James F. Steptoe (Stepter) enlisted in Company B of the 6th Maryland Volunteer Infantry on August 14, 1862, and served as a private in the Union Army. During the war, Steptoe wrote many letters to his siblings and family, the majority to his wife, Amanda. Shortly after Steptoe's enlistment, Amanda took their children, William, Lewis, and Emma, and left their home in Elkton, Maryland, to live with her brother and mother in Chester, Pennsylvania, thirty miles from the northeast corner of Maryland.
Steptoe frequently wrote to his wife about how he longed to return home to his family. Initially, he spoke strongly about his support of the Union, his stance as an abolitionist, and his duty to quell the rebellion in the South. As his enthusiasm for the war waned, his desire to return to his loved ones increased. Steptoe's letters recount both the joys and frustrations of his time in the Union Army. They are deeply personal, and serve to illustrate the importance family ties played in the day-to-day lives of Civil War soldiers. Despite his prolonged time away from his family, it is clear from both his words and the frequency with which he wrote that his greatest source of strength was the support he received from home.
As war-weariness began to take its toll, Steptoe's letters home illustrate that his firmest commitment was to his family, rather than his country or his regiment. Steptoe took an unauthorized or "French" leave to visit his wife briefly in March 1863, and he later threatened to abandon his duties as a soldier entirely in the hopes of being permanently reunited with his wife and children. Wounded and then captured at the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia in May 1864, Steptoe was sent to Andersonville Prison in Georgia, then to a prison hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, where he died in October 1864, never to see his wife or his children again.
Maryland Manuscripts Collection, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.
Detail from a letter from John J. Hostetler to his parents, September 5, 1862.
Many letters to wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters from soldiers on the Civil War battlefront are preserved for the historical record, while women's letters to soldiers are more challenging to find because they were often lost in the movement of troops and the fury of battle. None of Amanda Steptoe's letters to James remain in existence as far as is known. However, a few of Amanda Steptoe's letters to other family members on the home front survived the war and are preserved for study by historians and other.