Erasmus Darwin Keyes was born in Brimfield, Massachusetts, on May 29, 1810. He was one of three children of Justus Keyes and Betsy Corey. The elder Keyes was a prominent physician who had designs for his son to become a merchant. The son had different aspirations and longed to pursue a military career. After twice failing to obtain an appointment to the United States Military Academy, Keyes wrote to U.S. Secretary of War, James Barbour, pleading his case. Barbour responded favorably, and Keyes received the desired appointment in 1828.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
Keyes entered the Academy on July 1, 1828. Cadets with whom he would have come into contact during his four years at West Point included the future commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee, the future commander of the Army of the Potomac, George G. Meade, and the future Postmaster General of the U.S. during the Lincoln administration, Montgomery Blair. Keyes proved to be an able student, graduating tenth in his class of forty-five cadets on July 1, 1832.
U.S. Army Officer
Following his graduation, the army brevetted Keyes as a second lieutenant with the 3rd U.S. Artillery and briefly garrisoned him at Fort Monroe, Virginia for artillery school. They then stationed him at Charleston, South Carolina during the sectional crisis precipitated by that state’s Ordinance of Nullification, passed in 1832. On August 31, 1833, Keyes received a promotion to second lieutenant and an assignment for staff duty as aide-de-camp to General Winfield Scott. When Keyes reported for duty with Scott, it was the beginning of a close professional relationship that lasted nearly twenty years. Keyes served on Scott’s staff from 1837 to 1841. During that period the army promoted him to first lieutenant on September 16, 1836.
On November 8, 1837, Keyes married Caroline Maria Clarke. Their marriage lasted for sixteen years before Maria died on November 26, 1853, one month after giving birth to the last of their five children.
During Keyes’ tenure with Scott, he took part in the forced removal of the Cherokee Indians in the Southeast to Oklahoma during the winter of 1838-39. Keyes’ initial service with Scott ended on November 30, 1841, when the army promoted him to captain and sent him to Florida. Keyes spent three years stationed at various posts in the South until officials ordered him to West Point, where he served as an instructor of artillery and cavalry from July 25, 1844 to December 24, 1848.
In 1849, the army sent Keyes to the West Coast, where he served on frontier duty in California until 1854. Keyes spent the next ten years on the coast, alternating between garrison duties in San Francisco and campaigning against American Indians in the Washington Territory. On October 12, 1858, officials promoted Keyes to major with the 1st Artillery.
As sectional tensions intensified, Winfield Scott, who by then had become General-in-Chief of the Army, recalled Keyes to the East Coast to serve as his military secretary. Keyes held that position until shortly after the Civil War erupted. On May 14, 1861, the army promoted Keyes to the rank of colonel with the 11th U.S. Infantry. His first duties included recruiting, organizing, and dispatching New York’s quota of volunteers to the field.
First Battle of Bull Run
In July 1861, the army ordered Keyes to Washington, DC, to assist with preparations for the defense of the nation’s capital. On July 21, 1861, Keyes commanded the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of Brigadier General Irvin McDowell’s Army of Virginia at the First Battle of Bull Run. During the battle, Keyes’ brigade saved over two-hundred wagon-loads of supplies that otherwise would have fallen into the possession of the enemy. McDowell’s after-action report stated that “Col. Keyes handled his Brigade, completely covering it by every possible accident of the ground, while changing his positions and leading it bravely and skillfully to the attack at the right moment.” On August 20, 1861, the United States War Department issued General Order No. 62, promoting Keyes to brigadier general in the volunteer army, effective May 17, 1861.
Army of the Potomac
Following the disaster at Bull Run, President Abraham Lincoln turned to Major General George B. McClellan to reorganize Union forces in the East. On November 9, 1861, McClellan issued Special Order No. 136 (Army of the Potomac) appointing Keyes to replace Brigadier General Don Carlos Buell as a divisional commander in the newly created Army of the Potomac. By the spring of 1862, President Lincoln drafted his own reorganization plan for the Army of the Potomac. On March 8, he issued War Order No. 2, merging the army’s divisions into five corps. Lincoln named Major General Irvin McDowell, Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner, Brigadier General S. P. Heintzelman, Keyes, and Major General Nathaniel P. Banks to command the five corps, respectively. Dutifully, on March 13, 1862, a disgruntled McClellan issued General Order No. 101 (Army of the Potomac) confirming the President’s selections.
During McClellan’s ill-fated Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862, Keyes commanded the 4th Corps at several major engagements, including the Siege of Yorktown (April 5-May 4, 1862), the Battle of Fair Oaks (May 31-June 1, 1862) the Battle of Savage’s Station (June 29, 1862), and the Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862). Keyes later received a brevet promotion to brigadier general in the regular army, “for Gallant and Meritorious Conduct in the Battle of Fair Oaks, Va.,” effective May 31, 1862.
After the failed Peninsula Campaign, most of the Army of the Potomac returned to the vicinity of Washington, DC. The War Department left the 4th Corps on the Peninsula as part of Major General John Adams Dix’s Department of Virginia. On August 2, 1862, the War Department issued General Order No. 93, promoting Keyes to major general in the volunteer army, effective July 4, 1862. Roughly six weeks later, on September 18, 1863, the War Department issued General Order No. 316, changing the effective date of Keyes’ promotion to May 5, 1862, “instead of July 4, 1862 as announced in GO No. 93.”
On November 22, 1862, Keyes married Mrs. Mary Loughborough Bissell, the widow of George W.P. Bissell. It was the second marriage for each spouse. Their union produced five children.
During the Gettysburg Campaign (June 3-July 23, 1863), General-in-Chief Henry Halleck authorized Major General Dix to move up the Virginia Peninsula and to demonstrate against Richmond. Halleck intended Dix’s offensive to discourage General Robert E. Lee from sending Rebel troops near the Confederate capital to reinforce the Army of Northern Virginia in Pennsylvania.
As events unfolded, it appeared that Dix had a real opportunity to capture Richmond. The roughly 19,000 troops at his disposal far outnumbered the Rebel troops available near the Confederate capital. Despite being hampered by poor weather and transportation snafus, Dix moved within twenty miles of Richmond in July.
As Dix planned his main assault, he ordered Keyes to attack Bottoms Bridge as a diversion. Keyes advanced more slowly than expected and then did not take the bridge despite enjoying a numerical advantage over its defenders. After failing to advance for several days, Dix ordered Keyes to withdraw. During the process, the Richmond garrison added insult to injury by hitting Keyes’ rearguard as it retreated.
If Dix had any real ambitions to threaten Richmond, he believed that Keyes’ ineffectiveness had cost him the opportunity. As a result, Dix asked his superiors to remove Keyes from his command. Keyes requested an official investigation into Dix’s accusations, officials never responded. On August 1, 1863, the War Department issued General Order No. 262, discontinuing the 4th Corps and leaving Keyes without a command.
For the next ten months, Keyes performed various administrative duties, including a stint on the Board for Retiring Disabled Officers. When it became clear that he would not receive another field command, Keyes resigned from the military on May 6, 1864.
Following his resignation, Keyes returned to California, taking up residence in San Francisco. He spent the rest of his life there, becoming a prominent vineyard owner, banker, and gold mining executive.
Keyes died at the age of eighty-five, in Nice, France, on October 14, 1895, while vacationing with his wife. His remains were returned to the United States and buried at West Point Cemetery.