Mr. Lincoln's Office: The Case of Major John Key
After the Battle of Antietam and the release of the draft Emancipation Proclamation, it came to President Lincoln's attention that Major John J. Key had said that defeating the Confederate army on the battlefield was not the Union objective: "That is not the game...the object is that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery." Key's comment came in answer to a question by another officer: "Why was not the rebel army bagged immediately after the battle near Sharpsburg?"
President Lincoln called in Key, an officer on General Henry W. Halleck's staff, and interviewed him. Because Key's brother was an aide to General George B. McClellan, there was fear that Key's comments represented a broader feeling among the officer corps. One September 26, President Lincoln sent Key a note requesting him to furnish evidence that he had not made the statement in question. Key did not contest Turner's testimony and President Lincoln wrote: "In my view it is wholly inadmissable for any gentleman holding a military commission from the United States to utter such sentiments as Major Key is within [a packet of documents] proved to have done. Therefore let Major John J Key be forthwith dismissed from the Military service of the United States." 1 Two years later, President Lincoln said to secretary John Hay, "I dismissed Major Key for his silly treasonable talk because I feared it was staff talk & I wanted an example," 2
Key protested his dismissal with a "bundle of letters," the contents of which are not known. But President Lincoln's reply of November 24, 1862 exists. So does a note of December 27 stating: "I can not find sufficient ground the change the conclusion therein arrived at." Mr. Lincoln wrote the note on the envelope containing his copy of the earlier letter:
A bundle of letters including one from yourself, was, early last week, handed me by Gen. Halleck, as I understood, at your request. I sincerely sympathise with you in the death of your brave and noble son.