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Henry Wager Halleck

by Jack Leibman

As a follow-up to last month's excellent history of the Montgomery Block, it is appropriate to consider the life and career of Henry Halleck, the builder of the Block. He is memorialized by a statue in Golden Gate Park, by Halleck Street between Leidesdorff and Front Streets, and by Halleck Street in the Presidio, from Lincoln Blvd. to Crissy Field.

The Halleck monument stands on the south side of JFK Drive in the Park, near the tennis courts, perennially shaded by a grove of coast live oak trees and a towering cypress. The inscription on the monument reads "Tribute To His Memory, from his best friend, Gen. George Callum, 1886." The sculptor was Carl Conrads. At the base of the monument is sculpted a sword crossed on a sheath, surmounted by a book entitled International Law and Military Science. Halleck had important connections to California and San Francisco history, beyond his construction of the Montgomery Block.

A native of New York, Halleck graduated West Point in 1839. He was assigned to California in 1846 to build fortifications for the war with Mexico, and experienced his first combat in that war in 1847 at the capture of Mazatlan. Serving as Lt. Governor of the captured city, he was promoted to Captain. He was transferred north and served under General Riley, Governor General of the California Territory, who then appointed him military secretary of state, 1847-49. In that role he wrote,"Fort San Joaquin, the Presidio and Yerba Buena Battery, as well as the intervening lands, have been occupied for nearly 3/4 of a century by the military forces of Spain and Mexico, and are now in possession of the troops of the U.S." He attended the Constitutional Convention in Monte- rey and was regarded as a principal author of the state constitution. He was nominated for the U.S. Senate, but lost to John C. FrÈmont.

After resigning from the Army in 1854, he quickly established a successful and lucrative law practice, with much land speculation. His law library was renowned, and he became a pre- eminent collector of Californiana, assembling many of the original documents of the Spanish era. Fortunately these were copied and preserved at the Bancroft Library; the originals were destroyed in the Fire of 1906. His wife was the granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton, and the family home in San Francisco was in South Park at 2nd and Folsom.

He was a Director of the Almaden Quicksilver Company, president of the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad (from San Francisco to San Jose), and the owner of the 30,000-acre Rancho Nicasio in Marin. In 1863, after re-appointment to the Army at the start of the Civil War, he gave the definitive order to the Commander of the Department of the Pacific to evict the Black Point squatters and to take military possession of Point San Jose as the first step in the re-fortification of what later became Fort Mason.

Henry Halleck is best known because of his service during the Civil War. He was acclaimed as a scholar ("Old Brains"), whose writings on military tactics and coastal defenses were highly esteemed. His Elements of Military Art and Science became a definitive text for the Civil War. In 1860, Halleck was appointed Major General in the California Militia, and then in the Regular Army, where he was the 4th most senior general. He was assigned to the Department of Missouri, replacing John FrÈmont (who had defeated him in 1850 for Senator from California). He successfully re-organized the disarray left by FrÈmont, and in 1862 Lincoln appointed him General-in-Chief.

However his overly cautious field strategy was a grave disappointment to Lincoln, who described him as "little more than a first-rate clerk." His personality was cold, distant, and forbidding; he was generally disliked. Subsequently, however, he excelled as Lincoln's Chief of Staff, supporting Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan. In 1865, he was re-assigned to the division of the Pacific, and finally to the Division of the South at Louisville, Kentucky, where he died. He was regarded as "one of the fathers of modern warfare," and was a pallbearer at Lincoln's funeral.

Photo courtesy of Jack Leibman

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