Henry Wager Halleck was born in Westernville, New York, on 16th January, 1815. He was educated at Hudson Academy and Union College, before graduating from West Point in 1839. Halleck, who was 3rd in his class of 3, was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers.
An expert on fortifications, Halleck's report, The National Defense, was published by Congress. He served in the Mexican War and the publication of books such as Elements of Military Art and Science (1846) resulted in him acquiring the nickname, 'Old Brains'.
Halleck left the United States Army in 1854 and after moving to San Francisco established himself as a successful lawyer and businessman. However, on the outbreak of the American Civil War he joined the Union Army and in August, 1861, he replaced John C. Fremont as major general in the the Department of Missouri. An able administrator, his subordinates such as Ulysses S. Grant and Don Carlos Buell did well in battle. However, he was a poor field commander and his attack on Corinth, exposed his lack of ability.
In July, 1862, Abraham Lincoln named Halleck as general in chief in Washington. A defensive strategist, Halleck was opposed to Grant's plan to take Vicksburg. He once told William Sherman that it was "little better than murder" to give command to such men as Benjamin Butler, Nathaniel Banks, Franz Siegel, George McClellan, and Lewis Wallace. Halleck himself criticised for being too cautious and prolonging the war with his tactics and as a result was in conflict with the secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton.
With one hundred and twenty thousand men, he was moving against fifty thousand, whose recent defeats more than neutralized their advantage of fortifications. He was moving at the rate of a mile a day, throwing up works at every halt. That is, he gained a mile every day to go into besiegement every night. At the end he would have spent a month doing what General Johnson had done in three days.
Beginning his approaches twenty miles from the town, and confining them entirely to one side, he left the enemy free to choose which of the other three sides it would be best to retire by when the time came, and what all to take away with him. Finally he placed his armies, all three, under a peremptory order not to bring on an engagement. "It is better", he instructed them, "to retreat than to fight".
The grand army was like a huge serpent large enough to eat up Beauregard at one mouthful; but Halleck crept forward at the rate of about three-quarters of a mile per day. Thousands and thousands of his men died from fevers and diarrhoea. There was great dissatisfaction. Pope was particularly impatient. General Palmer, who commanded on the front, reported that he could hold it against the world, the flesh, and the devil; but Halleck telegraphed to Pope three times within an hour not to be drawn into a general engagement.
After the capture of Corinth a movable force of eighty thousand men, besides enough to hold all the territory required, could have been set in motion for the accomplishment of any great campaign for the suppression of the rebellion. If Buell had been sent directly to Chattanooga as rapidly as he could march, leaving two or three divisions along the line of the railroad from Nashville forward, he could have arrived with but little fighting, and would have saved much of the loss of life which was afterwards incurred in gaining Chattanooga. Bragg would then not have had time to raise an army to contest the possession of Tennessee and Kentucky; the battles of Stone River and Chickamauga would not necessarily have been fought. These are the negative advantages, if the term negative is applicable, which would probably have resulted from prompt movements after Corinth fell into the possessions of the National forces. the positive results might have been: a bloodless advance to Atlanta, to Vicksburg, or to any other desired point south of Corinth in the interior of Mississippi.
A rumour has just reached me that since the taking of Fort Donelson Grant has resumed his former bad habits. If so, it will account for his repeated neglect of my often-repeated orders. I do not deem it advisable to arrest him at present, but have placed General Smith in command of the expedition up the Tennessee. I think Smith will restore order and discipline.
When we consider the vast expenditure of lives, time, and money made during the ensuing year to secure the capture of Vicksburg that the whole year could probably have been saved, and the position taken in July, 1862, instead of July, 1863, if Halleck would but have extended his hand his failure to do so seems unaccountable and unpardonable.
It does appear that Halleck is determined that we shall not take Vicksburg - if he can prevent it. He refused to take it when 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! Yet at the very time, Curtis, with his 20,000 , lay demoralizing and rotting at Helena.
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 any one who never made the attempt. I do not think he ever had a correct military idea from beginning to end.
A day or two before Halleck arrived in Washington Stanton came to caution me against trusting Halleck, who was, he said, probably the greatest scoundrel and most barefaced villain in America; he said that he was totally destitute of principle, and that in the Almaden Quicksilver case he had convicted Halleck of perjury in open court. When Halleck arrived he came to caution me against Stanton, repeating almost precisely the same words that Stanton had employed.
I am satisfied that if the ulta-abolition sentiment of the north should get the ascendency in the administration of the government, there will be no peace, but the war will be interminable. Our only hope is that the President will stand firm in his conservative policy.
The strange thing is not that Lincoln should have chosen Halleck for commander in chief in the summer of 1862. The strange thing is that after his incapacity had been so strikingly demonstrated Lincoln should have kept him in command. Halleck is a contemptible, almost ridiculous figure. One would laugh at him, were it not for the fact that his incompetence was one of the chief factors in the repeated and tragic reverses which befell the Union armies.