Was General Henry Halleck good, bad, or only so so general?

major bill

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Early in the Civil War Henry Halleck, "know as Old Brains", was the fourth highest ranking general in the Union Army. Much of his raise to high rank was that General Scott seemed to have great confidence in him. Scott thought Halleck was very intelligent but other than that exactly why Scott held such high confidence is Halleck is uncertain. Halleck had not had a particularly great military career and had not seen much if any combat. At the start of the War Halleck was a democrat and rather sympathetic towards the South. As commander in the Western Theater Halleck only exercised field command during the Siege of Corinth Campaign. Halleck mostly relayed on Grant and Buell to fight the the battles. Was Halleck afraid that in field command might make a mistake? Still whatever Halleck did accomplish it was enough for President Lincoln to make Halleck general-in-chief to replace General McClellan. A position Halleck served in until Grant was made general-in-chief in March of 1864.

Both McClellan and Grant served in the field as General-in-chief but Halleck seemed to want to stay in Washington and did not seek field command. Halleck seemed to excel in administration and logistics while general-in-chief but was not great at grand strategy. Halleck also did not seem to have a great talent for commanding his subordinate generals and seemed to let army commanders do what they wanted to do. In fact it appears that army commanders often ignored the orders Halleck sent them. Halleck did not seem to get along well with many of his subordinates. The general view is that Halleck was cold and not well liked by many.

In the end it is hard to be sure if Halleck was a great general-in-chief. Would it have been better for the Union war effort if some one else with superior strategic skills would have been general-in-chief instead? Should Halleck taken field command himself? I think the most that can be said is that Halleck did nothing to lose the war but did not have a real plan to win the war. Historian seem to believe that Halleck was a master of logistics but too cautious and too rigid.
 
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Still whatever Halleck did accomplish it was enough for President Lincoln to make Halleck general-in-chief to replace General McClellan. A position Halleck served in until Grant was made general-in-chief in March of 1864.
Halleck commanded the Department of the Mississippi from March to July 1862 and his subordinates achieved famous victories. I believe these actions were seen by Lincoln and his team as part of a great strategic plan. Therefore Halleck seemed to be a competent commander at a strategic level and he was chosen to assume the charge of commander-in-chief.
Both McClellan and Grant served in the field as General-in-chief but Halleck seemed to want to stay in Washington and did not seek field command. Halleck seemed to excel in administration and logistics while general-in-chief but was not great at grand strategy. Halleck also did not seem to have a great talent for commanding his subordinate generals and seemed to let army commanders do what they wanted to do. In fact it appears that army commanders often ignored the orders Halleck sent them. Halleck did not seem to get along well with many of his subordinates. The general view is that Halleck was cold and not well liked by many.
You almost described completely Halleck's main problem for a military leader : he lacks leadership abilities, despite being a master administrator. His strategic choices were inexistent at best. As a supreme chief of staff, he showed incredible logistical skills.
In the end it is hard to be sure if Halleck was a great general-in-chief.
My answer is no. To be considered as a great general-in-chief, of simply a great general, you should possess more leadership qualities and must act by yourself in some situations, while Halleck reluctance to take initiative was a real problem when Lincoln needed military advices or suggestions.

However, a good point can be said about Halleck : when Grant was ready to remove Thomas from command before the Battle of Nashville, Halleck refused to execute the order and momentarily stopped Grant's will to sack his former subordinate. This delay, combined with others, might have allowed Thomas to retain his command for the following victorious battle. By assuming such a move, Halleck revealed a great commanding skill toward both his superiors, his peers and his subordinates : his military sense of ethic.
 

jackt62

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Halleck is best remembered as a proficient administrator. His main role during his tenure as General-in-Chief and later as Grant's Chief-of-Staff was to act as an intermediary between field commanders and the War Department by channeling instructions, manpower, and other resources to the widely spread out Union commands. He never fulfilled the role that Lincoln had originally hoped he would provide; of offering useful and sound strategic advice and guidance. Although Halleck was known to be an intellectual military thinker,
he was first and foremost a consummate "politician" in that he would never put himself in a position where he had to make a decision for which he could be criticized.
 

wausaubob

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Grant cut off communication with Halleck both at Fort Donelson and at Vicksburg. Both operations ended in victory.
By the time the Chattanooga crisis evolved, Stanton deliberately went around Halleck and communicated directly with Grant. That operation also ended successfully, due to the resources applied by Sec'y Stanton. By December 1863 Stanton had lost confidence in Halleck.
During the months of May, June and July of 1864, Halleck was still involved in supervising Grant's orders. But Grant installed Sheridan as his commander in the Shenandoah Valley and met directly with Sheridan. That operation also ended successfully.
If Halleck was competent, the high command of the US army must have been full of leaks. The less it had to do with any operation, the better it went.
In the end Grant gave secret orders to General Terry to co-operate with Admiral Porter, and that operation also ended successfully.
 

wausaubob

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The army high command must have been full of leaks, and people talked freely of army plans. Grant, McClellan and Stanton eventually made the most of in person contacts. Even General Thomas was particularly reluctant to put his plans on the telegraph wire, even when Grant was impatient. Grant decided to go in person to Nashville before he let Thomas go.
 
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I wonder what would have been the result if in July 1862, when Halleck came to Washington, what if he had taken the field, consolidated the troops of McClellan with Pope, and begun the "glacier" approach to Richmond? (Just like Corinth.) Assuming he could marshal say 110,000 near Manassas versus Lee with maybe 70,000, perhaps a slow cautious advance would have gotten to Richmond in a couple of months? I'm thinking Lee would have been hard pressed to repel such an advance.
 

WJC

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Halleck's insistence on independently commanding both Grant's and Buell;'s forces from afar almost resulted in disaster at Shiloh. It is telling that Grant gained success in the West by largely ignoring Halleck. It can be argued that Meade would have pursued Lee more vigorously after the Battle of Gettysburg had he not been encumbered with Halleck's 'advice' and orders to protect DC at all cost.
 

wausaubob

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Halleck's insistence on independently commanding both Grant's and Buell;'s forces from afar almost resulted in disaster at Shiloh. It is telling that Grant gained success in the West by largely ignoring Halleck. It can be argued that Meade would have pursued Lee more vigorously after the Battle of Gettysburg had he not been encumbered with Halleck's 'advice' and orders to protect DC at all cost.
Halleck's inability to free up part of the large force he assembled at Corinth to co-operate with Farragut steaming north on the Mississippi prolonged the war. The mutual failure of Halleck and Buell to return a large force to Nashville and advance into Tennessee from that direction also gave General Bragg the opportunity he wanted to regain the initiative in Kentucky.
Halleck's decision to take away McClellan's forces, in the same manner he had sidelined Grant, was a catastrophe that led to a much longer and bloodier war.
 

jackt62

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Halleck's inability to free up part of the large force he assembled at Corinth to co-operate with Farragut steaming north on the Mississippi prolonged the war.
Great point! Had a significant land force (commanded by Grant), advanced southward in conjunction with Farragut's northbound fleet, Vicksburg could very well have been seized by the Union in the late spring of 1862, instead of a year later. Naval action by itself against Vicksburg would not have been sufficient to take Vicksburg, as Farragut found out. Halleck's squandering and dilution of the western army after Corinth must be one of the war's biggest blunders.
 

wausaubob

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Great point! Had a significant land force (commanded by Grant), advanced southward in conjunction with Farragut's northbound fleet, Vicksburg could very well have been seized by the Union in the late spring of 1862, instead of a year later. Naval action by itself against Vicksburg would not have been sufficient to take Vicksburg, as Farragut found out. Halleck's squandering and dilution of the western army after Corinth must be one of the war's biggest blunders.
The force may have needed to be small enough to remain mobile. Campaigning in Mississippi during the height of summer had severe health implications. But Halleck had a river transport capability, some cavalry and the Army of the Tennessee were dedicated marchers. Something could have been done to create pressure on the Confederates to determine how they would react.
 
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I wonder what would have been the result if in July 1862, when Halleck came to Washington, what if he had taken the field, consolidated the troops of McClellan with Pope, and begun the "glacier" approach to Richmond? (Just like Corinth.) Assuming he could marshal say 110,000 near Manassas versus Lee with maybe 70,000, perhaps a slow cautious advance would have gotten to Richmond in a couple of months? I'm thinking Lee would have been hard pressed to repel such an advance.
The problem with the concept is that a direct approach from DC to Richmond favors the defense. All rivers run west-east. They can only be crossed at certain points. The attacker is faced with the choice between two unpleasant options--make a river crossing under fire (in which case the defender will probably have prepared fixed defenses) or maneuvering around a flank. Unfortunately for every single Northern commander the 2nd choice left him with options of maintaining a cumbersome supply train which inevitably (at least in real life) will slow him enough for Lee to maneuver to maintain a defense blocking his attack on Richmond or cutting loose the cord tethering him to his supplies and truly maneuver probably south and east (as Lee consistently maneuvered west and north--think Antietam, G'burg and Early's last gap attempt at DC). As the Northern army would be moving much faster Lee would have much less time to find a defensible position. Especially given the geographical fact that not only do the rivers run W-E but also the ridges. If you've ever driven up or down through NC and Va, you will probably remember the roller coaster ride that that trip is.

But a truly inspired Union commander could have made the truly inspired decision to leave 2 Corps to defend Richmond while another 3 Corps embark and sail south the the North Carolina coast where they could with almost no opposition move inland breach the rail line and with captured locomotives move dozens in not a hundred miles north and completely remove the rails.

Given that they would have had total numerical superiority they could also have moved inland and done the same to one of the inland RR lines.

If Lee moves south they can simply return to the coast and move north faster than Lee can travel and with a united AoP move against Richmond with little or no opposition.
 

7thWisconsin

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I don´t think Halleck was a good field commander. He was a military administrator and bureaucrat, and an army needs those, especially at high command. Someone needs to count costs at a galactic level, make nice to senators, smooth ruffled feathers and occasionally move the big blocks around on the Risk board. He was overall commander for a long time. We tend to judge him harshly in comparison with the Grants and Shermans who were excellent army commanders and men of genuine military vision. Halleck would have made a great chief of the joint chiefs of staff, had such a thing existed in 1862.
 

Joshism

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It can be argued that Meade would have pursued Lee more vigorously after the Battle of Gettysburg had he not been encumbered with Halleck's 'advice' and orders to protect DC at all cost.

Halleck throughout 1863 balked at giving Meade firm orders. Meade frequently balked at taking action because he didn't want to be blamed for failure. Both men had a serious flaw with regard to taking responsibility.
 
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