Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

HENRY WAGER HALLECK
(January 16, 1815–January 9, 1872)

Jon L. Wakelyn

Those of his contemporaries who described the manner and mien of Henry Wager Halleck, general in chief of the Union Army for a time and the country’s first chief of staff, have left an indelible and damaging portrait of that military genius. Too chubby and too slow in his actions to be a successful field commander, he also was described as pop-eyed, always scratching his elbows, and rude to all who came across his sights. To subordinates he was curt, asking them in a surly fashion what business they had with him. Perhaps because of his abrasiveness and his lack of field command, Halleck was discarded at the war’s end by the higher-ups. Most modern historians have followed their lead. Until the laudatory 1962 biography by Stephen Ambrose, his real role in the war had been overshadowed by comments on his sour personality. Ambrose points out that, in tandem with President Abraham Lincoln (q.v.), General in Chief U. S. Grant (q.v.), and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (q.v.), Halleck helped to forge an effective and victorious Union war machine. Even with those duties in mind, many of his peers suggested Halleck acted too scholarly for the great leaders to take him seriously. But his activities in behalf of the Union war effort indeed were quite important. To understand that critical role he played and still to grasp why so many of his contemporaries attacked his actions requires a reconstruction of his life, another appraisal of his wartime record, and a look at just how history has treated this testy and talented captain.

Halleck came from sturdy old American stock. The Hallecks and the Wagers lived in the rich farming country of the Mohican Valley of New York. Strict and strong willed Joseph Halleck married Catherine Wager of a middle-class Syracuse family, and their son Henry Wager, the first of thirteen children, was born in the Valley on January 16, 1815. For the first sixteen years of his life Henry worked on his father’s farm and picked up what schooling was available from local teachers and his mother. He was expected, like so many of the agricultural middle class, someday to assume ownership of the family farm. But

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