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Congressman, Union General
Samuel Ryan Curtis was born in Clinton County, New York on February 3, 1805; his family moved to Licking County, Ohio, while he was young, where he grew up and attended the local public schools. He gained an appointment to West Point in 1827, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in July 1831. He spent a year posted in Indian Territory before resigning to study law and civil engineering in Ohio. He married Belinda Buckingham in 1831; the couple ultimately had six children.
From April 1837 to May 1839, Curtis served as a civil engineer at Keokuk and St. Louis, and distinguished himself in river improvements and railroad promotion. During the Mexican-American War, he served as Adjutant General of Ohio and, later, as Colonel of the Third Ohio Infantry, as well as Military Governor of a few cities in Mexico and on the staff of General John E. Wool; he was honorably discharged on June 24, 1847.
After the war, Curtis settled in Keokuk, Iowa, resumed his law practice, and was elected Mayor of Keokuk in the spring of 1856. In the fall of that same year he was elected as a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives, and was subsequently re-elected in 1858 and 1860, serving from March 4, 1857 to August 4, 1861. During his tenure he was a supporter of Abraham Lincoln's bid for the presidency and served as chairman of a House committee planning a Pacific Railroad.
Curtis left Congress after being appointed Brigadier General on May 17, 1861 and taking charge of Jefferson Barracks and Benton Barracks at St. Louis, but returned to Washington to attend a special session in July before formally resigning his seat. In December 1861, he took command of the Army of Southwest Missouri, and, in February 1862, forced Confederate General Sterling Price's army to abandon its Missouri campaign and then pursued him into Arkansas. After a skirmish at Big Sugar Creek on February 16, Major General Earl Van Dorn took command of Price's army and tried to mount a counter-offensive, but Curtis was able to turn the tide quickly and defeated Van Dorn at the Battle of Pea Ridge, March 7-8, 1862. Curtis then led his army in a failed attempt to take Little Rock before marching it to Helena, Arkansas, where it was relieved. Curtis was rewarded for his success at Pea Ridge with a promotion to Major General on March 21, 1862. Tragically, he was promoted the same day he received news that one of his daughters had died of scarlet fever.
In September 1862, Curtis was given command of the Department of Missouri, encompassing Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Indian Territory. From the beginning, however, Curtis had difficulty negotiating the politics that came along with the position, and he was removed by President Lincoln in the spring of 1863. On October 6, 1863, Major Henry Curtis, son of the General, was one of the approximately 100 men massacred by forces led by Confederate sympathizer William Quantrill at Baxter Springs, Kansas.
In January 1864, he was given command of the Department of Kansas, encompassing Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, and Indian Territory, with headquarters at Fort Leavenworth. In mid-September, he learned that General Price was marching from St. Louis toward Kansas and, with difficulty, convinced Territorial Governor Carney to call out the Kansas militia to meet the threat. On October 23rd, Curtis led a force of about 20,000 men to victory over Price at Westport (now part of present-day Kansas City, Missouri) and then directed the pursuit of Price's army all the way to the Arkansas River Valley (including over the earlier Pea Ridge battlefield). At one point during the pursuit, part of Price's army was further defeated at the Battle of Mine Creek, and the Confederates never again threatened either Misouri or Kansas.
Despite his second victory over Price, Curtis remained all but lost within the Union Army bureaucracy, and he was appointed to the relatively insignificant Department of the Northwest, where he served on commissions to negotiate with Indian tribes on the upper Missouri and to inspect construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. He was mustered out on April 30, 1866, and died while inspecting Union Pacific track at Council Bluffs, Iowa, on December 26, 1866; he is interred in Oakland Cemetery, Keokuk, Iowa.
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