Henry Wager Halleck was a prominent Union general during the American Civil War. Following a brief but successful stint commanding Union operations in the Western Theater, including the Department of the Ohio, during the early part of the war, Halleck was named General-in-Chief of all United States armies in 1862.
Henry Wager Halleck was born at Westernville, in Oneida County, New York on January 16, 1815. He was the third of fourteen children of Joseph Halleck and Catherine Wager Halleck. Not enamored with the farming life of his family, Halleck ran away from home at an early age, and he was raised by his uncle, David Wager, of Utica, New York. Halleck attended Hudson Academy and Union College before receiving an appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1835. He graduated from the Academy in 1839, third in his class, and was appointed as a second lieutenant in the United States Army Corps of Engineers in July 1839.
Halleck stayed at West Point after his graduation, serving as an assistant professor of engineering from July 6, 1839 until June 28, 1840. After his tenure at West Point, Halleck held several engineering assignments. In 1845, Halleck was promoted to first lieutenant, and he presented a series of lectures on the science of war. His lectures were published in 1846 under the title of Elements of Military Art and Science. That work was widely used as a textbook by volunteer officers during the American Civil War.
At the outbreak of the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), Halleck was sent to California, where he served as an engineering officer. During that war, he was promoted to the rank of brevet captain on May 1, 1847. From August 13, 1847 to December 20, 1849, Halleck served as secretary of state of the military government of California. In 1849, he was a member of the convention to form, and of the committee to draft, the Constitution of the State of California. Halleck was promoted to captain on July 1, 1853, but he left the army on August 1, of the next year to practice law and pursue other private interests in California. On April 10, 1855, Halleck married Elizabeth Hamilton, the granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton. For the next six years, the couple resided in California where Halleck managed one of the more prominent law firms in San Francisco, and he became an affluent landholder.
When the American Civil War erupted, Halleck volunteered for service, and he was commissioned at the rank of major general in the army on August 19, 1861. His first Civil War assignment was in St. Louis as commander of the Department of the Missouri from November 9, 1861 through March 11, 1862. Immediately upon assuming his command, Halleck went about organizing his department and securing Missouri for the Union. By early 1862, he initiated an offensive against the Confederacy in the West. In February, his most aggressive subordinate, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant, captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, opening the way for a Union thrust into the Deep South.
Halleck's successes brought greater responsibilities. On March 11, 1862, the departments of Kansas and Ohio were folded into Halleck's command. The combined department, which encompassed all of the territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Rocky Mountains, was renamed the Department of the Mississippi. Shortly thereafter, Halleck ordered the two principal armies under his command (the Army of the Tennessee, led by Grant, and the Army of the Ohio, led by Major General Don Carlos Buell) to merge at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee to continue the Union's drive south.
Before the armies were united, Confederate Generals Albert Sidney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard launched a surprise attack against Grant that nearly routed the Army of the Tennessee. Although Grant was able to rally his troops and win the bloody Battle of Shiloh (April 6–7, 1862), Halleck relieved Grant of his field command and personally assumed command of the Federal offensive.
Throughout April and May, Halleck slowly advanced on the strategic Confederate rail center at Corinth, Mississippi. On May 30, 1862, after a two-day siege, Halleck captured Corinth with almost no bloodshed. The victory was somewhat hollow though, because Beauregard orchestrated an elaborate ruse that enabled the entire Confederate army trapped at Corinth to escape Halleck's grasp.
In spite of Beauregard's escape, President Lincoln was duly impressed with Halleck's overall performance in the West. On July 11, 1862, Lincoln ordered Halleck to Washington to serve as General-in-Chief of all of the armies of the United States, effective July 23. Unfortunately for Lincoln, Halleck proved to be a better bureaucrat than general. Halleck excelled at organizing and administering the army, but he lacked the aggressiveness that Lincoln desired. By the spring of 1864, it was apparent that a change was needed. On March 12, Congress resurrected the grade of lieutenant-general and bestowed it upon Grant, thereby creating the untenable situation of Halleck commanding an officer of higher rank. The solution was to "promote" Halleck to the position of Chief of Staff, an administrative role in which Halleck served admirably. For the remainder of the war, Halleck, the administrator, complemented Grant, the warrior, ensuring that the Federal armies in Virginia, Georgia, and Eastern Tennessee were adequately equipped and reinforced.
Following the war, Halleck held a series of commands, including the Military Division of the James (April 22–July 1, 1865), the Military Division of the Pacific (August 30, 1865–August 12, 1866), the Division of the Pacific (August 12, 1866–June, 1869) and the Division of the South (June 17, 1869,–January 9, 1872).
Henry Wager Halleck died at Louisville, Kentucky on January 9, 1872, while serving as commander of the Division of the South. He was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery, in Brooklyn, New York.
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Henry Wager Halleck was a prominent Union general during the American Civil War. Following a brief but successful stint commanding Union operations in the Western Theater, including the Department of the Ohio, during the early part of the war, Halleck was named General-in-Chief of all United States armies in 1862. When he proved to be more of a bureaucrat than a general, Halleck was replaced by Ulysses S. Grant in 1864. He served as Army Chief of Staff for the remainder of the conflict.
- Albert Sidney Johnston
- Army of the Ohio 1861 - 1862
- Army of the Tennessee
- Battle of Corinth II
- Battle of Fort Donelson
- Battle of Shiloh
- Don Carlos Buell
- General Orders, No. 101 (U.S. War Department)
- General Orders, No. 98 (U.S. War Department)
- Mexican-American War
- P.G.T. Beauregard
- President's War Order No. 3
- Ulysses S. Grant
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