Halleck Becomes General-in-Chief

Less than 48 hours after leaving the Virginia Peninsula, President Abraham Lincoln named Major General Henry W. Halleck to become general-in-chief of all Federal armies. Lincoln already had Halleck in mind for the job when Major General George B. McClellan wrote his “Harrison’s Bar Letter,” which had lectured the president on war policy and urged him to appoint a commander-in-chief.

Rhode Island Governor William Sprague arrived at Corinth, Mississippi, on July 10 to hand Halleck a letter from Lincoln. The official purpose of Sprague’s visit, according to the letter, was “to get you (Halleck) and part of your force, one or both, to come here.” Unofficially, Sprague was to persuade Halleck to become general-in-chief. Halleck declined the official request, arguing that giving up men could lose conquered territory in the Memphis-Corinth corridor. Halleck also declined the unofficial offer, countering that the administration should create a new military department overseeing the East like his department oversaw the West.

Lincoln returned to Washington from the Peninsula and learned of Halleck’s rejection. He responded by issuing a directive through Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “Ordered, That Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck be assigned to command the whole land forces of the United States as General-in-Chief, and that he repair to this capital as soon as he can with safety to the positions and operations within the department now under his special charge.”

Gen H.W. Halleck | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Halleck informed Washington that he would report for duty as soon as he could transition his command. He confided in his friend, Major General William T. Sherman, about heading East: “I have done my best to avoid it. I have studied out and can finish the campaign in the West. Don’t understand and cannot manage affairs in the East. Moreover, do not want to have anything to do with the quarrels of Stanton and McClellan.”

Sherman offered encouragement: “That success will attend you wherever you go I feel no doubt, for you must know more about the East than you did about the West when you arrived at Saint Louis a stranger. And there you will find armies organized and pretty well commanded, instead of the scattered forces you then had…” But Sherman was not encouraged about prospects in the West without Halleck: “I attach more importance to the West than the East. The man who at the end of this war holds the military control of the Valley of the Mississippi will be the man. You should not be removed. I fear the consequences… You cannot be replaced out here, and it is too great a risk to trust a new man from the East.”

Halleck, known as “Old Brains” for his knowledge of military strategy and tactics (he had even written a textbook), had a record of success in the Western Theater. During his tenure, Forts Henry and Donelson, Nashville, New Madrid, Island Number 10, Corinth, Fort Pillow, and Memphis had all been captured; Federal armies had been victorious at Pea Ridge and Shiloh; secessionists in Kentucky and Missouri had been subdued; and Federal forces occupied western Tennessee, most of northern Mississippi, Cumberland Gap, Baton Rouge and New Orleans in Louisiana, and the entire Mississippi River except for Vicksburg and Port Hudson.

On the other hand, Halleck had not personally directed any of these conquests or victories, except for Corinth, and he had showed little aggressiveness during that campaign. Nevertheless, Halleck was known as a solid administrator, something that Lincoln needed. Halleck arrived at Washington and assumed his new role on July 23.

Lincoln’s selection of Halleck as general-in-chief was another sign that he believed McClellan to be a lost cause. McClellan did not even learn that Halleck had been given the new position until July 18, but before that, he had predicted that it would happen in a letter to his wife, Ellen: “I am inclined now to think that the President will make Halleck commander of the army, and that the first pretext will be seized to supersede me in command of this army.”

After confirming the news, McClellan wrote, “I shall have to remove the three stars from my shoulder and put up with two,” threatening to resign if Halleck attempted to control his army. McClellan fumed about having to report to Halleck, “whom I know to be my inferior.”


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