Gideon Johnson Pillow - Facts

June 10, 1806 - October 8, 1878

Key facts about Brigadier General Gideon J. Pillow who is is most remembered for abandoning Fort Donelson in 1861 to avoid being captured by Federal soldiers.

Portrait of Gideon Pillow

On April 16, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis suspended Gideon J. Pillow from command for “grave errors in judgment in the military operations which resulted in the surrender of the army” at Fort Donelson. [Wikimedia Commons]

Full Name:

  • Gideon Johnson Pillow

Birth Date:

  • June 10, 1806

Birth Location:

  • Williamson County, Tennessee


  • Gideon J. Pillow, Sr. and Anne (Payne) Pillow


  • Nashville University (1827)


  • Lawyer,
  • Miltary officer

Career Summary:

  • Major General (USVA – Mexican War)
  • Brigadier General (CSA)


  • Mary E. Martin (1831), Mary Eliza Dickson Trigg (1874)

Place of Death:

  • Mound Plantation, Phillips County, Arkansas

Date of Death:

  • October 8, 1878

Place of Burial:

  • Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee


  • Gideon J. Pillow was the second son and second of seven children born to Gideon Pillow, Sr. and Anne (Payne) Pillow.
  • Gideon J. Pillow’s grandfather fought in the Continental Army during the American Revolution and was present at the British surrender at Yorktown.
  • Gideon J. Pillow’s father campaigned against American Indians in Tennessee, and he also served with American forces during the War of 1812.
  • Gideon J. Pillow attended local academies before graduating from Nashville University in October 1827.
  • Gideon J. Pillow studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1829.
  • Gideon J. Pillow began practicing law in Columbia, Tennessee, in 8130.
  • Gideon J. Pillow was a close friend of U.S. President James K. Polk.
  • On March 24, 1831, Gideon J. Pillow married Mary E. Martin, of Maury County, Tennessee. The couple remained married for thirty-eight years. Their marriage produced seven children.
  • When the Mexican-American War erupted President James K. Polk commissioned Gideon J. Pillow as a brigadier-general of volunteers on July 13, 1846.
  • Gideon J. Pillow was wounded twice during the Mexican-American War.
  • On April 30, 1847, Gideon J. Pillow was promoted to major-general of volunteers.
  • General Winfield S. Scott had Gideon J. Pillow arrested and held for court-martial for authoring a letter published in the New Orleans Delta that unjustifiably credited Pillow, instead of Scott, for the American victories during the Mexican-American War.
  • A court-martial cleared Gideon J. Pillow of all charges regarding the authorship and publication of the “Leonidas” letter.
  • When the Civil War began, Gideon J. Pillow sided with the South even though he opposed secession.
  • On May 9, 1861, Tennessee Governor Isham Harris appointed Gideon J. Pillow as the senior major-general in command of the Tennessee Militia.
  • After Tennessee left the Union (June 8, 1861), Gideon J. Pillow received a commission in the Confederate Army as a brigadier-general, effective July 9, 1861.
  • On November 7, 1861, Pillow led a successful counterattack against Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union at the Battle of Belmont.
  • During the night of February 15, 1861, Gideon J. Pillow turned over command of Fort Donelson to Brigadier General Simon B. Buckner and then abandoned the fort and its garrison to avoid being captured.
  • On April 16, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis suspended Gideon J. Pillow from command for “grave errors in judgment in the military operations which resulted in the surrender of the army” at Fort Donelson.
  • Gideon J. Pillow commanded a brigade in Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division during the Battle of Stones River (December 31, 1862–January 2, 1863).
  • In January 1863, Pillow was assigned to recruiting duties as chief of the newly-created Bureau of Volunteers and Conscripts, headquartered in Middle Tennessee.
  • On June 24, 1864, Gideon J. Pillow led a cavalry brigade in an unsuccessful surprise attack at the Battle of LaFayette in Georgia
  • As the war ground toward conclusion, federal troops captured Gideon J. Pillow on April 20, 1865, at Union Springs, Alabama. He was paroled in May and was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson on August 28, 1865.
  • Following the Civil War, Gideon J. Pillow returned to Tennessee, deeply in debt.
  • Gideon J. Pillow partnered with former Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris in 1868 to establish a law practice.
  • Gideon J. Pillow married Mary Eliza Dickson Trigg, who was forty years his junior in 1874. His second marriage produced three children who survived to adulthood.
  • Gideon J. Pillow died a relatively poor man on the Mound Plantation, Phillips County, Arkansas, on October 8, 1878, at the age of seventy-two.
  • Fort Pillow, in western Tennessee, was named for Gideon J. Pillow.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Gideon Johnson Pillow - Facts
  • Date June 10, 1806 - October 8, 1878
  • Author
  • Keywords Gideon Johnson Pillow
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 15, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 11, 2023