Setting an Example and a Warning

Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac still stationed east of Sharpsburg, grew sullen and resentful when he did not receive the credit he felt he deserved for driving General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army out of Maryland. He had won a great victory at Antietam, but since then he had done little in the way of pursuing and destroying Lee’s army, and his superiors noted his lack of urgency. McClellan wrote his wife Ellen, “I feel that the short campaign just terminated will vindicate my professional honor & I have seen enough of public life.”

Meanwhile, Lee reported on the state of his Army of Northern Virginia, now stationed around Martinsburg in western Virginia, to President Jefferson Davis. Lee wrote that while he had hoped to reenter Maryland to get the Federals to pursue him once more, he needed to first rebuild his army. He told Davis, “I would not hesitate to make it even with our diminished numbers, did the army exhibit its former temper and condition; but, as far as I am able to judge, the hazard would be great and a reverse disastrous. I am therefore led to pause.”

Gen. R.E. Lee, CSA and Maj Gen G.B. McClellan, USA | Image Credit:

So the two great armies of the east remained stationery, out of each other’s range, with Lee’s in western Virginia and McClellan’s in Maryland. McClellan, still feeling unappreciated, dispatched his intelligence chief, detective Allan Pinkerton, to Washington to meet with President Abraham Lincoln and determine if the president intended to retain him as army commander. Lincoln asked several questions during the meeting, 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 because, as he explained to his wife, “I will be able to arrange my troops more with a view to comfort.” McClellan’s long-term plan was to retake Harpers Ferry and then take the time to organize reinforcements, replace dead officers, and replenish lost equipment before going back into Virginia.

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.”

McClellan was annoyed not only by a perceived lack of appreciation, but also by the recently released Emancipation Proclamation. Two days after its release, McClellan wrote his wife that “the President’s late proclamation, the continuation of (Secretary of War Edwin) Stanton and Halleck in office, render it almost impossible for me to retain my commission and self-respect at the same time. I cannot make up my mind to fight for such an accursed doctrine as that of a servile insurrection–it is too infamous.”

The Emancipation Proclamation had been a military order issued by the commander-in-chief, and as such, McClellan as a general officer was bound to enforce it. But since he was not sure if he could bring himself to do such a thing, he called on some of his fellow officers “for the purpose of asking our opinions and advice with regard to the course he should pursue respecting the Proclamation.” He then wrote a political ally, prominent New York Democrat William H. Aspinwall:

“I am very anxious to know how you and men like you regard the recent Proclamations of the Presdt inaugurating servile war, emancipating the slaves & at one stroke of the pen changing our free institutions into a despotism–for such I regard as the natural effect of the last Proclamation suspending the Habeas Corpus throughout the land. If you regard the matter as gravely as I do, would be glad to communicate with you.”

Whether McClellan knew it or not, the Emancipation Proclamation and the recent suspension of habeas corpus had put the Lincoln administration on high alert for dissension and disloyalty, especially in the military. President Lincoln discussed a matter with his secretary, John Hay, in which an officer had allegedly stated that the administration was not truly trying to win the war. Lincoln told Hay that they were investigating who had made such a statement, “and if any such language had been used, his head should go off.” But Lincoln refused to take the “McClellan conspiracy” seriously. According to Hay, “He merely said that McC. was doing nothing to make himself either respected or feared.”

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit:

On the 26th, Lincoln received a report that the statement had been made by Major John J. Key, an “Additional Aide de Camp” to Halleck and a brother of McClellan’s advocate general (who was “a most intimate and confidential adviser of General McClellan”). In a conversation with Major Levi C. Turner of the judge advocate’s office, Key had sarcastically responded to Turner’s question why McClellan had not “bagged” the Confederate army: “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 out the offending statement and adding, “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 were brought into the president’s office the next day. Key admitted that he made the statement but insisted “that he was true to the Union,” and he believed that slavery needed to be preserved to save the Union. 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.” As the president explained, “I thought his silly, treasonable expressions were ‘staff talk’ and I wished to make an example.” John Hay made the incident public in an anonymous article in which he wrote of Key, “Striking him down may silence others like him.”

When Key appealed his dismissal, Lincoln told him, “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… I dismissed you as an example and a warning to that supposed class.” This affair had the intended effect on the rest of the army, and treasonable statements such as Key’s were silenced.

But this did not silence McClellan. Near month’s end, he was still railing against Stanton and Halleck to his wife, warning that if they remained at their posts, “I cannot in justice to myself remain in the service.” Once again, instead of planning to attack and destroy the enemy in the field, McClellan was planning to attack and destroy perceived enemies in his own government.

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. To Lincoln, this seemed like more than enough men to return to Virginia and finish the Confederates off. By month’s end, Lincoln scheduled a trip to McClellan’s headquarters to see the state of the army for himself.


  • Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Mr. Lincoln’s Army. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1951.
  • Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), Terrible Swift Sword: Centennial History of the Civil War Book 2. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1963.
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Guelzo, Allen C., Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2004.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • 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.
  • Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.

Leave a Reply