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  • Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck
  • Steven E. Woodworth
Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck. By John F. Marszalek. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. Pp. 324. Cloth, $29.95.)

Henry W. Halleck was been one of the most vilified of Civil War generals and not without reason. A general who schemed ruthlessly to gain promotion but performed flaccidly when commanding troops in the face of the enemy and who preferred to advance his career rather than his cause, Halleck is easy to loathe. Yet loathing rarely enhances understanding. For students of the Civil War to grasp fully the actions of the Union high command, someone had to provide a thorough modern biography of Halleck, and John Marszalek has performed that difficult task with his accustomed thoroughness and clarity.

Henry Halleck's youth was shaped by his bitter conflict with his father, a domineering man whose personality young Henry shared to the degree that the two clashed incessantly. Rejecting his father's choices for his education and career, Halleck ran away from home as a youth to live with his mother's brother. He remained permanently estranged from his father, and to this sundered relationship Marszalek attributes some of Henry Halleck's life-long quirks of personality.

Halleck secured an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point and there compiled a sterling record that brought him a commission in the Corps of Engineers, the elite of the Old Army's professional officer corps. There too he excelled, translating French-language works on strategy and the career [End Page 175] of Napoleon and also writing his own tome on the art of war—works that won him the nickname "Old Brains." Stationed in California, Halleck became one of the founding fathers of the state, taking a prominent role in the writing of its first constitution. During the 1850s he left the army but remained in California, practicing law and engaging in various forms of business that by the end of the decade made him one of the state's most prominent and successful citizens.

When the Civil War broke out, Halleck returned to the army and as a prominent and respected prewar officer immediately received a high-ranking appointment. Lincoln assigned him to command the western department with headquarters in St. Louis and the initial task of cleaning up the administrative mess left by his predecessor John C. Frémont. That was the sort of work at which the compulsive perfectionist Halleck excelled. In other matters his performance was mixed. He effectively provided logistical support for Ulysses S. Grant's operations against Forts Henry and Donelson, but then he used subterfuge and dishonesty to undercut Grant in Washington and briefly removed him from command. Marszalek gives Halleck the benefit of the doubt, attributing this behavior to Halleck's perfectionist dissatisfaction with Grant's administrative practices.

Grant's successes, gained partially by Halleck's help and partially in spite of his interference, brought Halleck promotion first to overall Union commander west of the Appalachians and then to the pinnacle of professional success as commander of all of Lincoln's armies. In that position, even more than in those that had gone before, Halleck found himself facing far more responsibility than he was willing to shoulder. After a fitful and dismal attempt to coordinate the activities of Maj. Gen. John Pope and Maj. Gen. George McClellan in Virginia during the summer of 1862, Halleck effectively abdicated his authority while retaining his position and came to function, in Lincoln's apt phrase, as "a first-rate clerk."

Marszalek presents the most rigorous attempt to date at understanding the motives of this brilliant student and successful businessman who failed as general-in-chief. In addition to Halleck's estrangement from his father, Marszalek sees other sources of his difficult personality in the general's chronic health problems, which he treated with opium suppositories. Certainly both the ailments and the medication could account for a good deal of irascibility and erratic behavior. Whether convinced by these arguments or not, students of the Civil War will find this a...


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