Civil War Fantasy Roster: Samuel Curtis

With my third pick in my Civil War Fantasy Draft [1] [2] [3], I pick Samuel Curtis. Samuel Curtis has, since my childhood, been among my favorite Civil War generals (along with Thomas). I have studied his victory at Pea Ridge, and also his much less famous victory at the Battle of Westport, and puzzled over why this immensely talented general (who, as I will shortly discuss, was also a notable politician, if not a particularly skilled political general) is not well known despite his massive and decisive victories. There are at least a couple of reasons. First, his victories were fought in the Trans-Mississippi front, one in a very remote part of Arkansas, and the other in what was then a backwoods part of Missouri near the Kansas state line (and is now part of Kansas City). Additionally, despite being a solid Republican politician with a notable antebellum political career in the House of Representatives (where he and fellow Iowa Congressman Timothy Davis were the first two Republican Congressmen ever when elected to serve the 1st and 2nd Iowa districts in 1856 [4]), he was not notably political as a general.

If you had guessed Samuel Ryan Curtis’ career trajectory in the Union Army before the Civil War, you would not have guessed his sterling record of excellence as a general. Though he graduated from the United States Military Academy (and was therefore a West Point professional), he did not receive any chances for glory in Mexico, serving as a governor of several occupied cities in Mexico. Likewise, before the Civil War started he was more famous for being elected three terms as a solid and abolitionist Iowa U.S. Representative than for any sort of military genius. Nonetheless, when the Civil War started, he resigned his seat in Congress and became the Col. of the 2nd Iowa Infantry, soon promoted to Brigadier General.

His first opportunity for glory came in the aftermath of the defeat and death of Nathaniel Lyon’s army at Wilson’s Creek and the subsequent failure of leadership by John Fremont and David Hunter (who later served ingloriously in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, before Sheridan’s successful campaign there). Organizing the chaos of the Union effort in St. Louis, Curtis showed his strategic intelligence by moving his headquarters from St. Louis to Rolla, Missouri, to be closer to the front. He then showed some considerable political acumen [5] by smoothing over the ruffled feathers of a relatively incompetent general but an important political one, Franz Sigel, who felt he had been passed over for leading the army despite being Lyon’s second in command at Wilson’s Creek. Curtis made him second-in-command, gave him leadership over the small army’s German volunteers, and kept his troops and subordinates happy as a result.

The result was one of the most decisive victories of the war for the Union. After Van Dorn decided on a wildly flamboyant tactical maneuver, Curtis’ stolid defensive and offensive efforts (despite being outnumbered more than 3-2) led to a victory that solidified Union control over Missouri. In the aftermath of the victory (in which the Confederates lost many of their general officers due to rash aggressiveness, as well as about 2,000 of their 16,000 troops [6]), Curtis had ambitions of advancing to Little Rock, but logistical concerns prevented him from doing so, and refusing to risk his army, he instead captured the city of Helena after another victory in the Battle of Cotton Plant [7].

After taking Helena, which the Union would hold for the remainder of the Civil War, providing a major supply base for Union efforts in the area and denying it to the Confederacy, making a Confederate push towards St. Louis almost impossible from a logistics standpoint, Sigel’s attempt to take the credit for Pea Ridge led to some tensions between the two officers and Sigel’s transfer to the East (where Sigel performed terribly, his most notable loss being New Market against a heavily outnumbered Confederate army including VMI cadets). Meanwhile, Curtis’ staunch abolitionist views led him to be transferred from the Department of the Missouri to the Department of Kansas, where Curtis had one more opportunity for victory. Dealing with a muddled and chaotic leadership structure as well as politics and militia, Curtis (along with his subordinate Blount) were able to slow down Price’s attack on Kansas City enough to pull together their forces and win a decisive victory in the two-day Battle of Westport [8] that eliminated Price’s army as a going concern from there on out, and was the last major battle in the Trans-Mississippi Theater.

Since Curtis died so soon after the Civil War ended and was not the sort of man given to self-congratulation, he remains fairly obscure among general Civil War history buffs. A sound strategic mind, the ability to work with militia as well as “ethnic troops” and win victory despite being outnumbered and in enemy territory, and a concern to logistical matters makes Curtis an ideal general in an expeditionary campaign. As a result, Samuel Ryan Curtis is my choice for my Civil War fantasy roster with my third pick in the Civil War fantasy draft.









About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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9 Responses to Civil War Fantasy Roster: Samuel Curtis

  1. Robert says:

    I too share your admiration for this man. I have always wondered why he was not chosen for higher command. I once wrote a College paper on the fiasco that preceded the battle of Westport. He was almost refused the troops he needed for political reasons. Anyway, maybe someone should write more about him. Are you up to it? He deserved more command.

    • It is a task I would love to do, assuming I had the resources. Right now I am in Thailand and books about the Civil War are thin on the ground. But when I return to the United States it is a project I would love to take on.

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