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The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow

Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr. and Roy P. Stonesifer, With a New Foreword by Timothy D. Johnson

Publication Year: 2011

One of nineteenth-century America’s most controversial military figures, Gideon Johnson Pillow gained notoriety early in the Civil War for turning an apparent Confederate victory at Fort Donelson into an ignominious defeat. Dismissed by contemporaries and historians alike as a political general with dangerous aspirations, his famous failures have overshadowed the tremendous energy, rare talent, and great organizational skills that also marked his career. In this exhaustive biography, Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr. and Roy P. Stonesifer Jr. look beyond conventional historical interpretations to provide a full and nuanced portrait of this provocative and maligned man. While noting his arrogance, ambition, and very public mistakes, Hughes and Stonesifer give Pillow his due as a gifted attorney, first-rate farmer, innovator, and man of considerable political influence. One of Tennessee’s wealthiest planters, Pillow promoted scientific methods to improve the soil, preached crop diversification to reduce the South’s dependence on cotton, and endorsed railroad construction as a means to develop the southern economy. He helped secure the 1844 Democratic nomination for his friend and fellow Tennessean James K. Polk and was rewarded after Polk’s victory with an appointment as brigadier general. While his role in the Mexican War earned him a reputation for recklessness and self-promotion, his organization of what would become the Army of Tennessee put him at the forefront of the Confederate war effort. After the disaster at Donelson, he spent the rest of the war directing Confederate conscription in the West and leading Rebel cavalry forces—a role of continuing service which, the authors show, has been insufficiently acknowledged. Updated with a new foreword by noted Civil War scholar Timothy D. Johnson, The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow portrays a colorful, enigmatic general who moved just outside the world of greatness he longed to enter.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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Foreword to the Paperback Edition

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pp. xi-xvi

Contradictions in the lives of public figures make for fascinating biographical studies. Many famous individuals have over-come personal imperfections and lapses of judgment to be praised and honored in history books because of the counterweight of their positive accomplishments. Gideon Johnson Pillow was both talented and accomplished. ...

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pp. xvii-xviii

Dispute swirls about many American military figures, but Gideon Johnson Pillow is one of the very few attended by great notoriety in two wars. his role as an aggressive brigade and division commander in Mexico was bathed in controversy and brought the commanding general of the American army into disastrous conflict with the president of the United States. Thirteen years later in the...

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pp. xix-xxiv

No historian works alone. They build upon the work of those scholars who preceded them; they locate and process research material with the guidance of others. Certainly this has been true in the writing of this biography. We are grateful for those who so generously gave of their time and energy to help us. ...

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1. A Jacksonian Tradition

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pp. 1-22

One of the Indians saw a baby playing in the dirt, out in front of the log house. No one was home except the mother. Suddenly the Choctaw reached down and scooped up the infant, wrapped him in a blanket, threw him over his shoulder, and vanished into the cane-brake. The boy's mother screamed and ran out into the fields for the father. ...

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2. A Friend Indeed

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pp. 23-38

Polk recovered quickly from his second loss to "Lean Jimmy" Jones. Two weeks after the election he was in Nashville, attempting to rebuild the Tennessee Democracy and reestablish control. He found the party divided, numbed by defeat. Facing political oblivion, the twice-beaten Polk sought support once again from his fellow Tennesseans. ...

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3. Tennessee’s Own Son

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pp. 39-55

James K. Polk wrote his friend Gideon Pillow from Washington shortly after the election. He would be meeting Congress in his new capacity as president. He was excited, exuberant. "I hope you may be satisfied with what I may say to them." 1 Pillow wrote back that he would be in Washington for the festivities, but he cautioned Polk that his first ...

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4. Hurra for Pa

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pp. 56-77

Pillow's Tennessee volunteers reached Lobos Island, a coral patch in the Gulf of Mexico 100 miles above Vera Cruz. There they waited for the remainder of the fleet to join them and then sailed to the shelter of Anton Lizardo Bay, twelve miles below Vera Cruz. By the afternoon of March 5, all transports had arrived and anchored. Fortunately, the sea was "smooth as a mill pond." 1...

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5. Hero of Chapultepec

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pp. 78-104

When Pillow arrived at Vera Cruz from New Orleans, he began pushing reinforcements inland toward Puebla. First went Col. James S. McIntosh on June 4 with 600 men and Scott's treasury $350,000. Guerrillas heard of the silver and began to swarm. The debonair Pennsylvanian, Brig. Gen. George Cadwalader, rushed out from Vera Cruz ...

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6. Leonidas

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pp. 105-121

The fall of the City of Mexico ended major hostilities. Some fighting would continue as Scott sought to extend the zone of American occupation and to secure his lines of communication, but mostly it would be guerrilla and counterguerrilla activity. Gideon Pillow remained in his quarters almost a month, "hopping about my room with crutches,"...

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7. Making Good Democratic Music

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pp. 122-140

Before Pillow packed away his uniform and stepped into civilian life, he commissioned Washington Bogart Cooper, a painter of prominent Middle Tennesseans, to do his Mexican War portrait. Cooper had done a portrait of Gov. Billy Carroll earlier, and Pillow admired that work very much. It was also about this time that Henry S. Sadd, ...

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8. Palace of Fire

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pp. 141-155

Pillow involved himself more and more in the life and politics of Arkansas. As a conduit to the Pierce administration, he was appealed to by Democrats across the state for endorsements. He appeared at Democratic rallies in eastern Arkansas, often on the platform in Helena with Jacob Thompson and Gov. Joseph Mathews of Mississippi, ...

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9. The Provisional Army of Tennessee

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pp. 156-173

Pillow's plan for a "General Convention of the Slave States" was doomed, however. The mood of the South was to secede first, then talk. But Tennessee was different; she stood by as southern states withdrew one by one. Unionist sentiment was too strong in all three grand divisions of the state. A special referendum held on February 9, 1861, ...

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10. To Aid Our Friends in Missouri

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pp. 174-192

The news stretched belief. Richmond had appointed Leonidas Polk to command the Western Department. Pillow knew Polk, of course, but, although the same age and born of families so much alike, their paths had diverged in boyhood. When Pillow had gone to Pulaski and the University of Nashville for his education, Polk, who spent his boyhood in ...

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11. A Plunge into the Forest

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pp. 193-208

Restless for anything positive to divert public attention from the failure in Missouri, Pillow returned to the idea of seizing Columbus, Kentucky. That is what "induced me to establish the force at Union City," he wrote Polk, "looking with certainty to the time I could occupy Columbus." The compelling reason, Pillow argued, was that "its possession ...

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12. I Will Die First

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pp. 209-239

Pillow could not tolerate waiting in the wings at Clifton. Throughout January 1862 he looked for an opportunity to return to the army without loss of face. He knew he had won sympathy, at least among Tennesseans, for his role at Columbus. Pvt. Val Wynne believed "Tennesseans ought to beg him to go back and take command. . . . [He is] ...

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13. Is This Right?

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pp. 240-258

A badly shaken Gideon Pillow arrived at Clifton early on February 18, 1862. He set to work preparing his report of Donelson, although he kept in touch with Johnston and the army in Murfreesboro by telegraph. He also prepared a circular, a call to arms for Tennesseans, which explained the sacrifices at Donelson and laid out the course of ...

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14. A Place He So Exactly Fits

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pp. 259-275

The Army of Tennessee retreated south from Murfreesboro, leaving behind a bitterly contested field, littered with dead dreams. Officers of the highest rank pointed fingers. Braxton Bragg, blamed by nearly everyone himself, criticized John C. Breckinridge heavily and began to collect evidence. Bragg turned to Pillow, about the only friend he ...

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15. I Only Want a Respectable Command

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pp. 276-299

Grant smashed the Army of Tennessee at Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863, and drove it into north Georgia. Bragg left the army, discredited as a field commander. Hardee wanted no part of the command of the army, so Davis most reluctantly turned to Joseph E. Johnston. When Johnston came to Dalton in December 1863 to take ...

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16. A Bitter Cup

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pp. 300-322

Pillow's first objective was to regain control of his property. It had been confiscated by the United States Treasury Department under Federal laws of March 12, 1863, and July 2, 1864, empowering agents to do so because the "lawful owner was voluntarily absent therefrom, and engaged either in arms or otherwise in aiding or encouraging the ...

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pp. 323-328

Gideon Pillow ended his days embattled. His will, prepared at age seventy, is a rambling argument, a lawyer's brief, laden with cross bills, assignees, and bills of revivor. He pointed a finger at those who had held him personally responsible for his actions as a Confederate officer and bankrupted him. He complimented his new wife Mary Eliza ...

Appendix 1: And Afterward

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pp. 329-332

Appendix 2: Some of Gideon J. Pillow’s Staff Officers

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pp. 333-334


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pp. 335-406


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pp. 407-440


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pp. 441-455

E-ISBN-13: 9781572337916
E-ISBN-10: 1572337915
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572337558
Print-ISBN-10: 1572337559

Page Count: 480
Illustrations: 25 halftones, 6 maps
Publication Year: 2011