Cover: Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck, from Harvard University PressCover: Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies in HARDCOVER

Commander of All Lincoln’s Armies

A Life of General Henry W. Halleck

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Product Details


$47.50 • £38.95 • €43.00

ISBN 9780674014930

Publication Date: 12/17/2004


352 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

26 halftones, 1 line drawing

Belknap Press


With this work, John F. Marszalek fills a large gap in the nineteenth-century U.S. historical record. Despite the considerable roles played by Henry Wager Halleck in disparate fields, no other full biography of the man exists… In preparing this life of Halleck, Marszalek certainly did his homework… Adding to the authoritative nature of the volume is its extensive scholarly apparatus, with 46 pages of endnotes, plus 27 well-chosen illustrations spanning Halleck’s life… Marszalek’s searching and balanced study offers frequent surprises for even the most attentive students of the era.—Malcolm Muir, Jr., American Historical Review

The reader is presented with a richly detailed and engrossing story of one of America’s most notable and influential soldiers of the nineteenth century. John Marszalek is to be commended for his efforts on completing this biography, and he has made a valuable contribution to the study of soldiers and the profession of arms. This book is recommended to those interested both in the U.S. Civil War and army leadership studies.—Major A.B. Godefroy, Canadian Army Journal

Civil War biographies do not come much better, if at all, than John F. Marszalek’s account of Henry Wager Halleck. Written with scholarly precision and aplomb, it recounts the life and contributions of the Union’s top soldier, 1862–1864, from his childhood on a New York farm… Researched in depth, closely reasoned, and energetically presented, Marszalek’s biography will long remain the standard account of Lincoln’s commander in chief.—Paul D. Casdorph, Journal of American History

Painstakingly researched, well written and judicious in its approach, this volume offers the reader valuable insights into the foundation years of the state of California and penetrative analysis of the unstable nature of the command structure of the Union during the war, as well as providing us with what will surely be the standard biography of Halleck for many years to come.—Frank Lennon, Journal of American Studies

John Marszalek has provided the most detailed and authoritative account of Halleck’s early life, initial military career and later professional success as a lawyer… The book, as one would suspect from such an author, is skillfully put together and agreeably written.—Brian Holden Reid, Journal of Military History

John F. Marszalek has provided a most welcome addition to the literature of the Civil War and American history with his biography of Henry Wager Halleck, an outstanding and influential figure in the Old Army, a founding father of California, a legal authority, a highly successful businessman and architect, and an author of incredible breadth… One must notice Marszalek’s bibliographical essay. It is excellent and should stand as a model. For that matter, the author’s objectivity shines throughout. He respects his subject and feels an obligation to the individual and to history… To the joy of the reader, Marszalek writes clearly and unpretentiously. He uses humor and irony effectively and has an eye for humor in a man regarded as grim beyond belief, carefully demonstrating that Halleck had a sharp wit and a sense of humor.—Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Journal of Southern History

‘Old Brains’ seemed an unlikely sobriquet for an officer whom most senior commanders in the Union Army regarded as bumbling and indecisive as a field commander, and hidebound by paperwork as an administrator. Yet, for good or ill, few officers in Lincoln’s army exerted more influence over the course of the Civil War than Henry W. Halleck. John F. Marszalek, one of our finest scholars of the era, provides the first in-depth look at Halleck in more than forty years, and surely the finest work on the subject we are likely to get.—William C. Davis, author of Lone Star Rising: The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic

Often ignored, often disparaged, Henry W. Halleck has long required a serious biography by an accomplished Civil War historian. John Marszalek’s effort was worth the wait. This book finally sheds light on how ‘Old Brains’ earned his moniker, and what he did—and gallingly failed to do—that caused him to forfeit it. Here is a highly valuable, highly readable contribution to Civil War scholarship that not only paints a vivid portrait of a complex life, but sheds much new light on the complexities of 19th-century military command.—Harold Holzer, co-Chairman of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission

In this first full-scale biography of Henry W. Halleck, John Marszalek offers a balanced appraisal of that controversial general’s strengths and weaknesses. An excellent administrator, Halleck could not make command decisions. A disappointment as General in Chief, he nevertheless helped organize Union victory in the Civil War. This important book provides new insights on the Union command structure.—James M. McPherson, author of Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg

Early in the Civil War, Ulysses S Grant assessed Henry W. Halleck as ‘a man of gigantic intellect and well studied in the profession of arms.’ Grant and Abraham Lincoln, among others, would eventually abandon that admiration. In a meticulously researched and intellectually probing biography, John F. Marszalek explores the psychological and physical causes of Halleck’s disappointing performance. In a pathbreaking biography, Marszalek brings a new perspective to the interpretation of the Civil War.—John Y. Simon, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

Henry Halleck has often been dismissed by students of the Civil War as a kind of glorified clerk. That is because until now no scholar has managed to bring to light the full history of this obviously gifted, but equally troubled and complex individual. In this rich and readable biography, John Marszalek at last gives us a convincing three-dimensional portrait of the man who commanded all of Lincoln’s armies in America’s greatest war. And in so doing, he has not only clarified Halleck’s role in the war, he has enhanced our understanding of the war itself.—Craig L. Symonds, U.S. Naval Academy

Not only does this study fill a biographical void; it is also remarkably even-handed for an examination of a figure who never quite measured up to the Civil War responsibilities of his offices… Scrupulous in his scholarship and fair in his judgments, John Marszalek brings to the work a comprehensive mastery of Civil War history that is indispensable.—Russell Weigley, author of The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy

Awards & Accolades

  • Finalist, 2005 Peter Seaborg Award, George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University
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