At Belmont, Ulysses S. Grant remembered all too clearly
Gideon Pillow’s Mexican War misadventures.
No future Civil War general left the Mexican War with a higher rank–or a lower reputation–than Confederate General Gideon Pillow. Indeed, Pillow’s parlous reputation greatly influenced Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s risky decision to attack Pillow’s camp at Belmont, Mo. (story, P. 42). And Pillow’s subsequent poor performance there allowed Grant to narrowly escape with his own reputation (and life) intact. A case could be argued, in fact, that Gideon Pillow “made” Ulysses S. Grant. At the very least, Grant was dead lucky to have Pillow as his first Civil War opponent, and even luckier that Pillow survived to meet him again at Fort Donelson three months later.
Pillow’s Confederate superiors initially expected better of the 51-year-old Tennessean. One of the wealthiest landowners in the South at the beginning of the war, Pillow had long been a power in the Democratic Party. His yeoman’s work on behalf of fellow Tennessean James K. Polk had helped Polk win the presidency in 1844, an effort for which Pillow was duly rewarded with a brigadier general’s rank in the Mexican War.
In what would prove to be a lifelong pattern, Pillow immediately became embroiled in controversy. Already despised by career army officers as “a low demagogue…taken from the sinks of party corruption,” Pillow worsened matters by taking an active and vocal dislike to his superior, General Zachary Taylor. “The war is miserably managed by Genl. Taylor,” Pillow reported home. “I would not be surprised that he should be superceded in the command of the army.”
A poor showing by Pillow at the Battle of Cerro Gordo (future Union General George McClellan called Pillow’s performance there “worse than puerile imbecility”) was followed by the great American victory at Chapultepec, a victory that Pillow characteristically sought to identify as his own, crowing to his wife that “your husband…has now the name in the army of ‘Hero of Capultepec.'” Going on, Pillow described his part in the battle as having been “unequalled in the history of the American arms…it will give my name a place in history which will live while our Republic stands.”
Pillow further ran afoul of military professionals by allowing one of his staff officers to write a fulsome letter to the New Orleans Daily Delta claiming that Pillow, in effect, had personally led the army to victory at Contreras and Churubusco (pointedly overlooking the role of the army commander, General Winfield Scott). The letter compared Pillow to Napoleon and credited him with “masterly genius and profound knowledge of the science of war which has astonished so much the mere martinets of the profession.”
Scott and his defenders quickly struck back, accusing Pillow of personally appropriating two captured Mexican howitzers. A court of inquiry cleared Pillow of the most serious charges, but word among the professionals was that Pillow had been “guilty of ungentlemanly conduct.” Pillow retaliated by complaining to President Polk about Scott’s “assassin-like tactics” and accusing the general of attempting to bribe Mexican General Santa Anna to surrender. An outraged Polk im- mediately recalled Scott–a potential presidential candidate in 1848–tarnishing Scott’s military and professional futures.
Grant, in his first command, well remembered Pillow’s reputation and Mexican War misadventures. “I do not say he [Pillow] would shoot himself,” Grant wrote to his sister. “I am not so uncharitable as many who served under him in Mexico. I think, however, he might report himself wounded on the receipt of a very slight scratch, received hastily in any way, and might irritate the core until he convinced himself that he had been wounded by the enemy.”
Doubting Pillow’s military ability, Grant boldly attacked at Belmont, and despite a number of serious command errors, he managed to strike a severe blow to the Confederates and then escape from a potential deathtrap with his army intact. He had been right about Pillow, who managed to do exactly the wrong thing at each point in the battle. As Pillow’s able biographers Nat Hughes and Roy Stonesifer have observed: “Grant could have wished for nothing better….The tooth fairy gave him Pillow.”
Three months later, when Pillow shamelessly concurred in the needless surrender of thousands of Confederate troops at Fort Donelson, Grant was once again the recipient of an outright gift. It made his reputation as “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, even as it destroyed whatever vestiges survived of Pillow’s own military standing. True to form, Pillow sought to blame his failure there on others. “This thing began at that court-martial in Mexico,” he alleged. And, in an ironic way, he was right.
Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War