Edward J. Steptoe and the Indian Wars: Life on the Frontier, 1815–1865, by Ron McFarland, McFarland & Co., Jefferson, N.C., 2016, $39.95
McFarland’s biography of this antebellum U.S. Army officer is a crowning achievement. Amid the pervasive obsession with the American Civil War, historians and general military history enthusiasts often overlook the careers of many such men. Yet the campaigns and military figures of the antebellum period are fascinating topics worthy of study. Edward J. Steptoe is among the standout officers.
Scant primary-source material about Steptoe survives beyond a few examples of his correspondence. Yet the author was able to construct an excellent biography that follows Steptoe’s maturation from a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy into a seasoned officer on the frontier. Along the way McFarland draws out Steptoe’s character strengths (martial aptitude, sense of humor, disdain for slavery) and weaknesses (health concerns, loneliness, homesickness).
Steptoe served in Florida during the Mexican War and later helped moderate relations between Indians and settlers in Washington and Oregon. The high-water mark of his career came near Rosalia, Wash., on May 17, 1858, when his 164-man detachment barely escaped annihilation by a 1,000-man force of allied tribes at the Battle of Pine Creek.
Due to his deteriorating health, Steptoe opted out of the Civil War and died in his home state of Virginia in April 1865, a month before the Confederate surrender. His legacy has emerged from the shadows, thanks to McFarland’s biography, a must-read for anyone interested in the antebellum U.S. Army.