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Gideon Pillow: The silly general March 27, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history.
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13 comments
"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)