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Gideon Pillow assumes command April 29, 2009

Posted by Jenny in history, military history.
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We last saw our hero at the battle of Cerro Gordo.  Despite Pillow’s best efforts to thwart the military might of the U.S. Army singlehandedly, the American forces continued their inexorable advance westward toward Mexico City, next clashing with their foes at the linked battles of Contreras and Churubusco, August 19-20, 1847.

“Old Fuss and Feathers,” Winfield Scott, laid out the plan.  General David Twiggs was to advance across the rocky slope of Mt. Zacatepec to meet the forces of General Gabriel Valencia.  Twiggs was to “brush away the enemy in case he became impertinent,” and if the fighting became serious, Pillow was instructed to “support Twiggs with his whole division and assume the command.”*  Twiggs did not much care for this arrangement, having fought in the War of 1812 and possessing much more military know-how than the “political general” Gideon Pillow, but Pillow technically outranked Twiggs (because of the support of his ally James Polk), and so the order stood.

Soon the Mexicans opened fire with heavy cannon.  Without consulting Scott, Pillow decided that the moment had come to “assume command.” He advanced with a few lightweight mountain howitzers and a battery of light artillery.  The troops soon found that the Mexicans were well sheltered behind a deep ravine and fortifications.  Strong defensive fire continued until nightfall from Valencia’s position.  Lt. D.H. Hill later wrote, “Certainly, of all the absurd things that the ass Pillow has ever done this was the most silly… the ordering of six and twelve pounders to batter a fort furnished with long six, twenty-fours and heavy mortars!!”

Battle of Contreras

Battle of Contreras

A soaking rain set in.  From the heights of Zacatepec, Pillow set forth through the inky night with Twiggs toward a point called San Geronimo, north of Valencia’s position, so that he could arrange a “flanking movement” to entrap Valencia.  The two became disoriented as they manuevered across the slippery volcanic rock.  The two generals eventually emerged, not at San Geronimo, but on the far eastern side of the mountain, miles away from the scene of battle.

Meanwhile, an enterprising colonel named Persifor Smith, working with Captain Robert E. Lee,  had come up with a bold strategy to lead three brigades along a ravine toward the rear of Valencia’s position.  Lee successfully crossed the rocky slope of Zacatepec and informed Scott of the plan.  “Fuss and Feathers” ordered Pillow to stay put, Twiggs to create a diversion, and Smith to proceed with his plan.  Smith’s attack began at 3:00 a.m. and succeeded brilliantly.  Pillow arrived on the scene just as the Mexicans were fleeing.

Clearly, now that the conflict had already become a success, it was once again time to “assume command.” Pillow spotted Colonel Bennet Riley, who had participated in Smith’s movement.  Our general rode up to Riley and shouted, “You have earned the Yellow Sash, Sir, and you shall have it.”  Somehow or other, Pillow had suddenly become the dispenser of these tokens of recognition.

The Americans pursued the Mexicans across the Churubusco River.  Forces under Pillow and Worth joined up with troops commanded by Shields and Pierce, and the Mexican resistance fell apart.  It was time for the final advance to the gates of Mexico City.

(The series continues here)

*All quotations are from The Life & Wars of Gideon Pillow by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr. and Roy P. Stonesifer Jr., UNC Press, 1993.

Battle of Churubusco

Battle of Churubusco

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Comments»

1. Gerald - April 4, 2017

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.


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