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Gideon Pillow: The silly general March 27, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history.
Tags: , , , ,
"Am I not a dashing fellow?"

"Am I not a dashing fellow?"

I first came across the name of Gideon J. Pillow when I read Grant’s memoir.  At the start of Grant’s account of the battle of Fort Donelson in February 1862, he wrote of his Confederate foe, “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 was intrigued by this description and became still more fascinated when I studied the events of the Fort Donelson battle, in which Pillow seemed at first to have the upper hand but then made an inexplicable decision that led to an embarrassing defeat. The most competent of the Confederate officers present, Nathan Bedford Forrest, had ended up fleeing with his cavalry through a swamp in the dark of the night, undoubtedly cursing Pillow as he went.

Not only was I intrigued, but I also loved the name.  Gideon Pillow, Gideon Pillow…  the name sounded as plump and self-satisfied as the man himself.

General Pillow could not have been improved by any amount of invention.  He comes to us already perfect out of history, a creation whose shining incompetence was set off to best advantage by his own pompous pronouncements.  He first emerges from history’s shadows in the summer of 1846, when several battles of the Mexican war had already been fought and Congress had finally voted to ratify the war’s existence.

Old Rough and Ready

Old Rough and Ready

In its lengthy deliberations, Congress had authorized appointments for a large number of volunteer generals.  Pillow arrived at the camp of Zachary Taylor (“Old Rough and Ready”) as one of the first contingent of generals.  Taylor was said to be disconcerted by this surplus of generals, who were more numerous than he knew what to do with.

But Pillow was ready to face the trials of combat, or so he thought.  He had served with the Tennessee militia during the tranquil 1830s, when his competence and nerve were tested to the limit by the fierce rigors of drills and inspections.  He held the rank of brigadier general, a political post won through his association with his former law partner, James Polk.

(The series continues here)


1. Eirikur Hallgrimsson` - April 23, 2009

Google has indexed you! I’m at work and thought I’d see if I could find you via the title “The Silly General,” and I could.

I’ve been writing about a Civil War general, myself. A fictious fellow, who in 1874 (Indian Wars) is still being called ‘General’ by the ‘Great War’ veterans among his troops, but who had his two battlefield promotions recinded, as apparently many were. (I had a reference for this, but I don’t have it handy.) My use of ‘Great War’ above is probably inappropriate, but I can’t bring myself to type ‘War between the States’ all the time, and I imagine that people didn’t really say that all the time. I don’t know what they did call it, for short, at the time.


2. Jenny - April 23, 2009

That’s very interesting that you, too, have been interested in figures of the Civil War. There will be more to come soon about the wonderful Gideon Pillow. I don’t think I could have made up any more interesting character!

3. Wendy Pruett - September 24, 2009

This is I believe my Great, Great, Great, Great, Great Grandfather, my father being H. Grant Pillow, and my Grandfather being Harry Pillow, and his father being Grant Pillow, and his father being George Pillow, and I’m almost certain that Georges father is Gideon Pillow. I have a cousin that visited Fort Pillow and she was amazed by the resemblance of Gideon to all of the following Pillow men. They are all large, scary looking men!! Very interesting story.

Jenny - September 24, 2009


Well, according to the Hughes/Stonesifer biography of Gideon Pillow, he had a son, George M. Pillow, his second son. There is a picture of Gideon Pillow’s wife Mary Elizabeth Martin Pillow and baby George in the book. That’s funny that all of the Pillow men seem to look alike! Thanks for your comment.

john - January 6, 2012

he was my Great, Great, Great, Great, Great Grandfather on my mothers side

4. Michael E. Burk - March 27, 2010

Wendy, My cousin George Pillow of Van, Texas must be an Uncle of Yours. My Great Great Grandfather Anthony Brown Pillow was a younger brother of George Washington Pillow your Great Great Grandfather. If that is the case then you are a fifth cousin once removed of General Gedeon Johnson Pillow 1806-1878.
Write to me:

5. daniel pillow - July 16, 2013

my family are direct descendants of gideon pillow. my family still owns properties in the Tennessee and Kentucky that were once owned and passsed down by gideon pillow. i dont get down there too much as i am estranged from most of my extended family however i do occasionally look for information on the lineage of the pillow name. my given name is daniel pillow. hello lol

Jenny - July 16, 2013

Thanks for visiting. I’m glad several Pillow descendants have visited this site.

6. Jenny Bennett’s Fab Five: An Amateur Who Changed The Skies, The Definition of Incompetence & More | Yesterday Unhinged - February 26, 2014

[…] Gideon Pillow (1806 – 1878): The most gloriously incompetent general I’ve ever come across. His deeds of ineptitude started in the Mexican-American War, when he wrote anonymous letters to newspapers describing himself as a hero. In fact, he became lost on the battlefield, subjected his men to needless danger, and claimed victory that actually was due to Winfield Scott. In the Civil War, he was famous for a peculiar decision at the Battle of Fort Donelson: his men had advanced successfully, but he pulled them back, allowing Union troops to surround the fort. Rather than surrendering to Grant, Pillow escaped in the night across the Cumberland River and left Simon Bolivar Buckner to cede victory to Grant. Here is an introduction. […]

7. J Martin - August 20, 2014

I am a 5th or 6th generation nephew of General Pillow. I am a direct descendant of his brother Mordecai. Pillow made mistakes like most Generals Federal or Confederate. People,especially Pillow descendants, should study more about his life and career before they label him as silly. He was the first commander of the Army of Tennessee, second in command of the American Expeditionary Force during the Mexican war,declined the nomination to run for Governor of TN and was almost Vice President of the United States. Forrest asked his advice at Fort Donnelson and had Pillow ride with him even after he became Pillow’s superior. They also made public appearences together after the war. Forrest is not a man with the reputation having silly associates.One of their joint appearances was before a group of freed black grangers known as the Polebarers . So much for another stereotype.

Jenny - August 20, 2014

Thanks for visiting and responding. As far as the last part of your comment is concerned, I never accused him of being a racist. I don’t think of Gideon Pillow in terms of a stereotype—he was a unique individual. In my honest opinion (which I’m sure you’ll disagree with), after reading detailed accounts of his battles in both the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, I don’t believe he was competent as a commanding officer. I mean no insult to your ancestors. Certainly all the major commanding officers of those wars made mistakes. What leaves him open to a certain amount of criticism is that he also, according to all reports, tried to make himself out as a big hero. We can forgive errors in a modest person, but it is harder to do that when the person sends reports to the newspapers presenting himself as a military genius. All I can say is that I do respect him just for the fact of his service in those two wars, but I can’t go beyond that.

8. David G. Pillow - July 11, 2015

Sorry to find this so long after it was initially published. I’m very proud of my relationship with a character as colorful as Gideon Pillow. While it is clear from historical records General Pillow was not a great war time strategist, he certainly played other important and beneficial roles as General. He was outstanding in recruiting, organizing and training troops. Aside from his mediocrity as a battle General and aside from his service in the military he was a successful attorney and even preveled in a case after the war against the federal government. He was an effective plantation owner who was among the first if not the first to impliment the cotton gin into the farming operation. He was considered a liberal slave owner and had to mount several legal defenses in court because he was accused of allow slaves on his plantation to “act as free men”.

I can really only imagine him as brilliant but terribly egotistical. He was extremely ambitious and seemed to think a great deal of himself. In part for good reason and in part bluster. Maybe the Donald Trump of his day (just not as rich).

It’s amazing that both Clinton and and his home in Arkansas still stand. I’d love Clifton in person someday but as a distant relation I’ll likely never be able too.

So for all my fellow Pillow’s out there, I can face up to the fact that he was not great as a battle commander…heck, he was never trained to command troops. He was an extremely successful and memorable character of the South.

9. Joe Wallaby - February 13, 2016

Pillow made a discernible contribution to the defeat of the Confederacy that’s for sure. For that, the USA should be forever grateful.

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