shared his quarters with the captured captain as he recovered from his wounds.

One of the officer swords for sale in the Aug. 26-28 Premier Auction was one "Fighting Bob" Evans received from the crew of the Iowa after leaving the ship and refers to his refusal to take the enemy captain’s sword. The inscription states: "To our hero - Too just to take a fallen foe's - We give this sword instead."

The inscription on the scabbard of the presentation sword given to Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans reads "To our hero - Too just to take a fallen foe's - We give this sword instead."

The Great White Fleet

After the war, Robley Evans rose in rank to rear admiral and became commander of the Atlantic fleet. President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to show off United States naval superiority and ordered 16 battleships and a number of accompanying vessels to sail around the world. Evans’ leadership, diplomatic skills, and respect from the public made him Roosevelt’s choice to lead the mission.

The fleet gained its name from all the ships being painted peacetime white rather than the more common gray color seen on warships. Robley Evans’ flagship was the USS Connecticut. The fleet departed from Hampton Road, Virginia in December, 1907. Evans recalled the departure on a gray late autumn day with President Roosevelt on hand.

“As the reports of the saluting guns died away, the clouds parted, the sun came out, and ushered in a most beautiful day. It was, indeed, Roosevelt weather,” Evans wrote.

The Great White Fleet sailing in a line during its around the world voyage, 1908-1909. Admiral Robley D. Smith received a presentation sword during the voyage.

The fleet made several calls as it sailed south, and celebrated crossing the equator, and Evans again sailed through the Straits of Magellan. The admiral’s pain from his war wound was becoming chronic and debilitating. He left the fleet at one point for treatment. He did participate in the fleet parade after the ships arrived in San Francisco in May, 1908. It was a jubilant event and recognition of "Fighting Bob" who left the fleet to retire on his 62nd birthday in August. The fleet continued on its 14-month voyage, returning to the United States in February, 1909.

When he retired, Robley Evans had served 48 years in active service, and died in January, 1912 at age 65.

Details of the scabbard of the presentation sword given to Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans as commander of the Great White Fleet.

Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans' Presentation Swords

Robley D. Evans was a beloved national hero as evident by the presentation swords given to him. The sword from the crew of the Iowa after the Spanish-American War features a sea horse and pierced scroll pattern guard, along with a sea serpent finial, anchor and stars on top of the pommel with a patriotic eagle and shield design on the pommel itself.

The second sword was presented to Evans as he commanded the Great White Fleet and is a classic Model 1852 Navy Officer sword with a 30-inch blade that has frosted patriotic etchings on the blade, a gilt brass hilt adorned with an oak leaf, acorns, laurels, and sea serpents. Four rose-colored stones decorate the knuckle guard where it meets the pommel. The pommel features a fouled anchor.

The sword cane is knotted burl wood with a handle decorated with a silver end cap. A small button releases the sword blade.

The presentation swords are not just tokens of appreciation but are historic pieces that recognize the contributions of a man whose legendary career spanned an era of maturation and modernization of the U.S. Navy, culminating in his leadership on the first leg of a globe-spanning tour of American sea power.

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