Gideon Johnson Pillow
Gideon Pillow during the Civil War.

Gideon Johnson Pillow

Gideon J. Pillow, politician and general, was born in Williamson County and raised in Maury and Giles Counties. He received a classical education at local academies and graduated from the University of Nashville in 1827. He then read law and became an attorney in 1830; the next year he married Mary Elizabeth Martin of Maury County (d. 1869); in 1872 he married Mary Dickson Trigg, young widow of a Louisiana planter.

His first major accomplishment in the law was to coedit the highly regarded Digest and Re-vision of the Statute Laws of Tennessee, and in private practice he rapidly gained a reputation as one of the state’s finest lawyers–with an income to match. In 1833 Governor William Carroll named the young Pillow as adjutant general of the state militia, ranking as a brigadier general. In this period he also became a close friend and advisor of James Knox Polk, though never actually his law partner as is often reported.

“Clifton Place,” his estate near Columbia, begun in 1838 and remodeled in 1852, was not only one of the grandest residences in the state, showcasing the latest fashions and taste, but also a progressive, modern farming operation utilizing the most advanced methods in horticulture and husbandry. Pillow was a respected authority on farm economics and urged the diversification of southern agriculture and the increased mechanization of the southern economy. He also acquired extensive holdings of land and slaves in Mississippi and Arkansas in the 1840s.

In 1844 Pillow played a critical role in the nomination and election of his friend Polk to the presidency. In 1846 Pillow was commissioned a brigadier general of U.S. volunteers (becoming major general in 1847) and commanded Tennessee troops in the war with Mexico. He served under Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott and managed to alienate both with a tendency to alter or ignore orders and to claim credit for other people’s exploits. At Cerro Gordo he was personally brave but his leadership was inept; at the later battles near Mexico City his performance as a commander was far more competent, and at the storming of Chapultepec he was badly wounded in the left ankle. He expected to be involved in the negotiations with the Mexicans, but neither Scott nor the plenipotentiary Nicholas Trist accepted his pretensions.

In the 1850s Pillow maintained a Jacksonian stance in favor of continued Union with safeguards for slavery; in 1852 and 1856, despite playing a major role in his party’s politics (and floating his interest in the vice-presidency), he received no official post or recognition. In Tennessee, he had found a new friend and ally to replace Polk in the person of the rising Isham Green Harris. In 1857 Pillow missed becoming a senator when he was out-maneuvered by Andrew Johnson’s faction, and in 1860 he was a vocal proponent of Stephen Douglas. Upon Lincoln’s election he urged a convention of slave states, though as a good Jacksonian he still decried outright secession.

In May 1861 Governor Harris named Pillow as the senior major general of the Provisional Army of Tennessee, and he threw his great energy and administrative ability into the task of raising, training, and motivating that force. In July 1861 he was commissioned as a brigadier general, which Pillow always considered a slight.

In February 1862 he was partly responsible for the disastrous surrender of Fort Donelson, where he displayed physical courage and some tactical competence along with a degree of strategic fecklessness: it was his decision to withdraw to the starting positions on February 15 that began the train of errors that led to the surrender. Even worse for his reputation was his decision to flee the fort, leaving the onerous task of capitulation to his old enemy Simon Buckner. For the rest of his life, Pillow would carry the taint of a failure made worse by the abandonment of his men.

Unable to procure a permanent command, he led a brigade of Tennesseans on the last day of the battle of Stones River, where he displayed aggressiveness but not brilliance. For the rest of that year and into 1864 he was head of the Volunteer and Conscript Bureau for a vast portion of the Deep South, a role that was well suited to his talents and energy. His modern biographers hold that his efforts essentially filled the ranks of Joe Johnston’s army after Bragg’s removal, but again he was prone to overstepping his authority and to alienating both superiors and subordinates.

In 1864 he once again took a field command, but his one major initiative, against Sherman’s line of communications at Lafayette, Georgia, in June, was almost a reprise of Cerro Gordo decades before, and the action proved a fiasco. He spent the remainder of the war on recruiting duty.

One of the wealthiest men in the state in 1860, Pillow had spent much of his fortune in the war effort and seen some of his properties confiscated or otherwise encumbered by the Federal authorities. After the war, he went into a law partnership with Harris in Memphis and was not above flattering approaches to his old enemies such as Grant and Sherman, but he never received office or reward for his troubles. His family life, too, became embittered, and he was involved in lawsuits against some of his numerous daughters and their husbands. He was a victim of the last great visitation of yellow fever to Memphis in 1878 and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.

Suggested Reading

Nathaniel C. Hughes Jr. and Roy P. Stonesifer Jr., The Life and Wars of Gideon J. Pillow (1993)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Gideon Johnson Pillow
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018