William Steptoe Christian was born on December 26, 1830, in Middlesex County, the son of Elizabeth Robinson Steptoe Christian and Richard Allen Christian, a physician who in 1838 became a Baptist minister. His elder brother Joseph Christian served on the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. William Christian attended local preparatory schools and in 1848 received an AB from Columbian College (later George Washington University), in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Jefferson Medical College, in Philadelphia, in 1851 and returned to Middlesex County, where he began practicing medicine at Urbanna. On January 11, 1853, in Halifax County, North Carolina, Christian married Helen Elizabeth Steptoe, a cousin a few years older than he. They had two daughters and four sons, two of whom died in infancy, before her death on December 6, 1898. Christian married Alice Taylor Woodward, of Middlesex County, on July 10, 1900. They had no children.
In 1859 Christian raised a cavalry company, known as the Middlesex Light Dragoons, which became Company C of the 55th Virginia Infantry Regiment. He proved to be a courageous soldier and effective officer, as demonstrated by his promotions—to captain on June 2, 1861, to major on May 1, 1862, to lieutenant colonel on March 18, 1863 (to rank from June 23, 1862), and to colonel in command of the regiment on June 23, 1863 (to rank from May 2). He was wounded in the right thigh at Frayser’s Farm on June 30, 1862, and at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, a rifle ball broke his upraised sword and drove the tip into his body.
Christian had recovered sufficiently from the latter wound to participate in the Army of Northern Virginia’s advance into Pennsylvania that summer. A letter written to his wife from camp, dated June 28, 1863, and later found on the battlefield at Gettysburg, described the foraging expeditions of the Confederate invaders, including the capture of terrified African Americans to be sent to Virginia and enslavement. The text of his recovered letter was published in a collection of war documents in 1864, and historians regularly cite it in books about the Gettysburg campaign.
During the army’s retreat, Christian and many under his command were captured in Maryland on July 14, 1863, and imprisoned at Johnson’s Island, Ohio. There, Christian worked long hours as the superintendent of the prison’s hospital and, as a physician, persuaded the authorities to permit prisoners to secure clean drinking water from Lake Erie. While there he composed a long poem, entitled “The Past,” describing in rhyme his life and his love for his wife and family. Christian was exchanged on March 3, 1864, and returned to his command.
Lingering effects from his wounds and his desire to serve in the army’s medical department led Christian to resign his commission in March 1865. Soon thereafter he joined his wife and children in North Carolina, where they had sought safety as refugees. Christian practiced medicine there for eighteen months and rebuilt his finances before returning to Malvern Hill, his house in Middlesex County. Affectionately known as Doctor Billy, he was a highly respected local physician who took pride in his moniker as a country doctor.
A teetotaler Baptist and Sunday school superintendent, Christian joined the Independent Order of Good Templars, an international organization advocating total abstinence from alcohol. He represented his local lodge at the 1876 session of the Grand Lodge of Virginia and to his surprise was elected Grand Worthy Chief Templar, or state head of the order. Membership increased during his tenure, but few who joined remained for long, a circumstance that forced the state organization to devote much of its energies and resources to organizing and reorganizing lodges. More than half of the 600 lodges established in Virginia between 1867 and 1886, including Christian’s lodge in Middlesex, had closed by the latter year.
Christian headed the Virginia organization through 1881, which were years of controversy within the larger order. Many northern and British members believed the order’s inclusive principles mandated admitting African Americans, a notion white southern Good Templars resisted. Attempting to smooth over the controversy in Virginia, Christian emphasized the order’s nonpolitical character and worked effectively with George White Hawxhurst, a onetime Radical Republican who was the Virginia order’s longtime Grand Worthy Secretary. Christian backed the compromise, the segregated Dual Grand Lodge instituted in Richmond on October 4, 1880. Although he was one of the Virginia representatives to the 1878 meeting in Minneapolis of the Right Worthy Grand Lodge of the World, he played no part in the schism over race and did not long remain active in the organization, which the Prohibition Party supplanted.
Christian became a member of the Medical Society of Virginia in 1886 and was selected as the society’s orator in 1888 and 1903. He did not attend the medical society’s meeting in 1904 because he was caring for an ill relative, but the society waived its unwritten rule that candidates for office had to be present and unanimously elected him president. The next year, the society marked his fifty-four years in medical practice by naming him an honorary member. In 1909 he was secretary of Middlesex County’s board of health.
A member of the United Confederate Veterans, Christian served at least one term as commander of the veterans’ camp at Saluda. Probably at the 1907 veterans’ reunion in Richmond he recounted to James Dinkins, of New Orleans, a story about thirteen slave body-servants who had stayed with their masters at the Johnson’s Island prison camp. Dinkins subsequently quoted Christian’s recollection in articles that asserted the loyalty of the slaves to the Confederacy, a story that latter-day partisans have kept alive.
In 1890 Christian became superintendent of Middlesex County’s public schools and served, except for a portion of one term, until 1909. William Steptoe Christian died at Malvern Hill on December 10, 1910, and was buried by the Urbanna Masonic Lodge, of which he was a past master, at the family cemetery at Hewick, an estate north of Urbanna.