June 8, 1806 - October 8, 1878
Gideon Johnson Pillow
June 8, 1806 – October 8, 1878
Gideon Pillow was a successful lawyer, planter, and political operative from middle Tennessee. He was one of the eight original political generals appointed by President Polk at the start of the war with Mexico. Pillow served satisfactorily under Generals Taylor and Scott, but his self-promoting political intrigues contributed to General Scott's recall at the end of the war.
Pillow was born on June 8, 1806, in Maury, Tennessee. His formal education began when he was ten years old. In 1822, he entered Woodward Academy, where he excelled in Greek and Latin, completing the preparatory program in one year. Following graduation from the University of Nashville in 1827, Pillow read for the law for three years. After passing the bar, Pillow established a successful criminal and civil law practice in Columbia, Tennessee. His standing as a lawyer was evidenced when Governor William Carroll selected him to complete the revision of the Digest and Revision of the Statute Laws of Tennessee in 1830. The following year Pillow was appointed Attorney General for the Ninth District, and in 1833 he was appointed Adjutant General. However, in 1836 he lost the election for Major General of the 3rd Division of the Tennessee Militia. During this period Pillow also developed a profitable large-scale farming operation that included raising cattle, horses, and mules.
Pillow's friendship with Polk dates from 1833 when Pillow was active in Polk's successful congressional race. In 1838, that friendship was cemented when Pillow defended Polk's brother on murder charges. In 1844, as head of the Tennessee delegation to the Baltimore Democratic Convention, Pillow was committed to the nomination of Polk as the party's vice presidential candidate. Once at the convention Pillow played a critical role in the eventual nomination of Polk for president.
When war was declared with Mexico in 1845, Pillow actively sought an appointment as a brigadier general. Polk was glad to accommodate his friend and commissioned him a Brigadier General of Volunteers on July 6, 1845. Pillow's brigade of the First and Second Tennessee Infantry and the regiment of Tennessee Mounted Volunteers joined General Taylor in northern Mexico. When Taylor took Pillow's 1st Tennessee for the attack on Monterey, Pillow was left behind garrisoning the depot at Camargo. It was here, much to the delight of the regular military officers, that Pillow gained notoriety. While constructing the parapet that guarded the approach to the town, Pillow dug the accompanying ditch on the wrong side.
Pillow served as the eyes and ears of Polk. Throughout his tenure with the Army of Occupation, Pillow sent confidential letters critical of Taylor to the president on a regular basis. In December 1846, Pillow was a part of the forces stripped from Taylor and assigned to Scott for the invasion of central Mexico.
Pillow's brigade performed well during the siege of Vera Cruz in March 1847, earning praise from Scott. At Cerro Gordo in April, Pillow was tasked to conduct a secondary attack on Santa Anna's right flank. Impulsively, Pillow changed the plan of attack. By altering the route of approach and attacking the center rather than the southernmost of three artillery positions, Pillow needlessly exposed his men to enemy fire. Scott was magnanimous to Pillow in his report following the stunning success at Cero Gordo, but while Pillow was home on leave in Tennessee, the returning veterans of the 2nd Tennessee publically charged Pillow with incompetence and cowardice at the battle of Cerro Gordo. Despite public criticism, Pillow returned to Mexico in the summer of 1847, as a Major General second only to Scott.
In July, after the Mexican government refused to negotiate peace with Nicholas Trist, Scott reorganized his now reinforced army. Pillow, with two brigades under Franklin Pierce and George Cadwalader, commanded one of four divisions. On August 18, the army encountered strong Mexican defenses at San Antonio south of Mexico City. A footpath was found through the Pedregal (an almost inaccessible lava bed west of San Antonio) that with improvements could be used to flank the Mexican defenses. The next day Pillow, tasked with widening the footpath, also took charge of additional troops from Twiggs' Division as they came up to oppose the troops of General Valencia at Contreras. Little progress was made against the Mexican positions that day but, following Smith's flanking attack the next morning, the road to Churubusco was open. Pillow's and Worth's Divisions converged on the bridge across the river. After taking the bridge, the divisions joined the attack on the convent which was defended by the San Patricio Battalion, made up of deserters from the U.S. Army. After hard fighting, victorious U.S. troops chased the Mexicans to the gates of Mexico City.
Pillow's Division along with that of Quitman was selected to lead the attack on Chapultepec on September 13, 1847, supported by the divisions of Worth and Twiggs. The hill of Chapultepec rose 200 feet above the plain and was topped by the castle-like buildings of the Mexican Military College. After artillery had silenced the Mexican batteries, shelled the castle, and engaged the Mexican troops at the base of the hill, Pillow began his three-pronged attack. Pillow, personally brave, led the center attack. As the advance splintered at the base of the hill, Pillow was wounded by grapeshot and turned command of the attack over to Cadwalader. The troops of Pillow, Quitman, and Worth became entangled as they carried the heights. When the castle was secured, Pillow was carried in a blanket up to the citadel just as the Mexican flag was lowered. The next day Scott's army marched into Mexico City.
During the occupation of Mexico City the relationship between Scott and Pillow worsened. Scott took umbrage at Pillow's report on the battles of Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec where he magnified his own accomplishments and minimized the roles of Persifor Smith and General Scott. Also, two howitzers captured at Churubusco were found in Pillow's baggage wagon. Pillow maintained that he ordered the guns removed from his baggage and later on October 9, Pillow wrote Scott informing him that the cannon were moved without his knowledge. Scott did not accept Pillow's explanations and in turn, Pillow demanded a court of inquiry. On November 2, the court found that two of Pillow's subordinates made errors in judgment but also determined that Pillow had known the guns remained in his baggage. They found him guilty of ungentlemanly conduct. Pillow demanded redress from Scott, which the General refused. He then went over Scott's head appealing directly to Secretary of War Marcy and also complained directly to Polk. Scott regarded Pillow's direct appeal to Marcy as rank insubordination and on November 22 placed Pillow under arrest, pending a general court martial. Concurrently, newspapers from New Orleans and Pittsburg containing letters written by army officers arrived in Mexico City. One written by "Leonidas" bore a striking similarity to the battle reports Pillow had submitted to Scott. The other by "Veritas" lavishly praised Worth and criticized Scott. When Scott reminded the army about regulations prohibiting publishing private accounts of military movements, General Worth took offense and in a letter to Polk charged Scott with conduct unbecoming an officer. When Scott became aware of Worth's letter he relieved Worth of command and placed him and Lt. Col. James Duncan, author of the Veritas letter, under arrest. Pillow immediately wrote directly to Polk urging him to intervene on behalf of himself, Worth, and Duncan.
On December 30, Polk received Scott's charges against Pillow, Worth, and Duncan and on January 13, 1848, Marcy ordered Scott relieved from command. Butler, Scott's replacement, was ordered to release the three arrested men and to convene a court of inquiry to investigate the charges brought against them. The court initially convened in Mexico City and then moved its proceedings to Frederick, Maryland. Pillow faced two charges: 1) violating Army regulations by having the "Leonidas" letter published, and 2) conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentlemen. Conducting his own defense, Pillow succeeded in getting the first charge dropped when his division paymaster, Major Archibald Burns, testified and took responsibility for the letter. Following that, the charge of conduct unbecoming unraveled. Pillow had as much to do as anyone in curtailing any political aspirations Scott had, but at the same time, he tarnished his own reputation as a war hero with the American people.
After the War with Mexico, Pillow returned to Tennessee where he continued in Democratic politics and expanded his land holdings into eastern Arkansas. Following Lincoln's election in 1860, Pillow cast his lot with the Tennessee secessionists. In February 1862, Brigadier General Pillow abdicated his command at Fort Donelson on the Tennessee River and escaped with his staff across the river leaving Brigadier General Buckner to surrender the fort to Ulysses Grant. For the remainder of the war Pillow served without distinction in a succession of minor posts in the Confederacy. Following the war Pillow re-established his law practice in Memphis and tried unsuccessfully to rebuild his fortune. He died on October 8, 1878, in Lee County, Arkansas.
Hughes, Nathaniel Cheairs, Jr., and Roy P. Stonesfier, Jr. The Life & Wars of Gideon J. Pillow. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993.