HENRY W. HALLECK
M A J O R G E N E R A L
chief of staff, us armies
While at the Academy, Halleck would strike up a close friendship with a cadet one-year behind him, William T. Sherman. He would also serve as a professor to another cadet that would have a profound impact on the American Civil War and the history of the United States, Cadet Ulysses S. Grant.
Following graduation and a year of teaching, young Henry Halleck would find himself assigned to Washington City for a few years, followed by an assignment to New York City. Among the officers that he would serve with in New York was Robert E. Lee. In the fall of 1844, the government would send Halleck to France to study military fortifications. With the experience he gained in New York combined with what he had learned in France, he wrote the Report on the Means of National Defense, which was promptly published by the United States Senate. In 1846, he published a book, Elements of Military Art and Science, which would become a text book at West Point and would be used by a newly elected public official, Abraham Lincoln when the war began.
July 13, 1846 would find Henry Wager Halleck and his friend, William T. Sherman embarked on a journey towards their new assignment in near Monterey Bay, Alta California, arriving 198 days later on January 26, 1847. Old Brains would begin his translation of Baron Henri Jomini’s, Politique et Militaire de Napoleon during the journey, which was only available in French at the time.
Halleck would be assigned the task of improving the defenses of the California’s provincial capital. For Sherman and Halleck, the war with Mexico appeared to an experience neither would gain. As fate would have it, orders were received from Washington City to seize the Baja California area and both men would participate in that expedition. After the Mexican war, now Captain Henry Halleck would assume the duties of secretary of state for the newly acquired territory. He would serve as a critical member of the convention and become the principle author of the proposed constitution for California.
In 1853, he would begin construction on what critics called, Halleck’s folly. Montgomery Block was the largest building west of the Mississippi River when it was completed. It was also the first fire-proof and earthquake resistant building in San Francisco. It would become home to many well-known lawyers, businesses, writers, artists, and others. The building survived the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed most of the city. Located at 628 Montgomery Street, the TransAmerica pyramid now stands in that location.
The year of 1854 would find Halleck resigning his commission and seeking success in other ways. He would become a very successful businessman and lawyer in the many ventures that he became engaged with.
In 1855, Henry Wager Halleck married Elizabeth Hamilton, the oldest granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton. Their union would produce one child, Henry Halleck, Jr. in 1856.
When the American Civil War began, Halleck would offer his services to the government. He would receive a commission as a Major General in the regular army with a date of rank of August 19, 1861, and reported to Washington City for orders. His first assignment was to assume command of the Department of Missouri from John C. Fremont and restore order to the fiasco that Fremont had created. It was under Halleck’s command of the department that Federal forces received their first significant victories in the war with the Federal victory at Pea Ridge and the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson.
Due to the fractured nature of Federal armies in the western theater, Halleck advocated and received command of all western armies. Although controversial, this allowed Federal forces to coordinate their efforts under one commander. When Halleck was appointed General-in-Chief in 1862 following the failed Peninsula Campaign, the War Department reverted the western theater back to its original configuration. Several months later, General Grant would advocate for the same arrangement with a single commander in the West and be appointed to that position.
Halleck did not want the role of General-in-Chief, rather he wanted to remain in the West where he firmly believed the war would be won. In fact, he twice declined the President’s invitation to travel to Washington for a discussion of the matter. His good friend, Cump Sherman wrote that he did not want Halleck to leave and that with Halleck in command, he and Grant could subdue the rebels. He also intimated that Halleck’s duties in Washington City would destroy his good name. How true that would become!
With Grant’s promotion to Lieutenant General, Henry Halleck would become the Chief of Staff of the Armies. A position he would hold until the end of the war. Secretary of War Stanton and Halleck were not on friendly terms, dating back to a court case in California in which Halleck prevailed, and with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Grant would move his headquarters to Washington City. Major General Henry Halleck would become the Department of James commander with orders to begin the reconstruction of war-torn Richmond and Virginia. A purposeful campaign engineered by Stanton caused a riff between Halleck and Sherman.
After the President was shot at Ford’s Theater, Major General Halleck would go to the Peterson House and remain there until the President passed into history. He would also serve as a pall bearer for the fallen President.
Following the reorganization of the Army and because of the riff between he and Sherman, Halleck would be assigned to his beloved California as commander. He would examine and explore a great northern wilderness that was called, Seward’s folly. This folly would become the great state of Alaska. In fact, Halleck and Senator Charles Sumner are credited with the naming the new territory. With reconstruction difficulties abounding, Major General Halleck would be reassigned to command the Military Division of the South with his headquarters in Louisville. He would die at his post on January 9, 1872, one week from his 57th birthday.
Henry Wager Halleck was a fifth-generation American born on January 16, 1815 to Joseph and Catherine Wager Halleck in Westernville, New York. Henry would be the oldest of 13 children. He disliked farming so much that at the age of 16, he went to live with his maternal grandfather, Henry Wager. His grandfather placed him at the Fairfield Academy in Hudson, New York and later at Union College in Schenectady. While at Union College, he was one of five students to receive the maximum grades in all of his courses and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In 1835, Halleck left Union College with one class remaining until graduation to enter West Point as a cadet in the class of 1839. Among his contemporaries at the Academy were future Federal and Confederate Generals, Montgomery Meigs, Braxton Bragg, Jubal Early, Joseph Hooker, P.G.T. Beauregard, George Thomas, and James Longstreet. Halleck would serve as the cadet first sergeant and as cadet captain during his academic career at the Academy. Along the way towards graduation, Halleck would acquire the nickname of ‘Old Brains.’ In July of 1839, Halleck stood third in his class and would receive his commission in the corps of engineers. As an indicator of his academic prowess, Halleck was made an assistant professor of chemistry and engineering during his senior year. The Academy’s board would keep him as a faculty member in that area and add instruction of French to his duties.