John M. Steffan was the commanding officer of Company A, 71st Pennsylvania Infantry. Hailing from Philadelphia, his regiment, along with the 69th, 72nd and 106th Pennsylvania Infantry regiments, formed the famous “Philadelphia Brigade.” He was promoted to Captain in April 1863 and would lead his company into the horrific fighting in which the 71st became engaged on the 2nd and 3rd of July 1863 at Gettysburg.
My interest in him originated from a letter, dated July 2nd, 1863, from his brother, Frederick Steffan, found while researching in Philadelphia. Frederick began the letter by apologizing for not having written sooner, as “[he had] been in such a fever of excitement for the last two weeks that [he could] scarcely find time to answer [John’s] ever welcome letters.” Then, Frederick delved into the military issues of the day, stating, “when the news first came that the enemy had invaded [Pennsylvania] the majority of the people thought it was a hoax, in fact a trick of the Government to get men to enlist for six months.” Furthermore, Frederick shared his uncertainty about the new commander of the army: “I doubt whether they have put the right man in [Hooker’s] place…why is it that an untried [general] is given the command when the whole state of [Pennsylvania] is at stake.” Finally, Frederick affectionately ended his letter: “hoping to hear from you soon and that this may reach you in good health and spirits.”[i]
Frederick, however, was too late – John never read these words.
On the same day Frederick’s letter was written, John’s friend, Lewis Rhell of Company F of the 72nd, conveyed a premonition he had to John. While John was awaiting orders, Lewis asked him, “if he had any effects that [he] could keep for [John] till after the battle,” John replied “Lew don’t talk so foolish and make such big calculations. You don’t think I’m going to get killed do you?” Lewis responded, “Well John something tells me you are.”[ii] Just then (at about 6:30 a.m.), the order was given to advance across Taneytown Road to Cemetery Ridge.[iii] John bade Lewis farewell and departed; Lewis, running after him, asked, “could [I] do anything if [you] should fall,” to which John answered, “Nothing Lew, Good bye.”[iv] That was the last time Lewis saw John unscathed.
The 71st Pennsylvania was positioned at the stone wall near “The Angle” on Cemetery Ridge on July 3rd, 1863. Firing had commenced along the lines early that morning. According to Lewis, at about one or two o’clock p.m., John was badly wounded in the chest, perhaps by a piece of shell from an exploded caisson. He laid in the hot sun, choking on smoke for about an hour.[v] John was carried off the field (by whom is unknown) and brought to what Lewis referred to as “Stone Hospital,” the Peter Frey Farmhouse (often referred to as the Biggs House today). Upon hearing that John was hurt, Lewis went to a doctor named Aiken to get an ambulance to recover John’s body and bring him to the Sarah Patterson farm, which was located further behind the lines. According to Lewis, “John’s body could not be fumbled about as he was in so much pain, and there he laid, a large crowd of friends were around him (wounded) and I could only see him by looking in through their legs.” Lewis also saw two doctors dressing John’s wound. After ten minutes, “the storming rain of shells came,” and Lewis and the doctors left to protect themselves behind a stone wall, John still lying wounded on the ground.[vi]
After the Confederate shelling had finished, Lewis went back to check on his friend. There, Lewis “beheld him lying Dead, several were looking on when [Lewis] came up, but soon went away, [John’s] pockets were turned inside out.” Lewis went into the Frey House and inquired who had taken John’s things. The hospital steward had John’s watch, while Doctor Aiken had all other possessions, which were to be given to Colonel Kochersperger. John had 260 dollars on him entering the battle that was never recovered. In a letter to John’s family, Lewis wrote, “if he would of taken my advice, the money would have been saved.”[vii]
Lewis thought John could have been saved too. In the same letter, he states, “I learned from the Steward of the 71st that John was carefully attended to, but this I can hardly believe, If he would have had a good skillful Doctor he might have recovered, and still live with us.” The evening of the third, John was buried. John’s servant obtained a quilt from the Frey house and with Lewis’ help, wrapped John’s body in it, “just as he was, as we could do no better, he had on him pair of pants, Drawers, shirt part of his Coat and Vest, also his socks.” [viii]
His grave remained in the yard of the Frey house until his remains were recovered by his family and was moved to his current resting place, Mount Peace Cemetery in Philadelphia. John’s brother, Edward of Company B, 121st Pennsylvania Infantry, visited John’s grave shortly after he was laid to rest. In a letter dated July 21st, Edward wrote home to his brother Guss, stating, “the men whom I knew in his [regiment] and Baxter’s, told me that he would be made Major of the [regiment] before long, and they were all eager to see him receive it. But little did I think at that time, that I should stand by his grave on the battle field. I will never forget it as I stood there and read the inscription on the head board through scalding tears.” While at the grave, Edward drew a rough sketch, which he kept as a memento, thus allowing John’s memory to be “fresh and green” in Edwards’s mind.[ix]
John and Edward had opposing views on their service to the country. With one brother dead, and the threat of the other two being drafted, Edward conveyed his last desire for his brothers. He wrote in the same letter to Guss: “There is only one wish I have in reference to the draft, and that is, I do not want to hear of you nor Fred being included in it. I know you both can avoid it and I wish you to do so, for should either of you be drafted I do not know what I would be tempted to do. This war has already cost us misery enough never to be repaid.”[x] John, however, idealistically seemed to be the antithesis of Edward. In July of 1861, John wrote to his brother Guss, affirming, “You need never to fear that I will shrink from my duty which I am called upon to perform. If I were caught in such an act I could never show my face at home.”[xi] John favored conscription, stating in response to Lincoln’s order for 300,000 militiamen in the summer of 1862, “I say if they don’t enlist, draft them and make them go.”[xii] Frederick had to choose between the conflicting ideals and desires of his brothers, as he was drafted in August. He obliged Edward, petitioned, and obtained signatures, stating that he could “never perform the duties of a soldier.”[xiii]
John Steffan had enlisted in the spring of 1861. He, with the rest of his regiment, fought in most of the principal battles of the war. The 71st Pennsylvania arrived in Gettysburg with 24 officers and 307 enlisted men, suffering 98 casualties in the battle. During its three years of service, the “California Regiment” had a total enrollment of 2300 officers and men and lost about 1800 to disease and battle. For all of the battles the regiment participated in, from Ball’s Bluff in 1861 to Cold Harbor in 1864, the regiment’s greatest fame may be tied to the days it spent at the Angle on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg where a monument to the regiment, dedicated in 1887, stands today as a memorial to the service of these Philadelphia natives on their home soil.
The words “heroism” and “patriotism” are inscribed on the 71st Pennsylvania’s monument, words which John Steffan embodied. Believing in a “strict adherence to duty,” John moved up in the ranks “step by step, all through energy…which will carry any man through wherever he is.”[xiv] His bravery and dedication is evidenced in his letters home. Only 25 years old when he died, he left behind neither wife nor children, but a legacy celebrated by those who knew and loved him.
Penn State University, Class of 2016
STAFF NOTES: Ashley is an intern at Gettysburg National Military through the auspices of Penn State University and has been assigned research projects throughout her appointment. The park truly appreciates her efforts and hard work, a part of which has resulted in this blog post. Thanks Ashley!
[i] Frederick Steffan to John Steffan, July 2, 1863.(Union League, Philadelphia)
[ii] Lewis Rhell to My Dear Friends, August 15, 1863.(Union League, Philadelphia).
[iii] Gary G. Lash, Duty Well Done: The History of Edward Baker’s California Regiment (71st Pennsylvania), (Baltimore: Butternut & Blue, 2001), p. 331. (Hereafter cited as ‘Lash, Duty Well Done’)
[iv] Lewis Rhell to Dear Friends, August 15, 1863.
[v] Lash, Duty Well Done, p. 338.
[vi] Lewis Rhell to My Dear Friends, August 15, 1863.
[vii] Lewis Rhell to My Dear Friends, August 15, 1863.
[viii] Lewis Rhell to My Dear Friends, August 15, 1863.
[ix] Edward Steffan to Guss Steffan, July 21, 1863.(Union League, Philadelphia).
[x] Edward Steffan to Guss Steffan, July 21, 1863.
[xi] Lash, Duty Well Done, p. 43.
[xii] Lash, Duty Well Done, p. 248.
[xiii] Martin Laudenberger to Leonard Meyer, August 28, 1863.(Union League, Philadelphia).
[xiv] Lash, Duty Well Done, p. 176.