By Phill Greenwalt
Samuel Ryan Curtis is not a name normally recognized as belonging among the pantheon of Federal major generals in the American Civil War. However, his impressive service record included leadership roles in crucial Federal victories at the battles of Pea Ridge in March 1862, in northwest Arkansas, and at Westport in Missouri in October 1864. Other better-known major generals cannot claim such achievements. Fortunately, the first full-length biography of Curtis is now available for Civil War readers and enthusiasts to learn about this often-overlooked but important personality.
Penned by William L. Shea, a historian and author of numerous books on the war, including the preeminent account about the battle of Pea Ridge, Curtis’s life story unfolds in this new single-volume biography. Shea’s impetus for writing Curtis’s biography is evident with a provocatively bold opening statement: “Samuel Ryan Curtis was the most important figure in the Civil War west of the Mississippi River” (pg. ix). Through the rest of the narrative’s opening, Shea details Curtis’s rise, which included a unique childhood in the antebellum Midwest and his graduation from West Point in 1831. Curtis also battled through the trials and tribulations of the Mexican-American War and a career on various army engineering projects before connecting with the Republican Party in Iowa.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, Curtis resigned his seat and received the colonelcy of the 2nd Iowa Infantry in June 1861. A promotion to brigadier general soon followed, backdated to earlier in 1861. By year’s end, Curtis was in command of the Federal Army of the Southwest and led the campaign that culminated with the victory at Pea Ridge. The war chapters covering Curtis’s time in Arkansas as head of the Department of Kansas and the Indian Territory, and his actions later in Missouri, provide an in-depth look into the machinations, movements, and issues that challenged Curtis in this theater of the war.
As Shea explains, at least part of the blame for Curtis’s lack of name recognition rests with his contempt for self-promotion. His service in the Trans-Mississippi Theater, located on the fringes of the war did not help either. Another important factor was his untimely death shortly after the conclusion of the war. Curtis died from a stroke on December 26, 1866, and was buried in Keokuk, Iowa. Additionally, he apparently ran afoul of Ulysses S. Grant, which befuddled Curtis to the day he died (pg. 296). All of these issues contributed to Curtis’s marginalization in Civil War historiography, despite his strong track record as a competent leader.
According to many contemporary peers and former subordinates, Curtis proved he deserves to be included among the war’s premier generals. For example, Gen. Philip Sheridan explained in his autobiography that, “I was always convinced that Curtis was deserving of the highest commendation, not only for the skills displayed on the field, but for the zeal and daring in campaign. . . .” (pg. 295). Grenville Dodge, a fellow major general, noted, “I have never thought that General Curtis has received the credit he was entitled to” (pg. 295).
Union General, Samuel Ryan Curtis and Victory in the West is a well-researched book that provides readers with a thorough examination of Curtis’s life. Shea offers convincing evidence to prove his argument that Curtis played a critical role in Union success in the Trans-Mississippi Theater while also writing a study that enthusiasts will enjoy reading. Thanks to Shea, Curtis is able to reclaim at least a measure of deserved attention previously so long denied.
Who was Curtis, in his own words?: “My character and fortune both depend on my exertions. Every moment of my time is therefore valuable” (pg. 14).