Halleck and Meade in the Days After Gettysburg

“Old Brains” Henry W. Halleck

Making fun of Henry Halleck is almost a cottage industry unto itself. For instance, when I mention him in talks, I tend to point out that he looks like he spent the night on a park bench before shuffling into work. Lincoln would famously compare him to “little more than a first-rate clerk.” Despite Halleck’s nickname “Old Brains,” Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles said Halleck “originates nothing, anticipates nothing . . . takes no responsibility, plans nothing, suggests nothing, is good for nothing.”

Reading through the correspondence between Halleck and George Gordon Meade in the wake of the battle of Gettysburg, I can see Welles’ description in action. Let’s take a look at what Halleck originated, anticipated, planned, and suggested.

As an important piece of context, we have to remember that Halleck, as general in chief of the Union armies, sits in an odd catbird seat. On one hand, he faces the political bloodlust of Abraham Lincoln, desperate for a Union victory that crushes Robert E. Lee’s army. The surrender of Vicksburg on July 4 gets Lincoln’s blood up even more as he contemplates the possibility of twin, Confederacy-breaking wins. We know that Halleck conferred with Lincoln frequently, and we can assume that at least some of what Halleck conveys to Meade is actually coming from Lincoln.

But we can’t assume everything Halleck says comes from Lincoln. Halleck liked to cover his own butt, and he would sometimes couch things in terms that sounded like they came from Lincoln but were, in fact, his own ideas. Making them sound like they came from Lincoln would give his comments additional weight.

On the other hand, Halleck is hobbled by an ignorance about the Army of the Potomac’s physical state and logistical situation. Since Meade’s appointment to army command on June 28, the AoP commander had made strenuous efforts to secure supplies for his men, horses, and mules but still faced major deficiencies of food, shoes, clothes, and fodder. Complicating things, he’d intended to set up his supply base near Westminster, Maryland, in anticipation of fighting along Pipe Creek—thirty miles from Gettysburg. Poor weather beginning on July 4 also adds a complication.

So keep those conditions in mind as we look at Halleck’s correspondence: he’s navigating political reality on one hand and military reality on the other, with a lot of wishful thinking glazed over the whole thing.

With a couple exceptions, I’ll keep the focus on Halleck so we can see for ourselves what he originates, anticipates, plans, and suggests. Correspondence comes from the O.R., volume 27, part 3; page numbers are in parenthesis. My own commentary appears in brackets.

July 5, Halleck to Meade: “Your movements are perfectly satisfactory. (79)

July 5, Halleck to Meade: “So long as your movements cover Baltimore and Washington from Lee’s main army, they are in no danger from any force the enemy may detach for a raid.” (80) [I assume here “they” refers to the cities, not “Lee’s main army,” although the sentence structure makes that less clear than it could be.]

July 6, Halleck to Meade: Worried about a bridge at Harper’s Ferry that might provide Lee “a good crossing,” Halleck directed: “No time should be lost in throwing troops on to Maryland Heights.” (81)

July 7, 8:45 p.m, Halleck to Meade.: “You have given the enemy a stunning blow at Gettysburg. Follow it up, and give him another before he can reach the Potomac. When he crosses, circumstances will determine whether it will be best to pursue him by the Shenandoah Valley or this side of the Blue Ridge. . . . [I]f vigorously pressed, he must suffer.” (82-83)

July 7, Halleck to Meade: “Maryland Heights . . . should be held.” (83)

July 7, Halleck to Meade: “Push forward, and fight Lee before he can cross the Potomac.” (83) [In short: “Hurry up.”

July 7: From Lincoln to Halleck, passed on the Meade: “We have certain information that Vicksburg surrendered to General Grant on the 4th of July. Now, if General Meade can complete his work, so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over.” (83) [Note: this is the first time the “destruction of Lee’s army” is articulated as an immediate aim for Meade. Perhaps it’s something that could be implied up to this point, but considering the state of the AoP at the moment, it’s an alarming escalation from “cover(ing) Baltimore and Washington from Lee’s main army” to “give him another (stunning blow) before he can reach the Potomac.”)

July 8, Halleck to Meade: “There is reliable information that the enemy is crossing at Williamsport. The opportunity to attack his divided forces should not be lost. The President is urgent and anxious that your army should move against him by forced marches.” (84) [In short: More “Hurry up.”]

July 8, Meade to Halleck: “My information as to the crossing of the enemy does not agree with that just received in your dispatch. . . . My army is and has been making forced marches, short of rations, and barefooted. . . . I take occasion to repeat that I will use my utmost efforts to push forward this army.” (85) [Meade and Halleck are working from different sets of intelligence, casting Halleck in a position to “armchair general.”]

July 8, Halleck to Meade: “If Lee’s army is so divided by the river, the importance of attacking the part on this side is incalculable. Such an opportunity may never occur again. If, on the contrary, he has massed his whole force on the Antietam, time must be taken to also concentrate your forces. . . . My only fear now is that the enemy may escape by crossing the river.” (85) [I read this as “Do this, but do that.”]

July 9, 3:00 p.m., Halleck to Meade: “The evidence that Lee’s army will fight north of the Potomac seems reliable. In that case you will want all your forces at hand. . . . Do not be influenced by any dispatch from here against your own judgment. Regard them as suggestions only.” (88) [An interesting shift in attitude from “Hurry up” to “wait and consolidate.” That’s understandable in the context of changing circumstance, but the larger message here is “Do what I tell you to, but really I’m just making suggestions.” Or as Welles might have characterized it, “takes no responsibility”. . . .]

July 9, 4:30 p.m., Halleck to Meade: “I fully appreciate the importance of the coming battle.” (88)

July 10, 9 p.m., Halleck to Meade: “I think it will be best for you to postpone a general battle till you can concentrate all your forces and get up your reserves and reenforcements. . . . Beware of partial combats. Bring up and hurl upon the enemy all your forces, good and bad. (89) [All the “hurry up and fight” is not “hurry up and consolidate.”]

July 13, 9:30 p.m., Halleck to Meade: “You are strong enough to attack and defeat the enemy before he can effect a crossing. Act upon your own judgment and make your generals execute your orders. . . . Do not let the enemy escape.” (92)

July 14, 1 p.m., Halleck to Meade, after the ANV slipped away: “The enemy should be pursued and cut up, wherever he may have gone. . . . I need hardly say to you that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle has created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President, and it will require an active and energetic pursuit on your part to remove this impression that it has not been sufficiently active heretofore.” (92)

So, were Halleck’s admonitions helpful or not to Meade? Distracting? How do they reflect political reality vs. military reality?

Knowing that Meade is also talking to Lincoln off-thread (and undocumented to us), it’s impossible to know what Halleck originates.

Without Meade’s side of the conversation—which is necessarily lengthy because of everything he needs to communicate, and why I didn’t include it here—it’s hard to get a real sense of what Halleck anticipates. Certainly, he anticipated Harper’s Ferry as a possible crossing point for Lee and directed Meade to cover that avenue (although Meade seems to have had that under control).

And, contrary to Welles’s characterizations, Halleck explicitly tells Meade to regard his comments “as suggestions only” (emphasis added). It’s hard to read that, though. My wife, for instance, often “suggests” things for me to do around the house, but those aren’t suggestions! In Halleck’s case, I see them as endemic of his “cover my butt” tendencies—his refusal to take responsibility for things.

There’s room here for alternative interpretations, though. I would encourage you to read the O.R.s for yourself. Let me know what you think!

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12 Responses to Halleck and Meade in the Days After Gettysburg

  1. Chris Kolakowski says:

    It is interesting to read these notes in light of Halleck’s question to Rosecrans on July 7: “Will you neglect the chance” to finish Bragg’s army?

    Looking specifically at what you quoted, it is interesting how Halleck offers thoughts but also lets Meade exercise his judgment. Then again, a suggestion from a superior officer is usually a directive. These notes must have been as open to interpretation to Meade as they are today. The contrast with Grant’s directives in 1864-65 to his far-flung armies is striking.

    Very interesting.

  2. grandadpookers says:

    Chris, this is an interesting collection of the salient communications. I read Eric Wittenberg”s”Continuous Fight” book on Meade’s pursuit of Lee, concluding Meade faced impossible odds to catch and engage Lee in decisive battle. Thanks for your timely piece on the anniversary of Lee’s narrow escape.

  3. Mike Maxwell says:

    It is fun to bash Henry Halleck, the itchy-elbowed, goggle-eyed nincompoop. And it begs the question: HOW did such an incompetent pretender gain the Army’s top job in July 1862?
    And the answer is equally unsettling: Major General Halleck had provided excellent service in the West (despite the efforts of detractors to paint “Halleck at St. Louis” and “Halleck at Washington” with the same brush.) Some of Halleck’s achievements, pre-Washington: secured Missouri for the Union; coordinated the successful completion of four near-simultaneous campaigns, at Pea Ridge Arkansas (Curtis), Island No.10 (Pope and Foote) and Grant’s move up the Tennessee River (which incorporated Buell’s reinforcing movement from Nashville in support of Grant.) Halleck is also responsible for resurrecting William Tecumseh Sherman’s career; and for shielding U.S. Grant after the bloody, near-disaster at Pittsburg Landing. And Major General Halleck accomplished these results from hundreds of miles away, while sitting at a desk, via information gleaned from his favorite instrument of modern technology: the telegraph.
    So, what went wrong?
    It is this author’s opinion that the removal of George McClellan as General-in-Chief of the Union Armies in March 1862 deprived Henry Halleck of “adequate supervision.” And Halleck immediately realized this new reality, and took advantage of it, exploiting Lincoln and Stanton’s amateurish effort(s) as “McClellan’s Team-replacement General-in-Chief” for his own benefit… While in the field, in command of 100,000 troops marching on Corinth Mississippi, Halleck extended the telegraph line and provided real-time status reports to Washington, D.C. (which impressed civilian commanders who NEVER received timely information from George McClellan.) And taking advantage of “long-distance, difficult to verify communication,” Major General Halleck “gilded the lily,” and provided “what Lincoln and Stanton wanted to hear… and not necessarily the truth” at conclusion of the Pursuit of Beauregard after the Occupation of Corinth… And a profoundly gratified Nation called Henry Halleck, and his Key Lieutenant, John Pope, to Washington for appropriate reward… and the Theory of the Peter Principle was thus confirmed.

    • John Pryor says:

      Love it, Mike! He was poison at the heart of Union military efforts.

      • Mike Maxwell says:

        However… if Henry Halleck had been killed by a sniper during the May 1862 Crawl to Corinth, he would likely be remembered today for all those noteworthy achievements, accomplished from his desk in St. Louis. And the “What if…” brigade would have everlasting food for thought.
        All the best
        Mike Maxwell

  4. John Pryor says:

    Halleck did the same aggressive/passive two step with Rosecrans up to and during the Tullahoma Campaign.

  5. Brian Swartz says:

    Good post, Chris. I do wonder “what if” Lee had slipped east past Meade (perhaps below Frederick) and lunged for Washington, D.C. or Baltimore. But that’s a “what if” for another day.

    • nygiant1952 says:

      Well, Lee would have waited for Stuart and the rest of the cavalry to join him before thinking ofmaking any advance. And if the AoP was holed up behind the Pip Creek Line, Lee had the entire Cumberland Valley to raid. And Stuart now was there to screen the ANV.

      Again, a foreign invading enemy army on American soil. Where is McClellan when you need him?

  6. Douglas Pauly says:

    The communications back and forth between Halleck and Meade represent the reality of being an actual field commander and one who is desk bound. Throw in other factors not mentioned here, like Congressional meddling, media, and the inner workings of Lincoln’s admin (all of which Halleck would be subjected to), and it’s not hard to understand why there would be such considerable ‘disconnects’ between participants, but particularly Halleck and Meads.

  7. mark harnitchek says:

    OK Chris, I’ll bite … I did my OR homework … as you suggested, I read all the Meade – Halleck exchanges (51 in all) between the 4th and 14th of July … I am jumping off the anti-Halleck bandwagon and taking the contrarian view: General Halleck energetically and effectively discharged his duties as General in Chief between the 4th and 14th of July … I never thought I would celebrate Old Brains as I too was a hater … but alas, he deserves it for those 11 days in July ’63!

    As always, context matters … here’s mine:

    Orders – the AOP was operating under the same orders from the week before: “Maneuver and fight in such a manner as to protect Baltimore and the capital” … a point of order on the meaning of “maneuver and fight” … that phrase has entirely different meaning depending on circumstance … so, given the new operational situation on July 4th , “maneuver and fight” meant the AOP had the opportunity to give a significantly diminished ANV another shellacking … therefore, orders from Halleck which state “give him another (stunning blow)” or Lincoln’s missive to Halleck (and relayed to Meade) about “the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army” are nothing new or mission creep … general officers of the period would know that.

    Halleck and Lincoln – No doubt they spoke at least once a day, of course they did … so, it doesn’t matter “who it’s coming from” as you mention … the AOP’s orders from the week before stand – find and fight Lee’s army … that’s the mission, period.

    Realities – You mention the difference between military and political reality between Halleck and Meade … that’s standard in military operations – your boss doesn’t know all that you know, and the converse is true … that’s why these gents communicated in near real-time at least 3 times day … I contend that, for the majority of the time, their realities were pretty close … i.e., Halleck knows what the army needs, Meade knows what the boss wants, both have the same intel, and are reading the same maps.

    Grading Halleck’s Performance – If we are judging Old Brains we need a set of criteria … here’s four big tasks a General-in- Chief must do well.
    • Ensure the Commander-in-Chief’s orders and intentions are executed (i.e., give orders).
    • Provide his commanders with intelligence and offer operational advice (not orders) … i.e., “have you thought about this” or “you might want to consider that”.
    • Anticipate and provide support (logistics, reinforcement, et al) to enable the commander to execute his mission.
    • Maintain clear lines of communication to reduce miscalculation, misunderstanding and to ensure a common operational picture (i.e., Halleck and Meade both know the 5 W’s – who, what, where, when and why).

    Setting the Stage: Lee abandoned his positions on the 4th … BG Imboden led the train of wounded, wagons and prisoners west on the Chambersburg Pike and then south to Williamsport, MD … the ANV took the shorter route directly south through Fairfield.

    Meade waited to ascertain what Lee was is doing – i.e., resume the fight or retreat … he determined the ANV was retreating and had the AOP moving on the 5th and the 6th … while unencumbered with wounded, wagons and prisoners, the AOP was 12-24 hours behind the ANV which was on a more direct route to the Potomac.

    On the 5th, Meade relayed to Halleck his intentions to “maneuver and fight” the ANV: harry the ANV logistics train with cavalry, recon the ANV heading toward Fairfield with VI Corps, and move south using the AOP main body to shield Baltimore and DC. Everyone with a map in the Union chain of command knew that ANV had a head start and the AOP had further to go … to catch Lee north of the Potomac, the AOP would have to hustle. (great maps at: Retreat from Gettysburg – Wikipedia )

    BOTTOMLINE UPFRONT: Using the criteria above, Halleck gets an A- as General-in-Chief between 4 and 14 July ’63 … I would have given him an A if he wasn’t such a tool.

    Here’s the breakdown

    EXECUTING THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF’S ORDERS: Halleck gave Meade two “big” operational orders … the first order was on the 7th – “You have given the enemy a stunning blow at Gettysburg. Follow it up and give him another before he can reach the Potomac.”
    That’s an order, no mistake … but one wonders why the need for the order if Meade was already moving … my take: On the 5th, BG Haupt (the RR general) met with Meade who indicated his intentions to rest his troops before pursuing the ANV … Haupt, Meade’s West Point classmate, told his friend he had better hustle to catch Lee before he crossed the Potomac … Haupt then proceeded to DC and met with Halleck, Stanton and Lincoln on the 6th … Haupt’s message: Meade is not moving fast enough to catch Lee north of the Potomac, Haupt recommended ordering Meade to pursue Lee and intercept him as he retreats down the Cumberland Valley.

    To ensure that Meade understands this mission, Halleck confirms it with this order on the 7th. Reading Meade’s energetic dispatches in the following days indicates he gets it … and while Meade mentions the need for shoes, provisions and the heavy rains, he follows with “ … the spirit of the Army is high, the men are ready and willing to make every exertion to push forward.” … one corps marched yesterday and last night over 30 miles. I take this occasion to repeat I will use my utmost efforts to push forward this army.” “I think the decisive battle of the war will be fought in the next few days.” (OR 8 & 9 July). Meade is pumped!

    The other “big order” Halleck gave was on the 13th which directed Meade to assault Lee’s lodgment on the Potomac … a stockade lawyer might argue that Halleck’s phrase “act upon your own judgement” gave Meade an out — it did not … I read “Do not let the enemy escape” as a directive. This is issue is beyond Chris’ homework assignment and a good topic for further discussion.

    BOTTOMLINE: This is what an effective General in Chief does — ensures subordinates understand and execute the mission … the rest is up to AOP Commander.

    PROVIDE HIS COMMANDERS WITH INTELLIGENCE AND OPERATIONAL ADVICE: Halleck continually provided situational awareness to Meade and makes many thoughtful suggestions … again, there’s a consistent flow of info back and forth as these two guys are clearly having a conversation … here’s a classic from Halleck to ensure Meade doesn’t interpret HQ missives as direction … on the 9th, Halleck sends: “Do not be influenced by any dispatch from here against your own judgement. Regard them as suggestions only. Our information here is not always correct.”

    BOTTOMLINE: That is good stuff from Old Brains and Meade was no doubt happy to read it.

    ANTICIPATE REQUIREMENTS AND PROVIDE SUPPORT: Halleck shines here … he is johnny on the spot with shoes (“arriving at Frederick today”), provisions and reinforcements for the AOP … if Meade asks, Halleck makes it happen – no arguments, no second guessing … here’s some troop numbers which illustrate that point: the AOP’s returns on the 6th indicate 55,000 effectives plus CAV … by the 13th, the AOP mustered 67,000 … meanwhile the ANV gets no troops or ammo resupply.

    BOTTOMLINE: Again, rapid support by Halleck … he’s also thinking several moves ahead and anticipating Meade’s requirements.

    MAINTAIN CLEAR AND FREQUENT LINES OF COMMUNICATION: Both officers do this extremely well … dispatches are frequent, timely, crisply written, and value-added … Halleck, an army commander himself, understands the reality of having boots-on-the ground … likewise, Meade understands the political forces Halleck must maneuver in … I have a newfound respect for both these gents reading their message traffic.

    BOTTOMLINE: High grades for Old Brains (and Meade) on comms.

    Well folks, that’s about it … thanks to Chris for plowing through the ORs and posing such a thoughtful question … I learned a lot doing my homework and have a fresh appreciation for Old Brains, General Meade and the great citizen soldiers in the AOP.

    Regrets on the length, but Chris asked a hard question. ?

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      Thanks for this comprehensive, expertly constructed analysis of Meade/ Halleck communications during period June/ July 1863.
      The ancillary lesson: pursuit of a well-led Army, in process of disciplined withdrawal, is no easy task.

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      Excellent analysis! Thanks for taking the time and effort to share that.

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