Sunday, October 20, 2002

What do the gravestones at Gettysburg really say?

America's Civil War battlefields are islands in time. Antietam is haunted by anger as bitter as a mouthful of ashes. Shiloh weeps like a mourner at the grave of lost innocence.

Gettysburg stands alone - a national treasure of American honor.

In my imagination, the battlefield is shrouded in mist. Ghosts of the men who died at Devil's Den and Cemetery Ridge still hug the ground, clinging to the earth they left long ago.

Here in the green-velvet hills of Pennsylvania in 1863, as July was blooming like a thistle, our nation's destiny was hammered like hot steel and two warring nations were welded together.

This fall, I walked the battlefield again. Under a glaring hot sun, the tall stone monuments painted crisp black shadows, cool and dark like footprints of death. I wondered: What was it like for the soldiers?

Capt. John M. Steffan, 71st Regiment of the Pennsylvania Infantry Volunteers, was there.

I have copies of his letters, provided by John Dowlin Jr., son of the Hamilton County Commissioner and distant descendant of the Civil War soldier.

In 1861, he wrote:

"My only wish is that I may return to you safe and uninjured and to see you in good health. O' what joy it would be to us all after being away from home for three years and then to return home safe and uninjured. I think it would be the happiest moment in my life to receive that joy, may God spare us until then.''

`Fought like tigers'

He described fierce fighting a few months later:

"Our men captured a rebel officer and he says he never saw men to stand and fight the way they did. All those who I saw say they fought like tigers.''

In 1862, battle-seasoned and weary of death: "The rebels must be real barbarians for all over their Forts they have placed these infernal torpedoes, buried in the ground, and if a person treads on one of them, it is shure to explode and kill the person. For such people I have no mercy.''

Most of the letters are packed like a soldier's kit with talk of dreaded picket duty, sickness, waiting, blankets and food sent like prayers from home. And death.

"I was in command of my company and so far as I know 13 of my men were killed and wounded and how I escaped I don't know, for the men fell thick and fast around me, I must thank Providence for my deliverance.''

What about us?

In the summer of 1863, Capt. Steffan returned to Pennsylvania to defend his land. On the morning of July 3, the final day of the battle of Gettysburg, his friend Lew Rhell met him.

"Before we advanced to the front, we had a small conversation, while resting, in which I asked him if he had any effects that I could keep for him till after the battle,'' Pvt. Rhell wrote to the Steffan family. "His reply was, `Lew, don't talk so foolish and make such big calculations. You don't think I'm going to be killed, do you?'

" `Well, John,' I said, `something tells me you are.' Just then the order was given to `Forward.' ''

Capt. Steffan was mortally wounded as artillery rained like hail before Pickett's Charge.

He never made it home. He never said exactly what he was fighting for. But my guess is it was the same thing that drove men in gray to march from Alabama and Texas, until their boots were shredded and they waded barefoot into the mouths of cannons.

They fought for different ideas of America. And their silent gravestones at Gettysburg ask us: What idea of America will you defend?

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