Civil War Blog

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A Confederate General’s Connection to Pillow, Pennsylvania

Posted By on July 16, 2012

The post this past Saturday featured the Open House held by the Pillow Historical Society at Pillow, Pennsylvania.  The name of this community had an unusual, Civil-War-related origin as explained in a post here on 24 January 2011:


Pillow Pennsylvania Named for Inept Confederate General

Gideon Pillow (1806-1878)

Pillow, the northernmost borough in Dauphin County, was incorporated in 1864 as “Uniontown.”  Priot to this, the original town, Schneidershtettle [Snyderown], was named after John Snyder, a land developer, but early on, the local residents began referring to it as Uniontown.  When a post office was created in 1847, to avoid confusion with another Pennsylvania town of the same name, the post office was named “Pillow,” in honor of Maj. Gen. Gideon Pillow, a general in the Mexican War.  On old maps, the community remained “Uniontown,” and the post office was referred to as “Pillow.”

Portion of 1875 Map of Mifflin Township, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, showing Uniontown and Pillow Post Office

Gen. Gideon Pillow was born in Williamson County, Tennessee, 8 Jun 1806.  After graduating from the University of Nashville in 1827, he began practicing law, and was a partner of future president James K. Polk.  During the Mexican War, President Polk gave Pillow a commission and he quickly came into conflict with the U.S. commander in Mexico, Gen. Winfield Scott.  Pillow had a letter published in which he wrongfully claimed credit for some Mexican War victories, which in fact were victories won by Scott.  Scott had Pillow arrested and held for court martial.  However, due to the intervention of the president, Pillow was recalled to Washington.  Although the trial was held, he escaped any due punishment because he got someone else to admit authorship of the letter.

Pillow then tried to extend his influence into presidential politics in an effort to prevent Winfield Scott from getting elected president in 1852, instead supporting Franklin Pierce.  Although he tried to get the Vice Presidential nomination, he was rebuffed.  In 1856, Pillow tried for the Vice Presidential nomination, and was again unsuccessful.

According to information in “The History of Pillow Pennsylvania,” by Paul E. Troutman, Jr., Gideon Pillow was a wealthy farmer, politician and lawyer who owned over 6000 acres of land and hundreds of slaves.  His only military experience was what he had read in a book on military procedure.

When the Civil War began, Pillow chose to fight for the Confederacy.  At Fort Donelson, after what seemed an initial success in providing a Confederate escape route from Gen. Ulysses Grant’s forces, Pillow called the men back to the trenches while they waited for supplies.  The result was that this delay offered Gen. Grant an opportunity and the Confederates had no choice but to surrender.  However, Pillow escaped, but first turned his command over to Gen. Buckner, who ended up being the one who actually surrendered the fort.  When Grant was criticized for attempting to take Fort Donelson with so few men, he responded that he knew Pillow from the Mexican War and believed that he would run or surrender rather than fight.

Afterward, Pillow took command of the 3rd Division of the Army of Central Kentucky but his reputation finally caught up with him.  Confederate President Jefferson Davis suspended him from command for his “grave errors in judgment” resulting in the surrender of the army at Fort Donelson.  Thereafter, Pillow had “desk” assignments, first as commander of the Bureau of Volunteers and Conscription for the Army of the Tennessee, and later as Commissary General of Prisoners. In April 1865, he was captured at Union Springs, Alabama, but was paroled in Montgomery in May.  A presidential pardon was received in 1865.

After the Civil War, Gideon Pillow had financial difficulties and never regained the prominence he held before the war. Pillow died in Lee County, Arkansas, 8 October 1878, and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis, Tennessee.  In 1965, the citizens of Uniontown (Dauphin County), after referring to their community as “Pillow” for many years, voted overwhelmingly to change the name of the borough to “Pillow.”   It is highly doubtful that Gideon Pillow ever set foot in the community with a post office that bore his name.

For the purposes of this Civil War Research Project, it is interesting to note that an area in Dauphin County is named for a Confederate general, and one who was considered inept by many of his contemporaries.  However, it was the national government that had initially named the post office for Gideon Pillow, and this was done at a time (1847) when his friend and former law partner was the president; the post office was a huge area of patronage for the presidency and clearly, getting a post office named after him seemed an honor that would live into posterity. It is ironic, considering that so many soldiers from the Lykens Valley area served under Gen. Grant and were present at Fort Donelson. Whether there was any reaction to the fact that a post office in their valley area was named for the losing general is not known.  And, whether this fact was brought up when the vote was taken in 1965 to change the borough name from Uniontown to Pillow is also not known.

Anyone with further information on Gideon Pillow, his Civil War exploits, or his relationship with the Borough of Pillow, is urged to contribute it.

Information for this post was found in The History of Pillow Pennsylvania and Surrounding Communities, published in 2004 by the Pillow Historical Society.  The book can be obtained from the Pillow Historical Society, P.O. Box 193, Pillow, PA  17080, or contact through the website at www.pillowhistoricalsociety.org.




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