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The battles of water, ice, and steam July 25, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history, Uncategorized.
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Harpers Fort Henry

This post is one of an occasional series about Ulysses S. Grant—and about Gideon J. Pillow.

The battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson were fought in February 1862.  The weather stayed sodden over those weeks, meandering up and down around the freezing mark, and the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers flooded their channels.  Fort Henry was on the Tennessee and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, in that peculiar place where those two large rivers flowed close to each other but resisted merging before emptying into the Ohio.

By capturing the two forts, the Federals could generally control things upstream.  They could blow up railroad bridges, disrupt river traffic, and occupy towns as far up as Nashville on the Cumberland and Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee.  In the narrow strip between the rivers, the forts were located on broken terrain covered with bare, bleak hardwood forest where the trees threw their long shadows under the feeble winter sun.  Every stream valley was filled with deep, muddy water.

The rainclouds were imitated by the puffs of steam rising from the gunboat smokestacks.  The fleet had evolved halfway from the age of wood to the age of steel—some boats were all wood and some had an exoskeleton of iron—but all of these boats lived in the age of steam.  They had pressure gauges, steam intake valves, boilers that might possibly explode when struck by a shell.  That would of course fill the gunboat with scalding steam, as happened for instance during the assault on Fort Henry.

There was steam and rain and snow and mud.  Fort Henry had been built on low-lying land by a slow-witted engineer, and it literally filled up with water at about the same time that its earthen embankments were made porous by incoming shells from the gunboats.  That surrender came easily, but Fort

Gideon J. Pillow

Gideon J. Pillow

Donelson might have been impossible if General Pillow hadn’t helped out his foes.

The problem for the attackers on Fort Donelson was the cold.  On the eleven-mile march over from Fort Henry, a lot of the Union soldiers had jauntily tossed away their heavy overcoats and blankets because it happened to be sunny and warm that morning.  But by nightfall, as they camped (no tents) around the fort, it started to rain out of the dark purple sky, and then the rain changed over to snow, and the ground changed over from brown to white.  They weren’t allowed to have campfires that would make their positions visible.  Some of the men said later that the cold at Fort Donelson was one of the worst things they ever had to go through in the war.  You might think battle itself would be worse, but that doesn’t seem to be the way things were experienced.  Brute physical discomfort outweighed danger: the clothes that got soaked all the way through to the skin, the fingers too stiff to move.  Bruce Catton wrote in “Grant Moves South”:  Men of the 12th Iowa recalled that they spent most of the night trotting around in circles just to keep from freezing, with regimental officers improvising strange new tactical commands: “By companies, in a circle, double-quick, march!”

Andrew H. Foote

Andrew H. Foote

The next afternoon, navy officer Andrew Foote took three ironclads and two wooden gunboats splashing and puffing upriver to Donelson and attacked the fort.  Foote darted in and out of the flagship’s pilot-house with a megaphone, shouting out echoey commands.  But this time the defenders got the better of them.  The flagship was hit 60 times, one of the shots passing through the pilot-house, killing the pilot and wounding Foote.  Another vessel had its tiller-ropes destroyed.  Those two vessels, both ironclads, drifted helplessly downstream like big dead turtles.  The other boats had their share of damage and retreated with them.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest

General Pillow lost no time in telegraphing Richmond with news of a splendid victory.  But even at the time, he and General John B. Floyd and the junior but much smarter officer Nathan Bedford Forrest realized they were actually in a tight spot.  The Union forces encircled the fort entirely and looked as though they might be settling in for a siege.  The only way out was toward the south by the road that led through the village of Dover.

The weather that night went maliciously colder.  All the ruts in the muddy roads froze solid, all the men spent another night stamping and shivering and marching in little circles to stay warm.  In the morning Grant was several miles away from the lines consulting with Foote when Pillow launched his assault, sending 10,000 men out to attack the Union right, south of the fort and close to the river.  Within a few hours the Federals had fallen back.  As Grant returned from his visit to Foote, he heard the drumming metallic sound of musketry and rode into thick clouds of gray battle smoke.  He found clusters of men standing about, demoralized and lacking ammunition.  The regiments on the right had suffered at least 2,000 casualties—men in blue lay everywhere, bleeding into the snow.

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

But ample stores of ammunition lay nearby.  The inexperienced men had been too panicky to pause and refill their cartridge boxes, and their inexperienced officers had not ordered them to do so.  As Grant described it in his memoir: “I directed Colonel Webster to ride with me and call out to the men as we passed: ‘Fill your cartridge-boxes, quick, and get into line; the enemy is trying to escape and he must not be permitted to do so.’  This acted like a charm.  The men only wanted some one to give them a command.”

Grant thought the Confederates must have spread themselves thin on other sides of the fort, having concentrated their forces for the assault.  (So simple, this observation that turned around a dark situation.  So easy for anyone to

Charles F. Smith

Charles F. Smith

see who isn’t surrounded by the battle’s noise and confusion.)  He ordered General C. F. Smith to attack the rebel line on the west side of the fort.  And so Smith did, right away, in a fierce battle up a steep icy ravine.  According to Bruce Catton, Smith yelled at his men, “You volunteered to be killed for love of your country and now you can be.” And his men followed him and they got through the enemy line.

At the same time, General Pillow, having broken through to the south, ordered his men back into the fort.  This decision was a wonderful and mysterious thing.  General Floyd reversed Pillow’s order but, after a discussion with Pillow, reversed the reversal.  It seems that Pillow’s decision must have been caused by his chronic favoring of appearance over reality.  He had achieved “a brilliant and brave assault on the enemy,” and now that act of the play was over and the curtain could come down.  It did not seem to be connected in his thinking with the actual necessity of getting out of the fort, or maybe he thought the Union forces would wait during the intermission until he could raise the curtain on the next act, “the valorous escape of our men in gray against overwhelming odds.”

In the small hours of the night, Floyd and Pillow held a conference with the

Simon Bolivar Buckner

Simon Bolivar Buckner

third in command, General Simon Bolivar Buckner.  Floyd was nervous about being captured, for the straightforward reason that he had taken actions as the former War Secretary that made him subject to charges of treason.  So he decided to escape, and he turned over his command to Pillow.  But Pillow decided that he would prefer to escape as well, so he turned over the command to Buckner, who was a responsible man and accepted it. Floyd and Pillow slunk out of the fort at 2:00 in the morning and got away in boats across the river.  Bedford Forrest escaped with his cavalry through a swamp to the south, undoubtedly cursing Pillow as he went.  Before dawn Buckner sent a message to Grant proposing a cease-fire and discussion of terms of surrender.

Grant’s reply became famous.

SIR:—Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of Commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received.  No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.  I propose to move immediately upon your works.

I am, sir, very respectfully,

Your ob’t servant,

U. S. Grant,

Brig. Gen.

Battle of Fort Donelson

Battle of Fort Donelson

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

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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

Gideon Pillow assumes command April 29, 2009

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self-inflating-pillow1

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