Born in Westernville, New York on January 15, 1815, Henry Wager Halleck graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1839 and was assigned to the corps of engineers. A report he wrote on the seacoast defenses of the United States won him the favorable attention of army commander Major General Winfield Scott, who assigned Halleck to travel to Europe in 1844 to study foreign military practices. On his return, Halleck gave a series of lectures at the Lowell Institute, later published as Elements of Military Art and Science. This helped win Halleck a reputation as a military intellectual.
In the Mexican War (1846-1848), Halleck was sent to California, where he saw limited combat. After the war he remained in California. As military secretary for the territory, he attended the state constitutional convention and played an active role in drafting that document. While retaining his military commission, he became partner in a California law firm, resigning from the army only in 1854 when the firm’s success was well established. In the years that followed, Halleck expanded his efforts into the real estate and mining businesses and grew wealthy.
When the Civil War began, Halleck returned to the East and offered his services to the government. At Scott’s recommendation, Lincoln nominated and Congress confirmed him as a major general, one of the highest-ranking officers in the army. Halleck’s first assignment was to command the Department of Missouri, where he used his considerable administrative skill to clean up the mess left by his predecessor, Major General John C. Frémont. Halleck proved neither disposed to advance against the Confederates as Lincoln wanted nor eager to cooperate with his neighboring department commander to the East, Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell.
In February 1862, Halleck finally gave reluctant permission to his subordinates, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant and Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, to advance against Confederate Fort Henry, guarding the Tennessee River. Grant proceeded aggressively and captured not only Fort Henry but also nearby Fort Donelson, controlling the Cumberland River. Grant’s victories during the Fort Donelson Campaign decisively opened the way for Union advance into the interior of the Confederacy.
Halleck demanded and received from Lincoln, as a reward for the victories Grant had won, command over all the Union’s western armies, including that of his rival Buell. Halleck had planned on advancing via the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, the obvious routes into the Confederate heartland, but he had wanted to wait until every possible preparation was in place. Now, although he had used Grant’s victories for his personal advancement, he was both jealous of Grant’s success and unnerved by Grant’s aggressiveness. He needlessly reprimanded Grant for failing to communicate frequently enough with headquarters, and he reported to the army’s new commanding general in Washington, George B. McClellan, that Grant was frequently intoxicated, a report Halleck knew to be false. Halleck had proceeded to remove Grant from command before Grant’s congressman, Elihu B. Washburne, prompted Lincoln to support the victor of Forts Henry and Donelson and force Halleck to restore him. When newspapers criticized Grant after the narrow victory at Shiloh, Halleck seized the opportunity to sideline his subordinate again.
Taking the field for the only time in his Civil War career, Halleck pulled together all three field armies within his department, placed Grant in a meaningless second-in-command slot, and with his massed forces advanced with glacial slowness against the Confederate rail hub at Corinth, Mississippi, covering 20 miles in a month. He took the town but let the Confederate army guarding it escape.
Despite such a lackluster result, Lincoln, who was desperately seeking a general to mastermind and coordinate the movement of all the Union armies, selected Halleck for that task. Halleck went to Washington in the summer of 1862, but his efforts to direct the movements of such inadequate commanders such as Major Generals John Pope and George B. McClellan during the campaign in Virginia that summer proved a dismal failure. By its close, Halleck, who had never been comfortable actually directing operations in the field, all but refused to give further orders to his subordinate generals. Thereafter he made it an article of military faith that the general on the spot should always be left to make the decisions with nothing more than advice—albeit sometimes persistent, almost nagging advice—from Halleck in Washington. A frustrated Lincoln complained that Halleck amounted to little more than “a first-rate clerk.”
In his capacity as a virtual clerk, however, Halleck performed useful service not only as an advisor to the field commanders but also as a mediator between them and the administration. When political Major General John A. McClernand wangled vague authorization from Lincoln to lead an independent expedition within Grant’s department, Halleck quietly saw to it that the order was worded in such a way as to allow Grant to assume command and keep McClernand in his deservedly subordinate role.
When Grant was appointed to supersede Halleck as general in chief, he retained Halleck in the de facto role he had already been filling, that of chief of staff. In that capacity Halleck continued to advise generals in the field, including Grant, to transmit Grant’s wishes into orders to the various armies, and to convey the impressions of the president and secretary of war to Grant and other field commanders. In the final analysis, despite his early shortcomings, Halleck made an important contribution to Union victory.
After General Robert E. Lee’s April 1865 surrender, Halleck commanded the Military District of the James. That August, he took command of the Division of the Pacific; in 1869, he took control of the Division of the South. Halleck died in Louisville, Kentucky on January 9, 1872.
- Halleck: Lincoln’s Chief of Staff. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1962. .
- Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.
- Woodworth, Steven E., ed. Grant’s Lieutenants: From Chattanooga to Appomattox. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008.
(born Jan. 16, 1815, Westernville, N.Y., U.S.—died Jan. 9, 1872, Louisville, Ky.) Union officer during the American Civil War. A graduate of West P
1815–72, Union general in the American Civil War, b. Oneida co., N.Y., grad. West Point, 1839. He entered the Corps of Engineers and became an expert
U.S. Army general. Born in Westernville, New York, on January 15, 1815, Henry Wager Halleck graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, in