Samuel Curtis was born in New York in 1805. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY, graduating in 1831, but left the Army soon after. He moved to Ohio, where he worked as a lawyer, a civil engineer, and a railroad promoter. Publicly, he was methodical, precise and formal; in private, however, he enjoyed long walks, collecting wildflowers and writing to his family.
During the Mexican War, he served as a military governor of several occupied cities. After the war, Curtis moved to Iowa and, in 1856, was elected to Congress as a Republican. He was a strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln and was considered for a cabinet position in the new administration. When war broke out, he raised the 2nd Iowa Infantry and was assigned to organizing the chaotic affairs in Saint Louis. General Halleck gave Curtis command of the Army of the Southwest on Christmas Day, 1861.
After Pea Ridge, Curtis continued the campaign, eventually capturing Helena, Arkansas on July 12th, 1862. He was promoted to Major General for his successes at Pea Ridge. In September, 1862, Curtis was given command of the Department of Missouri, although President Lincoln was soon forced to reassign him because of a bitter dispute between Curtis and Missouri's governor over Curtis's abolitionist views. He took to the field once again in 1864 against Sterling Price's invasion of Missouri. He ended Price's plans at the Battle of Westport (near present day Kansas City, Missouri). Curtis ended the war as commander of the Department of the Northwest, dealing with issues on the frontier.
After the war, he returned to Keokuk, Iowa where he promoted the transcontinental railroad. He died on December 26, 1866, after an inspection of the Union Pacific Railroad line. Although largely forgotten by history, Curtis was the Federal Army's most successful general throughout the first two years of the war.