Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of Henry W. Halleck (Book Review)

Reviewed by Brian Murphy
By John F. Marszalek
Belknap Press, 324 pages

Civil War enthusiasts rarely get excited about General Henry Wager Halleck, even though he was, for a time, the supreme commander of the Federal armies. The belief persists that he was an aloof and demanding intellectual, happier behind a desk than on a horse. As John F. Marszalek’s splendid full-length biography Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of Henry W. Halleck demonstrates, this popular view of Halleck is not far from the truth.’

Halleck was dubbed "Old Brains" by the troops after the Corinth campaign, but he was renowned for his intellect long before the Civil War. In his teens and early 20s, Halleck, who had escaped from farm life in Westernville, N.Y., reveled in the life of the mind. Indeed, understanding the intellectual development of Halleck is a key to comprehending his actions as a general-in-chief. After attending Union College for a year and meeting its rigorous standards, Halleck was appointed to West Point as a 20-year-old plebe.

At West Point, Halleck met professor Dennis Hart Mahan, who believed excellence in generalship was derived through the rigorous study of military history, particularly the career of Napoleon Bonaparte. Halleck adopted the same view. Mahan also tended to be demanding and humorless, traits Halleck increasingly imitated.

After a distinguished career as a cadet and then as an assistant professor, Halleck joined the Corps of Engineers. He put together a study of the defense of the United States that was so brilliant it was published at the expense of Congress. On his own initiative, Marszalek tells us, Halleck also traveled to France, where he saw the latest in French military fortifications and engineering. By the start of the Mexican War, Halleck was one of the most renowned officers in the Army.

Halleck’s career as an officer would take him to California, where he left the Army and became a successful lawyer. He also had a hand in the writing of California’s state constitution. His total disdain for sloppiness and his love of bureaucratic order would mark his career as a Civil War general. This explains Halleck’s antipathy for Ulysses S. Grant, as well as his own brilliance as an administrator. In 1862, after impressive service in the Western theater, he was called to Washington, where his subordinates had won him the command of all Union armies (1862-64). Halleck did not rise to the occasion by designing winning strategies for the war; instead, the hallmarks of Halleck’s tenure were caution and attention to bureaucratic detail.

To close the volume, Marszalek details Halleck’s postwar military assignments, including the supervision of war-torn Richmond and the state of Virginia, and a return to California to head the military district there. The light shed on these little-known aspects of Halleck’s career is a valuable contribution. One of the hazards of writing a biography is that it is all too easy to fall in love with your subject. Marszalek skirted that danger and has delivered a very balanced and entertaining modern biography of the Union general.

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