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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Curtis, Samuel Ryan
(February 3, 1805–December 26, 1866)

–West Point graduate, engineer, lawyer, Mexican War veteran, mayor of Keokuk, Republican representative from Iowa to the U.S. House of Representatives, businessman, and major general during the Civil War—was born the seventh and youngest child of Zarah and Phalley Curtis in Cham-plain, New York. He graduated 27th out of 33 cadets in West Point's Class of 1831. After graduation he was assigned to the Seventh U.S. Infantry stationed in Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, as a brevet second lieutenant. Curtis married Belinda Buckingham of Mansfield, Ohio, in 1831, before he left the military in mid 1832 to pursue a career as an engineer.

    After his discharge from the U.S. Army, Curtis undertook a variety of jobs. He worked as an engineer on the National Road, and from 1837 to 1839 as the chief engineer on the Muskingum River improvement project. After studying law and passing the Ohio bar exam in 1841, he opened a law office in Wooster, Ohio. Throughout this period he continued his involvement in martial activities, raising and commanding a militia company. Although appointed the adjutant general of Ohio when the Mexican War erupted, he accepted a commission as colonel in the Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

    Curtis spent the bulk of the Mexican War on occupation duty, serving as the military governor of Matamoras, Camargo, Monterey, and Saltillo. He earned a bit of embarrassing notoriety when, during the Buena Vista campaign, he frantically reported to Washington, D.C., that U.S. forces under General Zachary Taylor were surrounded and 50,000 reinforcements were needed to rescue them. Taylor, although significantly outnumbered, defeated Mexican forces at the Battle of Buena Vista on February 22-23, 1847. After spending a year in Mexico, Curtis served the remainder of the conflict on the staff of General John Wool.

    Upon his return from Mexico, Curtis bounced among various political and engineering jobs before moving his family to Keokuk, Iowa. He was chief engineer on the Des Moines River Project, and later the city engineer of St. Louis. After his patron lost a reelection bid, Curtis did surveying and engineering work on various railroad projects before winning election as the mayor of Keokuk in 1856.

    In 1856 the recently founded Republican Party nominated Curtis for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and he won the first of three terms as an Iowa congressman. In Congress, he continued his advocacy of railroads, especially what became the Union Pacific. He was involved in national military matters and pursued an antislavery program.

    Curtis resigned his seat in Congress after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861. He returned to Iowa, raised the Second Iowa Volunteer Regiment, and received a commission as a colonel of U.S. Volunteers. Shortly thereafter he was promoted to brigadier general and assigned to serve under Major General John C. Frémont in Missouri. On Christmas Day, 1861, Major General Henry Halleck assigned Curtis command of the Military District of Southwest Missouri.

    Curtis led the Federal Army of the Southwest on a winter campaign over western Missouri and northwestern Arkansas that culminated in the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, on March 7-8, 1862. In a touchand-go two-day battle near modern-day Bentonville, Arkansas, the Federals bested the Rebel Army of the West led by Major General Earl Vandorn. Vandorn took the remnants of the Army of the West east across the Mississippi River, and abandoned Missouri to the Federals. The combination of the Union victory at Pea Ridge and Vandorn's actions secured Missouri for the Union. The Army of the Southwest embarked on an epic march across southern Missouri and northern and central Arkansas in an attempt to capture Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas. The combination of Confederate guerrillas and a long, tenuous supply line forced Curtis to abandon Little Rock and march for Helena, Arkansas, on the Mississippi River.

    In September 1862 Curtis was promoted to major general and placed in command of the Department of the Missouri. Bickering with the proslavery elements of the Missouri Provisional Government and Governor Hamilton Gamble marked his tenure in command. The military situation also worsened in Missouri due to the bickering, and President Lincoln was forced to remove Curtis, although Lincoln wrote that "as I could not remove Governor Gamble, I had to remove General Curtis."

    Curtis did not secure another command until January 1864, when Lincoln, in another reshuffling of the command structure in the trans-Mississippi region, broke up the former Department of the Missouri into separate sections and placed Curtis in charge of the Department of Kansas. There Curtis dealt with an American Indian uprising and bitter political infighting between factions of the Republican Party. But the gravest threat appeared when Confederate General Sterling Price led a large force on a raid into Missouri in the late summer and early autumn of 1864. Curtis called out the Kansas militia to join a Federal force under Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton chasing Price from the east. Together, they smashed Price between their two forces at the Battle of Westport (October 22-23, 1864) in the outskirts of Kansas City. Westport was a clear-cut Federal victory and proved to be the last significant fighting in the trans-Mississippi region.

    In early 1865 Curtis was reassigned to the Department of the Northwest (mainly Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and territories to the west of those states), where he negotiated treaties with various American Indian tribes. Upon Curtis's discharge from the military on April 30, 1866, President Andrew Johnson appointed Curtis a commissioner to examine sections of the Union Pacific Railroad. Curtis died in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on December 26, 1866.

    Underappreciated because he served far from the Eastern Theater, Curtis was easily the most successful Federal general in the trans-Mississippi region and perhaps Iowa's most successful Civil War general. He won the most important battle west of the Mississippi River at Pea Ridge, and played an integral role in the defeat of Price's Raid at the Battle of Westport. Almost forgotten are his political and engineering accomplishments, which, combined with his military exploits, made him an important figure in 19 thcentury America.
Sources include Joseph E. Chance, ed., Mexico under Fire: Being the Diary of Samuel Ryan Curtis, 3rd Ohio Regiment during the American Military Occupation of Northern Mexico, 1846– 1847 (1994); Ruth A. Gallaher, "Samuel Ryan Curtis," Iowa Journal of History and Politics 25 (1927), 331–58; Terry Lee Beckenbaugh, "The War of Politics: Samuel Ryan Curtis, Race, and the Political/Military Establishment" (Ph.D. diss., University of Arkansas, 2001); and Edwin C. Bearss, "From Rolla to Fayette ville with General Curtis," Arkansas Historical Quarterly 19 (1960), 225–59.
Contributor: Terry Beckenbaugh

Cite as: Beckenbaugh, Terry. "Curtis, Samuel Ryan" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 12 December 2017