Halleck Appointed General-in-Chief Against His Wishes

July 11, 1862 (Friday)

Lincoln: Go East, Young Man!

President Lincoln’s time spent with the Army of the Potomac at Harrison’s Landing was quite a learning experience. Never before had he seen such a force in the field. On the night he arrived, Lincoln put forward several questions to General George B. McClellan, commanding the army. The following day, he asked the same questions to McClellan’s five corps commanders: Generals Sumner, Heintzelman, Keyes, Porter and Franklin.

Lincoln asked about the number of troops at Harrison’s Landing and whether the camps were in a healthy condition. All of the figures given, more or less, matched McClellan’s, as did the outlook of the camps (though General Franklin disagreed). All also agreed that the army was in a fine defensive position. And all but Porter agreed that, if needed, the army could be moved.

There was one question, however, that separated McClellan from his subordinate officers. Lincoln asked if they knew the whereabouts of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. General McClellan stated that it was four or five miles to their front, while the other Generals all claimed that Lee had retired back to the immediate defenses around Richmond.

This did not set well with Lincoln. How could the commander of the Army of the Potomac misjudge the location of his adversary when all five of his corps commanders seemed to know? The answer, of course, was simple. On the 8th, when Lincoln asked McClellan the question, Lee’s army had been four or fives miles distant. By the 9th, however, when Lincoln asked the corps commanders, Lee had moved back to Richmond.1

Much has been made of such discrepancies over the years, but it is fairly easily explained.

Whether Lincoln understood this is unknown, but it did McClellan no favors. He appears to have agreed with the General in one respect, however. McClellan’s “Harrison’s Bar Letter” that was mostly ignored by Lincoln, urged that there should be a General-in-Chief of the entire Federal military. While McClellan hinted through false humility that the title should go to him, Lincoln had General Henry Halleck in mind.

Halleck: Well, if you insist.

Even before his trip to Harrison’s Landing, Lincoln had dispatched Governor William Sprague of Rhode Island to Halleck’s headquarters in Corinth, Mississippi. Officially, Sprague was to see if Halleck could send troops, but unofficially, he was there to see if Halleck would accept the position of General-in-Chief.

General Halleck had captured Corinth, and with it secured Memphis and the Mississippi River south to Vicksburg. Pulling troops away would mean that he might have to give up captured territory. This was the last thing he wanted to do, and so he declined the unofficial offer. A post similar to his own in the west, he believed, should be created in the east. In the west, Halleck commanded three different armies in the field. In the east, a commander could do the same.

When Lincoln returned from Harrison’s Landing, he learned of Halleck’s refusal. And so on this day, he ordered Halleck to be General-in-Chief.2

Ordered, That Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck be assigned to command the whole land forces of the United States as General-in-Chief, and that ho repair to this capital as soon as he can with safety to the positions and operations within the department now under his special charge.

Grant: So, dear Henry, will I be needing my staff?

Halleck’s refusal was dust. His second in command, General Ulysses S. Grant, was in Memphis. He would have to have a face to face chat with him before heading out. Nevertheless, he immediately responded to Washington, telling them that he would leave as soon as he settled his affairs in Mississippi. General William Tecumseh Sherman would take over for Grant.3

When General Grant received Halleck’s orders to come to Corinth, he had no idea why. Halleck didn’t mention that he was called to Washington. He didn’t even let it slip that Grant would be commanding in the west. “You will immediately repair to this place and report to these headquarters,” was all that Halleck said.

Wondering what it was all about, Grant replied, asking if he should come alone or bring his staff. Halleck’s answer was cryptic: “This place will be your headquarters, you can judge for yourself.” This was no help at all, but before the day was out, Grant was on his way to Corinth.4

Mac: Remember me?

Just as Halleck failed to tell Grant that he had been made General-in-Chief, Lincoln didn’t bother to inform McClellan of Halleck’s promotion. On this date, McClellan had no idea of what was going on. It wouldn’t be until July 18th that he first suspected it. “I am inclined now to think that the President will make Halleck commander of the army,” wrote the General to his wife, “and that the first pretext will be seized to supersede me in command of this army.” If that happened, he promised to resign.

By the 20th, he was all but certain. In his typically over-dramatic fashion, he told his wife “I shall have to remove the three stars from my shoulder and put up with two” as his private sources in Washington had rendered Halleck’s promotion quite certain. Even by July 27th, McClellan only knew what he read in the newspapers (and what Halleck told him while he visited Harrison’s Landing). Nobody in Washington seemed to think it was important to mention it. McClellan was eventually smart enough to figure it out on his own.5

But all of this is in the relative future. For the time being, change was in motion, but McClellan was not.

  1. The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 6 edited by Arthur Brooks Lapsley, G.P. Putnam’s sons, 1906. []
  2. Henry Halleck’s War: A Fresh Look at Lincoln’s Controversial General-In-Chief by Curt Anders, Emmis Books, 2002. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 17, Part 2, p90. []
  4. Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant, C.L. Webster & Co., 1885. []
  5. McClellan’s Own Story by George McClellan, C.L. Webster, 1887. []
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Halleck Appointed General-in-Chief Against His Wishes by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International
  1. Eric– You are still being read on a daily basis in Hancok, Md.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Thank you so much! Hancock is a town I always wanted to visit more than I did. Mostly, it was while following Old Route 40 to Sidling Hill. I always meant to get to Fort Frederick, too. Someday, I hope.

      Thank you for reading! It’s really really appreciated.