Halleck: The magnificent mediocrity

To understand and appreciate the Northern achievements in the Civil War, one must understand and appreciate Henry Wager Halleck.


To understand and appreciate the Northern achievements in the Civil War, one must understand and appreciate Henry Wager Halleck. A profile by Fernando Ortiz Jr.


Henry Wager Halleck was born on Jan 16, 1815, in Westernville, N.Y. He died in 1872, a week before his 57th birthday, in Louisville, Ky. Halleck built by 1861 a glittering military career as an engineer and a scholar of military science, and he built equally successful legal and business careers in California. He played a key role in building the California state government and preserving early California history. He served as a major general of the California state militia. He turned down offers to serve California as governor, state supreme court justice, or U.S. senator. He built a personal estate worth almost $500,000, an enormous amount for the time.1

In 1861, Winfield Scott, the U.S. Army’s top commander, looked forward to Halleck’s return to uniform as Northern mobilization intensified. Scott planned to make Halleck his successor as general-in-chief of Union land forces. Halleck’s arrival in Washington was delayed, inspiring an impatient President Abraham Lincoln to name Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan instead. Halleck commanded in the Western Theater until Lincoln dropped McClellan in July 1862 and elevated Halleck to supreme command. Halleck had left California only nine months before. When U.S. Grant’s victories earned him a promotion to general-in-chief, Halleck remained at the top, graciously stepping aside and retaining the necessary administrative duties as Grant personally faced Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the field.2

If the Civil War never happened, or if Halleck declined to return to regular army service when war broke out, perhaps he would have been remembered only as a quiet intellectual and honored veteran who worked hard to make a positive mark on the frontier of his growing nation. But war did break out, and Halleck did return to military service. He brilliantly administered the greatest war machine his country had ever seen, but that is often lost in the glowing coronas of glory Grant and William T. Sherman rightfully enjoy. Ironically, as generations of historians and Americans review Civil War commanders’ legacies, too many sneer at Halleck and highlight his humanizing faults, and they ignore the titanic accomplishments even Grant and Sherman singled out and celebrated.


Halleck, a difficult and often petty man, spent his life quietly bringing order to chaos in every profession he touched, contributed to the intellectual foundation upon which the U.S. Army was built, and played a key role in achieving the triumphs for which history celebrates Grant, Sherman, and Lincoln. To understand and appreciate the Northern achievements in the Civil War, one must understand and appreciate Henry Wager Halleck.

Halleck, the oldest of fourteen children, grew up on the family farm outside Westernville. Halleck never enjoyed a close relationship with his mother, who was preoccupied with pregnancies and small children, nor with his father, a demanding taskmaster and local politician. Halleck yearned for a better education, and after a disagreement with his father in 1831, he ran away from the farm. Halleck turned to his maternal grandfather and uncle for help, who took him in and guided him through school and on to higher education.3

Halleck entered Union College near Albany, N.Y., in 1834. Entrance exams placed him as a junior. He studied hard and worked fast, absorbing courses in math, rhetoric, Italian, French, Greek, and “two semesters of Cicero.” By the summer of 1835, Halleck earned a place in Phi Beta Kappa and ranked sixth in a class of 59. He was 21 years old, armed with a solid education, and, thanks to his uncle’s connections, en route to an appointment at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.4

At West Point, Halleck excelled in both behavior and academics, but he made few friends. Halleck focused his interests on his books, and engineering professor Dennis Hart Mahan ignited those interests into passions. French military thinking influenced Mahan’s dual course on military engineering and strategy, and his belief that history’s lessons influenced military science left a deep impression on Halleck. The cadet also absorbed Mahan’s assertion that untrained civilians were not naturally capable of properly commanding military units. Only military professionals were capable of command. In later years, Halleck would not only turn that belief into a fundamental principle — he would wield it as an effective weapon against political generals who had no idea he was about to detonate their Civil War careers.5

Mahan viewed the Napoleonic wars, one Halleck biographer wrote, “through the eyes of Baron Henri Jomini, Swiss military historian and interpreter.” Jomini emphasized a scientific, rational execution of military principles — “to make war less barbarous he created rules that emphasized movement [along lines of operation].” Mahan convinced Halleck to embrace the possibility of mathematical rationality in civilized warfare, to rely on fortifications and entrenchments, to begin any campaign by establishing a base of operations with interior lines of communications that ideally separated enemy forces, and to strive for strategic and tactical concentration of U.S. forces. Jomini believed in uniting forces before they together attacked a specific point on the battlefield, as opposed to one force attacking before it united with other forces. The offensive should only be taken when capturing a specific place. Points on battlefields mattered more than enemy forces. Jomini’s rules “would never change no matter who the commanders were or what the battlefield conditions were.” The principles envisioned a stiffly rational conflict without excessive bloodshed, more like a titanic dance over contested landscapes, governed by logical and sensible uniformed gentlemen, respectfully and honorably confronting each other in a carefully moderated moment of militaristic tension. It all amounted to a reassuring and logical philosophy Halleck would never forget.6

Halleck’s hard work at West Point paid off. As his third year ended, he was asked to give the annual Fourth of July speech to the cadets, a singular honor for special students. He was also asked to help students prepare for their entry exams. But the honor that truly thrilled him came in December 1838, six months before graduation: He was named assistant professor of chemistry. The position excused him from most cadet duties, boosted his cadet salary, came with a bigger room in the barracks, and added “more glitter” to his uniform. Halleck’s pride probably glowed even brighter as he recalled that when Mahan was a star West Point student, he received the same faculty position.

In July 1839, Halleck graduated from West Point, ranking third in his class. He was commissioned in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As his classmates dispersed to enjoy their furloughs before their first assignments, the Army ordered Halleck to remain on the West Point faculty. He was appointed assistant professor of engineering and assigned to work with Mahan. He taught until early April 1840, when he left West Point for service on the Engineer Board in Washington D.C. Halleck’s pleasant but sedentary desk job assisting the Corps administrators introduced him to national politicians and to the highest ranking commanders, including Scott.7

In mid-1841, Halleck was sent to New York Harbor and ordered to improve Fort Wood on Bedlow’s Island. He spent most of the next two years improving the fort’s fortifications, infrastructure, and weaponry. It was a big and important assignment. The fort “was key to the [harbor’s] defense.” But Bedlow’s Island was far from the glittering parties and circles of friends Halleck allowed himself to enjoy in Washington, D.C. Isolated, lonely, and often battling incessant illness, he turned inward, embracing the comforts only scholarship provided him. He wrote technical articles for journals, explored in a small book the best military uses of asphalt, and composed a small mountain of reports for his superiors.8

The one report that stood out from the rest was “Report on the Means of National Defence,” which Congress published in 1843. Halleck argued to Congress that the nation should prepare for the next war, even in peace, and that it should remain prepared for war. In the long term, he argued, consistent readiness would cost less than a massive, disruptive, and inefficient mobilization once war broke out. He argued for improved military training for state militias and for many more fortifications along the border with Canada and down the Atlantic seaboard. One Halleck biographer concluded, “That work brought national attention to this young army officer only five years out of West Point.”9

Halleck’s reputation as a scholar was secure, but, like any true scholar, the more he learned, the more he realized how much was still left to learn. In late 1843, he secured permission to visit France, and he left New York on Nov. 24, 1843, determined to properly appreciate the French military methods Mahan had taught him to emulate. He studied French barrack designs, visited French military schools, and toured the Paris defense structure. He savored his time in France, and he reported that his health improved. But time constraints limited his study of French fortifications, particularly the line along the French-German border. He sailed back to the U.S., forwarded his findings to his superiors, and returned to his dull duties on Bedlow’s Island.10

Halleck endured almost two more years of dreary but competent performance. But his work was not forgotten. The Lowell Institute in Boston invited him to join their roster of leading scholars who lectured to ordinary citizens seeking to expand their intellectual horizons, and in December 1845 a delighted Halleck began a month-long leave of absence to participate. Previous guests spoke about geology, biology, American history, and Christianity. The Institute chose Halleck to speak about military science, and his twelve lectures to large crowds were well received.11

His Lowell lecture series was collected, re-edited, and included in Elements of Military Art and Science. The book was essentially a compilation of his lectures, his “Means of National Defence,” and previously published articles. Halleck explained that militia officers were the book’s primary audience. He organized it to serve as a complex manual for new militia officers (who, he previously wrote, had to be better prepared for future conflicts) and as historical analysis of Jomini’s military theories that built on what Mahan instilled in West Point students. The book brought together the various threads in Halleck’s mind, the themes of his conversations with Mahan, and a look ahead at what Halleck imagined U.S. soldiers and their leaders needed to know to effectively fight the wars of the future.12

Throughout the next 18 years, he moved from New York to California, helped administer the territory gained in the Mexican-American War, left the military on Aug 1, 1854, married Alexander Hamilton’s granddaughter, had a son, wrote several more books, and began a new life as a real estate lawyer and railroad executive. By 1861, Halleck was a widely respected founding father of the state of California and an established legal and military scholar who declined an offer to teach at Harvard. Scott convinced him to return to regular military service. Halleck held an honorable place in the ranks of the old pre-1861 army, rightfully remembered and celebrated as a scholar and engineer. But as he traveled east across a dividing nation, he had no idea how central he would be to the painful and bloody transformation of the old army (and its most important leaders) into one of the largest and most powerful military forces on earth.13

His controversial command and administrative performances clouded his legacy right up to his death in 1872. Through the early decades of the 21st century, only rarely did those clouds break.


Halleck’s significance to the U.S. military can be measured by asking a few simple questions. What was his significance to military thought before the Civil War? What was his significance to the overall Northern war effort? What was his significance to Grant and Lincoln, the supreme leaders of that effort?

Halleck definitely contributed to the body of knowledge new soldiers drew upon to learn their business. Begin with Elements. Halleck asserted that “patriotic war” was morally good. He insisted military schools were key to a national military force, for only military professionals — not militia, not citizen soldiers, not politicians — could properly fight a war. Halleck argued that fortifications were key to battlefield success. Since only military engineers were capable of building proper fortifications, he argued, those engineers were key to any military force and, by extension, key to any battlefield success. Halleck, as he interpreted what he learned from Jomini, was no fan of splitting a force to launch a flank attack on the enemy. He understood it may be necessary, but it was not his first option. Keep your force together and focused on a particular weak point when you go on the offensive, he explained to readers, without endangering your line of communications or your line back to base. If your force is in enemy country, he warned, keep your force concentrated and prepared for a surprise attack.14

A young military man reading Halleck’s book found a combination of Jomini’s insistence on concentration of force and Mahan’s devotion to fortifications, sweetened with Halleck’s assurance that a war for nation was justifiable to a Christian moral code, and refashioned so a U.S. audience found it relevant. Halleck’s Elements was an essential reader for the military professional he cherished, and it served as a major building block for the professional’s intellectual evolution.

The timing of the book’s publication was perfect: In 1846 the Mexican-American War broke out, and Halleck’s orders sent him to participate in the California campaign. The sea journey from the East Coast to the West Coast took seven months (Lt. William T. Sherman was one of the other officers on board), and Halleck spent much of that time translating Jomini’s Life of Napoleon. The four volumes would not be published until 1864.15

Certainly, Halleck’s and Mahan’s interpretation of Jominian lessons was not seen as key to every military situation. In 1842, Sherman fought Seminole Indians in Florida, and he compared what Mahan had taught him about “conventional nineteenth-century military tactics … between two rival professional armies” to what the Indians, who attacked soldiers and civilians alike, taught him about a society’s total commitment to war at all costs. Young soldiers like Sherman may have respected the messages and advice in a book like Elements, but fresh memories of brutal combat with Indians on the frontier or with enemy soldiers in Mexico may have eclipsed Halleck’s sterile dictums. Modern war in the industrial age, these recent experiences may have warned, would not always play by Jomini’s, Mahan’s, or Halleck’s carefully refined rules. It was much more simple, and much more complicated, than what Halleck’s printed words promised.16

Halleck’s impact on antebellum military thought was notable but limited. His Elements was prominent in the canon of required reading for students of military science and West Point cadets. During the Civil War, President Lincoln borrowed books on military science, including Halleck’s Elements, from the Library of Congress. The new president was determined to teach himself how to understand and manage a modern war. But when seen in the overall context of what U.S. soldiers experienced between 1846 and 1861 – the Mexican-American War, the frontier battles with Native Americans, and the dull constabulary service they provided to settlers in the West – Halleck’s intellectual contribution becomes but one bright irrelevant glimmer in a star-filled sky.17

Halleck the lawyer, the engineer, the businessman, and the intellectual certainly had a significant impact on the Northern war effort, especially during the Civil War’s chaotic first year. In subsequent years, he would also have a fundamental impact on the leaders of that war effort.

Halleck did not succeed Winfield Scott as general-in-chief in 1861. Instead, the new supreme commander, McClellan, asked Halleck to assume command of the new Department of the Missouri, where Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont’s poor administration left a critical region in chaos and riddled with corruption. Fremont worsened the political situation when he emancipated slaves of pro-Southern families. Halleck assumed command in November 1861. “Missouri,” one Halleck biographer asserted, “was a task made to order for a man of Halleck’s disposition and ability.” Halleck swept out the corruption, simplified the command structure, cracked down on Confederate sympathizers and displays, and taxed secessionists to fund efforts to care for war refugees. When pro-secessionist women in St. Louis wore red and white flowers to express their devotion to the Confederacy, Halleck instructed the city’s prostitutes to wear the same flowers and then had a newspaper write about the sex workers’ new adornments. The secessionists’ flowers instantly disappeared. Halleck’s new authority refused any challenge.18

As he brought the department under control, Halleck planned his offensive operations. He reviewed the Confederate line of operations on a map and elected to penetrate its center, which lay along the Tennessee River. But he refused to consider “offensive operations in Kentucky or Tennessee before Missouri was secure” and his forces were concentrated. Grant, a junior commander in Halleck’s department, twice asked Halleck for permission to attack Confederate Fort Henry before Halleck cautiously agreed.19

Halleck’s caution may not have reflected hesitancy about attacking, but rather hesitancy about Grant, who still endured the consequences of his antebellum reputation as a drunk. Halleck also held in his mind unforgiving standards of appearance, action, and performance for a military professional, and Grant met none of his exacting measures. Halleck also didn’t want to move any of his pieces until he felt every element was perfectly arranged, but Lincoln was unwilling to wait any longer for results.20

Fortunately, Grant’s attack on Fort Henry succeeded, and he was aggressive enough to move on to Fort Donelson. Nashville fell to Don Carlos Buell, Halleck’s colleague in the theater, and then three victories in Missouri, Arkansas, and on the Mississippi River proved the Union’s momentum in the region. Halleck was never on the front lines of any of these battles, but the victories could not have been realized without his talent for logistics, coordination, and pre-planning. Halleck set the targets and provided the daggers. Commanders like Grant and John Pope possessed the will to plunge them into the heart of the western Confederacy.21

In mid-February 1862, Halleck appropriately recommended Grant, among others, for promotion to major general, though he still did not trust him. He preferred to replace Grant with Charles F. Smith, a former West Point commandant of cadets and hero of the Mexican-American War who also met Halleck’s standards of excellence. Halleck was annoyed with Grant over late reports and reports of Union looting at Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. Inefficiency, administrative disorganization, and poor supervision of troops were mortal sins in Halleck’s moral code. McClellan authorized Halleck to replace the popular Grant if absolutely necessary. As he prepared his next operation down the Tennessee River, Halleck ordered Grant to relinquish field command to Smith, stay at Fort Henry, and assist with preparations for an offensive move on Corinth, Miss., a vital Confederate supply hub.22

On March 11, 1862, Lincoln relieved the incompetent McClellan as general-in-chief, relegating him solely to field command of the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln created the huge Department of the Mississippi and placed Halleck in overall command. By the end of March, Grant had resumed field command of one piece of Halleck’s grand army preparing to descend on Corinth. “When all was ready,” one Halleck biographer wrote, “Halleck could take over and lead that army to its ultimate victory over the Confederates.”23

But the Confederates had other ideas. On April 6, as Grant waited for Buell’s troops to join his at Pittsburg Landing, about 25 miles northeast of Corinth, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston attacked Union troops near Shiloh Church. Johnston was killed on the first day. Buell’s troops finally arrived, and Grant’s reinforced army counterattacked on April 7, driving the rebels from the field. They retreated back to Corinth.24

The battle’s unprecedented bloodshed shocked the nation, and Grant was publicly criticized. One analyst of the battle argues that Halleck rose to defend Grant against doubts in Washington and against critics in public. To Halleck’s overall plan, the Battle of Shiloh was merely a savage interruption to his plans as his huge army continued to assemble around Pittsburg Landing. On April 30, 1862, Halleck issued Special Field Order No. 35, “designating Grant as second in command of Halleck’s huge army.”25 Halleck organized the army into three wings and assumed personal field command.

Historians who criticize Halleck see Grant’s appointment as meaningless, as an insult, or as a signal that Halleck lost any scintilla of confidence in Grant. At least one analyst of the decision, however, argues that Halleck used his political acumen to adeptly protect Grant — keeping him in the command structure with a temporary position without exposing him to more criticism as a field commander of Union soldiers. Once the furor over Shiloh cooled, Grant would be eased back into field command.26

Halleck proved that he wanted Grant back in the field soon. His three-wing army was ready, and in early May the massive force began to move. The campaign, one Halleck biographer noted, “was planned and executed with one idea in mind – to capture Corinth.” Halleck referred to his own Jominian rules in Elements to determine what kind of operation this would be. He did not possess overwhelming forces. The enemy did not threaten his line of communications or supplies en route. The benefits of victory did not exceed the consequences of defeat. This would be a conquest and investment of a place, not an army. Flooding rains destroyed road and bridge networks, the terrain slowed progress, and Lincoln added to Halleck’s caution by warning him to avoid a defeat. Halleck threw up fortifications at every pause in the advance. By the end of May, he had surrounded Corinth and squeezed the Confederates out. As a result, Memphis and Fort Pillow fell like ripened fruit into Union hands.27

Halleck had imperfectly and slowly transformed the situation in the Western Theater with natural and learned talents. What began with his immersion in Fremont’s Missouri chaos ended with his promotion to supreme commander of the Union armies. Halleck set general strategic objectives. He ensured the operations were properly supplied with men and materiel. He directed and, when necessary, protected his star general, Grant. He took a personal hand in directing the capture of a key western city with a systematic operation that did not require dramatic maneuvering, intense combat, or, most importantly, heavy casualties.

But Halleck’s significance to the war effort would not end there. As Halleck headed east to assume the command Scott believed Halleck deserved, Old Brains began a new phase of significance. He would not only help manage the complex Northern war machine. He would also play new roles in Washington politics, militarily advise and politically protect President Lincoln, and become an indispensable alter ego to Grant once the subordinate and the superior commanders saw their roles reversed.


Since McClellan’s demotion, Lincoln had functioned as his own general-in-chief, aided by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and the War Board, an advisory commission that helped coordinate military operations. Lincoln had learned the art of war quickly, and, when paired with his stellar political instincts, his understanding made him “a good judge of generals, their abilities, and their plans.” But learning the art didn’t mean he didn’t need a commander at the top. John Pope, Winfield Scott, and Stanton all agreed Halleck would be the perfect choice. On July 11, 1862, Halleck was promoted to general-in-chief.28

What were his duties, he wondered. Did he return to the field and look over army commanders’ shoulders? Did he stay in Washington and fight the war from behind a desk? Did he have authority over politically-appointed generals, or all land commanders? No one had formally defined the role. Scott had never served in a wartime situation. McClellan had been both supreme and army commander. Halleck was moving into unknown territory, and, characteristically, he moved cautiously.

There was one aspect of his command that he saw clearly: “the fumbling organization and incoherent system of the Eastern command.” From Halleck’s perspective, he had applied Jominian rules to the situation in the Western Theater, and the end result, as expected, was military success. Eastern commanders had not, and they saw only failure. “Once again,” a Halleck biographer concluded, “Halleck was expected to bring order to chaos.”29

Aside from redesigning Eastern Theater strategy, Halleck helped translate civilian objectives into military instructions, streamlined the administration and logistical management of the land operations, and condensed countless field reports into efficient and informative briefings for Lincoln and his Cabinet.

Lincoln also learned to benefit from the thick anti-Halleck animosity in the Washington air, and that was often Halleck’s greatest contribution to Lincoln. When Lincoln had to fire a political general or take some other politically dangerous action, he had Halleck issue the order. Lincoln would claim military necessity, and any firestorm of condemnation would consume Halleck, or critics would simply restrain themselves out of patriotic loyalty. McClellan’s and Pope’s armies are an example. McClellan was a War Democrat. Pope embraced the Radical Republicans. At one point, Lincoln wanted to move troops from McClellan’s army to Pope’s army. But if Lincoln called for the transfer, Democrats would criticize him for moving troops to a political ally. But if he had Halleck order it, no one could argue military necessity. It was a cruelly effective arrangement. Halleck would quietly endure the abuse. But Halleck also quickly learned how to use Lincoln. Halleck took advantage of his proximity to the president whenever he wanted to promote goals or proposals from West Point-trained generals over political generals.30

Most importantly, Halleck learned to relax his belief that any political objectives were not as important as military objectives. When Tennessee Gov. Andrew Johnson wanted military forces to save loyal citizens from Confederate domination in 1863, Halleck directed Grant to their defense and officially justified the operation by declaring that the region possessed agricultural products that could aid the enemy. When an incompetent political general secured administration support to build an army and launch an 1862 expedition down the Mississippi River Valley, Lincoln couldn’t touch him, but Halleck quietly ensured all the regiments produced for the army were immediately sent to Grant for use in the Vicksburg campaign instead. The political general was left with nothing. When Lincoln worried about the French puppet government in Mexico in 1864, Halleck diverted an army under Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks towards Texas to remind Mexico of U.S. military power.31

So, despite Halleck’s lack of aggressive spirit or desire to take the strategic initiative, the general-in-chief proved his invaluable worth to Lincoln in many other ways. What began with indirect assistance to Lincoln when the president pulled Elements from a Library of Congress bookshelf, right up to March 11, 1864, Halleck’s last day as general-in-chief, the odd marriage of unique talent produced an effective political and military mechanism that brought stability to the top echelon of command and to the management of the Northern war machine.

If Halleck was the oil that kept that machine running smoothly, Grant was the fire that generated the energy that pulsated throughout the Union armies for the last 13 months of the war. After Union victory at Chattanooga, Lincoln was ready to make one last change to the supreme command: U.S. Grant was promoted to lieutenant general and named general-in-chief.

One Halleck biographer wrote that Halleck saw himself as only a subordinate, “a follower not a leader. This was a deeply felt sentiment, long present in his character, but made conspicuous under the stress of war.” The command arrangement was explained in General Orders No. 98, issued on March 12, 1864: Halleck was formally relieved as general-in-chief and named Army chief of staff, Union army headquarters would be split between Grant on the front and Washington, D.C., Sherman assumed Grant’s command of the armies in the West, and James B. McPherson succeeded Sherman as commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Halleck had the perfect job: he could “administer without [the expectation of] commanding.” Halleck put it better than anyone else: “It will be my business to advise and theirs to decide.”32

Halleck’s contribution to Grant’s command was his last significant contribution to the Union war. He deserves credit for stepping aside without drama and offering himself to his former subordinate with devotion, loyalty, and professional commitment. He took the weight of administrative command off Grant’s shoulders. He followed Grant’s penetration of Virginia, ensuring every phase of the campaign was met with more than enough supplies and reinforcements. He monitored and supplied all land forces in the western and southern departments. He kept Grant briefed on the status of other armies Grant had ordered to coordinate with his attacks on Lee. He also acted as Grant’s eyes and ears in Washington political circles, feeding him intelligence and public opinion. Beyond administrative and coordinating responsibilities, he had no heavy moral burden. He had no direct command of field forces, but he was armed with the authority of both Lincoln and Grant. His logical mind absorbed the waves of requests, reports, and requisitions, recalculated them, and transmitted back into the world the necessary supplies, information, and instructions. Chief of staff was probably one the best military jobs Halleck ever had.


The last year of the Civil War transformed the U.S. military as much as it transformed one of its most famous thinkers. As the war ground on in 1864, as Sherman burned his way through Georgia and the Carolinas, and as Grant sent Philip Sheridan to incinerate the Shenandoah Valley, Halleck abandoned the Jominian caution and Mahanian entrenchments of earlier years. Grant’s savage Overland Campaign had little to do with Jomini. Sherman’s necessary brutality to bring Georgia to her knees had little to do with Mahan. “The war experience,” one Halleck biographer wrote, “had finally made Halleck into an aggressive warrior, willing to support the use of every means at the nation’s disposal to bring the conflict to a successful conclusion.”33

Halleck served Grant and Lincoln faithfully until the end of the war. Halleck was one of the many at Lincoln’s bedside after the president was fatally shot. Grant returned to Washington, and Halleck was reassigned to the Military Division of the James. He tried to restore a semblance of order to a devastated Richmond. The historian in Halleck ensured the Confederate archives were preserved and sent to Washington for analysis and cataloging. He was later assigned to the Military Division of the Pacific, headquartered in San Francisco, and to the Military Division of the South, headquartered in Louisville, Ky., where he died in 1872. He was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y.

1. Stephen E. Ambrose, Halleck: Lincoln’s Chief of Staff (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 4; David J. Eicher, and John H. Eicher. Civil War High Commands (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 274; John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004), 6, 17; Ambrose, the Eichers, and Halleck’s Brooklyn cemetery gravestone (which I visited in October 2011) all say Halleck was born in 1815. Marszalek, relying on family archives and Halleck’s Union College record, says Halleck was born in 1814. On this point, Ambrose mostly relied on histories of upstate New York and on books exploring the roots of the Halleck family. The Eichers relied on Ambrose. For this casual profile, I elected to rely on the gravestone.
2. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 106-107.
3. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 7-8.
4. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies,11, 13-15.
5. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 19-20, 22-23.
6. Ambrose, Halleck, 5-6; Archer Jones, “Jomini and the Strategy of the American Civil War, A Reinterpretation.” Military Affairs vol. 34, no. 4 (December 1970), 127; Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 43.
7. Ambrose, Halleck, 6; Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 54; Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 23-32; Ambrose, Hattaway, and Jones wrote that Halleck taught French. They made no mention of chemistry or engineering.
8. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 33-34. The book on asphalt was Bitumen: Its Varieties, Properties, and Uses (Washington, D.C.: Peter Force, 1841). Marszalek wrote that Halleck suffered from influenza and streptococcus pneumonia, the first of many illnesses and allergies Halleck endured throughout his life. His ill health may have affected not only his performance in civilian and military arenas but also how observers perceived his personality and performance.
9. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 34-35.
10. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 36-38.
11. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 40-42.
12. Henry W. Halleck, Elements of Military Art and Science (New York: D. Appleton, 1862). His book mentioned Jomini at least 30 times. It is accessible here: http://tinyurl.com/6twlkx2
13. John Y. Simon, Grant and Halleck: Contrasts in Command (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1996), 7. Simon pointed out that Grant resigned his commission as a captain the day before.
14. Halleck, Elements, 23. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 44-45.
15. Simon, Grant and Halleck,, 9.
16. Marszalek, Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 39; James L. Morrison Jr., “Educating the Civil War Generals: West Point, 1833-1861.” Military Affairs vol. 38, no. 3 (October 1974), 109; James B. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 332. McPherson writes, “Many Jominian ‘principles’ were common sense ideas hardly original with Jomini. … There is little evidence that Jomini’s writings influenced Civil War strategy in a direct or tangible way; the most successful strategist of the war, Grant, confessed to having never read Jomini.”
17. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995), 329.
18. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 109-111.
19. Simon, Grant and Halleck, 14.
20. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 116-117.
21. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 117.
22. Simon, Grant and Halleck,18-19. Simon posed some important questions but did not dare answer them: “Something about Grant brought out the worst in Halleck. Did he resent Grant’s success, his age, his lack of prior military accomplishment – perhaps all three? Did he foresee that eventually Grant might become his superior? Did this consummate military administrator, believing that victories were won at the desk rather than in the field, resent those honored for battlefield achievements?”
23. Ambrose, Halleck, 43. Smith had an accident jumping into a boat. He endured a subsequent infection and died on April 25.
24. Hattaway and Jones, How the North Won,168-169.
25. Carl R. Schenker, Jr., “Ulysses in His Tent: Halleck, Grant, Sherman, and the ‘Turning Point of the War.’ ” Civil War History vol. 56, no. 2 (June 2010), 175.
26. Hattaway and Jones, How the North Won, 170; William S. McFeely, Grant (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981), 116. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 123; Schenker, “Ulysses in His Tent,” 175. Hattaway and Jones wrote that “Grant found the result [of the appointment] frustrating.” McFeely called the appointment “meaningless.” Marszalek wrote that Halleck “put Grant on the shelf.” But Schenker wrote that Halleck’s reactions “are hardly those to be expected from a commander who was jealous of his subordinate; nor did Halleck pounce on a subordinate whose forces had suffered many thousands of casualties. … Halleck gave every sign that he intended to partner with Grant in a more traditional fashion.”
27. Ambrose, Halleck, 46-50, 54; Simon, Grant and Halleck, 20. Simon called the Corinth campaign a “fiasco.”
28. Hattaway and Jones, How the North Won, 95. Ambrose, Halleck, 60-61.
29. Ambrose, Halleck, 64-65.
30. Ambrose, “Lincoln and Halleck: A Study in Personal Relations.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society vol. 52, no. 1 (Spring 1959), 209-213.
31. Ambrose, “Lincoln and Halleck,” 216-222.
32. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 196-198.
33. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies, 218.



Ambrose, Stephen E. Halleck: Lincoln’s Chief of Staff. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

—. “Lincoln and Halleck: A Study in Personal Relations.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 52, no. 1 (Spring 1959): 208-224. JSTOR (accessed June 11, 2012).

Bastian, Beverly E. “‘I Heartily Regret That I Ever Touched a Title in California’: Henry Wager Halleck, the Californios, and the Clash of Legal Cultures.” California History 72, no. 4 (Winter, 1993/1994): 310-323. JSTOR (accessed June 11, 2012).

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.

Dossman, Steven Nathaniel. Campaign for Corinth: Blood in Mississippi. Abilene: McWhiney Foundation Press, 2006.

Eicher, David J, and John H. Eicher. Civil War High Commands. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. Partners in Command: The Relationships Between Leaders in the Civil War. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

Grant, U.S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters. New York: Library of America, 1990.

Halleck, Henry W. A Collection of Mining Laws of Spain and Mexico. San Francisco: O’Meara & Painter, 1859. http://tinyurl.com/bsw6yq6 (accessed June 11, 2012).

—. Elements of Military Art and Science. New York: 1862. http://tinyurl.com/6twlkx2 (accessed June 11, 2012).

Hattaway, Herman, and Archer Jones. How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Jomini, Antoine-Henri. Life of Napoleon. Vol. 3. Translated by Henry W. Halleck. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1864. http://tinyurl.com/6twlkx2 (accessed June 11, 2012).

Jones, Archer. “Jomini and the Strategy of the American Civil War, A Reinterpretation.” Military Affairs 34, no. 4 (December 1970): 127-131. Periodicals Archive Online (accessed June 11, 2012).

McFeely, William S. Grant. New York: W.W. Norton, 1981.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

—. Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. New York: Penguin Press, 2008.

Macartney, Clarence Edward Noble. Lincoln and His Generals. Philadelphia: Dorrance and Co., 1925.

Marszalek, John F. Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order. New York: The Free Press, 1993.

—. Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004.

Morrison Jr., James L. “Educating the Civil War Generals: West Point, 1833-1861.” Military Affairs 38, no. 3 (October 1974): 108-111. Periodicals Archive Online (accessed June 11, 2012).

Schenker Jr., Carl R. “Ulysses in His Tent: Halleck, Grant, Sherman, and the ‘Turning Point of the War.’” Civil War History 56, no. 2 (June 2010): 175-221. ProQuest.com (accessed June 11, 2012).

Sherman, William T. Memoirs of W.T. Sherman. New York: Library of America, 1990.

Simon, John Y. Grant and Halleck: Contrasts in Command. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1996.

Spencer, James, ed. Civil War Generals: Categorical Listings and a Biographical Dictionary. New York: Greenwood, 1986.

Suhr, Robert Collins. “Old Brains’ Barren Triumph.” America’s Civil War. 14, no. 2 (May 2001): 42-49. ProQuest.com (accessed June 11, 2012).

Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964.

Waugh, John C. Lincoln and McClellan: The Troubled Partnership Between a President and His General. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Woodworth, Steven E. Grant’s Lieutenants: From Cairo to Vicksburg. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

—. Grant’s Lieutenants: From Chattanooga to Appomattox. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008.

Author: Fernando Ortiz Jr.

Handsome gentleman scholar, Civil War historian, unpretentious intellectual, world traveler, successful writer.

2 thoughts on “Halleck: The magnificent mediocrity”

  1. this is fantastic stuff, you scholar! i was a civil war buff “in the day” and essays such as yours tempt me to dig into it again. thanks!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Government Book Talk

Talking about some of the best publications from the Federal Government, past and present.

Fighting Irish Wire

Get the latest Notre Dame Fighting Irish football and basketball news, schedules, photos and rumors.

Cadillac Society

Cadillac News, Forums, Rumors, Reviews


Real News That Matters

The Finicky Cynic

Sharp as a needle ~ Scathing as a razor blade ~ Welcome to my world.

Mealtime Joy

bringing joy to family meals

Øl, Mad og Folk

Bloggen Øl, Mad og Folk

A Perfect Feast

Modern Comfort Food

a joyous kitchen

fun, delicious food for everyone


Art is a gift we give ourselves

Baked with Lauren

recipes & more



North River Notes

Daily observations on the Hudson River as it passes through New York City. The section of the Hudson which passes through New York is historically known as the North River, called this by the Dutch to distinguish it from the Delaware River, which they knew as the South River. This stretch of the Hudson is still often referred to as the North River by local mariners today. All photos by Daniel Katzive unless otherwise attributed. Twitter @dannykatman


Where your favorite flavors come together

Melora Johnson's Muse

A writer blogging about writing, creativity and inspiration.

%d bloggers like this: