Henry Wager Halleck

Henry Wager Halleck was born in Westernville, New York, on January 16, 1815. Early in life he ran away from home because of his dislike for farming and was adopted by his maternal grandfather, who sent him successively to the Hudson Academy, Union College (where he was elected to Phi-Beta Kappa), and West Point, from which he was graduated third in the class of 1839. An assistant professor while still an undergraduate at the Military Academy, Halleck first worked upon the fortifications of New York Harbor and in 1844 inspected those of France. Upon his return to the United States he wrote a Report on the Means of National Defence, which was published by Congress and won him an invitation from the Lowell Institute of Boston to deliver a series of lectures. These were published as Elements of Military Art and Science, a work which enjoyed wide circulation among soldiers for many years. En route to California by ship around the Horn at the outbreak of the Mexican War, Halleck translated Henri Jomini's monumental Vie Politique et Militaire de Napoleon, published in 1864. In California he discharged numerous important duties under the military government, including those of secretary of state, chief of staff in lower California, and lieutenant governor of the Mexican city of Mazatlan. At the conclusion of the war he was brevetted captain of engineers and in 1853 was regularly promoted. Meantime he served as aide to General Bennet Riley, as inspector and engineer of lighthouses, and as member of the board of engineers for Pacific Coast fortifications. He also played a prominent part in the formulation of the California constitution and studied law; upon his resignation from the army in 1854, he became head of the leading law firm in California, Halleck, Peachy & Billings. Refusing a state supreme court justice ship and a seat in the U. S. Senate, Halleck turned his talents to business, writing, and the California militia; in all of these fields he was markedly successful, acquiring a fortune and publishing several authoritative books on mining law and international law. In 1855 he married a granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton and thus became the brother-in-law of Major General Schuyler Hamilton, U. S. Volunteers. At the beginning of the Civil War, General Winfield Scott recommended to Abraham Lincoln that Halleck be appointed major general in the regular service; this was accordingly done, with rank from August 19, 1861. (At the time he was ranked only by Scott himself, George B. McClellan, and John C. Fremont.) His brilliant accomplishments early in his career contrast strangely with the later estimates of his contemporaries. Lincoln came to regard him as "little more than a first rate clerk"; Edwin M. Stanton characterized him as "probably the greatest scoundrel and most bare-faced villain in America"; McClellan felt that he was "the most hopelessly stupid of all men in high position"; and Gideon Welles summed it all up by stating in his celebrated diary that "[Halleck] originates nothing, anticipates nothing . . . takes no responsibility, plans nothing, suggests nothing, is good for nothing." In November, 1861, Halleck relieved Fremont at St. Louis and, in a demonstration of his undoubted talents as an administrator quickly brought order out of the chaos in which his predecessor had plunged the Department of the Missouri. A series of successes by his subordinates—U. S. Grant at Forts Henry and Donelson, Samuel R. Curtis at Elkhorn Tavern (Pea Ridge), John Pope at Island No. 10, and Grant again at Shiloh—caused Halleck to shine in reflected glory, and his domain, enlarged to include Ohio and Kansas, was named the Department of the Mississippi. When he took the field himself, however, his shortcomings became immediately apparent. With twice the number of P. G. T. Beauregard's forces, he moved too slowly on the rail junction of Corinth, permitting the Confederates to evacuate the town at their leisure. Lincoln now called Halleck to Washington as general in chief. One of Grant's biographers acidly commented: "Unable to command successfully one army, he was ordered to Washington to command all the armies." "Old Brains" now became known as "Old Wooden Head," as he plunged into a welter of minutiae, criticizing his subordinates for his own mistakes and frequently offering superfluous advice. In general he allowed the main purpose of the war to be obscured by his preoccupation with the manner of raising men and material. Perhaps his worst fault was his continual effort to shift responsibility to the shoulders of others; his primary virtue was his unflinching insistence upon order and discipline —both sadly lacking in the early days of the war. With Grant's promotion to the chief command in March, 1864, Halleck was demoted to chief of staff but continued to discharge much the same duties as theretofore. After Appomattox he served briefly as commander of the Military Division of the James and in August, 1865, was transferred to the command of the Pacific with headquarters at San Francisco. In 1869 he was appointed to command the Division of the South, with headquarters at Louisville, where he died on January 9, 1872. He was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

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Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.