Gideon Johnson Pillow was born June 8, 1806 in Tennessee. Pillow went on to graduate from the University of Nashville in 1827 and practiced law in Columbia, Tennessee, as a partner of James K. Polk.
Pillow got married March 24, 1831 and served as a brigadier general in the Tennessee Militia from 1833 until 1836.
Pillow’s law partner James K. Polk defeated Henry Clay of Kentucky in the Presidential election of 1844. When Polk took office on March 4, 1845 at the age of 49, Polk became the youngest man at the time to assume the presidency.
After the Mexican-American War began April 25, 1846, Pillow joined the United States Army as a brigadier general.
On April 13, 1847, President Polk promoted him to major general.
Pillow was wounded in the right arm at the Battle of Cerro Gordo and in the left leg at Chapultepec.
An anonymous letter was published in the New Orleans Delta on September 10, 1847, and signed “Leonidas.” This editorial wrongfully credited Gideon Johnson Pillow for the American victories at Contreras and Churubusco.
The battles were actually won by American General Winfield Scott.
When it was discovered that Pillow actually wrote the editorial, General Scott arrested Pillow and held him for court-martial.
President Polk, defensive of his partner and friend recalled General Scott to Washington.
When Pillow’s trial began in March of 1848, a Major Archibald W. Burns claimed authorship of the “Leonidas” letter. It turns out Pillow had somehow convinced Burns to make the false claim, perhaps with the aide of President Polk.
Pillow escaped punishment but was discharged from the Army in July of 1848.
General Scott ran for President of the United States in 1852, with Gideon Pillow supporting a former subordinate of his from the Mexican-American War, Franklin Pierce.
Gideon Pillow sought the Vice Presidential nomination, but was rejected in favor of Alabama Senator William R. King.
Franklin Pierce won the Presidential race with the slogan “We Polked you in 1844; we shall Pierce you in 1852!”
In 1856, incumbent President Franklin Pierce was defeated in his effort to be renominated by the Democratic Party, which selected James Buchanan of Pennsylvania instead. This was due in part to the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, which had divided the Democrats into Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats. Gideon Pillow tried again to win the nomination for Vice President, however this time he was defeated by John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky.
Then in 1860, Southern Democratic Vice President Breckinridge, Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas and John Bell were defeated by Republican Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency.
Gideon Pillow opposed secession, however after the start of the Civil War, Pillow joined the Confederacy. He was made senior major general in the Tennessee Militia on May 9, 1861.
By July, Pillow had been appointed brigadier general in the Western Theatre of the Confederate States Army in command of a unit called the “Army of Liberation.”
At the beginning of the Civil War, the critical border state of Kentucky, with a pro-Confederate governor but a largely pro-Union legislature, declared neutrality between the opposing sides. Pro-Confederates crossed into Tennessee to enlist, but the Union men openly formed a recruiting camp inside Kentucky.
September 3, 1861
Using this as an excuse, Confederate Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk violated the state’s neutrality by occupying Columbus, Kentucky.
Columbus held a key position on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.
September 5, 1861
On September 5th, Union Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant seized Paducah, Kentucky.
Grant, commanding the District of Southeast Missouri, requested permission from theater commander Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont to attack Columbus, but no orders came. For the next two months only limited demonstrations were conducted against the Confederates.
November 1, 1861
Maj. Gen. Frémont learned the Confederates planned to reinforce their forces in Arkansas, and on November 1st he ordered Grant to make a feint toward Columbus to keep the Confederates there.
Grant sent about 3,000 men under Col. Richard Oglesby into southeastern Missouri. Grant then learned that Confederate reinforcements were moving into Missouri to intercept Oglesby’s column.
Grant sent reinforcements and also ordered Brig. Gen. Charles F. Smith to move from Paducah into southwestern Kentucky to distract the Confederates.
Grant chose to attack Belmont, a ferry landing and tiny hamlet of just three shacks, about 2,000 feet across the river from Columbus.
Grant’s Expeditionary Command numbered 3,114 officers and men, and was organized into two brigades under Brig. Gen. John A. McClernand and Col. Henry Dougherty, two cavalry companies, and an artillery battery.
November 6, 1861
On November 6, escorted by river gunboats USS Tyler and USS Lexington, Grant’s men left Cairo, Illinois on the steamboats Aleck Scott, Chancellor, Keystone State, Belle Memphis, James Montgomery, and Rob Roy to attack the Confederate fortress at Columbus, Kentucky.
Confederate Maj. Gen. Leonidas Polk had about 5,000 troops guarding Columbus.
When Polk learned of Grant’s movements, he assumed that Columbus was their primary objective and that Belmont was a feint.
Polk ordered Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow to Belmont with 2,700 men, retaining the rest to defend Columbus.
When Grant reached Belmont, he found Camp Johnston, a small Confederate observation post, supported only by an artillery battery.
Grant decided to attack to keep the Confederates from reinforcing Maj. Gen. Sterling Price or Brig. Gen. M. Jeff Thompson of the Missouri State Guard, and to protect Oglesby’s exposed left flank.
November 7, 1861
Early the next morning, Grant learned that Confederate troops had crossed the Mississippi River to Belmont, Missouri.
At 8:30 a.m. on November 7th, Grant’s force disembarked at Hunter’s Farm, 3 miles north of Belmont, out of range of the six Confederate batteries at Columbus.
Grant landed his men on the Missouri side and marched his men south on the single road, clearing obstructions of fallen timber that formed an abatis. A mile from Belmont, Grant formed a battle line in a corn field.
Grant’s battle line consisted of the 22nd Illinois Infantry, 7th Iowa Infantry, 31st Illinois Infantry, 30th Illinois Infantry, and 27th Illinois Infantry, intermixed with a company of cavalry.
Brig. Gen. Gideon Pillow placed his Confederate battle line on a low ridge northwest of Belmont, from north to south, made up of the 12th Tennessee Infantry, 13th Arkansas Infantry, 22nd Tennessee Infantry, 21st Tennessee Infantry, and 13th Tennessee Infantry.
Grant’s surprise attack overran Pillow’s skirmish line and for the remainder of the morning, both armies, consisting of green recruits, advanced and fell back repeatedly.
By 2 p.m., the fighting became one-sided as Pillow’s line began to collapse, withdrawing toward Camp Johnston.
Pillow was losing his first battle of the Civil War as his men panicked and began to retreat from four of Grant’s field artillery pieces firing on his position.
A volley from the 31st Illinois killed dozens of Pillow’s men, and Grant’s soldiers attacked Pillow from three sides and surged into his camp.
Pillow’s men abandoned their artillery weapons as well as the Confederate colors, and ran towards the river, attempting to escape.
Grant was constantly at the front, leading his men.
Then, Grant’s horse was shot out from under him, but he mounted an aide’s horse and continued to lead.
Grant’s inexperienced soldiers became, in his own words, “demoralized from their victory.”
Brig. Gen. McClernand walked to the center of the camp, which now flew the Stars and Stripes, and asked for three cheers.
A bizarre, carnival-like atmosphere prevailed upon the Union troops, carried away by the joy of their victory, having captured several hundred prisoners and the camp.
To regain control of his men, who were plundering and partying, Grant ordered the camp set on fire.
In the confusion and blinding smoke, wounded Confederate soldiers in some of the tents were accidentally burned to death.
Grant and his men began to march back to their transports, taking with them two captured guns and 106 Confederate prisoners.
Pillow, by now, had met up with Confederate reinforcements brought over on the transports Prince and Charm. These were the men of the 15th Tennessee Infantry, the 11th Louisiana Infantry, and mixed infantry under Pillow and Col. Benjamin F. Cheatham.
Pillow ordered Cheatham to attack Grant.
At the same time, the scattered Confederate forces quickly reorganized and were reinforced from Columbus. The returning Confederates believed their fellow men killed in the fires had been deliberately murdered.
As Grant and his men turned to face Pillow and his Confederate reinforcements, numerous Confederate cannon fired into the Union ranks from Columbus.
Grant and the Union gunboats battled with Pillow’s men and the Confederate batteries.
Grant is quoted as having said,
“Well, we must cut our way out as we cut our way in.”
When Grant reached the river landing, he learned that one of his Union regiments was unaccounted for.
Grant galloped back to look for them, but found only Confederate soldiers moving in his direction.
Grant spun his horse and raced for the river, but saw that the riverboat captains had already ordered the mooring lines cast off.
Grant wrote in his memoirs, “The captain of the boat that had just pushed out recognized me and ordered the engineer not to start the engine: he then had a plank run out for me. My horse seemed to take in the situation. He put his fore feet over the bank without hesitation or urging, and, with his hind feet well under him, slid down the bank and trotted on board.”
While Grant’s riverboats were retreating to Paducah, Kentucky, the missing Illinois regiment was seen marching upriver and taken aboard.
The battle of Belmont is considered a Confederate victory, although it was primarily inconclusive. However, with little happening elsewhere at the time, it received considerable attention in the press.
Nevertheless, Pillow and his command were voted the Thanks of the Confederate Congress on December 6, 1861:
… for the desperate courage they exhibited in sustaining for several hours, and under most disadvantageous circumstances, an attack by a force of the enemy greatly superior to their own, both in numbers and appointments; and for the skill and gallantry by which they converted what at first threatened so much disaster, into a triumphant victory.
Gideon Pillow is best remembered for his poor performance at the Battle of Fort Donelson.
Pillow was captured by Union forces at Union Springs, Alabama, on April 20, 1865, and was paroled in Montgomery, Alabama, in May.
Pillow received a presidential pardon on August 28, 1865.
After the war, Pillow was forced into bankruptcy, but embarked on a successful law practice in Memphis, Tennessee, as partner with former Governor Isham G. Harris.
Gideon Johnson Pillow died in Lee County, Arkansas, and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery, located in Memphis, Tennessee.
Now WE know em
- The first Confederate General captured during the American Civil War was born today in 1817. Now WE know em (carl-leonard.com)
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