Henry Halleck graduated from West Point Military Academy third from the top of his class in 1839 and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant to serve in the Corps of Engineers as he demonstrated qualities for research, military science, and instruction. In 1844 he was sent to visit the principal military establishments of Europe and on his return, he delivered a course of lectures, as ‘Elements of Military Art and Science’.
His qualities as a research engineer gained him considerable credit and propelled him through the ranks so that at the outset of the Civil War he was assigned as General in Chief of the Western Theater in 1862. His nickname at the time was “Old Brains”.
Unfortunately, despite his administrative skill, as General in Chief, Halleck never held a position as a field commander and lacked the tactical insights needed to either maneuver soldiers in the field or to appreciate those qualities in his subordinate officers. For Halleck, if a maneuver or tactic wasn’t in the book, his book, it wouldn’t work in the field.
General Ulysses S. Grant was one of Halleck’s principal field commanders and Halleck did not trust him. Before the war Grant had developed a reputation for intemperance and that alone gave Halleck an uneasiness about his abilities. Despite several battles Grant had won in his first years as a commander of troops, Old Brains refused to recognize his skills as a field commander.
With only tentative permission from his boss, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant captured Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River and Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. The two victories enabled Union advances up those rivers well up into mid Tennessee, but Halleck did not consider the victories as anything beyond mere chance and good luck.
As time went by, Halleck’s nickname among his associates changed. From the time he was assigned in the western theater till he was reassigned to more of a staff post in the capitol his moniker evolved from “Old Brains” to “Old Wooden Head”.