Henry Wager Halleck was born January 16, 1815 on a farm in Westernville, New York.
Henry was the 3rd of 14 children.
Young Henry detested the thought of farm life and ran away from home at an early age to be raised by an uncle, David Wager of Utica.
Henry attended Hudson Academy, Union College, and then the United States Military Academy, class of 1839.
Henry strengthened the defenses of New York Harbor wrote a paper for the United States Senate on seacoast defenses.
In 1844, Henry went to Europe to study fortifications and the French military. His subsequent lectures and scholarly papers earned him the nickname “Old Brains.”
During the Mexican-American War, Halleck served in California.
Henry spent several months constructing coastal fortifications, then was first exposed to combat on November 11, 1847, during Shubrick’s capture of the port of Mazatlán. Halleck then served as lieutenant governor of the occupied city.
Henry was awarded a promotion to captain in 1847 for his “gallant and meritorious service” in California and Mexico.
Captain Halleck was then transferred north to serve under General Bennet Riley, the governor general of the California Territory.
Henry was soon appointed military secretary of state, a position which made him the governor’s representative at the 1849 convention in Monterey where the California state constitution was written. Henry became one of the principal authors of that document.
The California State Military Museum writes that Halleck “was [at the convention] and in a lone measure its brains because he had given more studious thought to the subject than any other, and General Riley had instructed him to help frame the new constitution.”
Halleck was nominated during the convention to be one of two men to represent the new state in the United States Senate, but received only enough votes for third place. During these political activities, Henry found time to join a law firm in San Francisco, Halleck, Peachy & Billings, which became so successful that he resigned his Army commission in 1854.
The following year, Henry married Elizabeth Hamilton, granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton and sister of Union general Schuyler Hamilton. Their only child, Henry Wager Halleck, Jr., was born in 1856.
Henry Halleck became wealthy as a lawyer and land speculator, and a noted collector of “Californiana.”
Henry obtained thousands of pages of official documents on the Spanish missions and colonization of California, which were copied and are now maintained by the Bancroft Library of the University of California, the originals having been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.
Henry built the Montgomery Block, San Francisco’s first fireproof building, home to lawyers, businessmen, and later, the city’s Bohemian writers and newspapers. He became a director of the Almaden Quicksilver (mercury) Company in San Jose, president of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, a builder in Monterey, and owner of the 30,000 acre Rancho Nicasio in Marin County, California.
But Henry also remained involved in military affairs and by early 1861 he was a major general of the California Militia.
As the Civil War began, Halleck was nominally a Democrat and was sympathetic to the South, but he had a strong belief in the value of the Union. His reputation as a military scholar and an urgent recommendation from Winfield Scott earned him the rank of major general in the regular army, effective August 19, 1861, making him the fourth most senior general in the Army (after Scott, George B. McClellan, and John C. Frémont).
Henry was assigned to command the Department of the Missouri, replacing Frémont in St. Louis on November 9,1861 and his talent for administration quickly sorted out the chaos of fraud and disorder left by his predecessor.
Henry quickly set to work on his “twin goals of expanding his command and making sure that no blame of any sort fell on him.”
Henry Halleck also began to establish an uncomfortable relationship with the man who would become his most successful subordinate and future commander, Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
The pugnacious Grant had just completed the minor, but bloody, Battle of Belmont and had ambitious plans for amphibious operations on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.
Henry, by nature a cautious general, but also judging that Grant’s reputation for alcoholism in the prewar Army made him unreliable, rejected Grant’s plans.
However, under pressure from President Lincoln to take offensive action, Henry soon reconsidered and Grant conducted operations with naval and land forces against Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862, capturing both, along with 14,000 Confederates.
Grant became a national hero, delivering the first significant Union victory of the war.
Henry also obtained a promotion to major general of volunteers, along with some other generals in his department, and used the victory as an opportunity to request overall command in the Western Theater, which he currently shared with Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell, but which was not granted.
Henry briefly relieved Grant of field command of a newly-ordered expedition up the Tennessee River after Grant met Buell in Nashville, citing rumors of renewed alcoholism, but soon restored Grant to field command (pressure by Lincoln and the War Department may have been a factor in this about-face).
Explaining the reinstatement to Grant, Henry portrayed it as his effort to correct an injustice, not revealing to Grant that the injustice had originated with him.
When Grant wrote to Henry suggesting “I must have enemies between you and myself,” Henry replied, “You are mistaken. There is no enemy between you and me.”
Henry’s department performed well in early 1862, driving the Confederates from the state of Missouri and advancing into Arkansas.
Grant, as of yet unaware of Henry’s political maneuvering behind his back, regarded Halleck as “one of the greatest men of the age” and Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman described him as the “directing genius” of the events that had given the Union cause such a “tremendous lift” in the previous months.
This performance can be attributed to Henry’s strategy, administrative skill, his good management of resources, and to the excellent execution by his subordinates—Grant, Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis at Pea Ridge, and Maj. Gen. John Pope at Island Number 10.
Military historians disagree about Henry Halleck’s personal role in providing these victories. Some offer him the credit based on his overall command of the department; others, particularly those viewing his career through the lens of later events, believe that his subordinates were the primary factor.
On March 11, 1862, Halleck’s command was enlarged to include Ohio and Kansas, along with Buell’s Army of the Ohio, and was renamed the Department of the Mississippi. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee was attacked on April 6 at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, in the Battle of Shiloh. With reinforcements from Buell, on April 7 Grant managed to repulse the Confederate Army under Generals Albert Sidney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard, but at high cost in casualties.
Pursuant to an earlier plan, Halleck arrived to take personal command of his massive army in the field for the first time. Grant was under public attack over the slaughter at Shiloh, and Halleck replaced Grant as a wing commander and assigned him instead to serve as second-in-command of the entire 100,000 man force, a job which Grant complained was a censure and akin to an arrest.
Halleck proceeded to conduct operations against Beauregard’s army in Corinth, Mississippi, called the Siege of Corinth because Halleck’s army, twice the size of Beauregard’s, moved so cautiously and stopped daily to erect elaborate field fortifications; Beauregard eventually abandoned Corinth without a fight.
In the aftermath of the failed Peninsula Campaign in Virginia, President Lincoln summoned Henry Halleck to the East to become General-in-Chief of all the Union armies, as of July 23, 1862.
President Lincoln hoped that Henry could prod his subordinate generals into taking more coordinated, aggressive actions across all of the theaters of war, but he was quickly disappointed, and was quoted as regarding Henry Halleck as “little more than a first rate clerk.”
General Halleck, more a bureaucrat than a soldier, was able to impose little discipline or direction on his field commanders. Strong personalities such as George B. McClellan, John Pope, and Ambrose Burnside routinely ignored his advice and instructions. A telling example of his lack of control was during the Northern Virginia Campaign of 1862, when Halleck was unable to motivate McClellan to reinforce Pope in a timely manner, contributing to the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run. It was from this incident that Halleck fell from grace. Abraham Lincoln said that he had given Halleck full power and responsibility as general in chief. “He ran it on that basis till Pope’s defeat; but ever since that event he has shrunk from responsibility whenever it was possible.”
Grant replaced Henry in command of most forces in the West, but Buell’s Army of the Ohio was separated and Buell reported directly to Halleck, a peer of Grant’s.
Halleck began transferring divisions from Grant to Buell; by September, four divisions had moved, leaving Grant with 46,000 men.
In Washington, Henry continued to excel at administrative issues and facilitated the training, equipping, and deployment of thousands of Union soldiers over vast areas. Henry was unsuccessful, however, as a commander of the field armies or as a grand strategist. His cold, abrasive personality alienated his subordinates.
One observer described Henry as a “cold, calculating owl.”
Historian Steven E. Woodworth wrote,
“Beneath the ponderous dome of his high forehead, the General would gaze goggle-eyed at those who spoke to him, reflecting long before answering and simultaneously rubbing both elbows all the while, leading one observer to quip that the great intelligence he was reputed to possess must be located in his elbows.”
This disposition also made him unpopular with the Union press corps, who criticized him frequently.
After General Grant’s victory at the Battle of Chattanooga in late 1863, President Lincoln had found his new leader.
On March 12, 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant, was promoted to Lieutenant General and General-in-Chief.
The Union strategy, of a comprehensive effort to bring about a speedy victory for the Union, designed by President Lincoln and General Grant, consisted of combined military Union offensives, attacking the Confederacy’s armies, railroads, and economic infrastructure, to keep the Confederate armies from mobilizing reinforcements within southern interior lines.
General Grant closed out the Civil War, with the surrender of Lee at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.
As a result, most of us only think of General Grant when it comes to who commanded the Union Army.
After Lincoln was assassinated, Henry Halleck acted as a pall-bearer at Lincoln’s funeral.
In August 1865, Henry was transferred to the Division of the Pacific in California, essentially in military exile.
Henry accompanied photographer Eadweard Muybridge to the newly purchased Russian America. Henry and Senator Charles Sumner are credited with applying the name “Alaska” to that region.
Then in March 1869, Henry was assigned to command the Military Division of the South, headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky.
Henry Halleck died at his post in Louisville January 9, 1872.
He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York, and is commemorated by a street named for him in San Francisco and a statue in Golden Gate Park.
Henry left no memoirs for posterity and apparently destroyed his private correspondence and memorandum.
His estate at his death showed a net value of $474,773.16
($9,210,599.3 in 2012 dollars).
Now WE know em
- President Lincoln Confers with General Halleck (abrahamlincolnandthecivilwar.wordpress.com)
- This Confederate brigadier general commanded his “Army of Liberation” at the Battle of Belmont November 7, 1861 against a superior force commanded by Ulysses S. Grant for what is considered a Confederate victory. Now WE know em (carl-leonard.com)
- This Confederate brigadier general commanded his “Army of Liberation” at the Battle of Belmont November 7, 1861 against a superior force commanded by Ulysses S. Grant for what is considered a Confederate victory. Now WE know em (nowweknowem.com)