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The first decorated soldier of the Civil War?

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Colonel (and Oregon Senator) Edward Baker was dead. Bodies of Union soldiers littered the Potomac River as far down as Chain Bridge. And after dual, devastating defeats--in July along Bull Run and now at Balls Bluff--Baker’s outraged colleagues in Congress formed the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War.

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But in the victorious Confederacy, the South Carolina General Assembly decided to celebrate valor, passing a “concurrent resolution” citing one of their own, Brigadier General Nathan “Shanks” Evans, “for conspicuous gallantry at Leesburg.” As a token of their esteem for their heroic native son, the General Assembly commissioned James Allan & Company of Charleston to strike a gold medal for Evans.[1]

It would prove the high point of Evans’ service to the Confederacy. Yes, he had led the victorious Southern forces at Balls Bluff. And yes, at Manassas, he had redeployed in time to confront the enemy’s turning of the Confederate left, an action one historian said “went far towards saving the day for the South.”[2]

Yet despite the accolades, Evans was quite the rascal. Gruff and roughhewn to the point of insubordination, his piercing stare and full beard aided his bullying. Noted one of Gen. James Longstreet’s staff officers,

Evans was difficult to manage … He had a Prussian orderly, with a wooden vessel holding a gallon of whiskey always strapped on his back, and there was the trouble.[3]

Remembered another contemporary,

If Nathan is the bravest and best General in the C.S., if not in the world, he is at the same time about the best drinker, the most eloquent swearer (I should say voluble) and the most magnificent bragger I ever saw.[4]

His “Barrelita,” as Evans called his whiskey man, was never far from his side. Court-martialed for intoxication and acquitted, then tried again for disobedience of orders and again acquitted, "Shanks" Evans eventually crossed General P. G. T. Beauregard who deemed him incompetent and removed him from command.

After the war, Evans garnered a job as a high school principal in Alabama, but lived only another three years. Yet for his actions at Balls Bluff and Manassas, Evans became the first soldier on either side to receive a medal.

In 1936, Gen. Evans’ gold medal was donated to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. Enclosed in a purple velvet case 83 mm square with a silk lining imprinted with the maker’s name, the medal reflects a golden proof finish and measures 51 mm in diameter. Other examples of the Evans’ medal, either in silver or bronze, are rumored to exist. At least one bronze specimen is known.[5]

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[1] Clemmer, Gregg. Valor in Gray: The Recipients of the Confederate Medal of Honor, (Staunton, VA, Hearthside, 1996), 441.

[2] Warner, Ezra. General in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders, (Baton Rouge, LA, LSU Press, 1986), 84.

[3] Sorrel, Gen. G. Moxley. Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer, (New York, Neale Publishing, 1905), 99.

[4] Thomas Pelot to Lalla Pelot, 15 September 1861, Lalla Pelot Papers, Duke University Library.

[5] Clemmer, 441.

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