Question of the Week: 11/8-11/14/2021

Henry Halleck was so worried about sullying his reputation as “Old Brains” that he utterly failed to rise to the occasion when he became general in chief of the army. He became, I think, the ultimate “CYA” man. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles complained that Halleck “originates nothing, anticipates nothing…takes no responsibility, plans nothing, suggests nothing, is good for nothing.”

Worried about his reputation, he’s best remembered today as Lincoln described him: “little more than a first rate clerk.”

Does anyone else find this ironic?

11 Responses to Question of the Week: 11/8-11/14/2021

  1. I take everything that former newspaper editor and acerbic gossip Gideon Welles says about anyone with a grain of salt. I agree Halleck’s moral collapse during Second Manassas, and his strategic stupidity after the siege of Corinth have justifiably earned him few friends. Yet it was he who stood up to Lincoln’s backhanded and politically driven support of McClernand around Vicksburg. If he otherwise failed Lincoln, he was just another in a long line of military failures that Lincoln had a positive penchant for selecting. And he WAS a damn fine clerk under Grant in the end!

  2. Washington D.C. can sully the brightest brains, old or new. It is where CYA is practiced at the highest level to this very day.

    Nevertheless, like John has said, ultimately Halleck played his part in winning the war.

  3. To be a truly successful bureaucrat or Washington swamp dweller, you must be able to steal credit for the ideas or success of others. I don’t think Halleck did that, but I will defer to others with more knowledge of Halleck’s career.

  4. Halleck’s talents as a “rear areas” operator were evident before he got to Washington. One need only look at his handling of the Grant/Shiloh situation starting in March 1862 and the ponderous inch-by-inch advance on Corinth. Transfer to Washington provided the perfect setting for these “skills”, which were on full display starting with the Second Bull Run Campaign.

    1. I think about his role in the mismanagement of the pontoons in their transfer to Fredericksburg. Even his supposed skills as a logistician seemed iffy.

  5. A good administrator can be worth his/her weight in gold, especially if no longer occupying a position that calls for other skills. Perhaps Halleck’s reputation should include the fact that he found his true calling, without bitterness, as a first rate clerk, and succeeded in it. Glory always goes to the visible frontline, but the person in the background keeping details in order and available when needed enables the standard bearers; without them, all would be chaos (or, in the case of the Civil War, even more chaotic).

  6. I think the true irony of the situation is US Grant’s role in Halleck’s ultimate image & contributions. Early in the war even though it was Halleck trying to suppress Grant’s rising image by relieving him from command after Ft. Donelson & again after Shiloh, it was Grant’s aggressive drives south & victories that raised Halleck’s star in Lincoln’s mind & resulted in his promotion to Commanding General. Then in the spring of 1864 when Grant came East & decided he would have his HQ with the Army of the Potomac, he needed a subordinate who could help him politically interface with Lincoln as well as coordinate major logistics, administration, & Grant’s decisions with the wide spread commands. Halleck who proved weak as a commander but solid as an administrator was a natural selection as Chief of staff.

  7. I find little irony between the “Old Brains” nickname being sarcastically awarded and his job as a clerk with high rank. That fits naturally. Halleck’s mortal sin was sidelining Grant and the irony I see is that Grant kept him as liaison with Stanton and Lincoln when Grant could have dismissed him. Grant also had an eye for a good quartermaster, as he was in Mexico, and was confident Halleck could keep him well supplied in material and manpower. As Lincoln acknowledged Halleck was first rate at that.

  8. Well, Halleck was able to “hang around” in Washington, DC through most of the war. His personality seems to reflect quite a few others of that time and those circumstances as far as assigning blame to others and generally backbiting those who he deemed worthy of that. He did seem to serve in a good enough capacity as Chief of Staff once Grant was placed in command of all Union forces. When I think of Halleck I often think of the character David Spade played in the movie “Coneheads”. I’ll just leave it at that.

  9. The ultimate irony is that once Grant was appointed as General in Chief, Halleck finally got his “sea legs” as a very effective chief of staff … while Old Brains remained surly, gruff and one of most disliked men in Washington, Lincoln recognized his talents as an administrator and created the chief of staff position for Halleck to fill … Halleck’s role was to coordinate, liaison, and interpret Grant’s intent, write detailed orders, and then communicate those orders to other departments — not an insignificant job … Old Brains finally got to use his “superior” intellect to do what he was comfortable doing — advising and not deciding … and to his credit, Halleck served the nation loyally, and without complaint, in this far lesser role … so, good of for Old Brains.

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