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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

Gideon Pillow assumes command April 29, 2009

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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

Gideon Pillow goes into combat April 4, 2009

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Pillow first experienced combat at the Battle of Cerro Gordo

The Battle of Cerro Gordo

This continues the inspirational story of General Pillow from our earlier post.

Our hero, Brigadier General Gideon J. Pillow, arrived in Mexico in the summer of 1846 to offer his services to  Zachary Taylor.  But the Mexican war had a story line of two sturdy competing commanders with equally impressive competing epithets. Taylor, or “Old Rough and Ready,”  operated in northeastern Mexico, while Winfield Scott, “Old Fuss and Feathers,” was the commander of operations that started in Veracruz and advanced toward Mexico City.  Taylor took an immediate personal dislike to Pillow, regarding him (correctly) as a political appointee, and he invented an excuse to separate Pillow from his 1st Tennessee regiment and keep him from participating in the battle of Monterrey.

Within a few months, Pillow was transferred to Scott’s army,  along with a whole batch of other officers, when the strategic focus shifted to central Mexico.  You can take your pick of which image of Scott you prefer, the one on the left from Veracruz (1847), or the one on the right taken shortly before the start of the Civil War (1860) :



Pillow’s first taste of battle came at the siege of Veracruz, and his performance  seems to have  been satisfactory, as he headed a brigade that attacked a small Mexican cavalry unit guarding the city’s water supply.  Lumping him together with three other generals in his official report, Scott said, “Four more able or judicious officers could not have been desired.”  On the basis of this sweeping but somewhat vague statement, Pillow’s ally, President Polk, had him promoted to the rank of major general.

So far, so good.  Scott’s army marched west and again met the forces of Santa Anna at the hamlet of Cerro Gordo, about halfway to Mexico City.  On the eve of battle, Scott summoned Pillow to his tent to give him his orders, only to hear Pillow loudly protesting the dangerousness of his mission.  Yet, despite this mortal danger, Pillow proclaimed, his sense of duty demanded he obey, “even if he left his bones on the battlefield.”  One might expect that he would then turn on his heel and march decisively off into the night.  But on the contrary, according to Scott’s recollection, Pillow lingered in the tent.  He seemed to be waiting for something…it was almost as if he was hoping Scott would change his mind…

The next morning, Pillow took charge of his troops, ordering them to march along a route that happened to expose them to direct fire from Mexican artillery, rather than around the back of a ridge as planned.  The topography was complex, and Pillow had perhaps not studied it very carefully.  The orders triggered loud quarreling between Pillow and his lieutenant, who understood the consequences of ignoring the lay of the land.

Pillow’s voice carried through the air to the ears of Mexican artillerists, who promptly launched a flurry of grapeshot, now that they knew the precise location of the enemy.  It was one of the few positive events of the battle for the Mexican side, which by the end of the day was forced into an ignominious surrender. (In fact, Santa Anna was forced to ride off in such a hurry that he left behind his artificial leg, which was captured by the Illinois Volunteer Infantry.)  In the confusion of the artillery fire, Pillow received a slight wound to his arm and was seen disappearing down a hill to the rear, not to be seen again during the conflict.  A later account from sympathetic sources would say that our hero’s “impetuous courage” had led to his being wounded.

Captain Robert E. Lee played an important role at Cerro Gordo in scouting an attack route over the steep, broken terrain.  Other familiar names who served in Scott’s army: George McClellan, Joseph Johnston, P.G.T. Beauregard, George Meade, Thomas Jackson (later known as “Stonewall”), and Ulysses S. Grant.

(The series continues here)