Halleck: The Art of Pretending to Say Something or Nothing

Henry Halleck

I came across a dispatch from Henry Halleck to U.S. Grant the other day that serves as a nearly perfect Halleckism.

By early April 1863, Grant was undertaking yet another of his attempts at Vicksburg, this time up the Yazoo River. Although all had come to naught, Grant kept trying, but Halleck was running out of patience (and, I’d go so far to say, hoping for Grant to fail). President Lincoln, though, seemed content for the time being to let Grant keep trying. Halleck, though, intimated to Grant that Lincoln’s patience was beginning to wear thin.

Writing on April 9, Halleck offered this fine rhetorical gem:

“You are too well advised of the anxiety of the Government for your success, and its disappointment at the delay, to render it necessary to urge upon you the importance of early action.”[1]

Let me translate: I don’t need to tell you how anxious the government is, but by telling you that I don’t need to tell you, I’m telling you while I’m pretending I’m not.

Halleck was great at saying nothing while pretending to say something, or saying what he wanted while couching it in ways that sounded like he wasn’t saying anything. He was a verbal eel.

I don’t have a whole lot of respect for “Old Brains,” who was more worried about preserving his reputation than maybe even winning the war. His equivocations were endless. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had it perfectly right when in the summer of 1863, he said Halleck “originates nothing, anticipates nothing . . . takes no responsibility, plans nothing, suggests nothing, is good for nothing.”[2]

I wonder what Old Brains would think if he could see what his reputation has become—the reputation he tried so hard to preserve.


[1] Halleck to Grant, 9 April 1863, OR XXIV, Pt. 1, 28.

[2] Gideon Welles, diary, vol. 1, 26 July 1863, 384.

8 Responses to Halleck: The Art of Pretending to Say Something or Nothing

  1. The greatest gift Lincoln gave to the Confederacy. Not just an efficient clerk, but an absolutely destructive passive-aggressive figure.

  2. Loose lips sink ships.
    There is little doubt that Henry Halleck was a martinet; an unpleasant, officious individual cast in the same mould as Edwin Stanton. But while Stanton made use of abrasive speech and a threatening demeanor in achieving aims, Halleck employed silence; kept his own counsel; revealed “only what was necessary” to the operators of his grand schemes (because “information is power.”) And when forced to “provide information” that he preferred to keep in the shadows, he employed shadowy language.
    What Halleck did not appreciate [perhaps he did not care, even if he knew…]: “lack of guidance and overall direction by a commander to his subordinates – in an effort to avoid revealing finer details – begets rumor to fill the void.” Subordinates “make stuff up,” and connect widely separated dots with “plausible” threads; or become depressed due to lack of clarity and direction [and hence: no perceived meaning, in their exertions.]
    U.S. Grant famously approached Halleck at St. Louis to offer advice on “taking Fort Henry.” Grant did not know that Halleck had been in consultation with Flag-Officer Andrew Foote; and that Foote had convinced Halleck to “wait for the imminent arrival of 13-inch mortars before conducting the operation against Fort Henry.” And Halleck did not reveal this information to Grant in course of their meeting. Instead, Halleck just stared at Grant during Grant’s presentation; said nothing. And U.S. Grant returned to Cairo feeling slighted.
    Halleck remains an enigma: he never wrote a Memoir; took his inner secrets to the grave. Yet, as much as Henry Halleck was unpleasant, he was effective: as Commander, Department of Missouri, he secured his base at St. Louis; coordinated the Federal movement up the Tennessee River; and provided necessary support to Samuel Curtis that resulted in Victory at Pea Ridge (and secured Missouri.) Elevated to Command of the expanded Department of the Mississippi, Halleck directed manpower and war material to the campaign most needing them, at the time: Island No.10… then Grant at Pittsburg Landing; then collected the Armies of Pope, Grant and Buell together into an irresistible Force directed against Corinth Mississippi. And for the almost bloodless Victory against Beauregard at Corinth, Halleck was promoted once more… called to Washington… and failed to meet expectations.

    1. While Halleck did achieve all those things you mention in the last paragraph, he often did so at the expense of those serving under him. Look, for instance, at all his double dealing with Grant in the wake of Donelson, telling Grant one thing while throwing him under the bus to McClellan at the same time. His own personal ambition and jealousy got in his way from achieving the sort of success his “Old Brains” reputation might have actually merited.

  3. I agree with you and Welles, Chris. I feel Halleck was a worthless bureaucrat who would be a perfect fit in today’s Department of Defense bureaucracy.

  4. I am with Mr. Maxwell on Halleck being more than just a one-dimensional character … Old Brains gets zero points as General-in-Chief when it mattered most in 1862 and his imperious manner with seniors, subordinates (Grant included), and civilians endeared him to no one … therefore there’s no grounds to rehabilitate his reputation on this front.

    But he was the longest serving General-in-Chief and, when relieved in 1864, he served Grant loyally as his Chief of Staff – a big job that needed to be done well and one perfectly suited to Old Brains … so, with the roles reversed, Halleck bit his tongue and served honorably for the rest of the war.

    With regard to the OR quote, context is important … Halleck’s missive is in response to Grant’s dispatch of 29 March 63, and deals with mundane matters such as the return of supply steamers and comms with MGEN Banks … it’s simply part of the daily conversation between Halleck in DC and Grant in theater … the complete quote in question follows, note the addition of the final sentence:

    “You are too well advised of the anxiety of the Government for your success, and its disappointment at the delay, to render it necessary to urge upon you the importance of early action. I am confident that you will do everything possible to open the Mississippi River.”

    A few comments on the utility of the full statement … first, it was Halleck’s job to ensure Grant knows the tenor of the atmosphere in Washington … in fact, given that he passes Grant little operational direction, one could argue it’s Halleck’s most important job … this he does in the first sentence and he then gives Grant his full “confidence” in the final sentence — that’s the operative part of this paragraph … second, Halleck and Grant would know that the entire chain of command – up and down — would see this correspondence … so, Halleck’s vote of confidence goes far beyond just a “shot in the arm” for Grant.

    Finally, and we’ll never know this for sure, but it’s very possible that Halleck was either directed by Stanton, Lincoln, or both these gents to ensure Grant “understands how important this campaign is” … recall that Grant was an unknown quantity in April ’63 and Charles Dana was sent west by Stanton to check up on Grant.

    On a final note, Halleck was effusive in his praise for Grant and his army in both official reports and his personal messages of congratulations after Vicksburg and Chattanooga … Halleck is a fascinatingly complex guy, very weird, but complex nonetheless.

    PS – thanks for the forum where we can have these discussions … much more fun when we all don’t agree.

  5. “Verbal eel” is great, Chris. Have you tried your hand at poetry? In 1864 Halleck, in typical fashion, obstructed Grant’s efforts to reorganize the Union command of forces needed to finally suppress Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley. At the least, he failed to put Grant’s clear guidance into effect. Grant had to travel to Washington to get the situation unraveled. Typical Halleck, unfortunately. Grant tried to get Halleck transferred to California.

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