Brig. Gen. Gideon Johnson Pillow, Jr. (CSA)

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Gideon Johnson Pillow, Jr.

Also Known As: "Johnston"
Birthplace: Williamson County, TN
Death: October 08, 1878 (72)
Mound Plantation, Helena, Phillips County, AK
Immediate Family:

Son of Gideon Johnson Pillow and Ann Pillow
Husband of Mary Pillow and Maria Eliza Pillow
Father of William Carroll Pillow; Anne Pillow; Gideon Johnson Pillow, III; Mary Amanda Brown; Narcissa Cynthia Mitchell and 5 others
Brother of Maj. Granville A. Pillow; Jerome Bonaparte Pillow; Cynthia Holland Brown; Narcissa Martin and Amanda Payne Humphreys

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Brig. Gen. Gideon Johnson Pillow, Jr. (CSA)

Gideon Johnson Pillow (June 8, 1806 – October 8, 1878) was an American lawyer, politician, and Confederate general in the American Civil War. He is best remembered for his poor performance at the Battle of Fort Donelson.

Early life

Pillow was born in Williamson County, Tennessee, to Gideon Pillow and Ann Payne Pillow. He graduated from the University of Nashville in 1827 and practiced law in Columbia, Tennessee, as a partner of future President James K. Polk. He served as a brigadier general in the Tennessee Militia from 1833 to 1836.

In the Mexican-American War, Pillow joined the United States Army as a brigadier general in July 1846 and President Polk promoted him to major general on April 13, 1847. He was wounded in the right arm at the Battle of Cerro Gordo and in the left leg at Chapultepec. During the war he came into conflict with the commander of the American forces in Mexico, Gen. Winfield Scott. An anonymous letter—actually written by Pillow—published in the New Orleans Delta on September 10, 1847, and signed "Leonidas", wrongfully credited Pillow for recent American victories at Contreras and Churubusco. The battles were actually won by Scott. When Pillow's intrigue was exposed, he was arrested by Scott and held for court-martial. Polk, defensive of Pillow, recalled Scott to Washington. During the trial that began in March 1848, Maj. Archibald W. Burns, a paymaster, claimed authorship of the "Leonidas" letter at Pillow's behest. Pillow escaped punishment, but was discharged from the Army in July 1848.

Pillow's antagonism for Scott was reflected in the 1852 election for president, when he opposed Scott's candidacy, supporting instead a former subordinate of his in the Mexican-American War, Franklin Pierce. Pillow attempted to win the vice-presidential nomination, but was rejected. He tried, but failed, to win the nomination for vice president again in 1856.

Civil War

Although he opposed secession, Pillow joined the Confederacy just after the start of the Civil War, beginning as the senior major general in the Tennessee Militia as of May 9, 1861. In July he was appointed brigadier general in the Confederate States Army and was given command of the unit that was briefly called the "Army of Liberation". He soon came under the command of Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston in the Western Theater. His first combat was against Union Army Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, also in his first battle, at Belmont, Missouri, in November. The battle is considered a Confederate victory, although it was primarily inconclusive. Nevertheless, Pillow and his command were voted the Thanks of the Confederate Congress on December 6, 1861:

... for the desperate courage they exhibited in sustaining for several hours, and under most disadvantageous circumstances, an attack by a force of the enemy greatly superior to their own, both in numbers and appointments; and for the skill and gallantry by which they converted what at first threatened so much disaster, into a triumphant victory.

Pillow resigned from the Army on December 28 in a dispute with Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk, but he soon realized that this was a rash decision and was able to cancel his resignation by obtaining an order from Confederate President Jefferson Davis. When he returned he was given command of Fort Donelson, a crucial installation protecting the Cumberland River. This was a brief assignment, however, that ended when three additional brigadier generals were assigned to the fort. One, John B. Floyd, former governor of Virginia and Secretary of War under James Buchanan, outranked Pillow, who found himself in the unofficial position of second-in-command.

During the Battle of Fort Donelson, Pillow essentially overshadowed the general who was in formal command of the left wing of the army, Brig. Gen. Bushrod Johnson, and led this wing in a surprise assault (February 15, 1862) with the intention of opening an escape route to relieve the besieged Confederate forces in the fort. Although the assault against the army of Ulysses S. Grant was initially successful, Pillow inexplicably decided to pull his men from their advance positions and back into the trenches so that they could be resupplied before their escape, squandering the advances they had fought for so hard that morning. Floyd and the other generals were furious with Pillow, but it was too late to correct his error. At a council of war early on the morning of February 16, the generals agreed to surrender their army. Floyd, who feared prosecution for treason if he should be captured, turned command of the army over to Pillow, who had similar concerns and immediately passed command to Simon Bolivar Buckner. Pillow escaped in the night in a small boat across the Cumberland River; Floyd likewise escaped, taking two regiments of his Virginia command with him before Buckner could surrender to Grant.

Some historians have judged Ulysses S. Grant as being too rash in his haste to assault Fort Donelson without possessing overwhelming superiority. However, his acquaintance with Gideon Pillow played a key factor in his confidence. As he wrote 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 also recalled that, following the surrender of Fort Donelson, he met with his old friend Buckner, who told him of Pillow's escape. At the Confederate council of war the night before, the vain Pillow had expressed concern that his capture would be a disaster for the Southern cause.

"He thought you'd rather get hold of him than any other man in the Southern Confederacy," Buckner told Grant.

"Oh," replied Grant, "if I had got him, I'd let him go again. He will do us more good commanding you fellows."

Pillow assumed command of the 3rd Division of the Army of Central Kentucky, but was suspended from command by order of Jefferson Davis on April 16 for "grave errors in judgement in the military operations which resulted in the surrender of the army" (at Donelson). He commanded a brigade in Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge's division during the second day at the Battle of Stones River, arriving on the battlefield just an hour before Breckinridge's assault. Breckinridge was furious to find Pillow cowering behind a tree and ordered him forward. After the battle, Pillow spoke in support of Gen. Braxton Bragg's decisions, denigrating Breckinridge's execution in the ill-fated assault. Pillow had no more combat assignments. He commanded the Volunteer and Conscription Bureau of the Army of Tennessee and was the Commissary General of Prisoners in 1865. He was captured by Union forces at Union Springs, Alabama, on April 20, 1865, and was paroled in Montgomery, Alabama, in May. He received a presidential pardon on August 28, 1865.

Postbellum career

After the war, Pillow was forced into bankruptcy, but embarked on a successful law practice in Memphis, Tennessee, as partner with former Governor Isham G. Harris. He died in Lee County, Arkansas, and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery, located in Memphis, Tennessee.

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