Library DrawingThe CONNector

April 2002Volume 4 Number 2

Museum's Uniforms Travel to Civil War Arkansas

Dean Nelson, Administrator, Museum of Connecticut History

Major General Samuel Ryan Curtis - CT State Archives, Brady Collection
Major General Samuel Ryan Curtis - CT State Archives, Brady Collection
The Curtis Uniform Coats - MCH acc. #s 1927.6.1, .2
The Curtis Uniform Coats - MCH acc. #s 1927.6.1, .2

The uniform coats of Union Major General Samuel Ryan Curtis, in the Museum of Connecticut History's collection since 1927, arrived by overnight air freight to northwest Arkansas just in time to help launch Pea Ridge National Military Park's fund campaign to purchase them from the Museum in ceremonies marking the 140th anniversary of General Curtis's resounding defeat of Confederate forces there in March of 1862.

Museum staff researched General Curtis's coats as part of a several year collection-wide assessment of our holdings, with an eye towards strategic deaccession of items that did not have Connecticut stories to tell. The Museum of Connecticut History collects and exhibits items which illustrate aspects of the state's rich and textured governmental, industrial and military heritage. To our greatest disappointment, as the coats are quite striking and in excellent shape, General Curtis had no Connecticut connections to work into exhibitry.

Born in New York in 1817, Curtis was appointed from Ohio to the U.S. Military Academy, and graduated with the Class of 1831. He resigned his commission in the Regular Army after only a year. In a career mixing law, civil engineering and railroad entrepreneurship, he rose to the rank of colonel in the Ohio militia and raised state volunteers for the Mexican War (1846-48). Moving to Iowa in 1855, he was elected to the United States Congress, but relinquished his seat to take the colonelcy of the Second Iowa Volunteer Infantry upon the outbreak of the Civil War. In May of 1861, he was promoted to brigadier general and in charge of the large Federal camp of instruction at St. Louis, Missouri. He was picked to lead the Union Army of the Southwest in the winter campaign of 1861-62 to secure and occupy large parts of Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas. Towards that end, his force of some 10,000 soldiers, largely from Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio (half of them German immigrants) defeated Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn's larger army of 16,000 men from Missouri, Texas and Arkansas (including some 800 Cherokees) in the Battle of Pea Ridge on March 7-8, 1862. This victory gained him his major general's stars and for the duration of the war he headed the Department of the Missouri, Kansas and the Northwest. He died in 1866.

Mrs. E. D. Bird, General Curtis's granddaughter and Greenwich, CT, resident, gave his coats and one belonging to his son Major Henry Z. Curtis, to Fitch's Home for Soldiers in nearby Noroton Heights, Darien. The Home for Soldiers in turn presented them to the Connecticut State Library in 1927.

The Museum featured the Curtis coats in a 1996 exhibit titled "Connecticut Cleans its Attic: Right Sizing the Collection in the 90s" which showcased hundreds of fascinating, exotic and often valuable items united under the shared circumstance of being out-of-scope of the Museum's mission and collection policies and therefore candidates for deaccession. The exhibit labels described the historical attributes of the "out-of-scopes" and outlined Museum plans to remove them from the collections through donation, sale or trade with another museum or sale at public auction. Pea Ridge National Military Park was the obvious future for the Curtis coats, and the label stated our intent to offer them "first refusal" to acquire them. As it turned out, Pea Ridge called us first! A touring, label-reading friend of the Park, from down that way, had visited Hartford, had viewed "Connecticut Cleans its Attic", had learned about the Curtis coats and had told the Park about the discovery. Pea Ridge staff phoned us to verify the story and were elated about the prospects of exhibiting them in their visitor center and raising funds to buy them.

The Curtis coats also underwent scrutiny by the Museum Advisory Committee, composed of Connecticut museum and history professionals appointed by the governor. Certified by this committee as unrelated to the Museum's mission, the coats were next reviewed by the Connecticut State Library Board to determine whether or not they supported the Museum's purpose. The Board's approval for deaccession also governed the coat's disposition to a "destination museum or historic site", in this case Pea Ridge National Military Park, and established a market value of $32,500 in consultation with an appraiser. The Connecticut Attorney General's Office prepared the agreement for the loan which everyone expects to culminate with the sale or trade of the Curtis coats to the National Park Service. The proceeds will augment the Museum Collection Fund, dedicated to the purchase of Connecticut historical materials for the Museum's permanent collections.

The Museum is similarly working to find an appropriate home for the Major Henry Z. Curtis uniform coat. Major Curtis, Assistant Adjutant General for Iowa Volunteers, was among the Federal soldiers killed by Confederate Lt. Colonel William C. Quantrill's troops in a raid near Baxter Springs, Kansas, on October 6, 1863.

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