Monday, December 12, 2022

Booknotes: Union General

New Arrival:
Union General: Samuel Ryan Curtis and Victory in the West by William L. Shea (Potomac Bks, 2023).

Major General Samuel Ryan Curtis has a long list of admirers among the most ardent students of the Civil War west of the Mississippi. Their clamor for a biography languished unheeded for a surprisingly long period of time. Eventually, welcome news emerged that William Shea, the co-author of the most authoritative history of the Battle of Pea Ridge and one of the historians best positioned to chronicle and analyze Curtis's life and Civil War career, was on task. Now, a few years later we finally have the finished product in Union General: Samuel Ryan Curtis and Victory in the West. Arriving a bit early, this is one of my most highly anticipated 2023 titles.

From the description: Union General "is the first biography of Samuel Ryan Curtis, the most important and most successful general on either side in the Civil War west of the Mississippi River. Curtis was a West Point graduate, Mexican War veteran, and determined foe of secession who gave up his seat in Congress to fight for the Union. At Pea Ridge in 1862 and Westport in 1864, he marched hundreds of miles across hostile countryside, routed Confederate armies larger than his own, and reestablished Federal control over large swathes of rebel territory." That part about Westport sounds like a slip of the marketing pen, as Price's failing campaign at that point actually faced overwhelming numbers of converging Union forces.

One of the largest questions surrounding Curtis's Civil War career arc was why his early success in the Trans-Mississippi did not, like it did with Pope, vault him into larger army commands. Age and radical politics have been cited as limiting factors, but it will be interesting to see how Shea answers the question. The description provides some introduction: "In addition to his remarkable success as a largely independent field commander, Curtis was one of only a handful of abolitionist generals in the Union army. He dealt a heavy blow to slavery in the Trans-Mississippi and Mississippi Valley months before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. His enlightened racial policies and practices generated a storm of criticism and led to his temporary suspension in the middle of the conflict—but he was restored to active duty in time to win a crushing victory at Westport, where he saved Kansas and put an end to Price’s Raid." In addition to political entanglements, Curtis's Civil War career was also marked by accusations of personal involvement in the illegal cotton trade in Arkansas. Also, controversy surrounds the summary execution, by troops under Curtis's command, of regularly enrolled Confederate soldiers captured during Price's hectic retreat. It will be interesting to read how Shea addresses those matters.

Shea's full biography also shines light upon Curtis's less-recognized career accomplishments. From the description: "Before the war Curtis was an accomplished civil engineer, a prime mover of the transcontinental railroad, and an important figure in the emerging Republican Party and was elected three times to the House of Representatives from Iowa. After the war he participated in pioneering efforts in peacemaking with the Plains Indians and helped oversee construction of the Union Pacific across Nebraska."

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