American Civil War: Major General Henry Halleck

Henry Halleck, USA
Major General Henry Halleck. National Archives & Records Administration

Henry Halleck - Early Life & Career:

Born January 16, 1815, Henry Wager Halleck was the son of War of 1812 veteran Joseph Halleck and his wife Catherine Wager Halleck. Initially raised on the family farm in Westernville, NY, Halleck quickly grew to detest the agricultural lifestyle and ran away at a young age. Taken in by his uncle David Wager, Halleck spent part of his childhood in Utica, NY and later attended Hudson Academy and Union College. Seeking a military career, he elected to apply to West Point. Accepted, Halleck entered the academy in 1835 and soon proved to be a highly gifted student. During his time at West Point, he became a favorite of noted military theorist Dennis Hart Mahan.

Henry Halleck - Old Brains:

Due to this connection and his stellar classroom performance, Halleck was permitted to give lectures to fellow cadets while still a student. Graduating in 1839, he placed third in a class of thirty-one. Commissioned as a second lieutenant he saw early service augmenting the harbor defenses around New York City. This assignment led him to pen and submit a document on coastal defenses entitled Report on the Means of National Defense. Impressing the US Army's senior-most officer, Major General Winfield Scott, this effort was rewarded with a trip to Europe to study fortifications in 1844. While abroad, the Halleck was promoted to first lieutenant. Returning, Halleck gave a series of lectures on military topics at the Lowell Institute in Boston.

These were later published as Elements of Military Art and Science and became one of the key works read by officers in the coming decades. Due to his studious nature and his numerous publications, Halleck became known to his peers as "Old Brains." With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846, he received orders to sail for the West Coast to serve as an aide to Commodore William Shubrick. Sailing aboard USS Lexington, Halleck used the long voyage to translate noted theorist Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini's Vie politique et militaire de Napoleon into English. Arriving in California, he initially was tasked with building fortifications, but later took part in Shubrick's capture of Mazatlán in November 1847.

Henry Halleck - California:

Brevetted to captain for his actions at Mazatlán, Halleck remained in California after the war's conclusion in 1848. Assigned as military secretary of state for Major General Bennett Riley, governor of the California Territory, he served as his representative at the 1849 constitutional convention in Monterey. Due to his education, Halleck played a key role in shaping the document and was later nominated to serve as one of California's first US Senators. Defeated in this effort, he helped found the law firm of Halleck, Peachy & Billings. As his legal business increased, Halleck grew wealthy and elected to resign from the US Army in 1854. He married Elizabeth Hamilton, the granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton, that same year.

Henry Halleck - The Civil War Begins:

An increasingly prominent citizen, Halleck was appointed a major general in the California militia and briefly served as president of the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad. With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Halleck promptly pledged his loyalty and services to the Union cause despite his Democratic political leanings. Due to his reputation as a military scholar, Scott immediately recommended Halleck for appointment to the rank of major general. This was approved on August 19 and Halleck became the US Army's fourth-most senior officer behind Scott and Major Generals George B. McClellan and John C. Frémont. That November, Halleck was given command of the Department of the Missouri and dispatched to St. Louis to relieve Frémont.

Henry Halleck - War in the West:

A talented administrator, Halleck quickly reorganized the department and worked to expand his sphere of influence. Despite his organizational skills, he proved a cautious and difficult commander to serve under as he often kept plans to himself and seldom ventured from his headquarters. As a result, Halleck failed to cultivate relationships with his key subordinates and created an air of mistrust. Concerned about Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant's history of alcoholism, Halleck blocked his request to mount a campaign up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. This was overturned by President Abraham Lincoln and resulted in Grant winning victories at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in early 1862.

Though troops in Halleck's department won a string of victories in early 1862 at Island No. 10, Pea Ridge, and Shiloh, the period was marred by constant political maneuvering on his part. This saw him relieve and reinstate Grant due to concerns over alcoholism as well as repeated attempts to enlarge his department. Though he played no active role in the fighting, Halleck's national reputation continued to grow due to the performance of his subordinates. In late April 1862, Halleck finally took to the field and assumed command of a 100,000-man force. As part of this, he effectively demoted Grant by making him his second-in-command. Moving cautiously, Halleck advanced on Corinth, MS. Though he captured the town, he failed to bring General P.G.T. Beauregard's Confederate army to battle.

Henry Halleck - General-in-Chief:

Despite his less than stellar performance at Corinth, Halleck was ordered east in July by Lincoln. Responding to McClellan's failure during the Peninsula Campaign, Lincoln requested that Halleck become the Union general-in-chief responsible for coordinating the actions of all Union forces in the field. Accepting, Halleck proved disappointing to the president as he failed to encourage the aggressive action that Lincoln desired from his commanders. Already hampered by his personality, Halleck's situation was made more difficult by the fact that many of his nominally subordinate commanders routinely ignored his orders and thought of him as nothing more than a bureaucrat.

This proved the case in August when Halleck was unable to convince McClellan to rapidly move to Major General John Pope's aid during the Second Battle of Manassas. Losing confidence after this failure, Halleck became what Lincoln referred to as "little more than a first rate clerk." Though a master of logistics and training, Halleck contributed little in terms of strategic guidance to the war effort. Remaining in this post through 1863, Halleck continued to prove largely ineffective though his efforts were hampered by interference from Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

On March 12, 1864, Grant was promoted to lieutenant general and made Union general-in-chief. Rather than sack Halleck, Grant shifted him to the position of chief of staff. This change suited the studious general as it allowed him to excel in those areas which he was best suited. As Grant embarked on his Overland Campaign against General Robert E. Lee and Major General William T. Sherman began advancing on Atlanta, Halleck ensured that their armies remained well-supplied and that reinforcements found their way to the front. As these campaigns pushed forward, he also came to support Grant and Sherman's concept of total war against the Confederacy.

Henry Halleck - Later Career:

With Lee's surrender at Appomattox and the end of the war in April 1865, Halleck was given command of the Department of the James. He remained in this post until August when he was transferred to the Military Division of the Pacific after quarreling with Sherman. Returning to California, Halleck traveled to newly-purchased Alaska in 1868. The following year saw him return east to assume command of the Military Division of the South. Headquartered at Louisville, KY, Halleck died in this post on January 9, 1872. His remains were buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Henry Halleck." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General Henry Halleck. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Henry Halleck." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).