A Whiff of Treason in High Places?

The recent news about Gen. Mark Milley contacting Chinese officials behind the back of then-President Trump reminds me of an even more scandalous incident that occurred soon after the end of the 1862 Maryland Campaign. In late September, a comment made by Major John J. Key, an officer attached to the staff of general-in-chief Henry Halleck and brother of Major General George McClellan’s closest advisor, Colonel Thomas M. Key, came to the attention of President Abraham Lincoln.

In response to the question asked by Major Levi C. Turner why the Rebel army was not “bagged” by McClellan at Antietam, Major Key is alleged to have said in response, “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.” Lincoln called Key and Turner to the White House and after questioning them he immediately had Key removed from the U.S. Army when the major did not deny the content of the comment.

An alternate version of this story appeared in the New York Times a few days later that has long fascinated me because of the differences from the notes that Lincoln took of the incident. Here is the text of that report, with bold print emphasis of my own added to it.

Major Key, who is brother to Col. Key, of Gen. McClellan’s staff, was attached to Gen. Halleck’s staff on Gen. McClellan’s recommendation. Some few days after the battle of Antietam, an officer asked Major Key … what was “the reason of our army’s neglecting the military axiom which says that a beaten, crippled, or retreating enemy is always to be pursued?” To this Major Key responded, that “the immediate destruction of the rebel army was not the programme.”

It would be better, he said, to let the war linger on indecisively, and with advantages to both sides, until the end of Mr. Lincoln’s term, when it “could be settled on a compromise which would save slavery.”

The officer to whom these remarks were made paid no particular attention to them, such utterances being unfortunately too familiar in certain circles of the army; but in the course of a casual conversation with a member of the Cabinet—Secretary Chase, it is said—he mentioned “the programme” as one of interest, considering the authority on which it had been put forth. The matter, with commendable promptness, was immediately laid by the cabinet officer before the president, who instantly caused the officer who had repeated Major Key’s conversation to be sent for.

Astonished at the serious turn things were taking, the officer (i.e., Maj. Turner) appeared; and, on being cross-examined, though reluctant to injure Major Key, was obliged to give the whole conversation, the substance of which was then reduced to writing by Mr. Hay, the president’s private secretary.

Major Key was then sent for, and appeared before the president in company with the officer to whom he had first spoken. The minutes of the alleged conversation were then read to him, and he was asked had he been guilty of imputing any such motives to Gen. McClellan. To this Major Key responded, stating that he had undoubtedly used the language alleged—after which he commenced launching out into a general vindication of the sacredness of slavery and the justifiability of the policy of inaction, or any other policy, which had for its object to preserve it.

“Stop, sir,” interrupted Mr. Lincoln, “I have not sent for you to discuss with you the abstract question of slavery, its sacredness or the reverse. But I am clearly of opinion that no officer can wear shoulder straps under my commission, who does not believe in the policy of winning decisive victories wherever they are to be had. You may go, sir; you shall hear from me.”

Thus terminated this extraordinary interview. Notification of the case was immediately sent to Gen. Halleck, and next morning the order appeared, giving Major Key permanent leave of absence from duty, and allowing him his whole time in which to consider the futility of “programmes” and the uncertainty of the favor of princes.

This account of the incident makes it sound far more serious than the account preserved by Lincoln. It adds the detail that McClellan supposedly recommended Major Key to Halleck’s staff. If true, does this mean that McClellan, perhaps at the prompting of Colonel Key, intended to plant a mole in Halleck’s office to keep him abreast of events on the inside of the administration while he was in the field?

Add to this the detail that the armies were to maintain a stalemate until late 1864 in order to have Lincoln either beaten at the polls or forced by Northern war-weariness to sue for peace. Two years is a long time to wait, however, leading me to wonder about the veracity of the statement.

Even more interesting is the question if Key was “guilty of imputing any such motives to Gen. McClellan.” From the response recorded it appears he was not, but the possibility that Lincoln asked the question may indicate a suspicion that McClellan was up to no good behind his back. That Lincoln asked the question of Key also may be implied a comment recorded in the diary of John Hay, the president’s secretary, concerning McClellan’s inactivity after the Battle of Antietam.

“The general’s inexplicable slowness had at last excited the President’s distrust. He began to think, before the end of October, that McClellan had no real desire to beat the enemy. He set in his own mind the limit of his forbearance. He adopted for his guidance a test which he communicated to no one until long afterwards, on which he determined to base his final judgment of McClellan. If he should permit Lee to cross the Blue Ridge and place himself between Richmond and the Army of the Potomac he would remove him from command. These are the President’s own words taken down at the time they were uttered.”

All of this sounds like Lincoln began to wonder if “the programme” revealed by Key was not an actual conspiracy of which McClellan was part. Exploring the question of a treasonous movement among the upper echelons of the Army of the Potomac’s officer corps is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say the subject is fascinating fuel for speculation. It also serves as a reminder that claims of disloyalty among senior U.S. Army officers is nothing new in American politics. People raised questions about the loyalty of George McClellan during the Civil War, too, and that whiff of treason continues to haunt his name to this day.

Author: Alex Rossino

Author and Historian

2 thoughts on “A Whiff of Treason in High Places?”

  1. Alex:

    I knew that McClellan was not opposed to slavery (neither was Custer) but was certainly not aware of this episode!

    Thanks for sharing.



    1. Sure thing, Doug. To be clear, there is no smoking gun that implicates McClellan in the plot referred to by Key. That said, there does seem to be evidence that Lincoln suspected McClellan’s involvement in, or at least sympathy with, the plot’s aims as described. McClellan’s subsequent inactivity appears to have reinforced that suspicion.


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