Perhaps one of the more underrated Union officers of the American Civil War, Major General Samuel R. Curtis played a prominent role in securing and maintaining federal control of the border state of Missouri throughout the conflict.
Samuel Ryan Curtis was born near Champlain, New York, on February 3, 1805. He was the son of Zarah and Phalley (Yale) Curtis. Curtis’ father was a veteran of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. In 1809, the elder Curtis moved his family to Washington Township in Licking County, Ohio, where he became a successful farmer and part-time minister.
Young Curtis attended local schools, performing well enough to receive an appointment to the United States Military Academy. Curtis entered West Point on July 1, 1827, and graduated four years later on July 1, 1831, ranked twenty-seventh in his class of thirty-three cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
Following his graduation, the army brevetted Curtis to second lieutenant and assigned him to the U.S. 7th Infantry, stationed at Fort Gibson in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).
Before heading west, Curtis married Belinda Buckingham, of Mansfield, Ohio, on November 3, 1831. Their marriage produced eight children. Less than one year after his marriage, Curtis resigned his army commission on June 30, 1832, and returned to Ohio to pursue an engineering career and to study law.
Back in Ohio, Curtis initially worked as an engineer on the National Road. Between 1837 and 1839, he was the chief engineer on the Muskingum River improvement project, constructing dams and locks to enhance river transportation in eastern Ohio. While fulfilling his engineering duties, Curtis also studied law. In 1841, he passed the Ohio bar exam and opened a law office in Wooster, Ohio.
In 1845, Ohio Governor Mordecai Bartley appointed Curtis as the state’s adjutant general. Curtis quickly set about preparing Ohio volunteers for the possibility of war between the United States and Mexico. Soon after the Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846-February 2, 1848) erupted, Curtis resigned his post as adjutant general, on June 23, 1846, to accept a commission as a colonel in the volunteer army, commanding the 3rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
On July 4, 1846, Curtis and his troops left Cincinnati for northern Mexico. His unit, however, did not see much action. During the war, the 3rd Ohio garrisoned at Matamoras, and Curtis served as military governor of several cities, including Matamoras, Camargo, Monterey, and Saltillo.
Engineer and Lawyer
After his tour of duty in Mexico, Curtis moved to Iowa, where he opened a law practice in Keokuk while also working as an engineer. His engineering endeavors included improvements along the Mississippi and the Des Moines rivers, besides charting a path for the American Central Railroad.
In 1856, the citizens of Keokuk elected Curtis as their mayor. The same year, voters in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District elected Curtis to a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Re-elected in 1858 and 1860, Curtis served in the 35th, 36th, and 37th Congresses from March 4, 1857, until he resigned on August 4, 1861, to focus on his military duties. A member of the Republican Party, Curtis was a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln.
When the American Civil War erupted, Curtis joined the volunteer army as an aide-de‑camp to Colonel Marshall Lefferts with the 7th New York Militia in April 1861. By late spring, Curtis was back in Iowa, where the men of the 2nd Regiment Iowa Volunteer Infantry elected him as their colonel on June 1, 1861. Serving under Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon, Curtis performed well as he marched his regiment north and occupied Hannibal, Missouri during the initial stages of the struggle for control of the border state.
Brigadier General in the Volunteer Army
Following his success in northern Missouri, Curtis returned to Washington for a special session of Congress, where he was still serving as a member of the House of Representatives. Choosing his military commitment over his political duties, Curtis resigned his seat in the House on August 4, 1861. Two weeks later, on August 20, 1861, the U.S. War Department issued General Orders, No. 62, announcing Curtis’ appointment to the rank of brigadier general in the volunteer army, to date from May 17. Curtis spent the next few months performing instructional and administrative duties back in Missouri.
Commander of District of Southwest Missouri and the Army of Southwest Missouri
On December 25, 1861, Major General Henry W. Halleck, commander of the Department of the Missouri, issued Special Orders, No. 92 (Department of the Missouri) assigning Curtis to command of the District of Southwest Missouri and the Army of Southwest Missouri. Curtis quickly struck out after Confederate forces in southwest Missouri commanded by former Missouri Governor Sterling Price. By January, Curtis had driven Price’s Rebels into Arkansas. In February, Curtis crossed into Arkansas but had to halt his pursuit because his supply lines could not support any further advances. Not wanting to retreat, he established a base along Little Sugar Creek, just south of a hostelry named Elkhorn Tavern, and began foraging operations.
Resounding Victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge
With Confederate leadership in Arkansas and Missouri in disarray, President Jefferson Davis appointed Major General Earl Van Dorn to command the newly created Trans-Mississippi District. On January 29, 1862, Van Dorn assumed command and developed ambitious plans to sweep through Missouri, to capture St. Louis, and to threaten Union operations in Kentucky. His first order of business was to drive Curtis out of Arkansas. On March 4, Van Dorn started north with approximately 16,000 troops, planning to surprise Curtis’s scattered army before it had time to concentrate. After three days of forced marching through harsh winter weather, the Confederates approached Curtis’s position. The Rebel soldiers were cold, hungry and exhausted, but Van Dorn pressed forward.
Learning of Van Dorn’s advance, Curtis concentrated the 10,500 soldiers under his command and established a strong defensive position on Pea Ridge, just north of Sugar Creek, Arkansas. Seeing that a head-on attack would be senseless, Van Dorn marched his army around Pea Ridge to Curtis’s rear on the evening of March 6 and then split it into two columns. As one column circled around the west end of the ridge, Van Dorn led the other column around the east end, expecting to trap the Federals in between. Union scouts, however, detected both threats in time for Curtis to turn his army around and to face Van Dorn’s assaults. Over the course of the next two days, Curtis’s soldiers defeated both of Van Dorn’s columns and forced the Rebels to retreat.
Curtis’s resounding victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge (March 6-8, 1862) secured Federal control of Missouri for the next two years and enabled the Union to focus on other areas in the Mississippi Valley. Three months later, on June 10, 1862, the U.S. War Department issued General Orders, No. 63, announcing Curtis’ promotion to the rank of major general of volunteers, to date from March 21, 1862.
Invasion of Arkansas
After Pea Ridge, Curtis severed ties with his supply lines and pursued Van Dorn’s army farther into Arkansas, while living off of the land, much as Major General William T. Sherman would do in Georgia two years later. Although Curtis never caught up with Van Dorn, he forced the Confederate state government to abandon Little Rock temporarily, when his troops threatened the state capital in May 1862. Curtis’s soldiers also captured and occupied Helena, Arkansas in July 1862. Located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, between Memphis, Tennessee, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, Helena served as a Union base of operations until Major General Ulysses S. Grant downsized its garrison during Siege of Vicksburg in 1863.
President of the Pacific Railroad Convention
In the late summer of 1862, Curtis took a one month of leave from his military duties to travel to Chicago. Re-donning his engineer’s cap, Curtis served as president of the Pacific Railroad Convention from August 29 to September 24, 1862, shepherding the inauguration of the proposed transcontinental railway.
Commander of the Department of the Missouri
Shortly after Curtis returned to duty, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 135, on September 19, 1862, reorganizing Union command structure in the Trans-Mississippi area. The order decreed that, “the States of Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and the bordering Indian Territory, will constitute the Department of the Missouri, and will be commanded by Major General S.S. Curtis; headquartered at St. Louis.”
Relieved of Command
Curtis’s tenure as department commander did not last long. His abolitionist policies conflicted sharply with the more temperate views of moderate Missouri Unionists, including Governor Hamilton Rowan Gamble. As friction between the two men escalated, President Lincoln tried to diffuse the situation quietly by writing privately to Curtis, imploring him to make concessions, “with great advantage to the public.” Like the intractable John C. Frémont before him, however, Curtis refused to budge. Thus on March 9, 1863, at Lincoln’s direction, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 57, announcing that, “Major General Samuel R. Curtis, U. S. Volunteers, is relieved from the command of the Department of the Missouri.”
Commander of the Department of Kansas
Curtis spent the next six months in military purgatory awaiting orders. On January 1, 1864, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 1 announcing that “Major General S. R. Curtis, U. S. Volunteers, is assigned to the command of the Department of Kansas.”
Battle of Westport
In September 1864, Sterling Price re-emerged from exile and marched a small force of nearly 12,000 soldiers into Missouri, still hoping to secure the border state for the Confederacy. After federal cavalry forces led by Major General Alfred Pleasonton convinced Price that his ambitions of occupying St. Louis and Springfield were too lofty, Price diverted his course and headed for Kansas City and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
In response, Curtis convinced Kansas Governor Thomas Carney to mobilize the state militia to join his Army of the Border to intercept Price’s Army of Missouri, which by then numbered about 8,500 soldiers.
With Pleasonton hot on his heels, Price engaged Curtis on October 23, 1864, at Westport (now a part of Kansas City). Four hours of repeated assaults against Curtis’s defensive lines proved fruitless. By that time, Pleasonton had broken through Price’s rearguard. Pressed from two sides, Price called off any further attacks and retreated.
Over the next few weeks, Pleasonton chased the rest of Price’s army back to Arkansas. Sometimes referred to as “the Gettysburg of the West,” the Battle of Westport was the largest engagement west of the Mississippi River, featuring over 30,000 combatants. The resounding federal victory virtually ended any Confederate rule in the Trans-Mississippi region for the rest of the war.
Sand Creek Massacre
As commander of the Department of Kansas, the War Department also tasked Curtis with controlling American Indian tribes who may have viewed the War Between the States as an opportunity to discourage white encroachment on Native territories. The result was an escalation of hostilities between American Indians and whites in the West.
Depravities on both sides fueled an atmosphere of racial mistrust and hatred. The rancor reached its nadir on November 29, 1864, when Colonel John Chivington ordered a force of nearly 700 Colorado volunteers to attack a village of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in the Colorado Territory. Ignoring a white flag of truce and a U.S. flag raised by the village’s inhabitants after the assault began, Chivington’s men killed between 150 and 200 Indians. Most of the victims were unarmed women, children, and elderly people. When the carnage ended, some soldiers engaged in a bloodthirsty rampage, mutilating the remains of their victims for body parts taken back to Denver as trophies of their triumph.
Although Curtis played no direct role in the Sand Creek Massacre, Chivington and his men were operating under Curtis’s watch, and official records leave no doubt that Curtis advocated punishing American Indians for depravities that they supposedly committed within his department.
Commander the Department of the Northwest
Reports of the Sand Creek Massacre prompted three separate federal investigations. On January 10, 1865, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War reported to the U.S. House of Representatives that, “It is difficult to believe that beings in the form of men, and disgracing the uniform of United States soldiers and officers, could commit or countenance the commission of such acts of cruelty and barbarity. . . .”
Perhaps not coincidentally, twenty days later, on January 20, 1865, the U.S. War Department issued General Orders, No. 11, announcing a shake-up in the command structure in the West. Officials merged the Department of Kansas into the Department of Missouri and reassigned Curtis to command the Department of the Northwest, with headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Curtis assumed his new command on February 13, 1865, but his tenure was short-lived. Only a few months later, on June 27, 1865, officials merged the Department of the Northwest into the Department of the Missouri, leaving Curtis without a command. With the war over, Curtis received an appointment as a United States Commissioner to negotiate treaties with Sioux, Cheyenne, and other Native American tribes on August 21, 1865. Three months later, on November 25, 1865, President Andrew Johnson assigned Curtis as a U.S. Commissioner to oversee the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad.
After mustering out of the volunteer army on April 30, 1866, Curtis continued his duties as a railroad commissioner. On December 26, 1866, Curtis suffered a stroke and died unexpectedly following an inspection of some Union Pacific track at Council Bluffs, Iowa. His remains were buried at Oakland Cemetery, Keokuk, Iowa.