Henry Wager Halleck (1815-1872)

Henry Wager Halleck (January 16, 1815 - January 9, 1872) was a U.S. Army officer, scholar, and lawyer. He served as general-in-chief of all U.S. armies for part of the American Civil War.

Henry Wager Halleck was born in Westernville, Oneida County, New York, on January 16, 1815, the grandson-in-law of Alexander Hamilton. He attended Hudson Academy, received the bachelor of arts degree from Union College, and graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1839 as a second lieutenant of engineers. He remained at West Point for two years as an assistant professor of engineering. In 1844, he traveled in Europe to study the French military and wrote a report on French fortifications that was published by the Congress as an official document. On his return he delivered a series of twelve lectures before the Lowell Institute of Boston, published in 1846 under the title Elements of Military Art and Science, which was well received by his military colleagues, and considered one of the definitive tactical treatises used by officers in the coming Civil War. While en route by sea to Mexican War service in California, translated Henri Jomini's Vie politique et militaire de Napoléon (1846). His scholarly pursuits earned him the (later derogatory) nickname "Old Brains".

During the Mexican War, Halleck participated in military operations in Mexico and Lower California and held staff positions, including that of secretary of state of California, in the military government under Generals Richard B. Mason and Bennet Riley (1847-1849). He was brevetted captain for gallant conduct and meritorious service (May 1847), was aide to General Riley (1850), and a member of an engineer board for Pacific Coast fortifications (1853-1854).

Resigning from the Regular Army to pursue private interests in August 1854, he became a highly successful San Francisco lawyer as head of the firm of Halleck, Peachy and Billings, and a publisher involved in the writing of the California Constitution, and a noted collector of "Californiana". He was a director of the Almaden Quicksilver ( mercury) Company in San Jose (1853-61), president of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad (1855), a builder in Monterey, and owner of the 30,000 acre Rancho Nicasio in Marin County, California. But he remained involved in military affairs, earning the trust of respected general Winfield Scott. He was major general of California militia (1860-1861) and published treatises on mining and international law.

Halleck was recommended by Winfield Scott for a high post at the outset of the Civil War. His assignments included: major general, USA (August 19, 1861); commanding Department of the Missouri (November 19, 1861 - March 11, 1862); commanding Department of the Mississippi (March 13 - September 19, 1862); commander in chief (July 11, 1862 - March 12, 1864); chief of staff (March 12, 1864-ca. April 16, 1865); commanding Department of Virginia and Army of the James (April 16-June 28, 1865); and commanding Military Division of the James (April 19 - June 27, 1865).

At the beginning of the American Civil War, Halleck earned the rank of major general in the Union Army and commanded the Department of the Missouri (1861-62) and the Department of the Mississippi (1862), in charge of all military activities in the Western Theater. Succeeding John C. Frémont at St. Louis, he straightened out the mess that had been left behind. After Grant, his subordinate, had captured Forts Henry and Donelson, Halleck was rewarded with command of all the forces in the West. His enlarged command won victories at Pea Ridge, Island No. 10, and Shiloh. Taking immediate command of his three united field armies after the latter battle, he proved to be an incapable field commander in his only campaign. The advance on Corinth, Mississippi, was so slow that the Confederates were able to withdraw at their leisure; Halleck was advancing at a rate of about one mile per day and then entrenching.

The pinnacle of his military career was his appointment as the general in chief of all the Union armies on July 23, 1862, a position he held until March 9, 1864. President Abraham Lincoln had become dissatisfied with George B. McClellan's conduct of the war in the east and was impressed by Halleck's record of success in the west (victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Corinth). As General in Chief he displayed tremendous administrative abilities, but many of his subordinates complained that he never gave adequate indications of what he wanted them to do or kept them informed of what other field leaders were doing. Halleck was also noted for a tendency to blame others for failures and was deeply resented by most top generals.

On March 12, 1864, after Ulysses S. Grant, Halleck's former subordinate in the west, was promoted to lieutenant general and general in chief, Halleck was was reassigned as chief of staff of the Army (March 12, 1864-April 19, 1865), responsible for the administration of the vast U.S. armies. He held various commands of the James River after General Grant forced General Robert E. Lee to surrender at Appomattox Court House (Division of the James, April-July 1865). He was a pall-bearer at Lincoln's funeral. After the war he commanded the Military Division of the Pacific in California (1865-1869).

Although Halleck was a gifted tactician and organizer, he was not aggressive enough in field campaigns. He effectively communicated President Lincoln's orders, so much so that Lincoln was quoted as saying Halleck was effective as his "chief clerk". He had no aptitude for directing subordinate generals, such as McClellan and Joseph Hooker, to follow his strategic orders. In his only campaign directly commanding troops in the field (that of Corinth, Mississippi), he advanced at a very slow pace (about one mile a day), then entrenched. His subordinates' victories (especially those of Grant's) earned him his promotions. He was effective in his position as chief of staff, although he was known as the "most hated man in Washington" for his surly disposition and his open disdain for politicians. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles commented that Halleck "originates nothing, anticipates nothing . . . takes no responsibility, plans nothing, suggests nothing, is good for nothing." This harsh assessment was shared by many.

Henry Halleck died on January 8, 1872, in Louisville, Kentucky, while commanding the Department of the South. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. He is memorialized by a street named for him in San Francisco and a statue in Golden Gate Park.