American Civil War: Major General Gideon J. Pillow

Gideon Pillow during the Civil War
Major General Gideon J. Pillow. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Gideon Pillow - Early Life & Career:

Born June 8, 1806 in Williamson Country, TN, Gideon Johnson Pillow was the son of Gideon and Ann Pillow.  A member of a well off and politically-connected family, Pillow received a classical education in local schools before enrolling at the University of Nashville.  Graduating in 1827, he read law and entered the bar three years later.  Befriending future president James K. Polk, Pillow married Mary E. Martin on May 24, 1831.  Later that year, Tennessee Governor William Carroll appointed him a district attorney general.  Possessing an interest in military affairs, Pillow commenced service in the state militia with the rank of brigadier general in 1833.  Increasingly wealthy, he expanded his land holdings to include plantations in Arkansas and Mississippi.  In 1844, Pillow used his influence to aid Polk in obtaining the 1844 Democratic nomination for president.

Gideon Pillow - Mexican-American War:

With the beginning of the Mexican-American War in May 1846, Pillow sought a volunteer commission from his friend Polk.  This was granted on July 1, 1846 when he received an appointment as a brigadier general.  Initially leading a brigade in Major General Robert Patterson's division, Pillow saw service under Major General Zachary Taylor in northern Mexico.  Transferred to Major General Winfield Scott's army in early 1847, he took part in the siege of Veracruz that March.  As the army moved inland, Pillow demonstrated personal bravery at the Battle of Cerro Gordo but his leadership proved weak.  Despite this, he received a promotion to major general in April and ascended to division command.  As Scott's army neared Mexico City, Pillow's performance improved and he contributed to the victories at Contreras and Churubusco.  That September, his division played a key role in the Battle of Chapultepec and he suffered a severe wound in his left ankle.

Following Contreras and Churubusco, Pillow clashed with Scott when the latter directed him to correct official reports that overemphasized the role he played in the victories.  Refusing, he worsened the situation by submitting a letter to New Orleans Delta under the name "Leonidas" which claimed that the American triumphs were solely the result of Pillow's actions.  When Pillow's machinations were exposed following the campaign, Scott had him arrested on charges of insubordination and violating regulations.  Pillow then accused Scott of being part of bribery scheme to bring an early end to the war.  As Pillow's case moved towards court-martial, Polk became involved and ensured that he was exonerated.  Leaving the service on July 20, 1848, Pillow returned to Tennessee.  Writing of Pillow in his memoirs, Scott stated that he was "only person I have ever known who was wholly indifferent in the choice between truth and falsehood, honesty and dishonesty" and willing to commit a "total sacrifice of moral character" to attain his desired end.

Gideon Pillow - The Civil War Approaches:       

Through the 1850s Pillow worked to enhance his political power.  This saw him unsuccessfully attempt to secure the Democratic nomination for vice president in both 1852 and 1856.  In 1857, Pillow was outmaneuvered by his rivals when he sought to gain a seat in the US Senate.  During this period, he befriended Isham G. Harris who was elected Governor of Tennessee in 1857.  As sectional tensions worsened, Pillow actively supported Senator Stephen A. Douglas in the election of 1860 with the goal of preserving the Union.  Following Abraham Lincoln's victory, he initially resisted secession but came to support it as it was the will of the people of Tennessee.

Through his connection to Harris, Pillow was appointed the senior major general in the Tennessee militia and made commander of the state's provisional army on May 9, 1861.  Taking time to mobilize and train this force, he was transferred to the Confederate Army in July with the lower rank of brigadier general.  Though angered by this slight, Pillow accepted a posting to serve under Major General Leonidas Polk in western Tennessee.  That September, on Polk's orders, he advanced north into neutral Kentucky and occupied Columbus on the Mississippi River.  This incursion effectively swung Kentucky into the Union camp for the duration of the conflict.

Gideon Pillow - In the Field:

In early November, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant began moving against the Confederate garrison at Belmont, MO across the river from Columbus.  Learning of this, Polk dispatched Pillow to Belmont with reinforcements.  In the resulting Battle of Belmont, Grant succeeded in driving back the Confederates and burning their camp, but narrowly escaped when the enemy attempted to cut his line of retreat.  Though largely inconclusive, the Confederates claimed the engagement as a victory and Pillow received the thanks of the Confederate Congress.  As in Mexico, he proved difficult to work with and soon was engaged in a dispute with Polk.  Abruptly leaving the army in late December, Pillow recognized he had made a mistake and was able to have his resignation cancelled by President Jefferson Davis.

Gideon Pillow - Fort Donelson:

Assigned to a new post at Clarksville, TN with General Albert S. Johnston as his superior, Pillow began forwarding men and supplies to Fort Donelson.  A key post on the Cumberland River, the fort had been targeted by Grant for capture.  Briefly commanding at Fort Donelson, Pillow was superseded by Brigadier General John B. Floyd who had served as Secretary of War under President James Buchanan.  Effectively surrounded by Grant's army by February 14, Pillow proposed a plan for the garrison to break out and escape.  Approved by Floyd, Pillow assumed command of the left wing of the army.  Attacking the next day, the Confederates succeeded in opening a line of escape.  Having accomplished this, Pillow shockingly ordered his men back to their trenches to resupply before departing.  This pause allowed Grant's men to reclaim the ground lost earlier.    

Irate at Pillow for his actions, Floyd saw no alternative but to surrender.  Wanted for graft in the North and seeking to avoid capture and possible trial for treason, he turned command over to Pillow.  Having similar fears, Pillow devolved command to Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner.  That night, he departed Fort Donelson by boat leaving Buckner to surrender the garrison the next day.  Informed of Pillow's escape by Buckner, Grant commented "if I had got him, I'd let him go again. He will do us more good commanding you fellows."      

Gideon Pillow - Later Posts:

Though directed to assume command of a division in the Army of Central Kentucky, Pillow was suspended by Davis on April 16 for his actions at Fort Donelson.  Placed on the sidelines, he resigned on October 21 but had this rescinded when Davis returned him to duty on December 10.  Given command of brigade in Major General John C. Breckinridge's division of General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee, Pillow took part in the Battle of Stones River at the end of the month.  On January 2, during an assault on the Union line, an enraged Breckinridge found Pillow hiding behind a tree rather than leading his men forward.  Though Pillow attempted to curry favor with Bragg following the battle, he was reassigned on January 16, 1863 to oversee the army's volunteer and conscription bureau.   

A capable administrator, Pillow performed well in this new role and aided in keeping the Army of Tennessee's ranks filled.  In June 1864, he briefly resumed field command to mount an attack against Major General William T. Sherman's lines of communication at Lafayette, GA.  A stunning failure, Pillow was returned to recruiting duties after this effort.  Made Commissary General of Prisoners for the Confederacy in February 1865, he remained in administrative roles until his capture by Union forces on April 20.  

Gideon Pillow - Final Years:

Effectively bankrupted by the war, Pillow returned to practicing law.  Opening a firm in Memphis with Harris, he later sought civil service posts from Grant but to no avail.  Continuing to work as a lawyer, Pillow died of yellow fever on October 8, 1878 while in Helena, AR.  Initially buried there, his remains were later returned to Memphis and interred at Elmwood Cemetery.   

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Gideon J. Pillow." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General Gideon J. Pillow. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Gideon J. Pillow." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).