||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Halleck, Henry Wager (January 16, 1814—January 9, 1872)
Henry Halleck was a career soldier, military scholar, and Union general and
general–in–chief (July 1862–March 1864) during the Civil War.
Henry Halleck was born on January 16, 1814, in Westernville, New York, to
Joseph Halleck and Catherine Wager Halleck. At the age of 17, he ran away from
home to avoid working on the family farm under his strict father and to gain a
formal education. He initially lived with his maternal grandfather, Henry
Wager, who, along with an uncle, David Wager, supported the boy financially. He
attended Hudson Academy (as “Henry Wager”) and then Fairfield Academy. Accepted
into the junior class at Union College in Schenectady, New York, he enrolled for
the fall 1834 term as “H. Wager Halleck” and listed himself as the ward of his
uncle. By the end of the academic year in the summer of 1835 he had completed
three semesters of classes, left Union College (although he was awarded a
bachelor’s degree in 1837), and was appointed to the United States Military
Academy at West Point for the fall 1835 term. In 1839, he graduated third in
his class, brevetted a second lieutenant, and was hired as a French instructor
at the Military Academy for the next academic year.
In June 1840, Halleck was assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers to
construct fortifications in New York City. The next year, he published a
treatise on asphalt, “Bitumen and Its Uses.” In 1843, Union College granted him
an honorary master’s degree, and he turned down a position as professor of
engineering at Harvard. In the fall of 1844, he began a six–month study of
French harbor defenses, after which his “Report on the Means of National
Defense” was published in 1845 by the U.S. Senate. The same year, he delivered
12 lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston on the “Elements of Military Art
and Science,” which were published as a book in 1846. A revised version
published in 1861 was read widely by Union officers in the Civil War. On
January 1, 1845, he was promoted to first lieutenant.
When the U.S.–Mexican War began in 1846, Halleck was ordered to California.
On the seven–month voyage, he translated Henri Jomini’s biography of Napoleon
Bonaparte; the translation was published in 1864 in four volumes. Halleck
served in various engineering and administrative positions during the war. He
was brevetted a captain on May 1, 1847, and participated in the capture of
Mazatlán, Mexico, that November, serving afterward as the city’s lieutenant
governor. As secretary of state in the military government of California, he
played a key role in drafting the new state’s constitution. In December 1849,
he finished third in the legislature’s election of California’s first two U.S.
senators. While in California, he collected 4000 pages of state historical
documents (housed today at the Bancroft Library of the University of California
In the early 1850s, Halleck worked along the Pacific Coast as an army
engineer and lighthouse inspector, and became director–general of a quicksilver
mining operation, the New Almaden Company. On July 1, 1853, he was promoted to
captain, but resigned from the U.S. Army on August 1, 1854. Having studied law
in his leisure time, he joined two other attorneys of a major San Francisco law
partnership, renamed Halleck, Peachy, and Billings. In 1855, he became
president of the Pacific & Atlantic Railroad Company (San Francisco–San Jose
route), and married Elizabeth Hamilton, a granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton.
The couple’s only child, Henry Wager Halleck Jr. was born the next year. A few
years later, Halleck Sr. published three volumes: A Collection of Mining
Laws of Spain and Mexico (1859); an introduction to and translation of J. H.
N. de Fooz’s Fundamental Principles of the Law of Mines (1860); and
International Law (1861), which became a popular college textbook. On
December 17, 1860, he was commissioned by the governor to be a major general in
the 2nd Division of the California Militia.
On August 19, 1861, four months into the Civil War, Halleck was appointed on
the recommendation of General–in–Chief Winfield Scott to the rank of major
general. Three months later, Halleck took the place of General John C. Fremont
as commander of the Department of Missouri (comprising Minnesota, Wisconsin,
Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and western Kentucky). Dismayed by the
“complete chaos” he found, Halleck cracked down on corruption, enhanced training
and supplies, and expanded the number of garrisons in Missouri to combat
Confederate guerrillas. He ordered simultaneous Union campaigns in southwest
Missouri and along the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers. By the spring of 1862,
the three campaigns brought Union victories at Pea Ridge (northwest Arkansas),
Island No. 10 (Mississippi River), and Forts Donelson and Henry (Tennessee),
giving Halleck the reputation of a master military administrator.
Halleck delayed General Ulysses S. Grant’s attack at Shiloh, Tennessee, until
April 6, 1862, which gave the Confederates time to amass a larger army. The
resulting high number of casualties and near defeat of Union troops prodded
Halleck to assume field command. He began a drive toward the important railroad
center of Corinth, Mississippi, on May 4, but had to lay siege to the town until
the Confederates evacuated on May 29. His men nicknamed him “Old Brains” for
capturing Corinth with little loss of life on the campaign, but the press
criticized him for not pursuing the escaping Confederates aggressively.
Impressed by Halleck’s successful management in the Western Theater and
encouraged by the retiring Winfield Scott, President Abraham Lincoln named
Halleck general–in–chief on July 11, 1862.
Although initially enthusiastic, the failure of General George B. McClellan’s
Peninsula Campaign (March–July 1862) and the Union defeat at the Second Battle
of Bull Run/Manassas (August 28–30, 1862) disheartened Halleck. Lincoln’s
secretary, John Hay, reported that Halleck “broke down—nerve and pluck all
gone—and has ever since evaded all possible responsibility—little more than a
first rate clerk.” Halleck’s attention to details, training, and supplies
undermined his strategic vision, while his brusque, impersonal style alienated
fellow officers and politicians. The nickname “Old Brains” came to be used
Interpreting his position as mainly that of military advisor to the president
and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Halleck offered his resignation in January
1863 rather that carry out Lincoln’s directive to intervene in the field to
sustain or veto the plans of General Ambrose Burnside. The president rescinded
his order, and Halleck remained general–in–chief. In overseeing the Western
Theater, he acted largely on Lincoln instructions to transfer regiments to join
Grant’s Vicksburg campaign. In June 1863, Halleck declined General Joseph
Hooker’s proposal to capture Richmond and ordered him to mirror Confederate
General Robert E. Lee’s northward movement, having concluded that the Union’s
long–sought goal of taking the Confederate capital was less important than
defeating Lee. When Halleck revoked Hooker’s order that the Harpers Ferry
garrison join his army, Hooker resigned and President Lincoln agreed with
Halleck to appoint General George Meade to the command. When Lee’s troops began
to withdraw from Gettysburg on July 4, Meade failed to heed Halleck’s advice to
pursue the Confederates aggressively.
On March 9, 1864, President Lincoln promoted U. S. Grant to the rank of
lieutenant general, and three days later the position of general–in–staff passed
from a relieved Halleck to Grant. Halleck continued to apply his administrative
talent as army chief of staff. In July 1864, he organized disparate Union
troops to rebuff Confederate General Jubal Early’s raid on Washington, D. C.,
until the Union Army of the Potomac could arrive. On April 19, 1865, ten days
after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Halleck was placed in charge of the
Military Division of the James (Virginia and parts of North Carolina),
headquartered in Richmond. While there, he saved a large number of official
Confederate documents, which were later published in the reference book, The
War of the Rebellion (1880–1901).
On August 30, 1865, Halleck was reassigned to command the Military Division
of the Pacific, headquartered in San Francisco. On March 16, 1869, he was
transferred to Louisville, Kentucky, to lead the Division of the South. He died
in Louisville on January 9, 1872.
John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s
Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck (The Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, 2004), chapter
1: “Born to Gentility, Educated in Elitism”; “Major General Henry Wager Halleck,”
The California State Military Museum;
Herman Hattaway and Michael D. Smith, “Halleck, Henry Wager,”
American National Biography Online;
W. A. G., “Halleck, Henry Wager,” Dictionary of American Biography, pp.
150–152; “Gen. H. W. Halleck, General–in–Chief of the National Forces,” Frank
Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 9, 1862, p. 309; “The New
Commander–in–Chief,” Harper’s Weekly, August 9, 1862, pp. 508–509;
“Major–General Henry Wager Halleck,” New York Illustrated News, August 9,
1862, p. 210.