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!