July 23

This Day in History

Civil War

Jul 23, 1862:

Halleck takes command of the Union army

General Henry W. Halleck assumes the role of general-in-chief of all Union forces in an effort to better coordinate the overall Union war effort, which is floundering.

A native of New York, Halleck graduated from West Point in 1839. He showed such promise that he was allowed the rare privilege of teaching while still a student at the academy. He served during the Mexican-American War, became involved in California politics, and was a railroad president before the outbreak of the Civil War.

In 1861, Halleck was appointed major general. Placed in charge of the Department of the Missouri, his work brought quick results. He quickly organized the forces in Missouri into effective units and kept Missouri in the Union. Halleck's duties were soon expanded, and the department was renamed the Department of the Mississippi. He showed great strategic vision in planning campaigns from his St. Louis headquarters, but was less successful when he took to the field—as he did during the Corinth, Mississippi campaign, in which the Confederates escaped his much larger Yankee force.

President Abraham Lincoln recognized Halleck's abilities and brought him to Washington, D.C., as general-in-chief. Under his direction, Union successes continued in the west, but Halleck was unable to orchestrate any progress in Virginia or to enact an overall strategic vision to defeat the Confederates. He bickered with various commanders of the Army of the Potomac, such as George B. McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, and George Meade. His abrasive personality did not endear him to the press or his subordinates.

In 1864, President Lincoln moved Halleck to a higher position as chief of staff for the army while appointing General Ulysses S. Grant general-in-chief, but this was really in recognition of the fact that Halleck failed to effectively direct the armies. Freed from the burden of strategic planning, Halleck's new role allowed him to utilize his bureaucratic talents. Nicknamed "Old Brains" for his organizational efficiency, Halleck effectively supplied Grant's campaign against Robert E. Lee in 1864.

Halleck remained in the army until his death in 1872. Despite his shortcomings as a strategic planner, his organizational skills contributed significantly to the Union victory.

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