- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

If any of Lincoln’s generals had the resume of an outstanding commander at the start of the war, it was Henry W. Halleck.

Reared in upstate New York, Halleck studied classics at Union College before opting for a military career and attending West Point. There he had such an outstanding academic record that he was appointed an instructor in engineering before he graduated.

After spending several years working on the defenses of New York harbor, Halleck was chosen to make a lengthy inspection of military fortifications in France, where he met most of the country’s leading soldiers and politicians. On his return, Lt. Halleck delivered a series of lectures on warfare that were published in 1846 under the title “Elements of Military Art & Science.”

Halleck sought combat duty in the war with Mexico, but his posting to California in 1847 marked the beginning of a long association with the West. He assisted in drawing up a state constitution for California and resigned his Army commission in 1854 to found a law practice in San Francisco. Mr. Marszalek’s extensive research into the law practice and land speculation that made Halleck a wealthy man sheds new light on the general.

Halleck was sympathetic to the South on the issues that precipitated the Civil War, but in the end, he was a Unionist. His reputation as a military scholar led to his being made a major general and put in charge of the Department of Missouri. It was there that Halleck performed his main service to the Union cause. An able administrator, he organized the local militias and saw to it that they were equipped, paid and trained. Missouri was saved for the Union, and Halleck came to be known as “Old Brains.”

Halleck scarcely knew Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, but in February 1862, he approved Grant’s plan that led to the capture of Forts Henry and Donaldson on the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. Although it was Grant who provided the initiative for those important victories, Halleck took much of the credit, and President Lincoln was impressed.

In April, after Grant had been surprised and nearly defeated at Shiloh, Halleck left his desk in St. Louis and took the field for the only time in the war. His geographic objective was the town of Corinth, Miss., and he initiated a textbook advance, moving so slowly that the outnumbered Confederate army led by Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard was able to make an orderly withdrawal.

The Corinth campaign diminished Halleck’s luster, but Lincoln still needed a commanding general. In July 1862, he called Halleck to Washington to be general in chief of all Union forces. His appointment was a textbook example of the Peter Principle, under which people are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence.

Lincoln’s new commander was a homely man whose eyes seemed slightly too large for their sockets. He had the curious habit of rubbing his elbows in times of stress, and there would be plenty such times in Washington. He often was rude and abrasive in his personal dealings, without regard to rank. Gen. William T. Sherman spoke of Halleck’s “abrupt, brusque style, even to members of Congress.”

Halleck was now in command of the Union armies, but he saw his role as that of an adviser. When he did issue direct orders, they often were ignored. Gen. George B. McClellan disregarded Halleck’s repeated orders to advance on Richmond, and generals such as Don Carlos Buell ignored other directives with impunity. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles quickly concluded that “no one appears to have any confidence in [Halleck’s] military management, or thinks him able to advise.”

Much of the problem was, in the author’s words, that “Halleck simply refused to command.” When Gen. Ambrose Burnside succeeded McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac, Halleck left everything up to the army’s new commander. He constantly deferred to the judgment of commanders in the field on grounds that they knew their situations best.

It was raining power in Washington, but Halleck stayed under his umbrella. Lincoln reluctantly concluded that Halleck was “little more … than a first-rate clerk.”

In the spring of 1864, Lincoln made Grant commanding general, moving Halleck to the post of Army chief of staff. Halleck accepted his demotion gracefully and worked to keep Grant’s armies well supplied. He fully supported the concept of “total war” against the South and endorsed both Sherman’s March to the Sea and Gen. Philip Sheridan’s depredations in the Shenandoah Valley.

Halleck served out his life in the Army, dying in 1872. Mr. Marszalek notes Halleck’s achievements as a lawyer, businessman and military writer but concedes that when war came, “he could not break the mold of a cautious and obsessive administrator. … he could not bring himself to take charge, to command men into battle.”

Mr. Marszalek has given us a first-rate biography of a second-rate soldier.

Historian John M. Taylor writes from McLean.

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