MSU historian seeks to solve 'mystery' of Civil War general

Contact: Maridith Geuder

MSU historian John Marszalek
MSU historian John Marszalek

Having written an award-winning biography of Gen. William T. Sherman and an armload of other books about the period, Mississippi State historian John F. Marszalek knows a lot about the Civil War and its generals.

But when the university's Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus began to explore the puzzling career of a senior Union officer who was a commanding general longer than anyone else in the four-year conflict, he stumbled into something of a historical vacuum.

Marszalek found that "there seemed to be so little information available" on Henry Halleck.

Not any more. In a new work scheduled to be a History Book Club selection, Marszalek goes further than any before him in solving what he terms "an intriguing detective story."

"Commander of All Lincoln's Armies: A Life of General Henry W. Halleck" is published by Harvard University Press. Marszalek dedicates the 11-chapter, 352-page biography to all the Mississippi State students he taught between 1973 when he joined the university faculty, and his retirement in 2002.

Halleck's career provides an "example of a military commander during a time of war, the way he dealt with a civilian commander-in-chief--in his case, Abraham Lincoln--and how he made decisions," said Joyce Seltzer, the publisher's senior editor for history and contemporary affairs. "The book gives us a sense of civil-military relations and, much more broadly, deals with the question of what constitutes leadership."

Marszalek said "Commander" is the story of a New York native--like Marszalek himself--and accomplished West Point graduate who, by seemingly every account, was an amazingly unsuccessful Civil War commanding general. "I wanted to know why," the author explained.

After graduating third in his West Point Class of 1839, Halleck began a successful career as an engineer. A student of military history, he wrote a major book on military theory and, later, about diplomacy and law.

Marszalek said none studying the officer's early success could have predicted his later ineffectiveness. "As a commander, he had great difficulty making decisions; he just refused to take responsibility," he added.

Leading Union troops in Mississippi, Halleck directed the 1862 Battle of Corinth, where it took his troops a month to advance just 22 miles. Because of the resulting victory, however, Halleck's soldiers began calling him "Old Brains"--a nickname reflecting the fact that very few soldiers were killed in the campaign, rather than the fact that he wrote many books.

Marszalek said describing Halleck as "Old Brains" ultimately came to have a more ironic ring. In particular, Halleck's inability to quickly end the 1862 "peninsula campaign" allowed Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to win a decisive victory at Second Bull Run (or Manassas).

To conduct his in-depth study, Marszalek traveled to the University of California at Berkeley, Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., National Archives in Washington, D.C., and U.S. Military Academy at West Point, among other locations. He also consulted medical and psychological professionals around the nation, including Dr. Robert K. Collins, longtime director of MSU's Longest Student Health Center.

In his travels, Marszalek also discovered a distant Halleck relative who possessed letters and other original documents that helped shed light on why the promising career of a 19th century American military officer took so downhill a turn.

The final product is a major exploration into such physical and psychological factors as Halleck's loss of a twin sister at birth, his alienation from his father and medical ailments that may have included hemochromatosis, which sometimes is called "genetic iron poisoning."

"You can tell in photos of Halleck taken just months apart that there's a noticeable mental and physical strain," Marszalek said.

The Civil War ended in 1865. Halleck lived until 1872, dying from a combination of liver and heart problems on Jan. 9--a week short of his 57th birthday.

For more information on the book, telephone Marszalek at (662) 323-8068.

Mon, 11/22/2004 - 06:00