Henry Halleck was a senior commander in the Union army during the American Civil War when he fought in the ‘Western Theatre’. By the end of the American Civil War, Halleck was Chief of Staff for the army.


Halleck was born on January 16th 1815 in Westernville, New York. His father had served in the army during the 1812 War but was working on a farm when Halleck was born. His uncle raised Halleck, as farm life did not appeal to him. He attended the US Military Academy at West Point and developed a great knowledge of military theory. Halleck graduated from West Point in 1839 and joined the army engineers. His knowledge on improving defences was such that in 1844 his superiors rewarded him with a visit to Europe where he further studied ways to improve defences. Halleck broadened his reputation still further by giving a series of lectures on what he had learned in Europe once he had returned to America. It was his intellectual approach to all things military that earned him the nickname “Old Brains”. 


Halleck spent time in California developing defences. While in California he worked for the Governor General there, General Riley. Halleck served as Military Secretary of State and it was in this position that he had a major input into California’s state constitution. While in California he also joined a law firm, despite his army commitments. Halleck so enjoyed his legal work that he resigned from the army in 1854. He became a wealthy man who also involved himself in land speculation. Halleck became the owner of a 30,000-acre ranch in Marin County. However, he kept his military contacts as he served as a major general in the California militia.


When the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, Halleck was still involved in his Californian business ventures. He was a strong believer in the whole concept of a nation’s unity and believed the Union to be inviolable. Senior army commander pushed for Halleck to be offered a full time commission and in August 1861, he was appointed a major general in the regular army – the fourth highest-ranking officer in the North’s army. Halleck was given command of the Department of the Missouri.


Halleck proved to be a very good organiser and planner. However, he was a very difficult man to work with. He frequently made decisions off the cuff and failed to discuss issues with his immediate subordinates. Most of the work he did was by himself. However, if anything went wrong with his plans, Halleck was quick to blame his subordinates for failing to fully carry out his orders or failing to fully understand what was required. One of his subordinates was Ulysses Grant, the future overall commander of the Union Army. Grant wanted the armies under Halleck’s command to be more aggressive in their approach. This clashed with Halleck who preferred a more planned and cautious approach so that a victory was more or less guaranteed. His approach was similar to General McClellan’s who tried to persuade President Lincoln that his army, the Army of the Potomac, only had to lose once on a major scale, and Washington would become a threatened capital. Halleck had the same approach. However, Lincoln wanted his generals to be more dynamic and aggressive and supported Grant’s approach. Halleck gave way and it resulted in Grant capturing two Confederate held forts, Henry and Donaldson, and capturing 14,000 Confederate troops. The victories – the first for the Union – were well received by Lincoln who used them to justify his belief in aggressive campaigns. Halleck tried to advance his own position off the back of Grant by requesting the command for the whole of the Western Theatre as opposed to ‘just’ the Department of the Missouri. It was refused, but it was a sign of the way Halleck’s mind worked.


Halleck’s armies continued to perform well in and around Missouri. Halleck provided the Department of the Missouri with clear and concise planning, one of his great strengths, and men such as Grant, Pope and Sherman held him in the highest of regards. Their victories certainly did Halleck’s position a great deal of good and they benefited from his ability to organise his armies and he also had a talent for skilfully using what resources he had.


In March 1862, his achievements were recognised when his command was enlarged to include the states of Ohio and Kansas. His new command was named the Department of Mississippi. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, part of Halleck’s overall command, suffered heavily at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. Halleck effectively removed him from command of his army when he personally took command of an army that stood at 100,000 men. Grant served as second-in-command but complained about his treatment. Halleck proceeded to attack the city of Corinth in Mississippi. But he adopted a cautious approach with daily stops in his advance – the Confederate force there simply abandoned the city and left it for him. It was painted as a major Union victory and Halleck basked in the perceived glory of this.


In July 1862, Lincoln appointed Halleck General-in-Chief of all the Union armies to be based in Washington. Lincoln’s perception was that Halleck would cajole Union generals in the field into being more aggressive in their campaigns. The President was wrong in his assessment. Halleck used his position to continue his campaign against Grant. Halleck had always looked down on Grant because of the latter’s well known drinking issues. Halleck transferred divisions of men in Grant’s army to other generals who called on Halleck for more manpower. By September 1862, Grant commanded an army of 46,000 men. Just six months earlier, Grant had command over 100,000 men.


However, as General-in-Chief, Halleck continued to excel in administrative tasks and maintaining the required resources for his rapidly growing armies. However, he had no overall grand strategy. His generals in the field also failed to carry out his orders and adjusted them to suit themselves. The Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run was blamed on Halleck’s inability to motivate his generals into carrying out his orders.


If Halleck had cultivated a better relationship with the Union’s press, he may have been given a better write-in in Union newspapers. However, he had kept the press at an arm’s length and frequently riled them with what they perceived as his arrogant behaviour. Rather than report on the fact that Union generals in the field had failed to carry out orders from a senior officer, they blamed the defeat at Bull Run on Halleck’s lack of inspirational leadership.


In March 1864, Halleck was effectively demoted to Chief of Staff. His successor as General-in-Chief was Grant. Grant was what Lincoln wanted – a successful and aggressive officer in the field who had the full support of his men. Grant and Halleck had not had the best relationship when Halleck was Grant’s superior. On paper, Grant could have made Halleck’s time as Chief of Staff difficult. However, both worked well together. Halleck was given one sole responsibility, which was his forte – administration. Grant led in the field while Halleck ensured his armies were well supplied and well resourced. It was probably in this position that Halleck showed his true skill. Now he did not have to develop grand strategies or involve himself in politics, he could concentrate all his energies on one issue – logistics.


Halleck remained in the US Army until he died. He was given command of the Division of the Pacific in California and then of the Division of the South. He held this command until his death.


Henry Halleck died on January 9th 1872.

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