Tuesday, April 21, 2009



Samuel Ryan Curtis, Iowa's distinguished statesman and soldier, was the second colonel, and the first general officer appointed from the State. He is Iowa's first and oldest major- general, and, at the time of entering the service, was more widely known than any other officer sent out from the State; for, almost from the State's infancy, he has stood prominent among her public men.

General Curtis was born on the 3d day of February, 1807, and calls himself a native of Newark, Licking county, Ohio. In point of fact, he was born while his parents were on their way from Connecticut to the West, and somewhere in the State of New York. He was educated at the West Point Military Academy, where he held the highest military office in his class. Graduating in 1831, with a brevet second-lieutanancy in the 7th Infantry, he was soon after assigned to duty at Fort Gibson in the Indian Territory. In the following year, he resigned his commission, and returning to Ohio, studied law, and was admitted to the bar. From 1837 to 1839, he was chief engineer of the Muskingum River Improvement. Later he practiced law in Wooster, Ohio, and was actively and successfully engaged in the practice, when war was declared with Mexico. He was now summoned to Columbus by the Governor of Ohio, and made adjutant-general of that State; and not long after was commissioned colonel of the 3d Ohio Volunteer Infantry, which he led to the field. He served on the Northern Line in Mexico under General Taylor, and was for a time on the staff of General Wool; and, as governor, commanded the cities of Matamoras, Camargo and Saltillo.

At the close of the war, he returned to Ohio; but finding his law business had wasted away during his absence, and being urged to take the position of chief engineer of the Des Moines Improvement, he left that State, and coming West, settled in Keokuk, Iowa. He was for a time engaged in the practice of the law in the city of Keokuk, and had for partners Colonel J. W. Rankin and the Honorable Charles Mason. From 1850 to 1853, he was engineer-in-charge of the harbor and other works of the city of St. Louis, where the dike that he constructed, which connects Bloody Island to the Illinois shore, will, for many years hence, stand a monument to his credit. It secures to the city of St. Louis great commercial advantages. During the two following years, he was chief engineer of the American Central Rail Road, running through Illinois, Iowa, and other States.

In 1856, General Curtis was elected to Congress from the First Congressional District of Iowa, and in 1858, and again in I860, was re-elected from the same district. In the canvass of 1860, his opponent was the Honorable C. C. Cole, now Judge of the Supreme Court of Iowa, and one of the ablest debaters and most popular men in the State. No better proof could be had of the general's ability as a statesman, and of the integrity of his record, than this final endorsement of him by the people: indeed, nearly every section of his District gave him increased majorities.

From the organization of the party, he has been an earnest and consistent Republican; but that for which he became most distinguished in Congress was the part he acted in securing the passage of the Pacific Rail Road Act. Others have claimed the honor, but he is the father of this enterprise, as is evidenced by his elaborate speeches and demonstrations of record in the annals of Congress. I should also add that he was a leading member of the Committee on Military Affairs. He had, I am credibly informed, much to do with the efforts of the House, in countervailing the schemes of Jeff Davis, in his manipulations of our military forces to his base purposes.

General Curtis' patriotism was always fervent, and, though others have made a more brilliant reputation in the war, none responded more promptly to the first call of national alarm; and, I may add, none have led armies and fought battles with more uniform success. Leaving his home in the West on the first news of the attack on Fort Sumter, he started for Washington; and, meeting at Philadelphia the gallant 7th New York, Colonel Lefferts, embarked with it on transports for Annapolis. From that point the march was made through the heat and dust by day and night to Washington. Returning to Keokuk, he assisted in raising volunteers, and was, on the 1st of June, elected colonel of the 2d Iowa Infantry, (the first three-years regiment from the State) by the unanimous vote of the officers and men. Ten days later and at midnight, he was summoned by General Lyon by telegraph to Northern Missouri, and marched next day with his regiment for that point. Besides capturing many prisoners, guns &c., he established at once in Northern Missouri the military authority of the Federal Government.

In the latter part of June, he left again for Washington to be present at the fourth session of Congress, and while there was made a brigadier-general. He now resigned his seat in Congress, and, reporting at St. Louis, Missouri, was soon after placed in command, first of Jefferson Barracks, next of the Camp of Instruction at Benton Barracks, and finally of the St. Louis District. While holding the last named command, the President devolved on him the duties connected with the change of commanders—a most delicate and painful service, which he neither sought nor desired; but for the prudence and decision he discovered in the discharge of these duties, he received the special thanks of Mr. Lincoln.

In December 1861, General Curtis was placed in command of the District of Southwest Missouri, and at once repaired to Rolla, where he established his head-quarters. Having organized his army in the early part of January 1862, he marched against General Price, and drove him through Missouri and Northern Arkansas. On this march, the enemy were encountered in several skirmishes and engagements. The culminating one was the sanguinary battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas. It resulted in a brilliant victory to the Federal arms, and in the restoration of the flag and the authority of the Government in that State.

Although the battle of Pea Ridge was one of the earliest and most decisive of the war, yet, I believe, less is known of it, than of any other of equal magnitude, especially of those fought in the South West.

In the latter part of January, 1862, nearly four months after the march of General Fremont was made from Jefferson City to Springfield, General Curtis left Rolla, Missouri, for the purpose of capturing or dispersing the rebel army under General Sterling Price. His command consisted of the divisions of Sigel, (subsequently Osterhous') Asboth, Davis and Carr, and numbered about twelve thousand men. Passing through Lebanon, Marshfield, Springfield and over the old Wilson Creek battle-field, he arrived in the vicinity of Pea Ridge on the evening of the 20th of February. He first met the enemy north of Springfield—though neither there, nor at any point between that and Sugar Creek, did he meet with determined resistance. Shortly before the arrival of Curtis at Sugar Creek, Price had been re-inforced by McCulloch, and, in consequence of this, quite a severe engagement took place at the above named point. At Sugar Creek, Sigel, who had made a detour, rejoined the main army, which now pressed on to Osage Springs, a position which flanked Cross Hollows, the rebel strong-hold, and compelled its evacuation by McCulloch. From the 21st of February to the 5th of March, General Curtis' forces remained in this vicinity, the enemy in the meantime collecting all his forces in the front. Being informed of the enemy's great increase of strength, and his designs to assume the offensive, General Curtis ordered all his several divisions, by different routes, to fall back to Sugar Creek and Pea Ridge to give battle, should the enemy force one. At this time General Sigel was near Bentonville, Carr was at Cross Hollows, while General Jefferson C. Davis was already on Sugar Creek, just at the base of Pea Ridge.

On the morning of the 5th of March, Captain H. H. Griffiths, of the 4th Iowa Infantry, (subsequently of the 1st Iowa Battery) who was field-officer of the day, found the picket-line in commotion, and, on inquiry, learned that a government foraging train had been captured. Soon after it was learned from scouts, contrabands and from loyal citizens, living in the vicinity of Cross Hollows, that General Van Dorn, having formed a junction with Price, was advancing to give battle, and that night Colonel Carr, under orders and accompanied by General Curtis, marched back to Sugar Creek, a distance of fourteen miles. That same afternoon, General Sigel also received orders at his camp near Bentonville, to forthwith move back to Sugar Creek, distant about sixteen miles; for General Curtis was now satisfied that a great battle was imminent, and it was his purpose to concentrate at Pea Ridge, and engage the enemy from that strong position. Colonel Vandever, of the 9th Iowa Infantry, who was near Huntsville, in command of a brigade, was ordered to march day and night till he reached the place designated.

Pea Ridge, Arkansas, is a narrow plateau, running nearly east and west, and lying near the Boston Mountains. Along its southern base is the historic stream of Sugar Creek, whose northern bank is in many places precipitous, rising to the hight of two or three hundred feet. On its top, Pea Ridge has a few cultivated fields; but for the most part is covered with a short and stinted growth of oak of great density. Its northern slope is gradually descending, and terminating in wild, deep ravines. Just north of these ravines are abrupt, rocky and rugged hills, and, among and in the vicinity of these, is the celebrated Cross Timber Hollows, so named, it is said, from the heavy timber which was felled there by General McCulloch, in October 1861, to block the advance of General Fremont, in his march from Springfield. Running along through Cross Timber Hollows, and over Pea Ridge and Sugar Creek, is the Wire, or Butterfield road. Its course is nearly due north and south. Branching off from this road to the west, and about four miles north of Sugar Creek, is the Lee town road, which, after passing through a small village by that name, bears round to the south to Bentonville. It was over this last named road that General Sigel fell back to Pea Ridge. Carr returned with his division from Cross Hollows, over the Wire road; Cross Hollows lying south of Pea Ridge, and, as I have said, some fourteen miles distant from it.

On the morning of the 6th of March, the divisions of both Carr and Davis were at Sugar Creek, and in position, throwing up temporary field-works, while the command of Sigel was just moving out of Bentonville; and here it was that Sigel first met the enemy. It happened in this wise: having halted in Bentonville with a small force until after the departure of the greater part of his command, he was attacked by the rebel army and almost completely surrounded. Forming his small force—scarcely six hundred men—he broke through the enemy's lines and, though still closely pursued and his flanks severely pressed, marched for several hours, sustaining an almost continuous engagement; indeed, the enemy did not cease their attacks until the arrival of reinforcements, sent and led by General Curtis in person. That he was not entirely cut off and compelled to surrender was due as well to the superior discipline of the troops, as to the skill displayed by General Sigel, in managing his rear defences. Thus the enemy were checked, and Sigel arrived safely on the north bank of Sugar Creek.

At midnight on the 6th of March, the position of General Curtis' forces were as follows: The enemy were expected to advance from the south across Sugar Creek valley, and the troops of General Curtis were therefore drawn up in line of battle on the high bluffs, facing that valley. Davis' and Carr's divisions held the left, and Sigel's and Asboth's the right; and the whole front was defended by strong works, thrown up during the day and night. The commissary-stores had been sent back to the rear to Elkhorn Tavern, and placed under charge of Major Weston, provost-marshal of the army; for it was supposed that that was a place of safety. Early on the morning of the 7th instant, General Curtis became convinced, from the reports of his scouts, that a heavy body of the enemy was moving round his right, for the purpose of attacking his right flank and rear. A change of front to the rear was therefore ordered, so as to face the road west, along which the enemy were now advancing. Before this movement had been completed, a detachment of cavalry and light artillery, well supported by infantry under Colonels Osterhaus and Bussey was ordered from the new centre. Its object was to attack the enemy while they were moving by the flank. But in the meantime Major Weston was attacked at Elkhorn Tavern, by rebel infantry. Elkhorn Tavern was the point where the new right was to rest, and Carr's Division was already on its way to reinforce Major Weston's command, and to order the train to a place of safety. It was this prompt movement on the part of General Curtis that saved him his army, and for the coolness and judgment that prompted it, he is entitled to great credit. Nor is it true, as has often been stated, that General Sigel, at Pea Ridge, saved the Federal army from defeat and capture. He did well the duties of a subordinate officer, and is entitled to great praise for the manner in which he wrested his mere handful of men from the enemy's grasp at Bentonville; but, on the 7th of March, and after the change of front, he held the extreme left which was not engaged at all.

A civilian has no idea of the extent of country embraced in the lines of a great battle, and will be surprised when told that the right and centre of Curtis' line at Pea Ridge were several miles apart. He can better understand that to handle troops successfully under such circumstances, requires great coolness and judgment — and that is just what makes a good general.

The fighting now opened on the right and in the centre with great fury; and in the centre the enemy were at first successful. The Federal cavalry, sent out under Osterhaus and Bussey, were routed and lost their artillery; and General Curtis therefore ordered Davis to Osterhaus' support. On arriving, he assumed command, for he was the senior officer; and now the centre was held firmly. Soon Davis assumed the offensive, and assaulting the enemy, re-captured the lost battery, and either killed or mortally wounded Generals McIntosh and Slack. McCulloch had been killed before Davis came up.

In the meantime General Carr had met the enemy and fought a most unequal and terrible battle on the right. Opposed to his division were the commands of both Price and Van Dorn. From sun-rise to near sun-set, Carr fought with but few reinforcements, and, though his troops displayed the greatest bravery, he had, toward night, been forced back nearly a mile; and now his troops had left but little ammunition.

The enemy now having developed their strength and position, it became evident to General Curtis that he must re-form his line; and the order was promptly given. He divined the object of the enemy, which was to force back his right, cut off all lines of retreat, and dash his army to pieces against the Boston Mountains. The commands of Sigel, Davis, Asboth and Osterhaus were brought up from the left and centre, and thrown into position, facing the north and confronting the main body of the enemy under Price and Van Dorn. But while this movement was in progress, General Curtis, in company with Asboth and a small portion of his division, rode to the right to the immediate relief of Carr, who, by this time, as I have said, had been driven back nearly a mile. Riding on to the ground he met the 4th Iowa Infantry, who, having fired their last cartridge, were gradually yielding ground to the enemy. He at once ordered them to about- face and charge the enemy, which they did in such gallant style as to check their further advance that night. During the night, the troops were afforded rest and sleep, and fresh supplies of ammunition, and early on the following morning the struggle was renewed. I should not omit to state that during the night a third and last line was formed; and it was now for the first time quite continuous. Carr held the right, as he had done the entire day before, Davis the centre, and Asboth and Sigel the left; but these last troops did not get into position till after the fighting of the morning begun. The right and centre was the only part of the line engaged, and the fighting was being principally done by the artillery. Soon Sigel came up on the left, and forced the enemy's right from a strong position it had taken up on one of the hills in Cross Timber Hollows. It was now the moment of victory, seeing which General Curtis ordered a general charge. The enemy struggled fiercely for a moment, but their lines were soon broken at all points, and they fled in utter rout from the field. But for one thing, large numbers of them would have been captured—Cross Timber Hollows gave them a sure and almost unmolested way of retreat.

It was a splendid victory! For his bravery, watchfulness and skill, General Curtis well deserved to be made a major- general ; and only thirteen days after the last day's battle, he was promoted to that rank. General Sigel received a like promotion ; but, on account of ill health, was soon after compelled to leave the field. He never returned to the Army of the South West.

After remaining in the vicinity of the battle-ground for nearly a month, the enemy no longer appearing in any force near his front, General Curtis, by a difficult march, moved across the Boston Mountains to Batesville, on White River. Here he remained till the 23d of the following June, when he began his celebrated march through Arkansas to Helena. At that day it was a celebrated undertaking, and the papers throughout the country were filled with its recital; but to-day, when contrasted with the wonderful movements of Sherman, it seems only an ordinary affair. The skirmishes and engagements which resulted from this movement will be given elsewhere. That was now accomplished which General Fremont claimed he would have effected six months earlier, had his hands not been tied by the President—the west bank of the Mississippi was gained at a point below Memphis.

General Curtis remained at Helena until the following August. His head-quarters were established at the magnificent residence of the rebel General Hindman, which is situated near the base of one of the hills that look down on that sickly, detestable village. While here he organized many expeditions, one of which penetrated the waters of the Yazoo River. Another went down the Mississippi, and captured a partially prepared battery; and still another was sent to Richmond, a considerable town in Louisiana, eighteen miles west of Vicksburg. It was through this same town that Grant marched, when on his way to the rear of Vicksburg.

But, though burdened with the cares of a large military command, General Curtis did not forget that magnificent enterprise, for the success of which he had, in civil life, labored so untiringly, and, I may add, so successfully. Having been made one of the corporators, he obtained a leave of absence from the War Department to attend the Pacific Railroad Convention at Chicago. He was chosen and acted as President of that body. In the future, that assemblage will be looked upon as a land-mark of a new era; for it organized and inaugurated the great work which is now in progress, to connect the two oceans and bind the continent together with iron bands.

On the 19th of September, 1862, General Curtis was assigned to the command of the Department of the Missouri, with head-quarters at St. Louis. At that time this department included the States of Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, the Territories of Nebraska, Colorado, and the Indian Territory. The military forces consisted of the armies of the South West, the Frontier, and South-east Missouri. The department was subsequently diminished by the withdrawal of Arkansas. While in command of this department, his troops fought the following battles: Cane Hill, Old Town, Wayne, Prairie Grove, Springfield, Hartsville, Cape Girardeau, besides capturing Fort Smith and Van Buren, Arkansas. There were also many skirmishes and engagements of lesser note. But General Curtis was too radical for that early day of the struggle. His anti-Slavery spirit was distasteful to the conservative governor of Missouri, and, harassed by the importunities of that official, and other influential conservative men of the State, the President relieved the general of his command, after a successful and, with the true friends of the Government, a popular administration of eight months. The President expressly stated that he had no fault to find with the general's administration, but that he was willing to yield to the wishes of the conservative party, headed by Governor Gamble, and see, if by inaugurating a more lenient policy, he could not conciliate hostile factions, and heal the breach in the Union Party of Missouri. But the Pres- dent, though honest in his intentions, (as he always has been), was in error, as the subsequent triumph of anti-Slavery principles in that State evidences. Indeed, the history of the Baltimore Convention of 1864 is conclusive proof in this matter; for the Missouri delegation was the only one which cast its vote against Mr. Lincoln in that body.

General Curtis' next command was the Department of Kansas, to which he was assigned the first day of January, 1864. It included Kansas, and the Territories of Nebraska and Colorado, with head-quarters at Fort Leavenworth. Fort Smith and the Indian Territory were at first included, but these were subsequently given to General Steele, whose headquarters were at Little Rock. During the summer and fall of 1864, the general was engaged in protecting the exposed settlements on the frontier from the depredations of hostile Indians, and in guarding lines of travel west. He was at Fort Leavenworth, and his troops scattered in every quarter of his command, when he first learned of the rapid and almost unopposed march of Price into Missouri. The course of the rebel general was bearing toward the borders of Kansas, and General Curtis, although his available force was scarcely three thousand men, began preparations to meet him. The Kansas Militia were at once organized under General Deitzler, and, with the volunteer forces under General Blunt, General Curtis took the field. The part taken by the general in routing and driving Price from Missouri was active and successful. I quote from a statement of one of his staff officers:

"The sudden rallying of the people of Kansas, under Curtis, checked the movements of Price, who had boasted that he would capture Fort Leavenworth and city, and lay the State waste. The first resistance actually confronting the advance of Price was the advance of General Blunt, under Curtis, at Lexington, on October 19th."

"Rosecrans and Pleasanton were south-east of the rebel general, while Curtis, Blunt and Deitzler, with their little band of volunteers, were to his west, near Kansas City, on the border of Kansas. Blunt advanced to Lexington, where he was attacked by Price, and, as he was ordered only to feel the enemy, fell back to the Little Blue. In the battles of Little Blue and Big Blue, on the 20th and 22d of October, Curtis delayed the advance of the rebel general, and held him a severe engagement. At Westport, on the 23d, the battle was renewed; and General Curtis, with his whole force, completely checked Price's westward movement, and turned him south. After the rebel retreat had commenced, Pleasanton joined in pursuit, and the retreat became a rout. Price was driven south along the border of Kansas.

"After the battle of Westport, Price successively fought and lost the battles of Marias des Cygnes, {Swamp of the Swans} Mine Creek, Osage, and on October 25th, the battle of Charlotte, losing two thousand men and two guns. The rebel generals Marmaduke and Cabell were captured, and large quantities of Price's equipments were burned and scattered in the retreat. The rebel generals Graham and Slemmons were killed. Price passed within a few miles of the richly stored military depot of Fort Scott; but was too closely pressed to attempt its capture. The same night he burned five hundred of his wagons, and a large quantity of his stores. The pursuit was continued on October 26th, and on the 28th, at Granby, the rebel rear-guard was struck. At Newtonia, five miles beyond, Blunt, being in advance, attacked the enemy with parts of two brigades, holding his ground for three hours, until the arrival of Curtis with Sanborn's Brigade on the field. The enemy was soon routed, and again retreated in great disorder, having lost some six hundred men. On this night Rosecrans withdrew all his forces, and, as the Kansas Militia had been disbanded at Fort Scott, General Curtis' whole force did not now exceed twenty-two hundred men.

"The next day, in accordance with orders from Lieutenant-General Grant, Curtis continued the pursuit of Price. The Missouri troops were included in the order; but for some reason did not overtake General Curtis. At Keetsville, Colonel Benton with a small brigade of veterans of the 16th Army Corps, making Curtis' force about three thousand men, joined in the pursuit, which was continued over the old Pea Ridge battle-ground to Cross Hollows. From this point a forced march was made to the relief of Fayetteville, for three days invested by Price's forces, who hastily retired, on the approach of General Curtis, who, they supposed, still retained the whole force that operated in Missouri. The pursuit was continued over Cane Hill battle-ground, and through a portion of the Indian Territory, to a point on the Arkansas River, thirty miles above Fort Smith. Here, on November 8th, Price succeeded in crossing the river, a parting volley of shells being fired at his rear. General Curtis now returned by easy marches to Fort Leavenworth.

"In a campaign of thirty-eight days, a march of nearly one thousand miles had been accomplished; nine battles had been fought, with a Union loss of eighteen hundred men, killed and wounded. From Lexington to Cane Hill, the rebels admitted a loss of ten thousand five hundred killed, wounded and missing. General Curtis was welcomed back to his post with a grand reception by the people of Leavenworth; and the Legislature of Kansas tendered him their thanks for his noble defense of the State, and recommended his promotion in the regular army."

General Curtis has recently been assigned to the command of the Department of the North West, with head-quarters at Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It is the same command recently held by Major-General John Pope, including the States of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, and the Territories of Dacotah and Idaho.

If we except two instances, General Curtis has served without reproach, from the time he entered the war to the present. He was charged with dealing in cotton, while commanding in Arkansas, and rebels gave their affidavits to impeach him; but the President was kind enough to inform the general of the secret assaults on his character, and the overwhelming proof which he offered of the integrity of his command in Arkansas, not only served with the President, but with the people, as a full vindication against the foul slander. He was also charged with appropriating two camels, which he had captured from the enemy, the remnant of those imported by the Government to traverse the sandy plains of the Southern Overland Route; but, on inquiry, it appeared that they were kept by, and properly accounted for, by the staff quarter-master, awaiting, at any time, the disposal of the Government. It further appeared that they were only sent to Iowa to secure them from re-capture, and to preserve them for the Government, to which they rightfully and notoriously belonged. Even the genial-hearted Claggett, editor of the Keokuk "Constitution," and the bitter political opponent of General Curtis, vindicated him from this unjust and unmanly charge.

Of the Iowa major-generals, General Curtis is the largest in person. He has a tall, fine form, and, though nearly sixty years of age, is erect and vigorous. His large, hazel eyes give his countenance an expression of gravity and thoughtfulness which comports well with the dignity of his movements and manners. But, if he is sedate, and if he never laughs boisterously, he is nevertheless easily approached and sociable; he is kind and generous-hearted, and would not knowingly injure the feelings of the most humble or unfortunate.

He has one trait which is not in keeping with his general character. He is nice and precise in dress, and in this respect has been noted for the scrupulousness with which he has complied with the Army Regulations. He never, when on duty, omits a regulation trapping. In many respects he is not unlike General Grant; but not in this.

Intellectually, General Curtis is not brilliant. He has excellent judgment, and great available ability. To these, and to unremitting labor, he is indebted for what he is. He is a most excellent mathematician, and, as a civil-engineer, has I believe no superior in the West. This remarkable endowment made him the leader in Congress of the great Pacific Railroad enterprise.

As a soldier, General Curtis is able, magnanimous and brave; and why, against his known wishes, he has recently been kept from the front, I do not understand. Perhaps he too much resembles the great military chieftain of the day; for I have noticed that, in nearly every instance, commands at the front have been given to those who, as regards sprightliness and dash, are the direct opposites of General Grant.

General Curtis has a proud record, whether before, or during the War of the Rebellion; and when this great conflict shall have closed, and a true love of the Nation's ancient motto re-enshrined in the hearts of all, he will stand, with the honest historian, as one of the most practical and deserving men of his day.

SOURCE: Stuart, A. A., Iowa Colonels and Regiments, p. 35-50

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