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McClellan’s Other Story: The Political Intrigue of Colonel Thomas M. Key— Confidential Aide to General George B. McClellan

 William B. Styple,  Belle Grove Publishing

Political Intrigue. Confidential Aide. The Other Story. The title of well-known author Bill Styple’s latest book about Colonel Thomas Key seems to promise nefarious agents, secret plots, cloak-and-dagger exploits and tales of subterfuge, perhaps even treasonous schemes. Despite the buildup, the result of Styple’s research is somewhat less than all that. Key was a well-bred, well-educated Kentuckian who served as a lawyer and judge prior to the war. He was also a man of contradictions and some mystery. Although a conservative and Southerner, he favored women’s rights and abolition of slavery. Well-liked, successful in his career and socially graceful, he never married. The source of the mystery occupies the bulk of Styple’s book, whose title is actually a play on George B. McClellan’s memoirs, McClellan’s Own Story.

Lacking any military training, Key nevertheless became a part of McClellan’s military family, in fact one of his confidants. Like McClellan, Key was a Democrat who thoroughly supported the Union cause and the war, but also hoped mass bloodshed could be avoided through conciliation with Southern leaders. He was the unacknowledged author of many of McClellan’s communications with Lincoln on matters of political policy, and also a surrogate for his commander in meetings with Confederate generals. On the eve of Key’s premature death in 1869, he asked that all his papers be destroyed—a request honored by his friend and law partner William M. Dickinson.

Given that there’s little original material to work with, one might assume unraveling the complex story of Key’s influence on McClellan, war policy and the Union cause would be impossible. Styple has struggled mightily to unearth any pertinent aspect of Key’s involvement in the relations between the premier politician of the age, Abraham Lincoln, and McClellan, one of the conflict’s most influential commanders. It was no easy task. In August 1861, McClellan took on Key as his aide-de-camp (not as a judge advocate general, as some other authors have claimed). Styple has labored to unravel Key’s role in shaping and guiding McClellan’s tumultuous relationship with Lincoln regarding policy. He proves, for example, that Key wrote the letter from Harrison’s Landing, Va., in July 1862, in which McClellan attempted to dictate an overall war strategy, embracing political and military aspects, to the president.

In the aftermath of the September 1862 Battle of Antietam, Key’s brother John was cashiered from the Army by Lincoln—accused of a lack of will to destroy the Rebel army. Rumor had it that such sympathy pervaded McClellan’s inner circle. It takes little imagination to attribute the source of such sentiments to Key. But despite his seemingly clandestine moves, no one has ever found conclusive evidence that Key or McClellan had treasonous plans—perhaps as a result of Key’s papers being destroyed. Styple has worked diligently to shed light on Key’s influence, but in the end the colonel remains what he has always been: something of a mystery.


Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.