Lincoln Ends Pro-Slavery Officers' 'Game'; Major's Court-Martial a Clear Message from Commander in Chief

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 12, 2009 | Go to article overview

Lincoln Ends Pro-Slavery Officers' 'Game'; Major's Court-Martial a Clear Message from Commander in Chief


Byline: Charles DeLeon, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A relatively obscure event in the early fall of 1862 serves as a microcosm of the challenges Abraham Lincoln faced in prosecuting the Civil War.

While of little historical significance in itself, Lincoln's court-martial of Maj. John J. Key, the only dismissal of an officer personally administered by the president, reveals the resistance among some senior military officers to Lincoln's changing policy in fighting the war.

The resistance was most prominent within the Army of the Potomac, especially from its commander, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, and particularly when it came to the issue of slavery. The story behind Key's court-martial highlights those challenges and the president's efforts to establish clearly that such policy questions resided with him as commander in chief.

As 1862 arrived, the president was well aware of questions regarding his war policy. The Northern war strategy originally was to restore the Union as it had existed before 1861 by suppressing the insurrection.

For Lincoln, the abolition of slavery was not an initial policy objective. He feared that such a move would create tremendous turmoil and extend, not end, the conflict.

Though the 16th president had his own views on the issue of slavery, he set them aside and focused on pulling the rebellious states back into the Union. His early position of excluding the abolition of slavery as a component of his war policy was clear when he reversed Gen. John C. Fremont's order emancipating slaves in Missouri in the summer of 1861.

McClellan's letter

The relationship between the commander of the Army of the Potomac and the president was bitter. Lincoln continually pressed McClellan to take military action, and McClellan responded by publicly questioning Lincoln's policies. McClellan did not hesitate to label the president an idiot and the gorilla, while the president, much to the frustration of his advisers, had a tendency to show patience toward McClellan.

By early summer 1862, Lincoln was contemplating freeing slaves held in Confederate states. Such a shift was strongly opposed by McClellan and a number of other Union officers. They had signed up to reunite the states, not to free slaves.

When Lincoln traveled to Virginia in early July 1862 to visit McClellan and see firsthand the condition of the troops after a series of battles known as the Seven Days, McClellan handed Lincoln a letter urging limited objectives, especially noninterference with the institution of slavery.

It should not be a war looking to the subjugation of the people of any State in any event, McClellan said. It should not be at all a war upon population, but against armed forces and political organizations. Neither confiscation of property, political executions of persons, territorial organization of States, or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.

McClellan added: A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies, making further recruitment almost hopeless.

Lincoln did not respond to McClellan's blatant meddling in political questions. The president was well aware of the concerns of McClellan and other officers on his senior staff. He told abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner, Massachusetts Republican, that he would invoke the emancipation of slaves immediately if I were not afraid that half the officers would fling down their arms.

Awaiting a victory

By mid-July, Lincoln had decided on a change in Union war policy. The continued military strength of the Confederacy, as witnessed in the bloody Battle of Shiloh and the withdrawal of Union forces from central Virginia, plus the growing political pressures in the Union made it apparent that the reunification of the United States would not be successful otherwise. …

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