Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans was born in Marion, South Carolina to Thomas and Jane Beverly Evans on February 3, 1824. He attended Randolph-Macon College before receiving an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1848. There, his classmates nicknamed him “Shanks” because of his spindly legs and knocked knees. He graduated from the academy and joined the 2nd US Cavalry where he served with distinction in the west against the Plains Indians. Evans resigned his captain’s commission in 1861 to join the Confederacy when the war broke out.
At the First Battle of Manassas, he proved his worth when he held the line on the extreme left against a vastly overwhelming force at Stone Bridge.
The First Battle of Manassas figures prominently in The Rain Crow, my historical. My main character’s love interest says during the battle while waiting to be called: It’s early afternoon and the fighting has been raging all morning. Shanks Evans will be the hero of the fight if anyone is honest. He and his men have fought like demons and has paid a heavy price.
Few people give him the credit he is due that day, but his sacrifice likely saved the battle for the South. Evans’ small 1,100-man brigade was positioned behind the Stone Bridge crossing of Bull Run Creek on the extreme left of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard’s eight-mile defensive line. At first light (shortly after 5 a.m.), McDowell’s 6,000 opened fire on Evans’ concealed position. The bombardment continued for over three hours when a signalman alerted him a Union column was moving up on Sudley Springs Ford in a flanking maneuver. Evans had a decision to make, and no doubt called on his Prussian orderly who was in charge of protecting Evans’ wooden, one-gallon whiskey jug he called his “barrelito” to help make him think. Decision made, Evans pushed his exhausted and vastly outnumbered brigade to oppose the Union crossing. He ordered Wheat’s Tigers into the fray at one point led by 6’4″ Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat. The Louisiana cutthroat Zouaves charged in like demons, but they were decimated, and Wheat was shot through both lungs. He was told by surgeons no one in history had ever survived such a wound. Wheat told them then he would be the first one in the books. He did.
Reinforcements in the form of 2,800 men under Brigadier General Bernard Bee and Colonel Francis S. Bartow shored up Shanks’s immediate right but the Union infantry was on them with their artillery firing furiously. “I felt that I was in the presence of death,” wrote one of Bartow’s men. Bee urged his men not to fall back, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!” Bee took a shell to the stomach shortly after rallying his men and died the next day. Barstow urged his troops toward the enemy. “Boys, follow me!” he urged and waved his cap over his head. A Federal bullet struck him in the chest. Even dying, he encouraged his men not to give up. He was the first brigade commander to die in the war. Evans and his support had delayed the Union’s flanking tactic long enough for Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston to shift sufficient forces from the Confederate right to meet McDowell, securing a Confederate victory, but the butcher’s bill was terrible.
At Leesburg in 1861, Evans’s neat maneuvering of his brigade during the Battle of Balls Bluff led to an overwhelming Confederate victory. He was justifiably promoted to brigadier general. He went on to serve at Antietam, Second Manassas, and the Vicksburg Campaign, and various battles in the Carolinas, but his biggest battle seemed to be his temper and the bottle.
Evans was tried after the Battle of Kinston for being drunk, but was acquitted. He was later attached to General John Bell Hood’s brigade, but since he outranked him, there was contention between the two of them. Hood’s men captured a Union ambulance train and claimed it for his unit. Evans demanded he turn it over to him since he outranked him. Hood refused, calling it unjust, so Evans had him arrested. Lee had to get involved and had Hood released.
Evans could be a brilliant tactician at times, but he was fond of liquor and abrasive to everyone. He had little respect for orders or superiors, which led to constant charges being filed against him. He and Department Commander P.G.T Beauregard particularly clashed which led to two separate courts-martial though he escaped with rank.
In April of 1864, Evans was involved in a serious carriage accident from which he never really recovered. He was launched out of the carriage and landed on his head on the cobblestones inflicting several serious wounds. Even after his short-term recovery, Beauregard refused to reinstate him to active duty.
His final duty to the Confederacy was to accompany Jefferson Davis and his entourage through South Carolina after the fall of Richmond. Evans and his brother escorted them to their homes in Cokesbury, South Carolina. Evans and his brother remained there, and Davis left the next day. Evans died in 1868 while serving as a principal in Midway, Alabama. He was buried in Tabernacle Cemetery, near Cokesbury.