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  Name:  Henry Wager Halleck
  Born:  January 16, 1814
  Died:  January 9, 1872

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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 at Berkeley).

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 sardonically. 

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.

Sources consulted:

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.


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