Curtis, Samuel R.

Encyclopedia entry by ,
U. S. Air Force Command and Staff College

General Samuel R. Curtis.  Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Biographical Info:

  • Date of birth: February 3, 1805
  • Place of birth: Champlain, New York
  • Claim to fame: Mayor of Keokuk, Iowa, 1856; Iowa Congressman, 1857-1861; Major General of the Army of the Southwest, Department of the Missouri, and Army of the Border; fought in Battle of Pea Ridge and Battle of Westport
  • Political affiliations: Republican Party
  • Date of death: December 26, 1866
  • Place of death: Council Bluffs, Iowa
  • Final resting place: Oakland Cemetery, Keokuk, Iowa

Samuel Ryan Curtis was the most successful federal general west of the Mississippi River during the American Civil War. He is primarily remembered as the victor at the battles of Pea Ridge and Westport. But Curtis was far more than just a general; he played a key role in the opening and exploitation of the American West as an engineer, politician, railroad advocate, and soldier.

Curtis graduated 27th out of 33 students in the West Point class of 1831. He was assigned to the 7th U.S. Infantry at Fort Gibson, Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) and served for a year before leaving the army to pursue a career in civil engineering. Curtis worked on a variety of projects before deciding to study law. He also became active in local Whig Party politics, raised and commanded an Ohio militia unit, and with the coming of the Mexican-American War in 1846, Curtis was elected to command the 3rd Ohio Volunteers.

During the Mexican War, Colonel Curtis and the 3rd Ohio served together for a little over a year, but they did not participate in any significant battles. The 3rd Ohio’s main job involved chasing guerrillas and what the military today calls “stability operations.” After close to two years in Mexico, Curtis returned to the U.S.

Curtis became more involved in Whig politics after his return from Mexico. He worked as the city engineer of St. Louis for three years and built the sewer system that the city went on to use for over 150 years. Curtis then moved his family to Keokuk, Iowa, where he was elected mayor in 1856. Curtis decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives seat from the 1st Iowa congressional district as a Republican that same year, and with the support of the railroad interests he won the first of three terms to the U.S. House.

Curtis's time as a member of the House was highlighted by his avid support for a Trans-Continental Railroad. He was also a vehement opponent of the expansion of slavery into the West.

Curtis’s time as a member of the House was highlighted by his avid support for a Trans-Continental Railroad. He was also a vehement opponent of the expansion of slavery into the West, and he served on various military committees in Congress. When the secession crisis came in the aftermath of Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 presidential election, Curtis was a fierce foe of secession. After the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, he accepted a commission as the colonel of the 2nd Iowa volunteers.

Curtis’s West Point degree and Mexican War experience proved invaluable resources in Missouri after the outbreak of war, so General Winfield Scott promoted Curtis to brigadier general, retroactive to May 17, 1861. Curtis thereupon resigned his seat in Congress and reported to Benton Barracks in St. Louis to drill and train troops. After the federal defeat at Wilson’s Creek, outside Springfield, Missouri, the Union war effort in Missouri drifted into chaos. It was not until November 9, 1861, that Major General Henry W. Halleck was appointed head of the Department of the Missouri that order emerged. Halleck tabbed Curtis to be head of the District of Southwest Missouri on Christmas Day 1861. Halleck ordered Curtis to clear the Confederate forces under Major General Sterling Price out of Missouri. And so began the Pea Ridge campaign.

Curtis led the federal Army of the Southwest in a vigorous pursuit of Price’s forces and chased them out of Missouri. Price combined with Confederate forces under Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch to form the Army of the West, commanded by West Pointer and Major General Earl Van Dorn. Van Dorn attempted to surprise Curtis with a flanking movement, but it failed and resulted in the hard-fought two-day Battle of Pea Ridge on March 7-8, 1862, just outside of modern-day Bentonville, Arkansas.

Portrait of the Battle of Pea Ridge, where Samuel Curtis led the Army of the Southwest to victory. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

At Pea Ridge, Curtis and the federals achieved a decisive victory over Van Dorn and scattered his force over the Ozark Plateau. Van Dorn compounded his defeat by taking the remnants of the Army of the West to the east bank of the Mississippi River, effectively abandoning formal military control of Arkansas and Missouri to the federals. Because of this, Curtis’s triumph at Pea Ridge was the most significant battle fought west of the Mississippi River.

Curtis then led the Army of the Southwest on an arduous march across Missouri and Arkansas that resulted in the capture of Arkansas’s only port on the Mississippi River, Helena. Helena proved to be a vital forward operating base for the federals in their operations against the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Pea Ridge resulted in Curtis’s promotion to major general on March 21, 1862, and his assignment to the head of the Department of the Missouri on September 24, 1862. The Pea Ridge campaign proved to be the high point of Curtis’s career, as the infighting in a bitterly divided Missouri offered little opportunity for martial achievement.

Curtis’s tenure as the head of the Department of the Missouri proved to be frustrating. Civil War Missouri was rife with guerrilla activity. Curtis was viewed as an abolitionist by the pro-Union, pro-slavery elements in the Provisional Government of Missouri, and the latter worked diligently to have him removed. Curtis never subdued the guerrillas in the state, and his political battles with conservatives, Provisional Governor Hamilton R. Gamble and his superior, Henry Halleck, resulted in President Lincoln’s dismissal of Curtis on May 24, 1863, with the comment that, “as I could not remove Gov. Gamble, I had to remove General Curtis.” But Curtis’s talents were far too valuable to stay sidelined for long.

Lincoln completed a departmental reorganization with the upcoming 1864 presidential election in mind and appointed Curtis head of the newly created Department of Kansas on New Year’s Day 1864. During his tenure in Kansas, Curtis spent most of his time trying to keep the overland trails open to the West. This involved frequent contact with Native Americans, and it was on Curtis’s watch that the Sand Creek Massacre occurred on November 29, 1864. While Curtis was not directly involved in the massacre that killed over 70 Native Americans, he effectively gave the perpetrator of the massacre, Colonel John Chivington, permission to treat the Indians harshly. The Sand Creek Massacre was undoubtedly the low point of his entire career.

The critical moment of Curtis's command of the Department of Kansas came during Price's Raid in late October 1864.

The critical moment of Curtis’s command of the Department of Kansas came during Price’s Raid in late October 1864. Price was corralled at Westport, south of modern-day Kansas City, on October 23, 1864, and decisively defeated. Curtis finished out his term as the head of the Department of Kansas, before he received an appointment as the head of the Department of the Northwest, headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Curtis ended the war in Milwaukee, but he served as an Indian Commissioner in 1866, negotiating with plains tribes. He left the U.S. Army on April 30, 1866.

Curtis remained busy. He resumed his tireless advocacy of the Trans-Continental Railroad and hoped to write his memoirs and play a role in the healing of the nation from the cataclysm of the Civil War. That never happened as he died the day after Christmas 1866 of an apparent heart attack while working on the Trans-Continental Railroad in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Curtis was the most effective federal commander in the Trans-Mississippi region. Like every commander in charge of Missouri during the war, he found it impossible to successfully navigate the state’s treacherous politics. However, his greatest successes were the victories at Pea Ridge and Westport, and the march across Missouri and Arkansas in the summer of 1862. Curtis, as much as anyone, secured Missouri to the federal cause and opened the West to the effects of the railroads.

Suggested Reading: 

Monnett, Howard N. Action Before Westport 1864. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1995, revised edition. Originally published in 1964.

Parrish, William E. Turbulent Partnership: Missouri and the Union, 1861-1865. Columbia: The University of Missouri Press, 1963.

Shea, William L. and Earl J. Hess. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Cite this page: 
Beckenbaugh, Terry. "Curtis, Samuel R." Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Jun, 27, 2017 at http://www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/curtis-samuel-r

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