looking back

‘Looking Back’: Henry Halleck

By Kinen Carvala

Why would a Golden Gate Park monument dedicated to one of the framers of California’s Constitution “revive painful feelings,” as said by the Oakland Tribune?

Henry Halleck was born on Jan. 16, 1815, in rural upstate New York. At the age of 20, he entered the United States Military Academy, aka “West Point,” to study mathematics and engineering, plus a course on strategy influenced by Napoleon’s campaigns, according to Mark Greenbaum’s New York Times piece “Lincoln’s Do-Nothing Generals.” 

After graduating third in his class in 1839, Halleck was sent to France by Major General Winfield Scott for further studies. When Halleck returned to the U.S. to give lectures, his lecture notes became the military textbook “Elements of Military Art and Science.” Halleck’s nickname became “Old Brains,” according to Ethan S. Rafuse’s article “McClellan and Halleck at War: The Struggle for Control of the Union War Effort in the West, November 1861-March 1862.” Halleck also translated a French biography about Napoleon.

The statue dedicated to Henry Halleck, one of the framers of the California Constitution, is hidden among trees and is barely visible on the south side of JFK Drive near the Tennis Center in Golden Gate Park. Photo by Michael Durand.

When the U.S. annexed Texas in 1845, Mexican-American relations worsened with border disputes between Texas and Mexico. War erupted when expansionist U.S. President James Polk ordered troops into disputed territory, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Historian.

At the beginning of the Mexican-American war, there was no U.S. state of California; it was still Alta California within Mexico. When Halleck sailed into Monterey Bay on Jan. 26, 1847, Mexican forces in Alta California had already surrendered to U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John C. Frémont earlier that month. Halleck made recommendations on coastal defense, including inspecting San Francisco Bay, according to John D. Yates’s article “Insurgents on the Baja Peninsula: Henry Halleck’s Journal of the War in Lower California, 1847-1848.” Halleck was appointed secretary of state for the Territory of California on Aug. 13, 1847. Soon he joined a military campaign for U.S. control over Baja California.

Halleck led very small groups of American forces on land to scout out the region and rescue American prisoners. Halleck also supported naval expeditions to blockade or seize Mexican ports, according to Yates. For Halleck’s “meritorious service in California,” he received a back-dated promotion from Washington, D.C.

The California State Library notes Halleck as one of the signers of California’s first state constitution in 1849, when the convention adopted a state seal including the motto “Eureka,” Greek for “I have found it.” (Eureka was only adopted as the official state motto in 1963, according to the Secretary of State of California.)

In 1855, Halleck married Elizabeth Hamilton (born 1831), the granddaughter of the United States’ first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, according to the United States Military Academy Department of History’s “Women of West Point” virtual tour.

Henry Halleck built the four-story Montgomery Block building in 1853, which he considered earthquake- and fire-proof, according to Peter Lawrence Kane. The building attracted white-collar professionals but later writers like Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London worked there. The building survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, and was registered as a historical landmark in 1933, but the Block building was demolished to meet demand for denser construction in downtown San Francisco. The Transamerica Pyramid eventually took the Block building’s place. Halleck Street is a few blocks to the southeast.

A close-up of the statue in Golden Gate Park dedicated to Henry Halleck. His scholarly treatise, “Elements of Military Art and Science,” earned him the nickname “Old Brains.” Photo by Michael Durand.

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln disagreed with several of his West Point-educated generals, including Halleck. Lincoln did not receive a traditional military education but was focused on how to use military force to aggressively engage Confederate forces and bring the entire Confederacy back into the United States.

While Halleck was effective in Missouri in improving stability in the Union slave state early in the war, the eHistory biography page at Ohio State University attributes Halleck’s later success in advancing south to his subordinates, including Ulysses S. Grant. Russell S. Perkins writing for the project “Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict 1855-1865” stated that, when Halleck took command of the advance on Corinth, Mississippi, he was so cautious that he took two months to move 22 miles, eventually taking the town but the Confederate Army of Tennessee escaped even though it only had half the strength of Halleck’s forces. Halleck was formally appointed general-in-chief but acted more as advisor than strategist, distancing himself from the responsibility of Union defeats on the battlefield and alienating his subordinates.

Lincoln described Halleck as “little more than a first rate clerk,” according to the American Battlefield Trust. After Grant was promoted to general-in-chief of the Union armies in March 1864, Halleck was moved to chief-of-staff, according to Perkins.

Halleck died on Jan. 9, 1872, in Louisville, Kentucky.

In a piece on Golden Gate Park on Oct. 1, 1886, the Oakland Tribune wrote:

“The erection of Halleck’s statue may please some of his personal friends, but it will also revive painful feelings.”

The same piece called Halleck an “incubus and a marplot.”

The monument for Halleck was dedicated a few weeks later (about 14 years after his death), according to The Record-Union newspaper in Sacramento with the inscription on the front north side:

“Major-General Henry W. Halleck General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States, 1862-1864” 

On the back side:

“A tribute to his memory from his friend”

That friend who funded the monument was Gen. George Washington Cullum, according to a National Park Service paper. Cullum was another engineer and Civil War general. After Halleck died, Cullum married Halleck’s widow.

The base on the southern side of the monument also has granite facsimiles of Halleck’s work, referencing the California Constitution, military writings and a book on international law written by Halleck and published in 1861.

The monument is made of granite and is 15 feet, 10 inches tall, according to the SF Arts Commission.

The monument is across from the Conservatory of Flowers, under trees on the south side of JFK Drive, 300 feet east of Nancy Pelosi Drive. It is at the northeast corner of the Golden Gate Park Tennis Center. Find a collection of “Looking Back” columns by Kinen Carvala online at RichmondSunsetNews.com. 

1 reply »

  1. Halleck married the sister of his roommate (for two years), Schuyler Hamilton, at West Point. She was also descended from the very rich Van Renselaer family of upstate New York, on whose plantation near Albany were kept dozens of slaves up to 1830s. Halleck also arranged for Schuyler Hamilton to work as assistant superintendent at the New Almaden mercury mine south of San Jose for a while. (Halleck served as General Manager there.) Halleck also introduced him in San Francisco to WT Sherman, who gave him a position at Sherman’s bank for a while.


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