Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Abraham Lincoln's Dismissal of my 2nd cousin 6x removed, Major John James Key

Major John James Key was born in Mason, Kentucky on May 18, 1817.  He was the son of Marshall Key, my 1st cousin 7x removed. 

Marshall Key

Marshall Key was first cousins with Chief Justice John Marshall, who is subsequently no blood relation to me.  Marshall Key was born in Fauquier County, Virginia on September 8, 1783, but removed with his parents to Mason County, Kentucky, when he was about twelve years of age.  Marshall died in Louisville, Kentucky on November 4, 1860 and left his family a large estate.  Marshall Key descended from wealthy land owners in Virgina and established himself as a wealthy land owner in Kentucky. 

John lived in Kentucky until sometime after 1850, when he moved to Perry, Indiana, where he was a law partner of Senator Voorhees. 

After the outbreak of the Civil War, John accepted a commission as Lieutenant Colonel of the Indiana 60th Infantry Regiment. 

Index Card showing John's commission as Lt. Col of the Indiana 60th Infantry

John didn't remain with the Indiana 60th Infantry Regiment for long.  It seemed as though Key would experience a quick rise through the ranks of the Union Army.  He was promoted to Major and assigned as an aide-de-camp on Major General Henry W. Halleck's staff.  The following is a letter from the Governor of Indiana to the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton regarding John's promotion to Major.

Major John James Key seemed to be enjoying success with his military career.   That would quickly change after the battle of Antietam.   Following the bloodiest single day battle in the history of the United States, President Abraham Lincoln released a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The draft circulated amongst Lincoln's staff and a remark made my Major Key eventually made it's way to the President. 

Following the Battle of Antietam, a fellow Union Officer asked Key "Why was not the rebel army bagged immediately after the battle near Sharpsburg?"  Key responded by saying that defeating the Confederate Army on the battlefield was not the Union Army's objective:  "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."  

Needless to say, Lincoln wasn't happy when he heard Key's remark.  The President called a meeting with Key and asked for an explanation.  Because Key's brother, Major Thomas Marshall Key, was an aide to General George B. McClellan, Lincoln feared that his comment represented a broader feeling among the Union Officer Corps.  On September 26, 1862, Lincoln sent a letter to Key asking for evidence that he had not made the statement in question.   Major Key was unable to furnish such proof.   Lincoln responded by saying "In my view it is wholly inadmissable for any gentleman holding a military commission from the United States to utter such sentiments as Major Key is within [a packet of documents] proved to have done. Therefore let Major John J Key be forthwith dismissed from the Military service of the United States." 

Two years later, President Lincoln said to secretary John Hay, "I dismissed Major Key for his silly treasonable talk because I feared it was staff talk & I wanted an example,".  Lincoln was known to bend the rules as he saw fit. 

Key protested and attempted to appeal Lincoln's dismissal.  He wrote to Lincoln several times, the contents of the letters are not known.   Lincoln responded in a letter dated December 27, 1862.

"I can not find sufficient ground the change the conclusion therein arrived at." Mr. Lincoln wrote the note on the envelope containing his copy of the earlier letter:
A bundle of letters including one from yourself, was, early last week, handed me by Gen. Halleck, as I understood, at your request. I sincerely sympathise with you in the death of your brave and noble son.

In regard to my dismissal of yourself from the military service, it seems to me you misunderstand me. I did not charge, or intended to charge you with disloyalty. 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; and when you were proved to me, in your own presence, to have avowed yourself in favor of that 'game,' and did not attempt to controvert that proof, I dismissed you as an example and a warning to that supposed class. I bear you no ill will; and I regret that I could not have the example without wounding you personally. But can I now, in view of the public interest, restore you to the service, by which the army would understand that I indorse and approve that game myself? If there was any doubt of your having made the avowal, the case would be different. But when it was proved to me, in your presence, you did not deny or attempt to deny it, but confirmed it in my mind, by attempting to sustain the position by argument.

I am really sorry for the pain the case gives you, but I do not see how, consistently with duty, I can change it. Yours, &c.


In Lincoln's letter, he made mention of the death of Major Key's son.  Captain James Rudd Key, my 3rd cousin 5x removed, had died on November 11, 1862.  Major Key returned to active military duty.  The following Military Record of Offiicers from Indiana shows his dismissal from the Army.

John is the 4th name on this list

In 1870, John James Key was sent to England to represent the United States in cotton claim involving a large amount of money.  The outcome of the case is not known.  The 1880 Federal Census shows Key as living in Washington D.C.  John James Key died on October 12, 1886 in the District of Columbia.  He is buried in the Holy Rood Cemetery in Washington D.C.

Grave of Major John James Key

Here's my relation to John:

John James Key (1817 - 1886)
is your 2nd cousin 6x removed
Marshall Key (1783 - 1860)
Father of John James
James Key (1740 - 1817)
Father of Marshall
Martin Key (1715 - 1791)
Father of James
Elizabeth Key (1746 - 1821)
Daughter of Martin
William Ford Daniel (1774 - 1848)
Son of Elizabeth
L. Chesley Daniel (1806 - 1882)
Son of William Ford
William Henry "Buck" Daniel (1827 - 1896)
Son of L. Chesley
Phebe Lucy Daniel (1862 - 1946)
Daughter of William Henry "Buck"
Valeria Lee Moss (1890 - 1968)
Daughter of Phebe Lucy
Phebe Teresa Wheeler Lewis (1918 - 1977)
Daughter of Valeria Lee
Joyce Elaine Lewis (1948 - )
Daughter of Phebe Teresa
Chip Stokes
You are the son of Joyce

Despite his dismissal from the Army, John's wife, Hetty Key recieved a Widow's Pension for his service following his death.

John James Key's Widow's Pension


  1. Do you have a photo of John J. Key?

    1. I haven't been able to find any pictures of John James Key. Do you know of any?