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Henry Wager Halleck

July 2024
3min read

In his Civil War epic John Brown’s Body , Stephen Vincent Benét says that General Halleck was “Called ‘Old Brains,’ for reasons that history/ Still tries to fathom. …” It’s just not true. Benêt knew why Halleck had that nickname. But scrupulously fair as he was to the memory of all the other officers of the war, North and South, he could not resist that swipe. He didn’t like Halleck any better than anyone else did.

During the war Halleck was known as the most unpopular man in Washington. Even U. S. Grant, who bore amazingly few grudges for a lifelong military man, went to his grave detesting him: “So far as my experience with General Halleck went,” he wrote tartly in his memoirs, “it was very much easier for him to refuse a favor than to grant one.” Gideon Welles found him absolutely maddening, was so repelled by his personality that he ascribed to him physical characteristics—“his bulging eyes, his flabby cheeks, his slack-twisted figure”—that really aren’t borne out by his photographs. The camera probably reveals him more truly for what he was: a cautious, unhappy man with too much on his plate.

Henry Wager Halleck was born in 1815 to a family of upstate New York farmers, an occupation he loathed from the start. While still very young he fled the farm in search of an education. His grandfather sent him to Union College—where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa—and he went on to graduate third in his class from West Point. Commissioned a lieutenant of engineers, Halleck spent some time working on the defenses of New York Harbor and then took a tour of the fortifications of France, which inspired him to write Elements of Military Art and Science . Published in 1846, this highly regarded book brought him a solid reputation— and his nickname.

The year of its publication, he headed West to take part in the Mexican War and, during what turned out to be a seven months’ journey, translated from the French a four-volume life of Napoleon. He was brevetted a captain for gallantry, but when the Army began to stagnate after the war, he resigned to become the head of a California law firm. It made him rich, but when the Civil War broke out he left his job to accept the post of major general in the regular army.

In November of 1861 he was sent to take command of the Department of the Missouri where the honest but feckless John Charles Frémont had helplessly been presiding over a fantastic roil of corruption and inefficiency. Halleck grimly and cooly put a stop to this but made few friends in the process; in fact, he managed to arouse the wrath of both abolitionists and slaveholders in the state.

Nothing he would do in the future would make him any more popular, but he was an able administrator and, one time, at least, was a good judge of men. William Tecumseh Sherman, in charge of the Department of the Cumberland, had become so overwrought that the newspapers were calling him insane. Harrowed and desperate and half believing the papers’ verdict, he gave up his post. Halleck offered him a small command in Missouri and gently encouraged him while Sherman’s mind knit itself. For all the contempt he generated, Halleck rendered the Union inestimable service by being kind to Sherman when Sherman needed kindness to survive.

On the other hand, Halleck was on the verge of demoting U. S. Grant when that dogged officer shook the solid base of the Confederacy for the first time by taking Fort Donelson in the teeth of a February blizzard. A good deal of credit for the victory spilled over on Halleck, and in April of 1862 he personally took the field. There he demonstrated that, for all his theoretical military knowledge, he was basically a bureaucrat. With twice as many men under him as the enemy could muster, he moved forward so cautiously that he allowed the Confederate army to escape.

Nevertheless, the officers in his command had won the only significant Northern victories there were that season, and in the summer Abra ham Lincoln brought him to Washington as his military adviser, giving him the title of general in chief. In this high office Halleck seems to have bent most of his efforts to giving his lieutenants directives so vague and tentative that no blame would fall on him if they failed. Try to beat Lee, he said again and again, but don’t stick your neck out too much. He was petulant, vague, and fussy. When the desperate General John Pope begged him to come take command on the eve of the Federal debacle at the Second Bull Run, Halleck responded by whining about the number of telegraph messages he had to send people. Rubbing his elbow—a habit that particularly vexed Welles, who said he did it as if that joint were the “seat of thought”— he would palter, fret, and counselcaution. Aware of his enemies, he once wrote: “If they want my place they will be perfectly welcome to it whenever the Government desires to make the change. I never wished the appointment and have no desire to retain it.”

But he retained it for nearly three years, although when an officer complained that Halleck seemed apathetic about the clear possibility of an attack on Washington, Lincoln himself said: That s his way. He is always apathetic.”

At last, early in 1864, Grant took supreme command and Halleck was demoted to chief of staff, a role in which his administrative abilities counted for more and his military ones for less. When victory finally came, nobody seems to have loved him any better or to have given him much thanks for what was, after all, a whole war’s worth of doing the best he could for his cause.

He was given charge of various military departments afterward, but the job he had neither sought nor wanted had ridden him hard, and he died in his mid-fifties in 1872.

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