There are some diehard moonlight and magnolia Southerners who will point to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and J. E. B. Stuart and conclude that the Southern armies were all led by military geniuses of the highest moral rectitude – just as much popular history declares for the canonization of Lincoln and waits for his apotheosis. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. No one can venture to guess the ratio of great men to mediocre ones, of men of stature to toadies. While we enjoy a certain degree of certitude that the great causes will draw the greatest leaders there is no guarantee. One of the less than spectacular leaders from the South was Gideon J. Pillow and although this biography does him full credit it still proves that you can not make a silk purse of a sow’s ear but it is very much worth the reading as an object lesson in the failing of political generals. We have within the last week lost General H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Tommy Franks – a graduate of Robert E. Lee High School [need we say more?] – has retired. We now have so many political generals we will have a very difficult time finding combat leaders any better than Pillow – and that spelled disaster in the 1860’s and will spell disaster in this century as well.
The life and wars of Gideon J. Pillow Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, c 1993 Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr., and Roy P. Stonesifer, Jr. Generals Confederate States of America Biography, Pillow, Gideon Johnson, 1806-1878 Hardcover xvii, 455 p. : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. -439) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG
Commonly portrayed in Civil War literature as a bungling general who skulked away with John B. Floyd at Dover Tennessee and left the fate of the Confederate troops stationed at Fort Donelson to Simon B. Buckner and US Grant — a political general and the worst kind of pretender, totally without merit, Gideon Johnson Pillow (1806-78) is one of the most controversial military figures of nineteenth-century America.
American general Gideon J. Pillow’s self-promoting attempts to discredit Mexican War commander Gen. Winfield Scott are ridiculed in this portrayal of Scott puncturing “Polk’s Patent” pillow. Pillow’s efforts were widely viewed as part of a campaign by the Polk administration to damage Scott’s growing prestige at home. An anonymous letter – actually written by Pillow – published in the “New Orleans Delta” on September 10, 1847, and signed “Leonidas,” wrongfully credited Pillow for recent American victories at Churubusco and Contreras. The battles were actually won by Scott. When Pillow’s intrigue was exposed, he was arrested by Scott and held for a court-martial. Polk, defensive of Pillow, recalled Scott to Washington. During the trial that ensued, “Delta” correspondent James L. Freaner testified in Scott’s favor. At Pillow’s behest Maj. Archibald W. Burns, a paymaster, claimed authorship of the “Leonidas” letter. Currier’s cartoon was probably published during or shortly after Pillow’s trial, which began in March 1848. With the sword of “Truth,” Scott (right) punctures a pillow held by Burns (left) and which is being inflated by Pillow (kneeling, center). Scott holds Freaner’s testimony in his hand and treads on the Leonidas letter. He exclaims at the air released, “Heavens what a smell!” At left, behind Burns is a strong box on which rests a sack of coins, marked “From Genl. Pillow for fathering the Leonidas Letter.”
In this first full-length biography, Nat Hughes and Roy Stonesifer take a fresh look at Pillow, calling attention to his prominent role in many of the major conflicts of his day. Pillow was one of Tennessee’s wealthiest planters and lawyers as well as an influential broker in national politics. His friendship with fellow Tennessean James K. Polk brought Pillow a generalship in the Mexican War, where he served under Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor he antagonized the military establishment with his recklessness and self-promotion.
A slightly modified version of “Battle of Cerro Gordo” (no. 1847-2), in all likelihood produced by the same lithographer. The scene is quite similar, except for the inclusion of the later battle (the Battle of Churubusco, fought on August 20, 1847) in the background, and the addition of the figure of Gen. Gideon J. Pillow on the left. As in the earlier cartoon Scott chases Mexican commander Santa Anna away with a steaming plate of soup. Trist aims his hose at Scott, but its spray falls short of him. Polk remonstrates to General Pillow, who holds a pillow in his hands. The dialogue reflects mounting tensions between Scott and Pillow, Polk’s friend and favorite in the field: Scott: “General, O do “now” stop and try my ‘hasty plate of soup?'” Santa Anna: “Never, no never again, it’s ginger tea & quite too hot for me!” Polk: “Trist, I told you, Sir, to throw cold water on that ‘hasty plate of soup!'” Trist: “Your Excellency! I’ve tried my best in vain – that soup I cannot reach.” Polk: “My dear Pillow do advance and give my friend another passport [alluding to Polk’s mistake in allowing Santa Anna’s return from exile in 1846], with something soft whereon to rest his weary head. He did not ask “such soup” from me!” Pillow: “Rely on me, my Cousin Polk, I’ll cool that soup as ‘Leonidas’ cooled the Persians at Thermopola.” Polk: “It wont do! ‘Old Hasty’ must be stopped – My honor’s gone with that brave Mexican -Cool soup would suit him best, he’d sip, and sip and sip again & give out his Pronunciamentos – his honor save, and my ends gain, ‘Old Hasty’ to disgrace, but alas! were both undone – but no! ‘Old Hasty’ shall be made to pay the cost of his audacity – I’ll strike him down & send him home!” Pillow: “My dear Cousin you know you have the power, ’tis but to use it, & ’tis done, just as you say.”
Following the war, Pillow attempted to capitalize on his notoriety as the self styled “hero of Chapultepec” by entering Democratic party politics. Despite his efforts on behalf of Franklin Pierce, he was unsuccessful in his bid for the vice presidency and the Senate. With the,outbreak of the Civil War, Pillow again sought the public stage. His organization of what would become the Army of Tennessee placed him at the forefront of the Confederate war effort. But he was bested by Ulysses S. Grant
at Belmont and then suffered disaster at Fort Donelson.
John B. Floyd was governor of Virginia (1849–1852), secretary of war in the administration of United States president James Buchanan (1857–1860), and a Confederate general during the American Civil War (1861–1865). As governor, he helped usher in the apportionment and suffrage reforms proposed by the constitutional convention of 1850–1851, but at Buchanan’s War Department his reputation plunged because of various corruption scandals. His good name would never recover. At Fort Donelson, Tennessee, in February 1862, he held off the forces of Union brigadier general Ulysses S. Grant for two days. Rather than personally surrender, however, he and his Virginia soldiers fled by steamboat in the middle of the night, leaving the duty to his third in command. Floyd was relieved of his command a month later.
Following these defeats, he spent the remainder of the war directing Confederate conscription in the West and leading Confederate cavalry forces. As a result of his role at Fort Donelson, Pillow has been dismissed as a political general and would fight charges of cowardice for the rest of his life. Hughes and Stonesifer argue that such a judgment fails to consider the many contributions made by the dynamic planter-lawyer. They point to Pillow’s organizational abilities, his standing with Joseph Johnston and Braxton Bragg [a somewhat dubious leader himself], and his continuing service as an infantry and cavalry leader – although with mixed results.
A facetious view of the Confederate states’ early efforts to man a volunteer army during the Civil War. The interior of an enlistment center is shown, where a ragged recruit enters from the left at bayonet point. He is met by a grinning, cigar-smoking Confederate officer (center) who sits at a table supported by a whiskey barrel. On the wall behind him is a sign proclaiming in exaggerated terms a “Glorious Victory for the South” at Booneville and the death of Union general Nathaniel Lyon, which occurred on August 10, 1861. From a rack on the wall hang a pistol, spurs, a whip, and a bridle. Two other Confederate soldiers stand looking on. The one on the right stands beneath a placard announcing the “Suicide of Abe Lincoln” and “Washington to be taken,” signed by Confederate general John B. Floyd. (Floyd, who had been secretary of war under President Buchanan, was accused of secretly supplying arms and ammunition to the South from the federal arsenal before the war.) On the same wall a small figure of “Old Abe” hangs by a noose from a nail. On the floor at right are several trivial household objects, including a clock, candlestick, and teapot. They are “Prizes taken by the Southern Navy.” In the foreground left sleeps a drunken civilian on whom a small dog is urinating. He rests beneath a notice on the wall declaring the property confiscated by the Confederacy, because its owner, J. Q. Smith, is being “suspected of favoring the unholy and wicked designs of the north.” The notice is signed by Jefferson Davis and Robert Toombs (the Confederacy’s secretary of state, succeeded by R. M. T. Hunter in July 1861).
Pillow was a survivor and his postwar efforts to restore prosperity to himself and his family met with some success but, ultimately his various schemes brought him to bankruptcy. His enemies found ample opportunity to pick at his assets but the old schemer fought back to the end and beyond – using his will to punish enemies real and perceived. He was an important southern leader — with greater influence in the society than in the army, and as a wealthy cotton merchant wielded power both regionally and nationally. He lasted the entire war because of his prewar power — and as an advocate of reunification after the war found himself in a position to lobby Grant for a seat on the Supreme Court.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Buckner was the adjutant general of the Kentucky State Guard, and after declining a commission of brigadier general in the Union Army, accepted a commission of brigadier general in the Confederate Army on September 14, 1861. After joining the army, Buckner was sent by General Albert Sydney Johnson to be one of the brigadier generals in charge of defending Fort Donelson, an important fortification built along the Cumberland River. Forces under General Ulysses S. Grant were able to force Buckner and several other generals in the fort to accept an “unconditional surrender” that helped bring fame to Grant. Buckner was imprisoned until August 15, 1862, when he was exchanged for Union general George A. McCall. After his release from prison, he returned to the Confederate Army where he served under General Braxton Bragg at the Battle of Perryville, and helped fortify Mobile, Alabama until April of 1863. He was then transferred to the Department of East Tennessee and directed an infantry corps at the Battle of Chickamauga, and then under General James Longstreet during the Siege of Knoxville. On September 20, 1864, he was promoted to lieutenant general, and became the Chief of Staff under General Kirby Smith, until the army surrendered in 1865.
He was in many ways the Southern equivalent of Bejamin Franklin Butler, the union general unfit for much other than garrison duty, who, courting political favor became a favorite toady of Lincoln. A man of scruples of convenience after the war Butler ran unsuccessfully for Massachusetts Governor three times, once as a Republican, once as an independent, and once as a Democrat. He was finally elected Governor in 1882 on a combined Greenback/Democratic ticket. The nation would have been better off if he and Pillow had spent their retirement lying to one another at the old soldier’s home but we don’t always get what we need.