The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow. By Nathaniel C. Hughes, Jr. and Roy P. Stonesifer. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993. 455 pp.
For good reason, historians have lambasted Gideon Pillow as exemplifying the failures of nineteenth-century political generals. In most historical accounts, Pillow becomes the spy of President James Polk in Mexico (1846-7), the man who abandoned Fort Donelson in 1862, and the general found cowering behind a tree at Stones River in 1863. Using an extensive collection of archival papers, newspapers, government documents, and memoirs, Nathaniel Hughes and Roy Stonesifer attempt to resuscitate, if not completely revitalize, Pillow’s reputation. They argue that “fame chose Gideon Pillow as her darling and laid opportunities at his feet like golden apples, but he kicked them aside” (xiv). Overall, this work effectively narrates the military and political career of Gideon Pillow in a more positive light than previous histories.
Hughes and Stonesifer begin their narrative with Pillow’s pre-Mexican War political career and end it with his death. In the 1830s and 1840s, Pillow adamantly supported Andrew Jackson and the Democracy in Middle Tennessee, which Whig strongholds to the east and west surrounded. At the 1844 Democratic Convention, Pillow pushed for and won the Democratic nomination for his friend and fellow Middle Tennessean, James Polk. Once Polk initiated war with Mexico in 1846, Pillow parlayed this friendship into a political generalship, first of volunteers and then of regulars. In battle, according to the authors, Pillow performed both poorly and admirably. At Cerro Gordo, he “failed” and “the best that can be said [is that] Pillow demonstrated aggressiveness” (73). Conversely, he had “done well” at Contreras and “performed creditably” (93) at Churubusco before exaggerating his efforts at Chapultepec. Nonetheless, many West Pointers in Winfield Scott’s army distrusted Pillow as Polk’s pet and spy, a conflict that led to Pillow’s indictment, but not conviction, at court martial in 1848.
After the war, Pillow faded to the background politically, failing to support winning presidential candidates while at the same time solidifying his reputation as hero of Chapultepec. Upon secession in 1861, Pillow adamantly supported the Confederacy before accepting command in first the Tennessee Provisional Army and then the Confederate regulars. Pillow served, as brigadier general, in a number of posts: a leader in the 1861 Missouri invasion, loser at Belmont, Kentucky in 1861, commander at Fort Donnellson at its 1862 fall, a brigade commander at Stones River in 1863, conscript officer in 1864, regional commander in Alabama in 1864, and, for a few months at the end of the war, Confederate Commissary General of Prisoners.
With regard to his Civil War career, the authors find it “simplistic and wrong” to label Pillow a “military buffoon” (326) and counter two myths about Pillow. First, many historians believe Pillow ran off from Donelson in February 1862 in a fit of cowardice to avoid treason charges. Highes and Stonesifer, while finding the Tennessean’s departure a “fraudulent [and] irresponsible conveyance” (236), nonetheless claim he did it to avoid the ignominy of surrender, committing a “fatal error of judgment” (236) to advance his political career. Second, the authors find fault with the dominant interpretation that, at Stones River, General John C. Breckinridge found Pillow cowering behind a tree. The authors note that the evidence for this consists of “a single sheet of paper with one charge and one specification” (254) and had this charge came to light in 1863, Pillow, owing to his personality, would have spent months refuting it, which he did not do. Despite questioning these two myths, the authors do portray Pillow as an ineffective field commander, one who “accomplished nothing” (289) in his June 1864 raid on William Sherman’s supply lines at Lafayette, Georgia, but an effective, if not sympathetic, recruiter in 1863-4.
While overall an able and readable survey of one of the most maligned generals of the mid-1800s, Hughes and Stonesifer rely too much on historical speculation in their discussion of Pillow’s Mexican service. For example, in discussion of Pillow’s feud with Scott, the authors argue that “doubtless[ly]” (112) Pillow encouraged subordination on the part of General William Worth and Lt. Col. James Duncan, without any substantive evidence. Likewise, the authors cite that much of Roswell Ripley’s account of the Mexican War “doubtless[ly] . . . came from [Pillow’s] own pen” (123), again without evidence.
Nevertheless, The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow stands out as an effective attempt to reintroduce the general to the historical public as a more human character, rather than the incompetent political hack that most historians view him. While not overly praiseful, indeed more negative than not, the authors’ portrayal of Pillow shows the Tennessean in a much more favorable light, especially in his attack on the Union right at Donelson on 15 February 1862 and his 1863-4 recruiting activities. As such, this work gladly contributes to the historical dialogue that historians leave overly-biased and overly-deterministic.
The Life and Wars of
Gideon J. Pillow. By Nathaniel
Cheairs Hughes, Jr., Roy P. Stonesifer, Jr. Chapel Hill: The University of North
Carolina Press, 1993, Pp. xvii, 455.
Professional generals normally despise political generals because they are thought of as unqualified and inept commanders that spy for top government officials. Gideon J. Pillow not only fits the stereotype of a political general but also did a great deal to create it. Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Jr. and Roy P. Stonesifer, Jr. describe The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow. Their biography of this enigmatic character attempts to rectify the commander’s place in history from one of a bungling leader whose self-serving actions created lifelong enemies to an able administrator who dealt efficiently and effectively in raising and maintaining troops.
Hughes and Stonesifer begin by describing Gideon Pillow’s early life. The authors explain how Pillow cultivated a relationship with James K. Polk and aided in his presidential nomination in the 1844 Democratic National Convention. Polk returned the favor when he appointed Pillow general in the Mexican War. This political appointment launched his military career, but Pillow’s inadequacies as a commander came to light after his first major engagement at Cerro Gordo. In the subsequent battles at Contreras and Churubusco, Pillow performed satisfactorily. When Pillow wrote his wife about the fall of Mexico City he claimed that the army named him the “Hero of Chapultepec.” Pillow’s official reports contained exaggerations that conflicted with the accounts of other commanders, especially the General-in-Chief Winfield Scott who asked him to change his record. The writers clarify how this conflict compounded with other incidents caused a feud between the two commanders, which plagued them through out their lives and besmirched their reputations long after the end of the Mexican War.
Pillow went back to Tennessee to straighten out his business; then he participated in politics at the 1850 Tennessee convention and the 1852 democratic convention. The authors explain that his feud with Scott continued to thwart his political aspirations. When secession occurred, Pillow aided the Confederacy and on 9 May 1861, the governor of Tennessee named him “commander of the Provisional Army of Tennessee with the rank of major general;” when the army became part of the Confederacy, Virginia demoted Pillow (p. 162). In the summer of 1861 Pillow invaded Missouri with few note worthy results. On 3 September 1861 Pillow violated Kentucky neutrality when he Hickman before proceeding to Columbus. In November 1861, Pillow had almost lost his command, when reinforcements arrived just in time to stave off defeat at Belmont. Pillow’s questionable conduct during February 1862, when he fled Fort Donelson and left a subordinate to surrender it, lead to his dismissal from command while he awaited a formal investigation. Almost receiving censure for his conduct at Donelson, Pillow temporarily returned to command at Murfreesboro and his actions there led to more controversy when ex-Vice President James Buchanan saw him cowering behind a tree. Next, Pillow successfully headed the newly created Volunteer and Conscript Bureau of the Army of Tennessee. After the dissolution of the bureau, Pillow assumed command of two Confederate cavalry brigades and raided LaFayette, Georgia, which accomplished nothing. He ended the war as commissary general of prisoners for the Confederacy. Hughes and Stonsifer tell the reader that for the last twenty some years of his life, Pillow, who had fallen from a pre-war millionaire to a post-war virtually destitute civilian, attempted to quell his creditors.
Nathaniel Hughes, Jr. and Roy Stonesifer, Jr. show that the tragicomedy of Gideon J. Pillow’s life leaves him as a caricature of his own creation. The biographers imply that Pillow failed to leave the legacy he wanted because of his great number of enemies. This pointed, well written, and readable account of the political general’s life examines his many controversial actions, from: the ditch he dug at Saltillo to the claim that he cowered behind a tree at Murfreesboro. While explaining Pillow’s bungling, the authors continually convey the dire straits that his reputation trod. The emphasis the authors put upon some situations erodes their previous analysis. For example, one may question how the general’s actions at “Lafayette destroyed what remained of Pillow’s reputation as a general officer,” (p. 289) when they already stated that his previous actions at Murfreesboro “would destroy, in the eyes of posterity, not only what was left of his military reputation, but his honor as a soldier” (p. 258). If Murfreesboro destroyed what was left of his military reputation then what remained for his actions at Lafayette to destroy. While extensively and thoroughly researched The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow is an excellent book for either historians or novices because of its accessibility.