Originally created 08/20/00

Confederate general blamed for Donelson loss



History has been unkind to Gideon J. Pillow.

He's remembered as a blundering, cowardly Confederate commander who abandoned his troops in the face of battle at Fort Donelson in Tennessee and fled to safety. The hapless general's once-proud name - a name linked with presidential campaigns and the power politics of the mid-19th century - remains synonymous with defeat, cowardice and treason.

Born in Tennessee in 1806, Pillow was a shrewd, successful planter and politically ambitious lawyer. In 1844 he help his friend James K. Polk win the presidency, then played a key role in the nomination of Franklin Pierce in 1852.

His business and political skills did not follow him onto the battlefield. In the Mexican War in the 1840s, he mistakenly ordered his men to build breastworks on the wrong side of a trench, leaving them exposed to enemy fire.

During the Civil War battle of Murfreesboro in 1863, he was accused of hiding behind a tree while his men charged into battle.

But it was the fiasco at Fort Donelson on Feb. 16, 1862, that cost him his command and led to his downfall.

Many Confederate diehards, unwilling to forgive Pillow for what they considered treasonous actions, went to their graves believing the "glorious cause" was lost at Donelson.

Its surrender was a major blow to the Confederacy because it opened the way south for the Union and led to the fatal splitting of the rebel states, which had been the Union's objective all along.

Pillow's decision to abandon the fort followed a medley of mishap and misunderstanding.

The battle began Feb. 14 when Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's navy had attempted to strike a blow at Donelson's water batteries on the Cumberland River but were chased away by Confederate cannon fire.

At that point, hoping to clear the way for a breakout, Pillow ordered his men to attack Grant's ground troops. They did so with a vengeance, sending the superior federal army reeling.

Rather than pressing their breakout, however, Pillow unaccountably commanded his weary troops back to the fort to rest and regroup.

Another Confederate commander, Simon Bolivar Buckner, protested, arguing that they must press the attack. But Pillow refused, thinking he had won a great victory.

It soon became apparent that Grant was massing for a huge counterattack. Gen. John Floyd and Pillow decided to flee by boat under cover of darkness. Buckner agreed to stay behind to surrender the fort to Grant.

Even considering Pillow's notorious track record, some historians suggest it might be unfair to blame the loss of Donelson on one man. A few theorize that the defeat resulted from a breakdown in leadership involving other key commanders, including Floyd, Buckner and Nathan Bedford Forrest, all three newly arrived general officers.

It was Floyd, former governor of Virginia and secretary of war under President Buchanan, who advised that the fort "would not last another 20 minutes" under federal bombardment. He was the first to flee.

But it was Pillow who was eventually stripped of his command and brought up on charges of treason before a military court. He was found guilty of "grave errors of judgment in the military operations."

For the rest of his life, Pillow protested bitterly the loss of his field command and his "unfair" treatment by political enemies. In 1878, he died quietly in his sleep at his home in Helena, Ark.

Author and syndicated columnist Randall Floyd's latest book is 100 of the World's Greatest Mysteries: Strange Secrets of the Past Revealed. He can be reached at Rfloyd2@aol.com.