- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

A relatively obscure event in the early fall of 1862 serves as a microcosm of the challenges Abraham Lincoln faced in prosecuting the Civil War. While of little historical significance in itself, Lincoln’s court-martial of Maj. John J. Key, the only dismissal of an officer personally administered by the president, reveals the resistance among some senior military officers to Lincoln’s changing policy in fighting the war.

The resistance was most prominent within the Army of the Potomac, especially from its commander, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, and particularly when it came to the issue of slavery. The story behind Key’s court-martial highlights those challenges and the president’s efforts to establish clearly that such policy questions resided with him as commander in chief.

As 1862 arrived, the president was well aware of questions regarding his war policy. The Northern war strategy originally was to restore the Union as it had existed before 1861 by suppressing the insurrection.

For Lincoln, the abolition of slavery was not an initial policy objective. He feared that such a move would create tremendous turmoil and extend, not end, the conflict.

Though the 16th president had his own views on the issue of slavery, he set them aside and focused on pulling the rebellious states back into the Union. His early position of excluding the abolition of slavery as a component of his war policy was clear when he reversed Gen. John C. Fremont’s order emancipating slaves in Missouri in the summer of 1861.

McClellan’s letter

The relationship between the commander of the Army of the Potomac and the president was bitter. Lincoln continually pressed McClellan to take military action, and McClellan responded by publicly questioning Lincoln’s policies. McClellan did not hesitate to label the president an “idiot” and the “gorilla,” while the president, much to the frustration of his advisers, had a tendency to show patience toward McClellan.

By early summer 1862, Lincoln was contemplating freeing slaves held in Confederate states. Such a shift was strongly opposed by McClellan and a number of other Union officers. They had signed up to reunite the states, not to free slaves.

When Lincoln traveled to Virginia in early July 1862 to visit McClellan and see firsthand the condition of the troops after a series of battles known as the Seven Days, McClellan handed Lincoln a letter urging limited objectives, especially noninterference with the institution of slavery.

“It should not be a war looking to the subjugation of the people of any State in any event,” McClellan said. “It should not be at all a war upon population, but against armed forces and political organizations. Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization of States, or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.”

McClellan added: “A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies,” making further recruitment “almost hopeless.”

Lincoln did not respond to McClellan’s blatant meddling in political questions. The president was well aware of the concerns of McClellan and other officers on his senior staff. He told abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner, Massachusetts Republican, that he would invoke the emancipation of slaves immediately “if I were not afraid that half the officers would fling down their arms.”

Awaiting a victory

By mid-July, Lincoln had decided on a change in Union war policy. The continued military strength of the Confederacy, as witnessed in the bloody Battle of Shiloh and the withdrawal of Union forces from central Virginia, plus the growing political pressures in the Union made it apparent that the reunification of the United States would not be successful otherwise.

Lincoln’s new policy would include freeing slaves in certain Southern states. Slavery gave the Confederacy a military advantage that was extending the war, and as such, it would have to be removed.

On July 22, Lincoln briefed his Cabinet on his planned Emancipation Proclamation. He was persuaded to postpone announcing it until after a major Union military victory to avoid any suggestion of desperation.

On Sept. 17, 1862, near the small town of Sharpsburg, Md., in fighting that came to be known as the Battle of Antietam, both sides suffered through the bloodiest day of the Civil War. Gen. Robert E. Lee and his army waited a day before retreating to Virginia.

Though Antietam was not the decisive victory Lincoln desired, it was victory enough for him to announce theEmancipation Proclamation five days later. He ordered 15,000 copies to be printed promptly and sent to the Army and announced to Union soldiers.

Disturbing rumor

Lincoln knew his decree, which would go into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, would not be supported universally in the Army, and in the week following the proclamation, he was informed that several senior officers within the Army of the Potomac, including McClellan, were openly expressing their displeasure.

Lincoln was depending on the Army to perform its duty, acknowledging that the president alone was responsible for setting war policy.

The president, however, was greatly disturbed when he heard a rumor that a staff officer with close ties to McClellan had not only questioned the Emancipation Proclamation and openly expressed sympathy for the Confederate cause, but also had suggested that the Army could establish its own policy. Lincoln had to investigate.

The president was told that the questionable statements were made by Maj. John J. Key, a judge advocate on General in Chief Henry W. Halleck’s staff in Washington, and that Key’s brother, Col. Thomas Key, was a senior military adviser to McClellan.

Maj. Key was not a front-line soldier caught in drunken banter, but a staff officer within the War Department who had access to senior ranks within the Army of the Potomac.

An inquiry

Lincoln immediately began a proceeding to get to the bottom of the matter. On Sept. 26, 1862, he drafted a letter to Maj. Key outlining the charges: “Sir, I am informed that in answer to the question ‘Why was not the rebel army bagged immediately after the battle near Sharpsburg?’ propounded to you by Major Levi C. Turner, Judge Advocate, you answered ‘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.’ ”

The failure of the Army of the Potomac to pursue the battered Confederate force as it retreated from Sharpsburg had troubled Lincoln. Now the president had heard that the brother of a senior adviser to McClellan claimed the “game” being played by the Army of the Potomac was not the total defeat of the enemy, but rather a limited war to lead to a negotiated peace with the Confederacy that, among other things, would preserve slavery in the Southern states.

Lincoln, a former trial lawyer, gave Key the opportunity to defend himself at the impromptu court-martial: “I shall be very happy if you will, within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this, prove to me by Major Turner that you did not, either literally or in substance, make the answer stated.”

The next day, in a personal appearance before the president that must have taken on the tone of a courtroom proceeding, Turner confirmed that Key had made the statement.

Turner attempted to protect Key by reiterating Key’s stated loyalty to the Union cause. The argument carried little weight before Lincoln. Whether or not Key was loyal to the Union was not the issue; rather, it was the fact that he had voiced statements that were unacceptable to the commander in chief. A message had to be sent.

Judge and jury

That same day, acting as judge and jury, Lincoln concluded that Key had made the statements. The president announced his decision: “[I]n my view it is wholly inadmissible for any gentleman holding a military commission from the United States to utter such sentiments as Major Key is … proved to have done. Therefore let Major John J. Key be forthwith dismissed from the Military service of the United States.”

Key contested the decision. He wrote to Lincoln on Sept. 27, reiterating his loyalty to the Union. Key intensified efforts to save his career following the death of his son, a Union captain, from wounds received in the Battle of Perryville on Oct. 8.

Various officers also argued on Key’s behalf, emphasizing his loyalty to the Union cause rather than focusing on Key’s statement about the “game” being played by the Union Army - a clear indication that these officers missed the significance of the issue.

Lincoln responded to Key’s pleadings in a letter dated Nov. 24, 1862. The president sympathized with Key over the death of his “brave and noble son” and clarified that he “did not charge, or intend to charge [Key] with disloyalty.”

Nonetheless, Lincoln said, he 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 … and when you were proved … yourself to be in favor of that ‘game’ … I dismissed you as an example, and a warning, to that supposed class.”

The president concluded, “I am really sorry for the pain this case gives you, but I do not see how, consistently with duty, I can change it.” The case was over.

End of the affair

Lincoln used the Key affair to send a message, stating he had “dismissed Major Key for his silly treasonable talk because I feared it was staff talk & I wanted an example,” and that “if there was a ‘game’ ever among Union men, to have our army not take an advantage of the enemy when it could,” it was his object to break up that game.

The message was clearly heard in the Army of the Potomac.

That same month, Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command of the Army of the Potomac.

• Charles DeLeon, a lawyer in Northern Virginia, is a former Army military intelligence officer.

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