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Gideon Pillow’s “despicable self-puffings” May 13, 2009

Posted by Jenny in history, military history.
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"The Battle of Chapultepec" by James Worth.  This is the version that does not feature Pillow.

"The Battle of Chapultepec" by James Walker. This version does not feature Pillow in the foreground.

It was October 1847, and American forces had recently vanquished the Mexican defenders at the Battle of Chapultepec.  With this victory at the gates of Mexico City on September 13, the war with Mexico was all but over.  Our hero, General Gideon J. Pillow, had played a role in the fighting, and he wanted to make sure that the American public knew about it.

As he recovered from a wound to his ankle received as his forces approached the Chapultepec fortress, Pillow got wind of a painter named James Walker who had been making sketches of battle scenes.  And now Walker was preparing to enlarge one of his sketches into a painting.  But the problem was that Walker had somehow gotten under the influence of Pillow’s colleague General Quitman, and the painting was going to feature Quitman’s division, not Pillow’s.  Something must be done about this!

Pillow prevailed upon Walker to paint a second version of the battle, this one featuring himself and his division.  He was delighted with the result and promptly had it shipped to President Polk in Washington.  “I am placed in my proper position in the painting.  It is quite large & will make a splendid ornament for your parlors.”*  I have been unable to find a reproduction of the

Nebel's work features Pillow's division in the foreground

Nebel's work shows Pillow's division in the foreground

Walker painting featuring Pillow, although I did find another, later (1851) work by Carl Nebel titled “Storming of Chapultepec—Pillow’s Attack.”  I theorize that this was modeled on the Walker painting, since, like Walker, Nebel also painted one featuring Quitman with the corresponding title of  “Storming of Chapultepec—Quitman’s Attack.”

But, as it turned out, it was not only through the medium of painting that Pillow sought to bring his own greatness to the attention of the American public.  In late October, Pillow’s commander, Winfield Scott, was startled to read a letter in the “American Star” authored by “Leonidas” that said Pillow had singlehandedly commanded the troops in the Battle of Contreras.  The article went:

[Pillow’s] plan of battle and the disposition of his forces were most judicious and successful.  He evinced in this, as he has done on other occasions, that masterly military genius and profound knowledge of the science of war, which has astonished so much the mere martinets of the profession…. During this great battle, which lasted two days, General Pillow was in command of all the forces engaged, except General Worth’s division, and this was not engaged… (General Scott gave but one order and that was to reinforce General Cadwalader’s brigade.)”**

As I described in my last post on Pillow, the general’s participation in the battle featured far more error than glory.  Winfield Scott was even more outraged when he learned that very similar articles had also appeared in the New Orleans “Daily Delta” and “Daily Picayune,” as well as one in the Pittsburgh “Post” signed “Veritas.”  It was all very suspicious, and soon enough the evidence made clear that Pillow himself had authored the “Leonidas” letters.

The version in the “Picayune” included a wonderful scene:  “[A Mexican] made one terrible charge at our General with his lance, which the latter evaded with great promptitude and avidity, using his sword, tossed the weapon of the Mexican high in the air and then quietly blew his brains out with his revolver.”**

Scott thundered about these “despicable self-puffings.” But to make things even worse, Pillow was found to have allowed, perhaps even ordered, for two Mexican howitzers captured at Chapultepec to be placed in his personal baggage wagon as souvenirs.  He claimed to have insisted that the howitzers —now government property—be removed,  but the circumstances remained murky.  It all came to a boil—with particular animosity between Pillow and Scott—and a court of inquiry was convened in early 1848.  The proceedings dragged on until June, and dozens of witnesses were called, but in the end Pillow’s ally President Polk allowed the matter to drop, writing, “General Pillow is a gallant and highly meritorious officer, and has been greatly persecuted by Gen’l Scott, for no other reason than that he is a Democrat in his politics and supposed to be my personal & political friend.”*

Pillow was to be active in party politics over the next years, even trying for the vice presidency.  But the “Hero of Chapultepec” remained largely in the shadows until the Civil War, when he played a role at the Battle of Fort Donelson.  Today’s post concludes our series featuring Gideon J. Pillow, but he will make a cameo appearance in an upcoming post about Ulysses S. Grant and Fort Donelson.

The illustration below, from 1847, is by E.B. & E.C. Kellogg.  It is titled “Attack on Chapultepec: Mexicans routed with great loss.”  It does not feature Pillow or Quitman or any other particular general, but it is interesting because of the lack of anything resembling the actual fortress of Chapultepec.

* “The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow” by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes and Roy P. Stonesifer, UNC Press, 1993.

**”Agent of Destiny: The Life and Times of Gen. Winfield Scott” by John S.D. Eisenhower, Free Press, 1997.

Things seemed more heroic in 1847

Things seemed more heroic in 1847

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