General Gideon J. Pillow Part 1

We continue the discussion of Confederate generals who left Fort Donelson to escape the surrender with the second-in-command, Gideon J. Pillow, who had himself and his chief-of-staff rowed across the Cumberland River after being placed in command by the fleeing John B. Floyd.

Gideon PillowLike Floyd, Brigadier General Gideon Johnston Pillow was fifty-five years old in February, 1862.  Prior to the Civil War, he practiced law in Columbia Tennessee with partner and future president James K. Polk.  He served as a brigadier general in the Tennessee militia from 1833 to 1836, but saw no combat.

During the Mexican-American War, Pillow joined the United States Army as a brigadier general in July 1846 and his former law partner, now President of the United States, promoted him to major general on April 13, 1847.

Although he was wounded twice during the war, his mistake at the Battle of Cerro Gordo caused unnecessary American casualties.  Against orders, he used an exposed approach to attack the Mexican lines in full view of several Mexican batteries, instead of advancing down a gully out of sight of the Mexican lines.  The Mexican army drove Pillow’s column back.  Fortunately, the day was won by the Americans on other parts of the field.  After recovering from a wound to his right arm, his next action was in the final attack on Mexico City.  The American commanding general, Winfield Scott, assigned Pillow’s division to clear Mexican troops from the fortified town of Chapultepec which controlled access to the causeways into the city.  Here Pillow performed well and received a wound in his leg.

Less than a month after the battles of Contreras and Churubusco, the New Orleans Delta published an anonymous letter actually written by Pillow who signed as “Leonides”  which wrongfully credited Pillow for those victories.

At Contreras, Pillow was the sole division commander on the field.  However, it was Winfield Scott’s plan that led to the victory after Brigadier General Persifor Smith, on his own initiative, took command of his own and two other brigades and led them on a night march which flanked the Mexican position.

Pillow was but one of four division commanders with troops engaged at Churubusco, where repeated attacks by troops from all divisions eventually wore down the garrison.

During the subsequent scandal over the letter, Pillow escaped punishment by bribing another officer to claim credit for being ‘Leonidas’ and through the intervention of his former law partner, President Polk.  Polk recalled Scott to Washington, claiming that Pillow was being “greatly persecuted”.

In his memoirs, Scott wrote that Pillow was “amiable and possessed of some acuteness, but the only person I have ever known who was wholly indifferent in the choice between truth and falsehood, honesty and dishonesty:—ever as ready to attain an end by the one as the other, and habitually boastful of acts of cleverness at the total sacrifice of moral character.”  It appears that this sentiment was shared by a majority of the professional soldiers who fought in Scott’s army.

Pillow’s Civil War experience follows in Part 2, next week.

General John B. Floyd Part 2

Floyd must certainly have been influenced in this decision not only by the announcement that Bedford Forrest would lead an escape by the cavalry , but also by the fact that this surrender would be only the second time when Confederate general officers would be surrendered and it wasn’t clear if they would be treated as legitimate prisoners-of-war or as outright traitors to the Federal government.  Since, aside from General Buckner (a career army officer who had formally resigned his commission), Floyd would be the first general officer captured who had sworn an oath of allegiance to the Federal government.  The possibility of being hung as a traitor must have played on his mind.  In addition, there existed the possibility that a closed Federal indictment against him for malfeasance while Secretary of War could be reopened.

Gen John B Floyd

In the event, Floyd moved his brigade to the landing in the early morning og the 16th and, after reinforcements from Nashville came ashore, Floyd loaded his Virginians aboard the two boats as the sun rose, leaving the men of the 20th Mississippi behind as the rearguard.  It appears that only two of his four Virginia regiments loaded successfully, the 36th and the 51st, leaving the 50th and 56th Virginia regiments behind to be captured.

The four Virginia regiments had been recruited in southwestern counties of modern Virginia.  After their escape, the 36th and 51st returned to Virginia and participated in operations in the Shenandoah valley and the mountain country between the upper valley and Knoxville, TN.  The 50th and 56th Virginia were reorganized following their exchange from captivity and fought in the Army of Northern Virginia from 1862 until the end of the war.

Floyd was relieved of command by President Davis in March, but was appointed a major-general of state troops by the governor of Virginia.  However, he became ill shortly afterwards and played no further part in the war.  He died at home in August 1863.

Union General W.H.L. Wallace summarized Floyd’s post-war reputation from this event in Battles and Leaders: “Without loss of time the general (Floyd) hastened to the river, embarked with his Virginians, and at an early hour cast loose from the shore, and in good time, and safely, he reached Nashville. He never satisfactorily explained upon what principles he appropriated all the transportation on to the use of his particular command”.

General John B. Floyd Part 1

One element of the Battle of Fort Donelson which should surprise modern readers is the fact that the most senior Confederate officer present, John B. Floyd, elected to escape rather than share the fate of the soldiers under his command.

Gen John B FloydBrigadier General John B. Floyd was fifty-five years old in February 1862.  Prior to the Civil War, he had been a lawyer and a  politician in Virginia,  serving as governor of the state (1849-1852) and as the Federal Secretary of War (1857-1860) where he succeeded the future president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.  He was appointed a colonel in the Virginia Provisional army in 1861 and was promoted to brigadier general when the state’s forces were accepted into Confederate service.  He arrived at Fort Donelson on February 13th with his brigade of four regiments of infantry from western Virginia (36th VA, 50thVA, 51st VA, 56th VA) and assumed overall command as the senior officer present.  Although nominally in command, Floyd lacked military experience and relied heavily on Generals Pillow and Buckner to direct operations.

During the council of war which followed the failed Confederate attempt to break the siege on February 15th, the three general officers at Donelson decided among themselves that their mission to delay Grant’s advance on Nashville had been achieved and, as General Buckner put it: “It would be wrong to subject the army to a virtual massacre when no good could result from the sacrifice.”   Immediately, Colonel Bedford Forrest who commanded all of the garrison’s cavalry announced that he would not surrender his command.  Upon hearing this, Floyd appears to have reconsidered his personal position.

As the Secretary of War in the period immediately prior to the outbreak of the war, Floyd was under suspicion in the North for moving substantial numbers of muskets and cannons from the northern states into armories throughout the southern states.  It is possible that the transfer was in response to John Brown’s raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry as a means to arm local militias should further uprisings occur in the slave states.  Nevertheless, following Forrest’s announcement, Floyd announced that he would evacuate his four regiments using steamboats scheduled to bring reinforcements the following morning.