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A Flag Not Forgotten: The Story of Corporal David Evans

Cpl. David Evans of the 56th Ohio


On the night of September 9, 1861, during the early rumblings of the Civil War, 24 year old Corporal David Evans met up with his best friend, 20 year old and First Lieutenant Thomas J. Williams, at a railway station in Athens, Ohio. David and Thomas had been best friends since childhood and were current students at Ohio University. They proceeded to board a train that promptly carried them to Camp Morrow in Portsmouth, Ohio where they immediately enlisted into the 56th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

Camp Morrow was bustling with the early remnants of the 56th Ohio, a scrappy regiment led by enigmatic Portsmouth banker, Colonel Peter Kinney. Here at the lively camp, David met up with his younger brother Richard D. Evans who had already enlisted too. By December 1861, the 56th Ohio numbered 700 men, with six companies over 83 men and four others of at least 50. They were soon filled to quota and saw their first action at the Battle of Fort Donelson, arriving at the fort on February 16, 1862.

Sgt. Richard D. Evans, 56th Ohio

A man of "fine physical development," as recalled by younger brother John A. Evans, David was promoted to corporal in no time. David was a daunting figure yet embraced by his comrades, and with the 56th Ohio, he soon saw action at Shiloh, in various skirmishes, and during the 1863 Vicksburg Campaign alongside his best friend Thomas.

At the Battle of Port Gibson on May 1, 1863, alongside the assistance of the 34th Indiana Infantry, the 56th Ohio partook in a daring charge up a ridge near Magnolia Church. The 23rd Alabama and a howitzer section of the Botetourt Artillery were posted atop this ridge, where they were delivering a hot fire into the oncoming Yankees. The 34th Indiana was slowed down by the onslaught, but the 56th Ohio took control of the charge and proceeded to ascend the ridge.

Carnage ensued atop the high ground. Rebel cannoneers and troops dropped like flies and began to fall back. Amidst the chaos of retreating men, David captured the flag of the 23rd Alabama. He was soon congratulated by General Ulysses S. Grant himself for his brilliant actions, just after the 56th proceeded to sweep the ridge and capture 125 Confederate prisoners.

After his great flag capture, tragedy soon reared its ugly head for David and the Evans family. At the Battle of Champion Hill on May 16, 1863, amidst intense fighting and immense loss, the 56th Ohio found themselves flanked on both sides and outnumbered by what seemed insurmountable odds. The 56th fell back in response, loading and firing at every suitable position among the unforgiving terrain of the Champion Hill battlefield. David was struck by a booming artillery shell that etched thick fragments into his leaking chest, where bone and skin had once been. Inhumanly tough, David held on for nearly two months before finally succumbing to the gruesome wound aboard the R.C. Wood hospital steamboat on July 14, 1863. He was just 26 years old.

David never made it back home to his large Evans family, spread across Oak Hill and Gallia County, Ohio, but his captured flag was set to endure. After being received by Portsmouth, Ohio locals from the 56th Ohio themselves, David’s captured flag was suspended in the Council Chamber at Portsmouth City Hall in 1863. A printed account of its capture was attached to the flag as well, and the flag hung there for 58 years.

On the night of February 17, 1921, a fire ravaged through Portsmouth City Hall where the captured flag was still on display. The fire was discovered quickly enough to prevent absolute damage to the building itself, but after the fire, David’s captured flag was never seen by anyone again. It was either burned to ash or moved elsewhere where it remains lost in time.

David's flag forever lost: Portsmouth Daily Times, 1921

Union soldiers who captured Confederate flags during the Civil War were typically awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the absolute highest of all honors that a soldier could receive. Since the city of Portsmouth never turned David’s captured flag over to the United States War Department after receiving it, David never received his posthumous Medal of Honor. Up in flames or lost in time, the flag was forgotten, and David’s heroic actions at Port Gibson were buried much like his ultimate fate. David was being buried at Vicksburg National Cemetery in Warren County, Mississippi following the Union victory at Vicksburg—a life now nothing more than an afterthought at best; from hero to casualty in a matter of months.

But however tragic, David's story doesn't end with his death. Younger brother Richard D. Evans, on the same day that David died, was commissioned back into service by Ohio Governor David Tod to serve as a Captain in the Gallia County Militia, as Morgan's Raiders galloped into Ohio with devastating intentions. Richard, still sick, rode off to Portsmouth, Ohio once more where he met up with the makeshift Gallia County militiamen he was set to lead. In the end, Richard played his part as a Captain as John Hunt Morgan and his remaining raiders were captured in Ohio on July 26, 1863.

Rewinding farther back: before David had even enlisted in 1861, he purchased An Elementary Treatise on Advanced-Guard, Out-Post, and Handling Them in Presence of An Enemy in February of 1861. He did this while in Oak Hill where he slaved his days away as a miner at the nearby furnaces. Written by Dennis H. Mahan (Professor of Tactics and Engineering at the United States Military Academy), this book detailed advanced military tactics necessary for success against enemy combatants. David became a student of war, reading the book frequently from cover to cover, and his brilliant flag capture was most certainly a result of his heady, take-action learning. The book still exists in his family today, and it is soaked in his blood as a result of his Champion Hill wound.

Image 1, the cover of David's book; Image 2, title page amidst David's blood; Image 3, David's signatures amidst his blood

The book still exists because David’s best friend, Thomas. Thomas returned home to Ohio and soon stopped at the home of Ann Evans in 1866 in Gallia County. Thomas proceeded to hand David’s belongings over to the mother of his fallen best friend, belongings that he himself had retrieved following David’s death, and among the items was David’s prized book on military tactics. David had carried this book closely throughout his entire service.

Thomas later said this about David's death: “A shell tore a terrible gash in the side of Corporal David Evans. He had been my closest friend for years. He was a man of fine physical frame, but from the effects of this wound he died on July 14th of 1863. He was the comrade that captured the colors of the 23rd Alabama Infantry at Port Gibson.”

Author and his 3X great grandfather

Richard D. Evans is my 3X great grandfather, and his brother David is my 3X great uncle. Richard never spoke about his Civil War experiences given the trauma he endured, but the significance of what he and my great uncles accomplished is undeniable. Richard and David’s younger brother John also fought in the 27th Ohio, working his way up to the rank of Captain while not missing a single day of action. John also saw action during the Western Theater as well, and fought gallantly during the Atlanta Campaign. John was closely associated with Generals Sherman and McPherson.

Captain John A. Evans of the 27th Ohio, wedding day photo restored

As a longtime history buff, my admiration for the iron qualities of the Union during the Civil War only grew as I learned my deep ancestral connection. My recent book Brothers follows the specifics of the service of the Evans brothers through their eyes. It debuted at #6 on Barnes & Noble's History Bestsellers. Specifically, it was an honor revealing David's heroics during the Western Theater in a way that, with all of his melancholy, Richard never could. Richard never forgot David though, naming his second-born son David Charles after his courageous older brother, who went out fighting until his very last breath—and Richard's son David Charles Evans is my Great 2x Grandpa.

The Western Theater is truly the happening where the Union won the Civil War and the Confederacy lost, a defeat built off of the backs of men alike. The sacrifice of man is what built the United States itself, through invention and construction and defense, and too often does this sacrifice go overlooked. I recently visited David's grave at the Vicksburg National Cemetery in Mississippi, and boy did this fact ring true here amidst the massive, echoing Vicksburg Battlefield.

David, your story lives on. You were here, and you accomplished greatness.

—Dylan James


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