September 27, 1862 – Major General George B. McClellan sought more approval from Washington, while President Abraham Lincoln addressed reports of disloyalty within the army.
McClellan grew sullen and resentful when he did not receive the credit he felt he deserved for driving General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia out of Maryland. He dispatched his intelligence chief, detective Allan Pinkerton, to Washington to meet with Lincoln and determine if Lincoln intended to retain him as army commander.
During the meeting, Lincoln asked several questions, including:
- Why did McClellan not rescue the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry?
- Why did McClellan not resume his attacks after the first day at Antietam?
- Why did the Confederate army escape back into Virginia?
Based on Pinkerton’s answers, Lincoln concluded that McClellan had squandered an enormous opportunity to destroy Lee’s army and end the war. Nevertheless, Pinkerton returned to McClellan and told him that Lincoln “impresses me more at this interview with his honesty towards you and his desire to do you justice than he has ever done before.”
Meanwhile, McClellan settled his men into camps near Sharpsburg rather than push them into Virginia to chase down Lee. In fact, McClellan was glad Lee had escaped, as he explained to his wife, “I will be able to arrange my troops more with a view to comfort.” McClellan finally submitted his official report on the Battle of Antietam (telling his wife, “I would really prefer fighting three battles to writing the report of one”) and received General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck’s response:
“The valor and endurance of your army in the several conflicts … are creditable alike to the troops and to the officers who commanded them. A grateful country while mourning the lamented dead will not be unmindful of the honors due the living.”
Despite this praise, McClellan wrote his wife the next day, “I do think that man Halleck is the most stupid idiot I ever heard of.”
At Washington, the recent Emancipation Proclamation and suspension of habeas corpus had put the Lincoln administration on high alert for dissension and disloyalty, especially in the military. Lincoln received a report stating that Major John J. Key, a member of Halleck’s staff and brother of McClellan’s judge advocate, had made disloyal statements.
Key had conversed with Major Levi Turner, during which Turner wondered why McClellan had not “bagged” the Confederate army. Key replied sarcastically, “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 summoned both men to the White House, writing, “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.”
Key and Turner met with Lincoln the next day, where Key admitted he made the statement. Lincoln declared that it was “wholly inadmissible for any gentleman holding a military commission from the United States to utter such sentiments.” If there was indeed a “game” to keep from destroying the Confederacy, Lincoln said that “it was his object to break up that game.”
Lincoln issued an order: “Therefore, let Major John J. Key be forthwith dismissed from the military service of the United States.” Key’s dismissal would serve as “an example and a warning” to stop officers from making such “silly, treasonable expressions.”
After getting rid of Key, Lincoln turned once more to the Army of the Potomac. McClellan reported having nearly 100,000 men under his command, including the troops defending Washington. Lincoln wondered why McClellan had not returned to Virginia after the Battle of Antietam and finished the Confederates off. By month’s end, Lincoln scheduled a trip to McClellan’s headquarters to see for himself.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8146-57, 8169-80; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 216; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 271-72; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 559