A Whiff of Treason? John Hay, George B. McClellan, and the Incident with Major John J. Key

ECW welcomes guest author Alexander B. Rossino

A scandalous incident occurred in Washington, D.C. soon after the end of the 1862 Maryland Campaign. In late September, Maj. John J. Key, an officer attached to the staff of general-in-chief Henry Halleck, and the brother of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s closest advisor, Col. Thomas M. Key, uttered an inflammatory comment that Secretary of the Interior Caleb Smith learned of and brought to the attention of President Abraham Lincoln.[1]

According to notes of the incident recorded by Lincoln himself, in response to a question asked by Maj. Levi C. Turner why the Rebel army was not “bagged” by McClellan at Antietam, Maj. Key replied, “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.”[2] Upon hearing about this, Lincoln took turns calling Turner and Key to his office. There the president questioned both men, took notes, and afterward had Key dismissed from the army when the major did not deny the content of his comment.

This story is recounted by several historians, thanks in part to a letter to McClellan from the Postmaster General, Montgomery Blair, a rare ally in President Lincoln’s cabinet. Dated September 27, 1862, Blair’s letter informed McClellan of the Maj. Key incident and urged him to make a public statement supporting the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation so that he would not be seen as in favor of the pro-slavery “game” described by Maj. Key.

Blair’s advice proved ironic since McClellan had already lectured Lincoln in an impertinent letter dated July 7, 1862, that the government should not wage war with the intent to abolish slavery.[3] Now, however, Lincoln’s announcement of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22 had raised the stakes. Cognizant that he should proceed with care, McClellan contemplated how to respond. Should he openly oppose emancipation, as counseled by several political allies and senior officers in the Army of the Potomac, or should he quietly submit to the official policy as advised by Generals Ambrose Burnside, Jacob Cox, and John Cochrane?[4]

In the end, McClellan grudgingly acquiesced to civilian authority by issuing General Orders No. 163 on October 7. Writing in this brief document, “The Constitution confides to the civil authorities legislative, judicial, and executive the power and duty of making, expounding, and executing the Federal laws,” McClellan continued, “Armed forces are raised and supported simply to sustain the civil authorities, and are to be held in strict subordination thereto in all respects.” Little Mac did not refer to abolition or to the president’s proclamation. His order nonetheless hinted at concern he had about the president’s proclamation, stating, “The remedy for political errors (emphasis added) is to be found only in the action of the people at the polls.”[5]

McClellan’s tepid response to Lincoln’s proclamation, and the fact that it took fifteen days for him to issue it, suggests a smoldering disdain for the administration’s pivot toward abolition. Yet it did at least serve the purpose of providing distance from the Key scandal. This is fortunate if a less well-known version of the incident that appeared in the New York Times on October 4, 1862, is to be believed.

Here is the text of that report:

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 (Maj. Turner) 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 [Salmon] 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 (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. [John] 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.[6]

It is unknown where this other version of the story originated, but it appears to be authentic based on the facts that it contains. It is conceivable that the Times’ version may have come from a letter about the incident written by Lincoln himself. As Roy Basler, the editor of Lincoln’s collected works observes, on September 26, the president summoned Key to the Executive Mansion via personal letter. That letter, and “other original documents copied by Lincoln [concerning the incident] have not been found.”[7] What remains instead is a description of Lincoln’s letter to Key and his subsequent discussion with Key and Turner that the president wrote down around October 14, some three weeks after the incident occurred. In other words, it is possible that the version of the Key incident published by the New York Times is a more faithful representation of what actually happened because someone leaked the information to the press.

The likeliest culprit for the leak is John Hay, the president’s personal secretary. Hay sometimes wrote for New York City newspapers and he maintained extensive contact with the editors of those publications. If Hay slipped Lincoln’s letter to the Times, along with commentary of his own, it would explain why the original documents are missing and why the information printed by the Times was so detailed.

Hay may have also been one of the few witnesses to the incident, the others being President Lincoln, Maj. Turner, and Maj. Key. None of those participants had a reason to leak such information to the press. John Hay, who loathed George McClellan, did. For example, on September 26, 1862, Hay confided to his diary:

Last night September 25 the President and I were riding to Soldiers Home; he said he had heard of an officer who had said they did not mean to gain any decisive victory but to keep things running on so that the army might manage things to suit themselves. He said he should have the matter examined and if any such language had been used, his head should go off. I talked a great deal about the McClellan conspiracy (emphasis added) but he would make no answer to any thing. He merely said that McC. was doing nothing to make himself either respected or feared.[8]

Hay’s animosity toward McClellan carried over into the postwar years, too. As he admitted in an August 1885 letter to John G. Nicolay, while the two men were writing their multi-volume biography of Lincoln, “I have toiled and labored through ten chapters over him (McC). I think I have left the impression of his mutinous imbecility (emphasis added), and I have done it in a perfectly courteous manner. … It is of the utmost moment that we should seem fair to him, while we are destroying him.”[9]

The account of the Maj. Key incident printed in the New York Times makes it sound far more serious than the version later recorded in Lincoln’s papers. It adds, for example, the detail that McClellan was the man who recommended Maj. Key for Gen. Halleck’s staff. If this is true, it suggests that McClellan, perhaps at the prompting of his advisor Col. Key, may have planted a mole in Halleck’s office to keep him abreast of events inside of the administration while he was in the field. To propose such a thing would not be unreasonable as McClellan had many enemies in Washington and may have wished to stay abreast of War Department gossip.

Consider as well that the “programme” described by Key consisted of maintaining a balance of power between the respective armies until late 1864, at which time Lincoln could be beaten at the polls or forced by Northern war-weariness to sue for peace. This “programme” described in the Times identifies Lincoln as both the cause of the southern states’ secession and the primary protagonist of the war that resulted from it. Secessionists routinely condemned Lincoln for being a purely sectional candidate whose election heralded the rise of abolition to the Executive Mansion.

Modern day scholars dismiss the idea of Lincoln entering office as an abolitionist, but secessionist opinion at the time frequently painted him as a “Black” (i.e., radical) Republican bent upon destroying southern society by moving against the institution of slavery. The “programme” to maintain a military stalemate until Lincoln could be removed from office reflects an opinion current in both the secessionist south and among at least some officers in the upper ranks of McClellan’s army, including Major Generals William B. Franklin and William F. ‘Baldy’ Smith.[10] Remove Lincoln, went the argument, and the conflict between the North and South could be easily solved.

Equally interesting is the question if Maj. Key was “guilty of imputing any such motives to Gen. McClellan.” Key did not deny that he was, preferring instead to change the subject by offering an impassioned defense of slavery. If Lincoln truly asked the question it suggests that he suspected McClellan might be up to no good. This is especially possible considering the fact that establishing the military stalemate described by Key would require the Army of the Potomac’s commanding officer to participate in the scheme.

Evidence that Lincoln asked the “motives” question may be implied in a comment recorded by John Hay concerning McClellan’s inactivity in the weeks 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 (emphasis added), 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.

If Hay is to be believed, it sounds like Lincoln began to wonder if “the programme” revealed by Key was not an actual conspiracy in which McClellan was taking part. Recall, after all, that in early October the president visited western Maryland to speak with McClellan and to review the troops. During that trip Lincoln cynically referred to the Army of the Potomac as “General McClellan’s body-guard.”[11]

Lincoln, however, was nothing if not a canny politician, and so he waited until after the mid-term elections in early November to remove McClellan from command. By that time, Lee had already marched his army east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, fulfilling the condition for McClellan’s removal that Hay says the president set out.

Stephen W. Sears, one of the modern era’s most persistent McClellan critics, uncharacteristically gives Little Mac the benefit of the doubt concerning his role in the alleged “programme” to save slavery. Observing, “There is no credible evidence that George McClellan was anything less than completely patriotic and loyal to the Union cause,” Sears acknowledges “no small irony in the fact that his excessive caution on campaign and his repeated loss of will in battle produced exactly the effect of a conspiracy to gain a compromise peace.”[12]

President Lincoln appears to have reached a similar conclusion, although the unique version of the Key incident published by the Times, and subsequently republished by the Chicago Tribune, makes it far more understandable why he did.[13] Whatever his suspicions may have been, Lincoln granted Little Mac time in October 1862 to refit his army and move on the enemy. The general then promptly took the figurative rope offered by Lincoln and hanged himself with it, either through inaction or because he was indeed pursuing a “programme” of the kind described by Maj. Key.

The truth may be that although McClellan opposed abolition he may have played no part in a conspiracy to save slavery. In the end, however, it did not matter. The president came to distrust McClellan because of his inaction after Antietam and his constant complaints about what his army could not accomplish given its condition after the Maryland Campaign. Add to these things the information revealed by Maj. Key and it appears that a faint whiff of treason began to drift in the president’s mind around the name George Brinton McClellan. The shadow born from Maj. Key’s careless comment still remains in place today, staining Little Mac’s reputation as the hero of the Maryland Campaign and erstwhile savior of the Union in September 1862.

Dr. Alexander B. Rossino is an independent historian living in western Maryland. He is the author of Six Days in September: A Novel of Lee’s Army in Maryland, September 1862 (Savas Beatie, 2017) and Their Maryland: The Army of Northern Virginia from the Potomac Crossing to Sharpsburg in September 1862 (Savas Beatie, 2021). Dr. Rossino also co-authored an essay with Gene Thorp titled The Tale Untwisted: George McClellan and the Discovery of Lee’s Lost Orders, September 13, 1862 (Savas Beatie, 2019), which will be appearing in an expanded book-length form in 2022. His sequel to Six Days in September, titled The Guns of September: McClellan’s Army in Maryland, September 1862 is also scheduled for release by Savas Beatie in 2022.


[1]Gideon Welles, Diary, 3 Vols. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911), 1:146.

[2]Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 Vols. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 5:442-443.

[3]George B. McClellan to Abraham Lincoln, July 7, 1862 in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, DC, 1880-1901), Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 1, 74. Cited hereafter as Official Records (OR).

[4]Jacob D. Cox, Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, 2 Vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900), 1:359-360.

[5]General Orders No. 163, Oct. 7, 1862, in OR 19:2, 395-396.

[6]New York Times, Oct. 4, 1862. William B. Styple, McClellan’s Other Story: The Political Intrigue of Colonel Thomas M. Key Confidential Aide to General George B. McClellan (Kearny, NJ: Belle Grove Publishing 2012), 252-254 contains numerous examples of other accounts of the Key incident that appeared in newspapers at the time.

[7]Basler, ed., Collected Works, 5:443.

[8]Michael Burlingame and John R. T. Ettlinger, eds., Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 1999), 41.

[9]John Hay to John G. Nicolay, Aug. 10, 1885, Hay Papers, Brown University. Cited in Michael Burlingame, “Nicolay and Hay: Court Historians,” in Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter 1998), 3.

[10]Styple, McClellan’s Other Story, 203.

[11]Francis Fischer Browne, The Every-Day Life of Abraham Lincoln (Chicago, IL: Browne & Howell Co., 1914), 418.

[12]Stephen W. Sears, George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon, (New York, NY: Ticknor & Fields, 1988), 338.

[13]Chicago Tribune, Oct. 7, 1862.

25 Responses to A Whiff of Treason? John Hay, George B. McClellan, and the Incident with Major John J. Key

  1. Interesting! The exchanges between Meade and Lincoln in the immediate aftermath of Gettysburg, regarding pursuit and destruction of the Confederate Army, makes it clear that Lincoln expected annihilation and Meade had a hard time getting him to understand that the Union Army was in no shape to do that. It’s an amazing exchange, complicated by the fact that Meade’s codebreaker went Awol for several days, but nevertheless like a front row seat for one of the most important conversations in history. Lincoln’s hopes slowly fade away, and six months later, Grant appears. Re McClellan, it’s no secret he thought the War would be over quickly, a compromise would be worked out (the Corwin Amendment was still out there somewhere), and things would go back to the usual, with as few people killed as possible. His “pro-slavery” stance may be more related to the politics of those efforts than to his personal views. And, as you should know by now, neither side was fighting over slavery until Lincoln decided to make it a political issue, and quickly found out Northerners weren’t interested in fighting on that basis. Re-unification, yes, abolition, no. Hence the USCT, a group to be much admired for their achievements and their forebearance of Union policies and tactics.

  2. Thanks to Dr. Rossino in this most interesting article and his research. I was surprised by Sears’ take on this incident and John Hay’s involvement. I love his new book: “Their Maryland”.

  3. i am with Sears on this issue — Mac was not a very good army commander — the fighting kind anyway — but he was a loyal, albeit passive aggressive, general officer … Key has always struck me as the prototypical “puffy” staff officer with an over-inflated opinion of himself … finally, the President, no doubt, was sending a very clear message to “mouthy” majors and other naysayers … and what better way to spread that message then to publish the account in the NYT … it would not surprise me if Hay leaked the story to the NYT at the suggestion of the President … great essay BTW, thanks.

  4. I think using John Hay as a source is a brilliant conclusion, if indeed this has been “concluded.” Hay’s writings have yet to be truly mined for their importance in understanding Lincoln, Washington, and the War. Hay was such an excellent writer, and was there for everything. More Hay!

    1. Make Hay while the sun is shining, right Meg? I can’t think of another participant in the incident who had the means and motive to leak such a story to the press. Maybe Lincoln himself? It’s a real mystery.

  5. Alex, as usual a superb item and analysis. One question. In his book, Styple notes that McClellan’s Judge Advocate, Thomas Key, Major Key’s brother, whom Jacob Cox called McClellan’s “eminence grise,” never made a public comment about this. Neither did Little Mac. By not refuting or dismissing it, did they therefore tacitly admit agreement?

    1. Thank you, Gene. It’s a good question. As you know, Col. Key told Jacob Cox before Antietam that McC had come around to the idea of slavery’s abolition as a military necessity. I’ve always thought this a bit of calculated misdirection on Key’s part because McC’s allies knew about the general’s anti-abolition stance. Isn’t it Cox who also reported McC’s effort to question him and Burnside about potentially speaking out against the proclamation? I tend to follow what people do and not what they say. McC’s actions speak louder than Key’s words in this case, I think.

      1. Indeed, a simple reading of the Harrison’s Landing letter would show that McClellan was actually recommending compensated emancipation in the border states.

      2. Alex, et. al.,
        You are right about actions, but also inactions. As Cox put it in his memoirs, “It would seem that treasonable notions were rife about him [McClellan] to an extent that was never suspected, unless he was made the dupe of pretenders who saw some profit in what might be regarded as a gross form of adulation. He must be condemned for the weakness which made such approaches to him possible…there is no proof that he rebuked it as he should have done.”

      3. The issue is that Cox is extremely partisan. He is talking about lacking loyalty to the *Republican Party* as treason. Like many Republicans of his era, he considered Democratic voters as traitors.

        McClellan was actually very apolitical, which he considered to be a necessity for a soldier. He never voted whilst he was a soldier, and only voted through gritted teeth in 1860 hoping to avoid the Republicans and Southern Democrats plunging the nation into a war. He did not care one iota if someone was a Democrat or a Republican, but only if they were good at their job. This lack of discrimination based on party lines was considered treasonous by many Republicans.

      4. 67th+ Tigers – McClelland apolitical? He was the DEMOCRATIC NOMINEE in 1864. Critical thinking – try it!

  6. Alex:

    Thanks for this insightful and thorough analysis. Well-done. I’ve never subscribed to the view that Key had revealed an actual conspiracy involving McClellan. Instead, I’ve always thought – and still think – that the Key incident (and his brother’s silence, noted by Gene above) reflected a certain attitude among the officer corps regarding the administration and its policies that was fomented by McClellan and his acolytes in high command. For example, and as we know, on September 30 McClellan’s friend in command of V Corps sent a lengthy letter to an anti-administration newspaper editor that even his own recent and sympathetic biographer William Marvel has described as “seditious-sounding” in tone (and I might remove the word “sounding”).

    1. You bet, John, and thank you for the kind words. I still need to read Marvel’s book. This is a subject I want to do more research on. My gut tells me there was a larger effort afoot to enlist McClellan against the administration. I think this effort carried on to the 1864 election as well, just in an openly partisan form at that time vs. a more clandestine approach. I’ve also wondered if the statement printed in the Times about the end of Lincoln’s term was not a mistake and should be 1862 instead. Lincoln could be “beaten at the polls” in a mid-term election too. Imagine what a stronger Democrat presence in the Congress would have done to the Northern war effort.

      1. Alex: Those are good points. Marvel’s book is definitely worth reading, although I think he treads a little lightly on the Marble correspondence and on Porter’s actual performance in corps command. Marble was actively anti-administration and the notion of a high-level officer on active duty engaging in that kind of dialogue is unacceptable IMHO. Marble would later play his own role at the New York World in fueling the 1863 draft riots. Your point about the elections is “spot on”. One example of meeting that challenge at the state level is how Oliver Morton (with Stanton’s clandestine help) took on the Democratic/Copperhead Indiana legislature in Winter 1862-63.

      2. You see, John, you’ve pointed out additional areas of research! It honestly seems as if a lot of middle-level officers shared doubts about the direction Lincoln’s administration was taking the war. These men appear to have sought a senior officer who could give them someone to coalesce around. McClellan could have played that part but at what cost? These are haunting questions.

  7. Tigers: As much as I enjoy (sic) these “so’s your old man!” discussions, suffice it to say that Cox was not an extreme partisan. You will recall that he and McClellan cooperated closely at the beginning of the war in preparing Ohio’s troops, and that he and Judge Key, the leader of the Dems in the Ohio Senate, were good friends. The fact that McClellan sought Cox’s views about reacting to the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation reflected not only Cox’s respected role as a Republican leader, but also that McClellan knew he was a man of integrity who would give him sound advice as a patriot. Cox was supportive of McClellan during the war, and only changed his view of McClellan when he read the latter’s memoir and discovered what a two-faced liar he was. At the same time, Cox’s comment lamenting that McClellan, knowing there was treasonous (anti-government) talk about him, did nothing, is clearly made more in sorrow than in anger.

    1. It is amazing that McClellan has ANY contemporary defenders. What’s the appeal? The incompetence? The boundless egotism? Putting his personal grudges over the lives of his men? The insubordination? Seriously, what’s to like? Even if he wasn’t a traitor (he was, obviously), he’s still one of the most incompetent (and personally unpleasant) figures in US military history.

      1. Let’s take your comments one at a time. First his incompetence, he reorganize the army twice, he fought at Antietam within ten days of taking command against Lee at his finest. His egotism, what commander of any army doesn’t have a massive ego. The lives of his men was central to him, think of Grant’s reputation. When was he insubordination, John hay who hated him. Before the war he was sent to Crimea to study that war, in the Mexican American war he was breveted. And was elected governor of New Jersey. Not to mention the president of a rail road company. Seems he was only an idiot for less than a year during the Lincoln administration. Look at him with an open mind and you might be surprised.

      2. To me, the point isn’t to defend or attack McClellan or any other person. It is to get beyond the decades of others doing exactly that in order to uncover the truth. For example, Sears’s unrelenting criticism of McClellan has made it impossible for many people to even try seeing the general’s performance objectively. Yet doing so leads to the conclusion that McClellan performed better in Maryland than he has been given credit for. Did he lead a perfect campaign? No. Were there serious problems with his command at Antietam? Yes. Is there some smoke around him for holding potentially treasonous notions? Maybe, but none of this should diminish what he was able to accomplish in a very short time. Even R.E. Lee assumed his victory at Second Manassas had wrecked Union forces so badly that he had weeks, if not months, to operate on what he called the “northern frontier” of the Confederacy before another army could be brought to bear against him. McClellan disabused him of that notion within only days after he had reassumed command. That was quite an accomplishment, if you ask me.

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