Otto F. Steen
Database Record Change Request
|Name at Enlist|
Otto F. Steen
21 Jan 1846 – 03 Sep 1930
|Resident of Muster-In|
Winneshiek County, IA
|Company at Enlistment|
|Rank at Enlistment|
11 Feb 1862
Morris Hill Cemetery, Boise, ID
Ingeborg Terptad (Thorstad)
Throne (Thrond) Steen
Emma C. Hough Young
22 Jul 1874
Otto F. Steen was one of 6 brothers who volunteered for the Union Army during the American Civil War. Otto was a 16 year old apprentice saddle maker when he was enlisted on January 21, 1862, by 2nd Lieutenant Olaus Solberg for 3 years service in Company K of the 15th WI. The company called itself “Clausen’s Guards” in honor of the 15th’s first Chaplain Claus L. Clausen. There were 8 Steen brothers and 6 of them were in the Union Army.
Otto was the youngest soldier in the 15th and was nicknamed “The Baby of the Regiment.” He was mustered into Federal service at the rank of Private (Menig) on February 11, 1862, at Camp Randall near Madison, Dane County, WI. At the time he was not married. The Army listed his residence as Winneshiek County, IA.
After only a few weeks at Camp Randall learning to be a soldier, Private Steen left there on March 2, 1862, with his company and regiment to join the war. He then participated in the successful siege of Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River, and the surprise raid on Union City, TN, in March and early April 1862.
After the surrender of Island No. 10 on April 7, 1862, Companies A, F, H, I, and K were sent to occupy the island. There was much hard, physical work to be done on the island, and quickly. The fortifications contained some 80 cannons, which the Confederates had installed to defend against a Union attack coming down the Mississippi River from the north. These had to be moved and the fortifications changed so they could be used to defend the island against a possible Confederate assault coming up the river from the south. This task was made even more difficult due to the unhealthy nature of the island, and with problems getting an adequate supply of rations. These conditions caused many complaints, sickness, and even death amongst the soldiers there.
On June 11, 1862, Private Steen left Island No. 10 with Company K and 7 other companies of the 15th to take part in a summer campaign through TN, MS, and AL. Private Steen became the 15th’s youngest Corporal (Korporal) when he was promoted to that rank in July 1862. Steen later claimed to be the youngest Corporal in the U.S. Army at that time. In August and September 1862, Corporal Steen participated in the grueling 400-mile retreat from Iuka, MS, up to Louisville, KY. The latter half of this forced march was led by U.S. Major General Don Carlos Buell, and the last 2 weeks were made on half rations and with very little drinking water. Corporal Steen was then present at the October 8, 1862, fighting at Perryville, Boyle County, KY, which is also called the Battle of Chaplin Hills. While this was the first big battle for the 15th, it emerged without any fatalities.
On December 26, 1862, Corporal Steen took part in the 15th’s desperate charge upon a Confederate artillery battery at Knob Gap, TN, just south of Nashville. There the 15th captured a brass cannon. Corporal Steen then fought at the long, cold, wet, and bloody Battle of Stones River, TN, which some called the Battle of Murfreesboro, on December 30-31, 1862, and into early January 1863. It is there that the 15th first suffered serious battle casualties, and was cited for bravery. Buslett’s 1895 history of the 15th tells this about Corporal Steen and his comrades.
“On the evening after the battle–30 December–the Regiment was on picket duty, and the next morning, before the boys had time to get back their respective backpacks, the Rebels charged and flanked them. Otto, along with the rest of the company, lost his backpack with his blanket, etc…A cold rain began and poured down the entire night, and kept up for two nights and a day…They had no tents, no fires, and very little to eat.”
The 15th camped in the Murfreesboro area for the next 6 months, except for 2 weeks in February when it was sent to Franklin, TN. Starting June 23, 1863, the regiment took part in the Tullahoma campaign led by U.S. Major General William S. Rosecrans. On July 3, 1863, the 15th went into camp at Winchester, Franklin County, TN, for 6 weeks. There Otto developed a boil under his right arm.
On August 17, 1863, Corporal Steen left Winchester with the 15th to participate in General Rosecrans’ Chickamauga campaign. During the march the boil became infected and he was reduced to riding in a horse-drawn baggage wagon. Nevertheless, Corporal Steen is believed to have been present at the daring early morning crossing of the Tennessee River on August 28th, which the 15th led. And Corporal Steen forced himself to rejoin his company just before it went into the September 19-20, 1863, fighting at Chickamauga, GA the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Buslett includes this about Otto’s experiences during the vicious fighting around Viniard’s Farm on the first afternoon.
“When the Regiment had to retreat, Otto was so busy shooting that he didn’t notice he was alone. He started for the rear then, but hadn’t gotten very far before a cannon ball plowed up the ground right next to him and buried him in a shower of earth. The terrible excitement of this, along with his illness, resulted in him losing consciousness for a while.”
To see a painting of the 15th fighting near Viniard’s Farm, click HERE. Corporal Steen survived the first day, as well as the near capture of the regiment around midday on the 20th during what is now called Longstreet’s Breakthrough. By the end of the battle he was the only non-commissioned officer (NCO) present with Company K who had not been killed, wounded, or captured. Some 63% of the 15th’s soldiers who were at Chickamauga were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.
Corporal Steen then served with the regiment during the Confederate siege of Chattanooga, TN, which began right after the battle. The siege resulted in severe shortages of medicine, food, and firewood which, together with cold, wet weather, caused much suffering, sickness, and death. Starting October 13, 1863, Corporal Steen served as a guard with the vital Army supply wagon train from Chattanooga, TN, to the Union supply base at Stevenson, AL, and back. By all accounts it was a physically challenging and dangerous assignment. Corporal Steen was once again back with the 15th in early November 1863. The Confederate siege was finally broken by the Union Army’s victorious charge up Mission Ridge on November 25, 1863, which the 15th took part in.
On December 23, 1863, Corporal Steen was detached from the regiment and sent back to WI on recruiting duty. Here is what Buslett says happened when Otto got back to Madison and was given an 8 day leave to visit his home. In those days it was a 6 day round trip from Madison to where his family lived in IA, leaving him just 2 days at home.
“…now his three brothers from the 12th Iowa were home on veterans leave; under these circumstances two days wasn’t long enough and he stayed home for a whole week…On the trip back to Madison he was arrested in Prairie du Chien by a stubborn Democratic detective…[who] had in mind the thirty dollars compensation for the arrest of any soldier who was absent without leave, and young Otto had no choice but to accompany him to headquarters as a prisoner. But here he took the opportunity to whisper a few words to the commander…[who] turned a pair of angry eyes on the detective…”You incompetent lout, why don’t you enlist and go to the front!”
In April 1864, shortly after his return to the regiment in TN, Corporal Steen was promoted, becoming the youngest Sergeant (Sersjant) in the 15th. Starting the next month Sergeant Steen and the 15th took part in the campaign led by U.S. Major General William T. Sherman to capture Atlanta, GA. This campaign was marked by almost daily marching and/or combat for 4 months. Sergeant Steen took part in the regiment’s fighting in early May at Tunnel Hill, GA; at Dalton, GA; and on May 14-15 at Resaca, GA.
On May 27, 1864, Sergeant Steen was captured with a number of his comrades during the disastrous fighting at Pickett’s Mill, GA, (also referred to as New Hope Church or Dallas). There the 15th suffered 50% casualties, including 29 soldiers taken prisoner (to see a list of these men and their fates, click HERE). Sergeant Steen then spent some 11 months as a prisoner of war, of which 5 months were spent in the notorious Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia. Buslett writes about what happened when Steen and other Union prisoners were being transferred between prisons.
“About five miles from Andersonville, while he was in the process of doling out the rations to his squadron in the [box]car, the [railroad] train jumped the tracks while it was going down a slope and around a curve at a frightful speed. People and cars were literally torn to pieces. Two hundred and fifty men were killed, but even though he was in the first car he escaped unharmed.”
Buslett also contains this narrative of Sergeant Steen’s months in captivity.
“In Savannah [Georgia] they were camped on an open field, without sufficient shelter and almost without food. He lay down with the others on the cold ground. In the morning the man next to him was dead. They were sent to Millan, where he got scurvey to the degree that his teeth loosened and legs became as black as polished stovepipe. He was lucky to have a valuable wallet. He got five dollars for it in Confederate money, so for a while he could buy some sweet potatoes each day. This diet helped [reduce the scurvy] a great deal. Then they were taken to Florence, a prison that could well match Andersonville in misery. The commander was a red-haired devil with a heart and soul that delighted in torturing prisoners in every conceivable way. Food and clothing are not even worth mentioning because there was so little of either. The boy was now in lamentable circumstances: starving to death and without clothing in the cold winter rain…”
Sergeant Steen was finally paroled to advancing Union forces near Wilmington, NC on February 26, 1865. Upon his release Otto was described as “a bunch of skin and bones.” He mustered out of Federal service on April 14, 1865, at Madison, WI, just after the end of the war, and 2 months after his term of service had expired.
After the war Otto worked as a mail clerk in Decorah, IA, and later on the Union Pacific railroad before going into the hardware business in Wahoo, NE. Still later he lived in Boise, ID, where he was elected State Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Union army veterans’ organization. In 1874, he married Emma C. Hough Young. She immigrated to the US in 1855. They had 4 children named Rufus L. (1875), Amy L. (1878), Florence (1879), and Mary (1882). Emma came into the marriage with a daughter from a previous marriage named Jeanette (born 1872 in IA). In 1917, he attended one of the very last reunions of the 15th WI. Otto was one of the very last surviving members of the regiment when he passed away 13 years later at age 84.
Sources: Det Femtende Regiment, Wisconsin Frivillige [The Fifteenth Regiment, Wisconsin Volunteers], Ole A. Buslett (Decorah, IA, 1894); Oberst Heg og hans gutter [Colonel Heg and His Boys], Waldemar Ager (Eau Claire, WI, 1916); Regimental Descriptive Rolls, Volume 20, Office of the Adjutant General State of Wisconsin (Madison, WI, 1885); Roster of Wisconsin Volunteers, War of the Rebellion, 1861-865, Volume 1, Office of the Adjutant General State of Wisconsin (Madison, WI, 1886); 1880 Census, Roll: 756, Family History Film: 1254756, Page: 389A, Enumeration District: 185, Image: 0068; 1900 Census, Roll: 939, Page: 18A, Enumeration District: 0139, FHL microfilm: 1240939; 1910 Census, Roll: T624_854, Page: 3B, Enumeration District: 0251, FHL microfilm: 1374867; and 1920 Census, Roll: T625_287, Page: 6B; Enumeration District: 17, Image: 373; genealogical data by Otto’s great great grandson, Justin Potts; History of the Steen Family, Orlando C. Scholl (Long Beach, CA, 1964).