Henry Wager Halleck (1815-1872) was named General-in-Chief of the United States Union forces during the Civil War by President Abraham Lincoln to replace General George Brinton McClellan and was replaced, in turn, by General Ulysses S. Grant.
Many Civil War historians regard Halleck's military successes as unwarranted credit for the strategies of such subordinates as Grant, General John Pope, and General Samuel R. Curtis. He first gained attention as a military strategist of note when he graduated third in his class at West Point Military Academy. He later published a volume of military strategy, Elements of Military Strategy, and served in the Army during the Mexican-American War. President Lincoln recalled him from civilian life to serve as a major general in 1861, and after initial successes, he was named to replace first General John C. Fremont as commander of the Missouri Department and, later, General McClellan as General-in-Chief of the Union Army. His battlefield methodology and unyielding and arbitrary adherence to the strategies of Frenchman Henri Jomini led to several costly delays and embarrassing battlefield defeats and he was demoted to chief of staff when President Lincoln replaced him as General-in-Chief with Grant. The breadth of his knowledge as a lawyer, engineer, and military historian earned him the nickname "Old Brains" early in his career, but his abrasive demeanor and ineffectuality led others to amend the nickname to the derisive appellation "Old Wooden Head." He has since become one of the Civil War's most vilified Union officers with few defenders.
From Farm Boy to West Point
Born on a farm in Westernville, New York, Halleck ran away from home due to his intense dislike of farmwork. His maternal grandfather subsequently adopted him and paid for his education. After studying at the Hudson Academy, Halleck was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Union College. In 1839, he graduated from West Point Military Academy, where he also taught as an undergraduate. He performed engineering consulting on the fortifications of New York Harbor and later traveled to France where he conducted similar tasks. After publishing A Report on the Means of National Defence, Halleck was invited to present a series of lectures at the Lowell Institute of Boston. The lectures were the basis of his popular Elements of Military Art and Science. While traveling by boat to California at the onset of the Mexican-American War, he translated Henri Jomini's Vie Politique et Militaire de Napolean, which he published in 1864.
Halleck's military tenure in California was marked by many successes, including serving as secretary of state of the military government of the territory, as well as serving as lieutenant governor of the Mexican city of Mazatlan. His engineering expertise led him to be named captain of engineers, and he served as a military inspector and engineer of California's fortifications and lighthouses. He resigned from the army in 1854 and established the law offices of Halleck, Peachy & Billings, which became the most prominent legal firm in California. He also contributed significantly to the constitution of the state. He turned down a seat on the state's supreme court as well as an opportunity to serve as a United States senator, choosing instead to reap a vast financial fortune as a lawyer, writer of books on legal issues, and mine owner. He married a granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton, which also made him the brother-in-law of Major General Schuyler Hamilton.
Called Back to Active Duty
When the United States Civil War began, the Union Army was lacking the quality of military leaders possessed by the Confederacy. Upon the recommendation of General Winfield Scott, President Lincoln appointed Halleck major general, the fourth-highest military officer in the Union Army. Following the teachings of his West Point instructor Dennis Hart Mahan, Halleck initiated strategies that emphasized tactical victories over battlefield victories. His concept required constant entrenchment of his troops in efforts to occupy Confederate territories in order to cut off their communications and supply lines rather than by direct attack. General McClellan, Halleck's commanding officer, named him head of the Department of the Missouri Union war effort in November 1861, whereupon he replaced General John Fremont. Known for his organizational skills, Halleck arrived in Missouri, where he wrote McClellan: "Affairs here in complete chaos. … Troops unpaid; without clothing or arms. Many never properly mustered into service and some utterly demoralized. Hospitals overflowing with sick." Halleck famously brought order to the chaos. Whereas the generals under his auspices commanded several decisive victories, notably General Grant at Forts Henry and Donelson, General Pope at Island No. 10, and General Samuel R. Curtis at Pea Ridge, Halleck notoriously moved his armies too slowly against Corinth, allowing the Confederate forces under General Beauregard to retreat unscathed. According to historians, Halleck's forces could have beaten Beauregard's troops decisively with the possible outcome a significantly abbreviated campaign on the Western front. Instead, he ordered Pope, Grant, and General Buell to amass the Union forces in a slow, deliberate advance to Corinth. Rather than march through the evening, he ordered the 110,000 troops to entrench each evening, a time-consuming effort that took more than one month to advance less than twenty miles, and allowed the 66,000 Confederate troops to abandon the city unbeknownst to the Union Army. Furthering the blunder, Halleck also castigated Grant for leading an unauthorized attack on Shiloh. Halleck was angered primarily by Grant's sacrificing thirteen thousand Union troops compared to the ten thousand Confederate casualties. Grant's victory, however, marked a significant triumph for the Union Army. Halleck's enduring reputation also was impacted negatively by a post he sent to President Lincoln that accused Grant of drunkenness, insubordinate behavior, and being unfit to command, which some historians say offers proof of Halleck's pettiness, competitiveness, and underhanded behavior. The Union victories, however, resulted in Halleck taking command of the newly named Department of the Mississippi, which included Missouri, Ohio, and Kansas.
Following the debacle of Corinth, assessments of Halleck's subsequent reputation diminished rapidly. Fearing that General McClellan's military leadership was resulting in a stalemate or, worse, defeat, President Lincoln replaced him as General-in-Chief with Halleck in July 1862. Generally considered to be a micromanager, Halleck proved more ineffectual than McClellan. Among the many complaints lodged against him was his insistence that troops in the field slow their advances against the enemy by repairing railroads, building roads, and fixing bridges. He is blamed also for hampering his generals—particularly Grant—with bureaucratic requests, paperwork, and unnecessary military advice. As General-in-Chief, Halleck is credited with withdrawing McClellan's forces from the Potomac Peninsula, but negatively criticized for his failure to adequately coordinate McClellan's and Pope's forces at the Second Battle of Bull Run. According to Russell F. Weigley in his A Great Civil War: A Military an d Political History, 1861-1865: "Through the rest of the campaign, however, Halleck never again did anything comparably correct. He hid from responsibility. The Union would have been better off without a General-in-Chief." By the time he was demoted in March 1864 to chief of staff and replaced by Grant, Halleck had earned the disrespect of both his superiors and subordinates. President Lincoln called him "little more than a first-rate clerk," and McClellan disparaged him as "the most hopelessly stupid of all men in high position." Numerous biographical resources also refer to his disagreeable demeanor, physical unattractiveness, and his consistent efforts to lay blame on his subordinates for his own mistakes. Following the Civil War, he was named commander of the Military Division of the James. In August 1865, he was given command of the Pacific. In 1869, he was reassigned to command the Division of the South, and he moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he died in 1872.
Boatner, Mark M. III, The Civil War Dictionary, David McKay Company, Inc., 1959.
Cozzens, Peter, General John Pope: A Life for the Nation, University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Hagerman, Edward, The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare: Ideas, Organization, and Field Command, Indiana University Press, 1992.
Hawkins, Vincent B., The Harper Encyclopedia of Military Biography, HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.
Pratt, Fletcher, A Short History of the Civil War, Dover Publications, 1976.
Warner, Ezra J., Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders, Louisiana State University Press, 1964.
Weigley, Russell F., A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1862-1865, Indiana University Press, 2000.