- Reviewed by
Joseph Holt has had a poor reputation in American popular culture. Widely accused of suppressing civil liberties during the Civil War (most recently in Robert Redford’s movie, The Conspirator), he has also been attacked for cynically supporting punitive Reconstruction policies in the defeated South. In her biography of Holt, Elizabeth Leonard sets out to present a more balanced view of the man, his [End Page 191] character, and his accomplishments. In this effort she is successful. Born in 1807 to a moderately well-off family in northern Kentucky, Joseph Holt’s relatives early noticed his intellectual gifts, and they made it clear that he was expected to excel in life. A scholarly young man, he dutifully tried to meet his family’s expectations, and Leonard notes that devotion to duty, regardless of personal cost, would be a matter of honor for Holt his entire life. As an adult, he became a highly respected Kentucky lawyer and an energetic supporter of the Democratic Party.
President James Buchanan duly rewarded Holt’s political loyalty by appointing him commissioner of patents, then postmaster general, and, in the final weeks of his administration, secretary of war. A dedicated Unionist, Holt helped convince Buchanan not to surrender Fort Sumter and other Federal positions during the secession crisis of 1860–61. His last official act as secretary of war was to hand the newly inaugurated Abraham Lincoln a message from the commander of Fort Sumter that the garrison could hold out only a few more weeks unless resupplied.
Despite Holt’s political record as a Democrat, in September 1862 President Lincoln appointed him the judge advocate general of the United States Army, the chief legal officer of that service. In this position, he and his subordinate judge advocates prosecuted and reviewed courts-martial of officers and soldiers and prepared official opinions on issues of military law. More controversially, Holt’s office was also in charge of military-commission trials of civilians for disloyalty and war crimes, culminating in his prosecution of John Wilkes Booth’s accomplices.
While serving as judge advocate general, Holt’s political and racial beliefs changed radically. Although a former slaveholder, who in the 1860 election had supported John Breckenridge, the most proslavery candidate for president, Holt eventually saw slavery as the root cause of the rebellion and vehemently turned against it. In one typical wartime opinion, he referred to the prewar Arkansas slave code as “repugnant to reason” and “revolting to humanity” (pp. 178–79). Beyond this, through his supervision of military-commission trials [End Page 192] in the occupied South, Holt also attempted to enforce equal rights for freed slaves.
In reviewing Holt’s prosecution of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, the author criticizes several serious errors in judgment on his part, especially his naive acceptance of evidence from unreliable witnesses. However, she also convincingly argues that his overall intent was to administer justice fairly, if rigorously, to Booth’s accomplices.
Leonard puts to rest one of the most serious accusations against Holt’s handling of the assassination trial. Five of the nine officers on the military commission signed a clemency petition asking President Andrew Johnson to commute Mary Surratt’s death sentence to life imprisonment. Much later, after Johnson realized that Holt opposed his white-supremacist Reconstruction policies, President Johnson claimed that Holt had concealed the clemency petition from him, an accusation Holt vehemently denied. Leonard has found evidence that Johnson had in fact discussed the clemency petition with his cabinet before approving the death sentences.
This well-written, scholarly, and well-documented book deserves a wider audience than its hardback price may command. It is highly recommended for both academic and general readers interested in the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Lincoln assassination, and legal history.
Burrus M. Carnahan teaches law at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Act of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War (2007) and Lincoln...