Some of you might be bumfuzzled as to why General Halleck is included in this series. After all, he did not die in the war–but his reputation certainly did! I have done the same things many of you have done–seen Halleck as a sort of military joke. Then I read Walter Stahr’s Stanton and soon revised my opinion. I live in central California–closer to San Francisco than Santa Barbara. Even when I lived further south, all I ever heard was how California had nothing to do with the Civil War. Those of us who were reenactors at Fort Tejon kept our fingers crossed every time we went to an event back east. We dreaded the thought of being thrown out by Eastern stitch-counters. But, of course, they did not take into account that West Coast stitch-counters might be equally serious about what was then called “the hobby.” Life moved on, I left reenacting, and here I am today, ready to tell you what I learned about Halleck in a book about Stanton.
Henry was the third child of fourteen, born in central New York. He ran away from home early on and was raised by his uncle, who lived in Utica. His uncle managed to get young Henry into West Point in 1835. During the next four years, Halleck found his true calling–being an academician. Military theorist Dennis Hart Mahan took the young man under his wing and became his mentor. While still a cadet, Halleck was allowed to teach classes. He graduated in 1839. leaving his intellectual safe place behind and graduating third in his class of 1839. He spent several years in New York City, improving harbor defenses. This resulted in his first book, a Senate report titled Report on the Means of National Defence. His effort so impressed American military god General Winfield Scott that Halleck was rewarded with a trip to Europe in 1844. There he studied European fortifications and the elite French military. He also was promoted to first lieutenant.
Henry Halleck returned home to much acclaim and immediately began his second book, Elements of Military Art and Science. In addition, he gave twelve lectures on the topic at Boston’s prestigious Lowell Institute. Elements, published in 1846, was one of the first books expressing American military professionalism. It was extremely well-received by Halleck’s colleagues and became one of the definitive tactical treatises used by officers in the Civil War. The volume also gave thirty-one-year-old Henry Halleck his nickname “Old Brains,” not yet a derogatory term.
The Mexican-American War had begun, and Halleck was assigned to duty in California, a territory on the verge of statehood. Getting to California was a tricky proposition. Of the three choices–across land, across the Isthmus of Panama, and around Cape Horn–Henry Halleck chose to take a seven-month trip on the sloop USS Lexington around the tip of South America known as Cape Horn. The army assigned him to be aide-de-camp to Commodore William Shubrick.
Here is our young (31) hero, unmarried and still possessing most of his hair, on a fantastic voyage halfway around the world, and what did he choose to do with his time? He decided to translate Henri Jomini’s Vie politique et militaire de Napoleon from French to English. Although this furthered his academic reputation, I am thinking that it did little for him socially. Halleck spent several months in 1847 constructing fortifications in California. He finally saw combat during the capture of the port of Mazatlan by Shubrick in mid-November. Commodore Shubrick trusted Halleck so much that he made him lieutenant governor of the city and awarded him a brevet promotion to captain, claiming it was for Halleck’s “gallant and meritorious service.” At this point, Halleck’s military career seemed like it certainly might amount to something.
Up-and-coming California was about to get even better for Henry Halleck. General Bennett Riley had been appointed the governor-general of the “California territory.” Riley demanded that the brilliant young writer, Henry Halleck, join his staff and appointed him military secretary of state. This made Halleck the governor’s personal representative at the 1849 convention held in Monterey, on the central coast. One of the tasks given to the men at the convention was creating a state constitution, necessary before California could be considered for statehood. Halleck became one of the principal authors of the document. The California State Military Museum notes that Halleck:
was [at the convention] and in a lone measure its brains because he had given more studious thought to the subject than any other, and General Riley had instructed him to help frame the new constitution.”
During the convention, his name was bandied about as one of the two men to be chosen to represent the new state in the U. S. Senate but was not selected.
When Halleck was writing the California Constitution and being fawned upon by the elite of a very prosperous new state, he also joined a law firm in San Francisco. Halleck, Peachy, & Billings became so successful that Henry resigned his army commission in 1854. He was getting rich quickly due to his work as a lawyer and a land speculator. In addition, Halleck obtained several thousand pages of official documents concerning the Spanish missions and Land Grants, which created his reputation as an expert on California colonization.
This handsome, bright, successful young man married the beautiful Elizabeth Hamilton in 1855. She was the granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton and the sister of Union general Schuyler Hamilton. Elizabeth was the belle of the season when she made her debut. Their only son was born in 1856.
As a farsighted San Franciscan, Halleck was responsible for building the Montgomery Block, San Francisco’s first fireproof building. It was home to lawyers, businessmen, and later, several of the city’s writers and newspapers. In addition, he was a director of the Almaden Quicksilver Company in San Jose. Quicksilver, or mercury, was necessary to separate gold from the surrounding minerals. He was president of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. This grandly named enterprise ran between San Francisco and San Jose. He developed land in nearby Monterey and Carmel, and owned the 30,000 acre Rancho Nicasio in Marin County. And, Halleck being Halleck, he stayed involved in military affairs. By 1861 he was a major general in the California militia. How could life possibly get better for Henry Halleck? The simple answer is–it couldn’t.
Unfortunately, in August 1861, Halleck responded positively to Winfield Scott’s pleas for him to return to the east. Once there, he accepted the rank of major general in the regular army, and it all began to go downhill. He managed to keep his money and his wife, but his reputation was beyond resuscitation by the end of the war. President Lincoln called him a “first-rate clerk.” Today, no one respects Henry Halleck for much of anything. Poor guy.
Suppose he had just stayed in California, living the dream. In that case, we might all be sharing a glass of delicious, fruity, oak-aged cabernet from the historic cellars of the Halleck Winery in Marin County while we read Emerging Civil War.