A political appointee with little military experience prior to the American Civil War, Brigadier-General Gideon J. Pillow is most remembered for abandoning Fort Donelson in 1861 to avoid being captured by Federal soldiers.
Gideon J. Pillow was born in Williamson County, Tennessee on June 10, 1806. He was the second son and second of seven children born to Gideon Pillow, Sr., and Anne Payne. His grandfather fought in the Continental Army during the American Revolution and was present at the British surrender at Yorktown. His father campaigned against American Indians in Tennessee, and he also served with American forces during the War of 1812.
Young Pillow attended local academies before graduating from Nashville University in October 1827. He then studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1829. The next year he began practicing law in Columbia, Tennessee, where he became a close friend of future United States President James K. Polk. In addition to practicing law, Pillow became a successful and prominent planter during the 1830s. By the 1840s, he owned plantations and numerous slaves in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.
On March 24, 1831, Pillow married Mary E. Martin of Maury County, Tennessee. The couple remained married for thirty-eight years. Their marriage produced seven children.
In 1833, Tennessee Governor William Carroll appointed Pillow as adjutant general of the state militia, with the rank of brigadier-general. During that period, he also became active in politics as a Jacksonian Democrat. At the 1844 Democratic National Convention, Pillow supported his friend Polkas the party’s presidential candidate. Polk subsequently won the November presidential election. When the Mexican-American War erupted during Polk's administration, Pillow was rewarded for his support with a commission as a brigadier-general of volunteers on July 13, 1846.
During the Mexican-American War, Pillow first served under General Zachary Taylor near the border between the United States and Mexico. He was subsequently transferred to serve under General Winfield Scott at the commencement of the Siege of Veracruz in March 1847. Pillow was wounded in the right arm at the Battle of Cerro Gordo (April 18, 1847). He was promoted to major general of volunteers on April 30, 1847. Pillow continued to serve under Scott throughout the drive on Mexico City, and he was wounded in the left leg at the Battle of Chapultepec (September 12–13, 1847).
Prior to receiving his second wound, Pillow authored a letter published in the New Orleans Delta on September 10, 1847, under the pseudonym "Leonidas." The letter unjustifiably credited Pillow, instead of Scott, for the American victories at the Battle of Contreras (August 19–20, 1847) and the Battle of Churubusco (August 20, 1847). The letter was widely viewed as an attempt by Polk's supporters to curb Scott's growing political prestige at home. When Scott learned of Pillow's intrigue, he had his subordinate arrested and held for court-martial. At the subsequent trial, held in Washington under the watchful eye of the president, Pillow was exonerated after Major Archibald W. Burns claimed authorship of the letter at Pillow's behest.
After the Mexican-American War, Pillow returned to Tennessee where he concentrated on his agricultural endeavors. He also remained active in Democratic politics, receiving some support for nomination to the office of Vice-President of the United States in 1852 and in 1856.
When the Union began to dissolve following Abraham Lincoln's election as President of the United States in November 1860, Pillow sided with the South even though he opposed secession. On May 9, 1861, Tennessee Governor Isham Harris appointed Pillow as the senior major general in command of the Tennessee Militia. After Tennessee left the Union (June 8, 1861), Pillow received a commission in the Confederate Army as a brigadier-general, effective July 9, 1861.
On November 7, 1861, Pillow led a successful counterattack against Brigadier-General Ulysses S. Grant's Union forces that had captured Camp Johnston near Belmont, Missouri. Pillow's soldiers forced Grant's command to retreat across the Mississippi River to Kentucky.
A few months later, Pillow demonstrated his shortcomings as a commander at the Battle of Fort Donelson (February 12-16, 1862). On February 6, 1862, Ulysses S. Grant captured Fort Henry in Tennessee, near the Kentucky border. Grant then marched his army of approximately twenty-five thousand soldiers toward Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. After traversing the twelve-mile span between the two forts, Grant positioned his troops in a semi-circle around the western side of Fort Donelson.
On the morning of February 15, Pillow led a Confederate force out of the fort, with the goal of opening an escape route for the besieged garrison. The Federal right flank was driven back but not routed. By early afternoon, reinforcements from the Union center arrived and stabilized the situation. Although a breakout from the fort was still possible, Pillow ordered his men back to their trenches to re-supply. Taking advantage of the delay, Grant ordered a counterattack, forcing the Rebels back into the fort. By nightfall, the Bluecoats had reclaimed nearly all of the ground that they had lost in the morning.
During the night, the Confederate commanders determined that their situation was hopeless. Fearing harsh reprisals for political acts committed while he served as United States Secretary of War before the war, the fort's commander Brigadier-General John B. Floyd chose to evade capture and fled during the night, turning command over to Pillow. Not wishing to be responsible for surrendering the fort and its garrison, Pillow also abandoned his post and escaped under cover of darkness, leaving the ignominious task to Brigadier-General Simon B. Buckner. Pillow would forever suffer the dishonor of abandoning his post and his men at Fort Donelson.
Much later in life, Grant later stated in his memoirs:
I had known General Pillow in Mexico, and judged that with any force, no matter how small, I could march up to within gunshot of any intrenchments he was given to hold. I said this to the officers of my staff at the time. I knew that Floyd was in command, but he was no soldier, and I judged that he would yield to Pillow’s pretensions.
Grant went on to recall that, when Buckner told him that Pillow expressed his concern that his capture would be disastrous for the Confederacy, Grant replied that, "if I had got him, I'd let him go again. He will do us more good commanding you fellows."
On April 16, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis suspended Pillow from command for "grave errors in judgement in the military operations which resulted in the surrender of the army" at Fort Donelson. Nevertheless, by the end of 1862, Pillow had secured a position commanding a brigade in Major General John C. Breckinridge's division during the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862–January 2, 1863). Some accounts report that Pillow acquitted himself adequately during this conflict. Others suggest that his performance was again sub-par. Still others accuse him of cowardice during the fight—an accusation that has never been substantiated.
After Stones River, in January 1863, Pillow was assigned to recruiting duties as chief of the newly-created Bureau of Volunteers and Conscripts, headquartered in Middle Tennessee.
The following year, Pillow was placed in command of a cavalry brigade and ordered to harass Major General William T. Sherman's supply lines in northern Georgia during the Atlanta Campaign. At roughly 3 a.m., on June 24, 1864, his 1,600 troopers sprung a surprise attack on 450 Federal soldiers occupying the town of LaFayette, Georgia. The startled Federals barricaded themselves in the town courthouse, jail, and hotel until reinforcements arrived at approximately 9 a.m., driving Pillow and his men away. The Battle of LaFayette cost Pillow nearly twenty-five men and accomplished nothing. Brigadier-General Daniel W. Adams replaced Pillow as commander of the brigade the next month.
As the war ground toward conclusion, Federal troops captured Pillow on April 20, 1865 at Union Springs, Alabama. He was paroled in May and was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson on August 28, 1865.
Following the war, Pillow returned to Tennessee, deeply in debt. After a failed attempt to revitalize his ruined estates, Pillow partnered with former Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris in 1868 to establish a law practice in Memphis, Tennessee. After the death of his wife in 1869, Pillow married Mary Eliza Dickson Trigg, who was forty years his junior, in 1874. His second marriage produced three children who survived to adulthood. One year following the birth of his last child, Pillow died a relatively poor man on the Mound Plantation, in Phillips County, Arkansas, on October 8, 1878, at the age of seventy-two years. Pillow is buried in Elmwood Cemetery, located in Memphis, Tennessee.
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