General Gideon J. Pillow Part 2

Although Pillow had opposed secession, Governor Isham Harris appointed him the senior major general in the Tennessee Militia as of May 9, 1861.  In July, Jefferson Davis appointed him as brigadier general in the Confederate States Army.  He commanded the troops which drove U.S. Grant away from Belmont, Missouri in November 1861.   The battle is considered a Confederate victory, although it was primarily inconclusive since Grant’s mission was to execute a military feint in support of  operations deeper in Missouri. Nevertheless, exaggerated reporting in Richmond (perhaps promoted by Pillow) led to a commendation from the Confederate Congress.

Gideon PillowPillow’s next assignment was command of Fort Donelson.  However, as events in the winter of 1862 unfolded, the Confederate command sent additional forces to support the garrison, with the result that there were four general officers present, and Pillow became the second-in-command to Floyd.

During the Battle of Fort Donelson, Pillow took command of the left wing of the attack, supplanting Brigadier General Bushrod Johnson.  By late morning, the pre-dawn attack had succeeded in driving the left wing of Grant’s army away from the Charlotte Road, opening an escape route to Nashville.  Generals Buckner and Floyd urged Pillow to lead his troops out of the encirclement.  But, instead of marching south and east to escape, Pillow ordered his men back to their trenches to collect their personal equipment and rations.  By-passing Flyod, he send a congratulatory telegram to the theater commander, announcing “on the honor of the soldier, the day is ours.”  Next he ordered Buckner to organize a pursuit of the supposedly defeated Union army, which order was refused.

As the day stretched into the afternoon, Grant ordered Wallace’s fresh troops to counterattack Buckner who now stood alone on the field.  Wallace’s attack drove the entire Confederate force back into the fortress and effectively closed the Rebel escape route.

Floyd and the other generals were furious with Pillow, but it was too late to correct his error. The need to pull Buckner’s men out of their trenches on the right side of the Confederate position to support Pillow’s attack had left the those fortifications very thinly manned, with a single regiment covering the space formerly occupied by eight.  After issuing orders for Wallace and McClernand to counter attack, Grant had ordered Smith’s division forward against the weak defenses in Buckner’s former sector and this attack had broken through, into the Confederate rear area.

At a council of war that night, the Confederate generals agreed to surrender their army. Floyd, turned command of the army over to Pillow who immediately passed command to Buckner. Pillow escaped in the night in a small boat across the Cumberland River.  His justification for leaving his command was that, because of his talent for war, his personal capture would yield too severe a blow to the Confederate cause.

Grant’s acquaintance with Gideon Pillow played a key factor in his confidence to counterattack on both ends of the  battlefield.  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 entrenchments 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.

In his memoirs, Grant also recalled that, following the surrender of Fort Donelson, he met with his former friend Confederate General Buckner, who told him of Pillow’s escape.

“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.”

The fall of Fort Donelson threatened the main supply line of all Confederate forces operating in Kentucky.  These forces were withdrawing across the bridges at Nashville on the day that the fort was captured and for a week afterward.  When he arrived in Nashville, Pillow became the military commander of Nashville, charged with the task of withdrawing all Confederate military material from the city.  After commanding the Nashville forces for a day, he turned command over to Bedford Forrest, who had escaped Donelson with 1,500 cavalry troopers.  Pillow removed himself to Murfreesboro where the scattered forces of the Confederate Western theatre were being assembled.

On April 16th, Jefferson Davis removed Pillow from command for “grave errors in judgement in the military operations which resulted in the surrender of the army” (at Donelson). However, before the end 1862, he commanded a brigade in Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division during the second day at the Battle of Stones River.  He performed poorly during this battle, but attempted to divert blame to Breckinridge in his official report and in posts to Southern newspapers.

He held no more field commands for the duration of the war and was captured by Union forces at Union Springs, Alabama, on April 20, 1865.  He was paroled in Montgomery, Alabama, in May. He received a presidential pardon on August 28, 1865.

A summary of Pillow’s reputation can be derived from this political cartoon which appeared in the 1840s following Pillow’s attempt to discredit Winfield Scott.

Pillow Cartoon