Union General


Union General

Samuel Ryan Curtis and Victory in the West

William L. Shea

368 pages
8 photographs, 3 maps, index


January 2023


$34.95 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)

(Requires Adobe Digital Editions)

January 2023


$34.95 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)

(Requires Adobe Digital Editions)

January 2023


$34.95 Add to Cart

About the Book

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.

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.

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. This biography restores Curtis to his rightful place in American history and adds significantly to our understanding of the Civil War.

Author Bio

William L. Shea is author and coauthor of numerous books on the Civil War, including Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West, Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign, and Vicksburg Is the Key: The Struggle for the Mississippi River (Nebraska, 2005).


"Deeply researched and extremely well written, Union General is an excellent biography that should appeal to all readers who are interested in the Civil War."—Roger D. Cunningham, Journal of America's Military Past

"Highly celebratory while remaining judicious, William Shea's Union General is a fine biography that should go a long way toward fostering a wider recognition and appreciation of Samuel Ryan Curtis's substantial historical legacy."—Civil War Books and Authors

"Shea's writing style makes Union General an excellent read. The narrative and quotes Shea provides gives the reader a real sense of Curtis's character and moments of pride and disappointment. . . . Union General is an obvious good choice for military and Civil War historians and anyone who enjoys a good book."—In CONGRESS - Brief

"This book, a well-written study of one man's life,  is both meticulously researched and a fascinating story, written in an engaging way."—Ricochet

"Samuel Curtis lived a truly remarkable life and deserves Shea's remarkable biography."—Ethan S. Rafuse, Missouri Historical Review

“William Shea’s study of Samuel Ryan Curtis is the most important biography of a Civil War figure to be produced in many years and one of the very few that does not retread well-worn ground. . . . Shea’s meticulous research restores Curtis to the position of significance he deserves as the dominant Union commander west of the Mississippi, a leader whose influence on the overall course of the war exceeded that of a host of more familiar soldiers. This is essential reading.”—William Garrett Piston, coauthor of “We Gave Them Thunder”: Marmaduke’s Raid and the Civil War in Missouri and Arkansas

“More than 150 years after his death, Samuel Ryan Curtis, one of the Union’s most capable but least acclaimed generals, finally gets the rich, detailed biography he has long deserved, courtesy of one of our leading Civil War historians. This is a major contribution to our understanding of the titanic struggle in the sprawling Trans-Mississippi.”—Thomas A. DeBlack, author of With Fire and Sword: Arkansas, 1861–1874

“Kudos to William Shea for rescuing Samuel Ryan Curtis from the historical wilderness. Engineer, architect, attorney, congressman, and veteran soldier, Curtis was an enormously accomplished and complex man who, more than any other person, secured Union victory in the Trans-Mississippi. In explaining how and why Curtis triumphed, Shea has produced a masterful biography, nuanced, lively, and comprehensive.”—Daniel E. Sutherland, author of A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War

“William Shea succeeds admirably in proving his argument that Samuel Ryan Curtis was the most important military figure in the Trans-Mississippi and an extremely important figure in the Civil War overall. Well written, engrossing, and definitive, readers will welcome this first major biography of Curtis from one of our best Civil War historians.”—Timothy B. Smith, author of Shiloh: Conquer or Perish

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Beginnings
2. Mexico
3. Engineering
4. Business and Politics
5. General
6. Ozarkia
7. Pea Ridge
8. March to the Mississippi
9. Missouri
10. Inquisition and Interlude
11. Fort Leavenworth
12. Westport
13. Race to the Arkansas
14. Peacemaking
15. Union Pacific
16. Memory

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