Abraham Lincoln and Henry W. Halleck

Abraham Lincoln and Henry W. Halleck

The Gilder Lehrman Collection, New York
Reference Number: GLC00623

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(Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004)

Henry W. Halleck was well trained by a West Point education and 15 years of active service in the army. He had codified his knowledge in Elements of Military Art and Science. But “Old Brains” was not well suited for military command- either in the field or as the head of the Union army. Biographer John F. Marszalek wrote that the Army commander at the beginning of the Civil War, General Winfield Scott “wanted Halleck to replace him, but the recently appointed major general was back in California debating the precise meaning of his orders.”1 As a wealthy businessman, lawyer and public official, Halleck had been a conspicuous success in his adopted state – even before he resigned from the army in 1854. Unfortunately in the Civil War, General Halleck was to prove a good administrator who was a jealous superior, a bad field commander and an ineffective strategist — which he demonstrated by his effective collapse before and after the Second Battle of Bull Run.

In August 1861, President Lincoln wrote Secretary of War Simon Cameron: “Let Henry Wager Halleck, of California, be appointed a Major General in the Regular Army. I make this appointment on Gen. Scott’s recommendation; and I am sure he said to me verbally that the appointment is to be in the Regular Army, though a memorandum on the subject handed me by one of his aids, says ‘of volunteers’ Perhaps the Adjt [Genl. Should communicate with] Gel. Scott, on the question.”2

It wasn’t until after George B. McClellan assumed that job of Army general-in-chief in November 1861 that General Halleck even arrived in Washington from the west coast. Lincoln aide John Hay wrote: “Henry Wager Halleck, the new Major-General with whom we expect to do great things, is here, and quietly awaits orders. He is a handsome and quiet gentleman, who dresses well and talks well. Further than that, just now, we will not say. The Administration seem to be keeping him here for the present, and silently taking his measure, that they may cut out a piece of work for him to do.”3 Instead of the top job replacing Scott, Halleck was sent West to replace General John C. Frémont, whose inept and controversial command in Missouri had been terminated.

Like McClellan in the East, Halleck in the West was better at organizing than fighting. His lethargy and legal scruples crippled him from the outset of the war. Subordinates like Ulysses S. Grant, who captured Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862 outshone him. “Halleck’s reaction to Grant’s plan for a campaign against Fort Donelson was a model of military bureaucracy,” wrote historian John Y. Simon. In communicating with Grant, Halleck gave no clue that he knew anything about Grant’s expedition. If successful, Halleck intended to claim all credit; if unsuccessful, he would take no responsibility.”4

Indeed, Grant but had a difficult relationship with his jealous commander, who tried to build a case that Grant was insubordinate. After the Battle of Shiloh in April, Halleck took the field, effectively demoting Grant. Meanwhile, President Lincoln stripped McClellan of his role as general-in-chief in March 1862. Four months later in July, President Lincoln called Halleck to Washington to replace McClellan in the army’s top job – and to attempt to ride herd over McClellan’s Peninsula campaign in Virginias. Halleck came reluctantly and under a specific presidential order – after having rebuffed earlier requests that he report to the capital. Marszalek wrote: “Halleck had exhibited the belief that precise military preparation was more critical to victory than rapid forward progress, yet Lincoln was still calling him to Washington to produce quick military success. It made sense, of course; no other general had a better record in the field. Lincoln did not yet know that, beneath the facade of decisive success, was a demanding administrator who made precise preparations but shunned hard military decisions.”5

Like George B. McClellan, Henry W. Halleck was give Mr. Lincoln’s confidence. He wrote his wife: “The President and Cabinet have thus far approved everything I have proposed. This is kind and complimentary, but it only increases my responsibility, for if any disaster happens they can say ‘We did for you all you asked.'”6 The early hopes for Halleck’s success were reflected in a newspaper dispatch from William O. Stoddard, a White House aide: “Gen. Halleck is in constant communication and consultation with the President and Secretary of War, and from all the indications, we in Washington believe that, thus far, the three work together in perfect harmony.”7

Halleck quickly exhibited a fatal weakness. It was Halleck’s policy was not to issue orders to subordinate generals. John F. Marszalek wrote that Halleck ‘would defend his field generals from interference by ‘vulgar politicians,’ and he would send them advice, encouragement, even criticism, but he refused to send them orders. He never ventured into the field himself. Afflicted with physical and mental difficulties, the commanding general conducted the war only from a distance; he refused to command.”8 Indeed, Halleck’s conception of his role was more restricted than that the President envisioned. Marszalek wrote that Halleck “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.”9

The epitome of Halleck’s impotence came at the end of August 1862 when Halleck was completely unable to integrate the army of General John Pope with the soldiers from returning from McClellan’s Peninsular campaign. In September 1862 Navy Secretary Gideon Welles derided Halleck: “The President says Halleck told him he should want two days more to make up his mind what to do. Great Heavens! What a General-in-chief!”10 In April 1864, President Lincoln recalled: “When it was proposed to station Halleck here in general command, he insisted, to use his own language, on the appt of a General-in-Chief who shd be held responsible for results. We appointed him & all went well enough until after Pope’s defeat, when he broke down — nerve and pluck all gone– and has ever since evaded all possible responsibility — little more since that than a first-rate clerk.”11

Halleck’s problems were personal as well as political. Marszalek observed:”The stress of command had broken down his physical health and with it his will, long under siege by the psychological pressures of his earlier life.”12 Halleck was afflicted with a variety of ills. “His medicinal use of opium to deal with his hemorrhoids or diarrhea may have caught up with him, or he may have been overusing alcohol to compensate for drug withdrawal or mental anxiety. He also smoked incessantly and the habitual scratching of his elbow continued. The physical and psychological stress on Halleck was becoming all too obvious,” wrote Marszalek. “He did not look healthy or alert.”13 Halleck was further handicapped by his political limitations and personal sense of superiority. Like McClellan, he failed to appreciate that war is not fought in a political vacuum. Marszalek wrote that Halleck was “severely limited in his relationships. Since he looked down on politicians, as he did on Grant and anyone whose conduct he disapproved of, there was no reason to expect him to make any effort to draw close to the Washington politicians.”14 He conscientiously evaded responsibility and command. Furthermore, he was no diplomat. He had a talent for alienating generals, congressmen and Cabinet members. He was abrasive – an intellectual in a general’s uniform.

A second crisis in the relations between Halleck and the President came on January 1, 1863. On the same day on which President Lincoln was signing the Emancipation Proclamation and hordes of New Year’s Day guests, he had to deal with a strong confrontation among his top generals. General Ambrose Burnside was smarting from his defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg and the insubordination of his top subordinates. He had come to Washington to meet with the President and had suggested that he, Secretary of War Stanton and Halleck all be replaced. Halleck gave little guidance, prompting President Lincoln to write him: “Gen. Burnside wishes to cross the Rappahannock with his army, but his Grand Division commanders all oppose the movement. If in such a difficulty as this you do not help, you fail me precisely in the point for which I sought your assistance. You know what Gen. Burnside’s plan is; and it is my wish that you go with him to the ground, examine it as far as practicable, confer with the officers, getting their judgment, and ascertaining their temper, in a word, gather all the elements for forming a judgment of your own; and then tell Gen. Burnside that you do approve, or that you do not approve his plan. Your military skills is useless to me, if you will not do this.”15

Halleck was offended and penned a hasty resignation which Stanton brought to the President. Mr. Lincoln rejected it and wrote on the letter: “Withdrawn, because considered harsh by Gen. Halleck..”16 A few weeks later, Burnside himself was replaced. Halleck biographer Curt Anders wrote: “Neither Lincoln nor Halleck referred to the exchange and withdrawals of notes again, but the events of January 1, 1863 in Washington were to cast long shadows.”17 As a field commander, Halleck had failed to act aggressively. As a headquarters commander, he acted with even less initiative. He told President Lincoln: “I hold that a general in command of an army in the field is the best judge of existing conditions.”18 His defects were again obvious when Confederate troops threatened Washington in July 1864. As Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg observed: “Again and again Grant had directed Halleck to give orders on his own responsibility, Halleck being the senior officer near the field of operations, but again and again Halleck declined.”19

Although there were high hopes for Halleck’s leadership when he arrived in Washington, over the following two years his reputation was repeatedly battered and he became the brunt of jokes rather than the bearer of hopes. Geoffrey Perret wrote: “Halleck was not the decisive strategist and commander Lincoln was looking for in a general in chief. He was a whiffler.”20 Halleck was not a micromanager of subordinate generals. He refused to second guess or even recommend.

George McClellan dismissed his successor in his memoirs: “Of all the men whom I have encountered in high position Halleck was the most hopelessly stupid. It was more difficult to get an idea through his head than can be conceived by an one who never made the attempt. I do not think he ever had a correct military idea from beginning to end.”21 Attorney General Edward Bates recorded that Halleck “has no love for me.”22 He was dismissive of Halleck in his diary entry of February 28, 1863: “It does appear that Halleck is determined that we shall not take Vicksburg – if he can prevent it. He refused to take it when [P.G. T.] Beauregard evacuated Corinth. Then, only 8 or 10,000 men were needed to ensure the capture. When sharply questioned in Cabinet he pretended that he had not troops to spare!”23

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote in his diary on June 16, 1863: “Halleck sits, and smokes, and swears, and scratches his arm and [indecipherable], but exhibits little military capacity or intelligence; is obfusticated, muddy, uncertain, stupid as to what is doing or to be done.”24 On July 31, Welles wrote: “Halleck, as usual, was heavy, sluggish, not prepared to express an opinion.”25 On another occasion, Welles wrote that Halleck “originates nothing, anticipates nothing,”26 When Confederate General Jubal Early threatened Washington in July 1864, Welles wrote in his diary: Halleck is in a perfect maze, bewildered, without intelligent decision or self-reliance…”27 Five days later, John Hay wrote his diary: Halleck hates responsibility: hates to give orders…”28 Two days later, Attorney General Edward Bates wrote his diary: “I spoke my mind, very plainly, to the Prest….ab[ou]t the ignorant imbecility of the late military operations, and my contempt for Genl Halleck.”29 Postmaster General Montgomery Blair’s public comments were so critical that Halleck demanded he be dismissed from the Cabinet.

He had been temporarily more forceful in the late spring and early summer of 1863 when the Administration’s confidence in General Joseph Hooker waned. Halleck’s obvious displeasure in Hooker’s performance impelled him to quit. He was replaced by General George Meade, whose success at the Battle of Gettysburg in early July was not followed by an aggressive pursuit of the Confederate army. Halleck relayed President Lincoln’s impatience to Meade, who threatened to quit. This time, it was Halleck who pacified the ego-bruised general.

The major problem for President Lincoln was that Halleck had a small vision of his job, writing General William T. Sherman: “The great difficulty in the office of General-in-Chief is that it is not understood by the country. The responsibility and odium thrown upon it do not belong to it. I am simply a military adviser of the Secretary of War and the President, and must obey and carry out what they decide upon, whether I concur in their decisions or not. It is my duty to strengthen the hands of the President as Commander in Chief, not weaken them by factious opposition. I have, therefore, cordially cooperated with him in any plan decided upon, although I have never hesitated to differ in opinion.”30

In March 1864, Halleck was superceded by his former subordinate in the west, Ulysses S. Grant. While Grant traveled with the Army of the Potomac, Halleck performed a chief of staff function back in Washington. Halleck’s demotion suited him. “Although I would have preferred my old army in the west, both for my own reputation and from personal feeling, I am perfectly willing to labor wherever the Prest, Secty of War and Genl Grant decide I can be most useful.”31 Biographer John F. Marszalek wrote: “The two men recognized their distinct roles, and they acted accordingly. The relationship was militarily efficient from the start.”32

With his legal background, Halleck played an important role in the formulation of American’s rules of war. Biographer Curt Anders wrote that “as general-in-chief, Halleck had discovered that the commanders of all the Union’s field armies were having the same kinds of problems he had encountered in the West. This made it not only necessary but urgent for a code to be prepared and distributed. Accordingly, Old Brains appointed a commission, headed by Major General Ethan Allen Hitchcock and including Francis Lieber.”33 The document may have been Halleck’s most enduring legacy. His talents were always more intellectual than martial.

William E. Marsh wrote that “Halleck was never a generalissimo, never a field general after leaving Corinth, never a man of authority. He was not even a chief of staff in the modern meaning of the term. He was an adviser, an intermediary between the president and the generals, and to some extent a co-ordinator of the various commands…”34 Biographer Marszalek wrote: “Halleck… ended his active war role in the last days of the conflict as he began it, as an exponent of rules, not as a victorious fighter. He was not an inspiring leader like Grant and Sherman, but he had the knowledge and ability to provide those leaders with the support they needed, both logistical and strategic. In his own inflexible way, he allowed the generals to develop their ideas without his interference. At the same time, when he had dealt with officers of lesser talent, he had not been able to give them the guidance and orders they needed. Yet in the administrative and logistical sphere that he enjoyed so much, he had brought order and success to Union arms. He was a chief of staff by nature and not a commanding general.”35


By Ben H. Severance, H-CivWar: “Halleck is usually dismissed as an inflexible, overly conservative general who failed to grasp the complexities of high command. In his latest biography, John Marszalek does not entirely dispute the prevailing opinion of Halleck, but he does present a more sympathetic appraisal of this much maligned general, urging readers to take the man more seriously. Halleck was a brilliant thinker who excelled in situations where rules and regulations held sway, but under circumstances where the outcome was unpredictable, such as the cauldron of war, his highly structured mind collapsed under the pressure. Thus, Marszalek asserts that Halleck’s true talents lay in the realm of modern military bureaucracy, though it took three years of battlefield frustration for him to find his niche.”


  1. John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck, p. 106.
  2. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Simon Cameron, August 17, 1861), Volume IV, p. 489.
  3. Michael Burlingame, Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, (November 7, 1861), p. 136.
  4. John Y. Simon and Michael E. Stevens, New Perspectives on the Civil War: Myths and Realities of the National Conflict, p. 57 (John Y. Simon, “Forging a Commander: Ulysses S. Grant Enters the Civil War”).
  5. John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck, p.128.
  6. John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck, p. 142 (Letter from Henry W. Halleck to Elizabeth Halleck, August 9, 1862).
  7. Michael Burlingame, editor, Dispatches from Lincoln’s White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard, p. 93 (August 7, 1862).,
  8. John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck, p. 155.
  9. John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck, p. 136.
  10. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, p. 153 (September 26, 1862).
  11. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 191 (April 28, 1864).
  12. John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck, p. 148.
  13. John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck, p. 173.
  14. John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck, p. 134.
  15. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,Volume VI, p. 31 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry W. Halleck, January 1, 1863)
  16. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,Volume V, p. 31 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry W. Halleck, January 1, 1863).
  17. Curt Anders, Henry Halleck’s War, p. 367.
  18. Geoffrey Perret, Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Greatest President as Commander in Chief, p. 229.
  19. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume III, p. 147.
  20. Geoffrey Perret, Lincoln’s War: The Untold Story of America’s Greatest President as Commander in Chief, p. 325.
  21. George B. McClellan, McClellan’s Own Story, p. 137
  22. Howard K. Beale, editor, The Diary of Edward Bates, p. 385 (July 15, 1864).
  23. Howard K. Beale, editor, Diary of Edward Bates, (February 28, 1863), p. 283.
  24. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, (June 16, 1863), Volume I, p. 331.
  25. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, (July 31, 1863), Volume I, p. 390.
  26. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume II, p. 384 (July 26, 1863).
  27. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume II, pp. 69-70 (July 8, 1864).
  28. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 222 (July 13, 1864).
  29. Howard K. Beale, editor, Diary of Edward Bates, p. 280 (February 26, 1863).
  30. Allan Nevins and Irving Stone, editors, Lincoln: A Contemporary Portrait, p. 74 (William E. Marsh: Lincoln and Henry W. Halleck).
  31. John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck,, p. 198 (Letter from Henry W. Halleck to Francis Lieber, March 14, 1864).
  32. John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck, p. 202.
  33. Curt Anders, Henry Halleck’s War, p. 384.
  34. Allan Nevins and Irving Stone, editors, Lincoln: A Contemporary Portrait, p. 74(William E. Marsh: Lincoln and Henry W. Halleck).
  35. John F. Marszalek, Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck, p. 226.