Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies

This book by Professor John Marszalek is a full-length, scholarly treatment of the life of Major General Henry W. Halleck. Halleck was the ultimate bureaucrat, and he began to show tendencies toward this role early. In 1845, as a young engineer, Halleck found a number of things objectionable and raised his objections in letters to superiors. “Almost every official letter demonstrated Halleck’s growing impatience with army bureaucracy. A more careful reading of this correspondence, however, shows that it was not bureaucracy per se he objected to but inefficiency. He demanded that the Engineer Corps do its job correctly, so he would know exactly where he stood on every issue. Nothing short of such perfection was acceptable. Halleck was becoming a demanding bureaucrat, and his insistence on procedural precision was coming to dominate his personality.” [p. 40]

In 1846, Halleck published a book called Elements of Military Art and Science, which was to become his signature publication. This book, based primarily on the writings of the European theorist Antoine-Henry Jomini, established him as an expert on strategy and tactics. “Throughout these chapters, Halleck’s positions–one might argue his prejudices–are clear. He believed in a professional military, castigating the poorly trained militia in general and amateur officers in particular. Like Mahan, he believed the militia was effective only behind fortifications. It was useless in the open field because it had not been properly drilled for combat. He insisted that political favoritism in the administration of an army led only to disaster. Military schools such as West Point were absolutely necessary to produce the kind of educated professional officer who could fight wars most successfully. The Engineer Corps was the heart of any army because fortifications were major determinants of battle results, and excellent field engineering allowed an army to maneuver most efficiently.” [p. 44] Halleck, in this book, laid out his approach to strategy and tactics. “On strategy, Halleck stated that ‘the first and most important rule in offensive war is, to keep your forces as much concentrated as possible.’ But, he added a bit later, ‘This rule does not require that all the army should occupy the same position.’ All elements of the army should, however, be close enough to support one another. The next important rule, he said, was for a commander to keep an army ‘fully employed.’ ‘Your movements must be more rapid than his. Give him time to breathe, and above all, give him time to rest, and your project is blasted.’ ‘As a general rule,’ he continued, a line of operations should be directed upon the centre, or one of the extremities of the enemy’s line of defence.’ Only in the most unusual circumstances was an attack possible on the middle and flank at the same time. Halleck particularly warned against carelessly advancing against and gaining the rear of the enemy army because while this might allow a commanding officer to threaten his opponent’s communications, it might also end up endangering his own. An army had to move in such a way as to ‘preserve its communications and be able to reach its base.’ Flanking movements were fine, but ‘as a general rule, a central direction will lead to more important results.’ Interior lines ‘have almost invariably led to success,’ he said. And, ‘if the field of battle be properly chosen, success will be decisive.’ When it came to tactics, Halleck again emphasized the offensive because ‘the attacking force has a moral superiority over the defensive.’ He presented twelve orders of battle, or ‘particular disposition[s] given tot he troops for a determined manoeuvre on the field of battle,’ that he had culled from the writings of European thinkers, especially Jomini. He discussed how to use the infantry, artillery, cavalry, and engineers in battle, emphasizing that ‘all offensive operations on the field of battle require mobility, solidity, and impulsion; while, on the other hand, all defensive operations should combine solidity with the greatest amount of fire.’ Like Jomini and Mahan, Halleck believed a commanding officer on the defensive should go on the offensive as quickly as he could, but he also insisted, as a modern historian has noted, that ‘inside an enemy’s territory celerity of movement is less important than concentration, than keeping one’s own force united and well in hand against surprise.’ Jomini, Mahan, and Halleck all advocated tightly packed rather than loose formations for the attack. Halleck’s one field command during the Civil War, the Corinth campaign of 1862, would exemplify these concepts exactly, especially his emphasis on concentration over speed of movement.” [pp. 45-46]

In July of 1846, Halleck was assigned to California. This would be a major step in his life and fortunes. “Halleck would become a Californian and a founding father of that state. And eventually he would become one of the wealthiest and most influential attorneys on the Pacific Coast. While he was there, his character and personality would solidify into the harsh and demanding persona that marked his adult years.” [p. 48] While in California, Halleck interacted in important ways with two men who would prove pivotal in the Civil War–William T. Sherman and Joseph Hooker. Sherman and Halleck were friends until Halleck got into a snit because he perceived a lack of the proper respect for his position on Sherman’s part, whether it actually existed or not, and Halleck ended the friendship. “As long as visitors granted him the deference he felt was due him, Halleck could be agreeable, but he remained professionally prickly. He retained the tension in his personality between the purposeful disciplined self that was unbending and distant and the more generous and good-humored self that reached out to others.” [p. 56] Even though a third party tried to mediate between Halleck and Sherman, the two “were unable to solve their own feud and remained distant personally. Halleck could tolerate no perceived affront to his professional standing or personal honor and thus continued to sacrifice the friendship of a respected military colleague.” [pp. 62-63] As a wealthy and successful member of the elite society in San Francisco, Halleck lived with his wife in a large home on Rincon Hill. “Over time, their neighbors included Albert Sidney Johnston, later a Confederate general, Senator William M. Gwin, the businessman John Parrott, two men who later became Union generals, ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker and William T. Sherman, San Francisco mayors, state senators, and a host of other luminaries. … Halleck was also a good friend of James B. McPherson, then army commander on Alcatraz Island and later to be a general in the Civil War. But Halleck had very poor relations with two men who were destined to become his fellow generals in the Union Army. He nursed a grudge against Joseph Hooker, in part because Hooker owed him money and more generally because he disapproved of Hooker’s reputation for drinking too much and carousing with loose women. His relations with William T. Sherman also remained fractured. Sherman had left California, still a soldier, in 1850, but in 1854 he returned as a civilian banker and became a well-respected San Francisco businessman. One of his clerks was Halleck’s brother-in-law, Schyler Hamilton [Halleck’s wife was a direct descendant of none other than Alexander Hamilton]. Halleck and Sherman were both leaders in the city’s business world, Sherman especially receiving praise for his handling of a run on his bank during a mid-1850s panic.” [p. 95]

On November 9, 1861, Halleck was assigned to St. Louis, replacing John C. Fremont as commander of the Department of the Missouri. “Missouri was a task made to order for a man of Halleck’s disposition and ability. If there was anything he could not abide, that was bureaucratic disorder, and Missouri was a prime example.” [p. 110] Halleck was in his element and made fast progress. He clamped down on secessionists and rebel sympathizers and even “assessed wealthy secession supporters in St. Louis $10,000 each.” [p. 110] “He even demonstrated a sense of humor when dealing with recalcitrant women. Pro-Confederate females had begun wearing red and white rosettes to demonstrate their secessionist loyalties. Halleck said nothing and instead gave similar rosettes to the city’s prostitutes and then planted a newspaper article which pointed out that the city’s painted women were wearing such flowers. Confederate sympathizers stopped their protest immediately.” [p. 111]

As a conservative Democrat, Halleck, while not exactly proslavery, was still not interested in upsetting the peculiar institution. On November 20 he issued General Orders No. 3, which said “because fugitive slaves coming into Union lines were giving ‘important information’ to the enemy, … ‘no such Persons be hereafter permitted to enter the lines of any camp, or of any forces on the march, and that any now within such lines be immediately excluded therefrom.’ Halleck’s exclusion order created a national uproar that would dog him throughout the war. In Virginia, Union General Benjamin Butler had been freeing slaves who entered Union camps by calling them contraband of war, and Congress’s July 1861 First Confiscation Act had supported this action. In contrast, Halleck was refusing escaped slaves the safe haven of the Union Army, condemning them to remain with their masters. As a military man and a lawyer, he was adhering to the letter of the law, but in doing so he demonstrated his long-held lack of concern for enslaved people and his customary disdain for political repercussions.” [p. 111] According to George W. Julian, Halleck’s actions were among the factors that led to the creation of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

Halleck’s relationship with Ulysses S. Grant is legendary for his alleged backstabbing of Grant while both were in the West. The usual explanation for this is professional jealousy on Halleck’s part. Professor Marszalek, however, puts forward some other information. Grant met with Halleck to discuss his ideas about future movements. He was surprised at Halleck’s treatment of him. “Grant wanted to discuss his idea of moving up the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, exactly the plan Halleck already had in mind, yet the visit was a disaster. ‘I was received with so little cordiality that I perhaps stated the object of my visit with less clearness than I might have done, and I had not uttered many sentences before I was cut short as if my plan was preposterous,’ Grant said. ‘I returned to Cairo [Illinois] very much crestfallen.’ Since Grant was only suggesting what Halleck himself was already thinking, such rudeness was difficult to understand, even considering Halleck’s incomplete recovery from a mid-January bout with measles. Halleck was, in fact, reacting not to Grant’s plan, but to Grant himself. Halleck knew all about Grant’s reputation for having had a prewar drinking problem in California, and unfounded rumors had reached Washington that Grant had recently fallen off the wagon. Grant’s unkempt appearance did not help either. Halleck had begun to suspect that Grant was not his kind of precise soldier.” [p. 116] Halleck believed Grant was lax in his administrative duties, something Halleck could never tolerate. His disgust at the perceived sloppiness of Grant explains his shelving Grant after Shiloh and his taking the field in command for the Corinth campaign. Halleck was elevated to the position of commanding general and moved to Washington on July 23, 1862. When Grant showed success in the West after Halleck’s move to Washington, Halleck looked on it as the result of his teaching Grant how to be the type of commander Halleck liked–one who was organized and had his paperwork in order. Yet, Halleck was a disappointment to Lincoln. Instead of commanding as the chief military officer of the US Army, Halleck acted more like the chief clerk. “Lincoln had indeed appointed Halleck to take whatever military action he thought necessary to win the war. Halleck, however, viewed his task from a different point of view, as being primarily administrative. As he had shown in his dealings with Grant, he believed that the only successful general was one who organized thoroughly. Union arms would only be victorious if paperwork flowed efficiently. He had demonstrated his greatest anger with subordinates not when they failed on the battlefield but when they violated some rule or regulation. He ruled with an iron fist when it came to army administration; military movements themselves were up to each general without Halleck’s or anyone else’s distant interference. He was not prepared to tell a subordinate general in the field that he should do or not do anything. It was up to that general to decide and then make sure Halleck knew what was happening.” [pp. 136-137] Halleck refused to issue orders to commanders. Instead, he sat by passively while Lincoln made the decisions.

While Halleck rightly gets criticized for his failings, Professor Marszalek also brings up his successes. Halleck actually protected Sherman and saved his career when Sherman was accused of being insane early in the war. It was because of Halleck that Francis Lieber wrote his famous “Lieber Code.” He put his organizational expertise to work and made the War Department operate smoothly. Professor Marszalek gives us a balanced account of Halleck, providing his positive as well as his negative points. This is a good book, and is necessary for students of the war to understand Halleck’s approach and his perspective.



  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    What a treat: Stanton and Halleck in the same week 🙂

    I find this approach to Halleck, regarding his objections/reprimands of commanding officers based on administrative lapses, intriguing. I would like to believe that someone as complex and accomplished as Halleck would not fall prey to something as banal as jealousy/insecurity, but it is a hard sell when it comes to his treatment of Grant. I just cannot help but think that Halleck looked at his fastidious self, as compared to Grant’s ordinary, rumpled self, and felt deep contempt beyond Grant’s lacking in administrative skills. I believe that he felt Grant to be unworthy of his position. It appears that Halleck would have destroyed Grant had Lincoln not intervened, due to the fact that Grant’s accomplishments were winning him popularity, and there was no evidence that the drinking issues had resurfaced. Perhaps it was just good timing that Halleck — with the ousting of McClellan — got the promotion he wanted, so that he could move on from Grant. However, as laid out in the book review, Grant indeed cleaned up his act, so to speak, and improved his administrative skills, and once again displayed that adaptability that he was known for.

    1. I think it was more a case of Grant being successful and Halleck convincing himself Grant had cleaned up his act under Halleck’s tutelage.

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