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.

In regard to my dismissal of yourself from the military service, it seems to me you misunderstand me. I did not charge, or intended to charge you with disloyalty. I had been brought to fear that there was a class of officers in the army, not very inconsiderable in numbers, who were playing a game to not beat the enemy when they could, on some peculiar notion as to the proper way of saving the Union; and when you were proved to me, in your own presence, to have avowed yourself in favor of that ‘game,’ and did not attempt to controvert that proof, I dismissed you as an example and a warning to that supposed class. I bear you no ill will; and I regret that I could not have the example without wounding you personally. But can I now, in view of the public interest, restore you to the service, by which the army would understand that I indorse and approve that game myself? If there was any doubt of your having made the avowal, the case would be different. But when it was proved to me, in your presence, you did not deny or attempt to deny it, but confirmed it in my mind, by attempting to sustain the position by argument.

I am really sorry for the pain the case gives you, but I do not see how, consistently with duty, I can change it. Yours, &c.



  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 442-443
  2. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p.232.
  3. Basler, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 508