Lincoln's Judge Advocate General: Joseph Holt of Kentucky
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Lincoln's Judge Advocate General:
Joseph Holt of Kentucky

Born in Stephensport, Kentucky, in January 1807, Joseph Holt was not the first judge advocate general of the army, but the post he assumed on September 3, 1862, had changed dramatically since the war began, not unlike the Federal army itself, which had grown from a small force of about sixteen thousand regular soldiers into a massive conglomerate of regular and volunteer regiments in which more than 2.2 million men served before the war came to a close. Prior to the Civil War, the Federal government "agency" assigned to monitor the application of military law had consisted of a single bureaucrat, whose responsibilities had been limited to maintaining the army court-martial records. On July 17, 1862, however, the U.S. Congress substantially expanded the size and purview of the judge advocate general's office, assigning to its head the rank, pay, and allowance [End Page 403] of a colonel of cavalry and authorizing him to appoint a team of assistant judge advocates, each of whom served with the rank and pay of a major. The tasks assigned to the office also multiplied. Henceforth, the tasks included (but were not limited to) receiving, revising, and recording the proceedings of all courts-martial, courts of inquiry, and military commissions conducted by the army; providing reports to the secretary of war in connection with those cases that required the action of the president; dealing with applications for clemency received either by the president or the secretary of war; overseeing—and in many cases personally preparing—the charges against persons being brought to trial; rendering opinions on any and all questions of military law (or on the internal legal workings of the War Department), as requested by the president, the secretary of war, or the commanding general of the army; and assisting in the review of cases brought for appeal. In sum, the judge advocate general of the army became the primary adjudicator of military law in much the same way that the attorney general was the primary arbiter of the law in the civil realm.1

A lifelong Democrat and an unshakeable Unionist who had served as President James Buchanan's patent-office commissioner (1857-59), postmaster general (1859-60), and secretary of war (December 31, 1860-March 4, 1861), Holt became the first judge advocate general under the July 1862 act. Virtually from the moment he took office, he was inundated with the work of organizing, conducting, and reviewing the results of the seemingly endless stream of legal cases that came under his authority, many of which demanded careful analysis, thorough reconsideration and review, and the production of additional and often lengthy written reports. Holt's duties required him to consult directly and on a regular basis with President Abraham [End Page 404] Lincoln, whose opinion and decision-making power were frequently essential components of the process, especially in cases where a defendant faced dismissal from the army or execution. Investigation into the court-martial files of the judge advocate general's office during this period indicates that Lincoln, Holt, and the president's secretary, John G. Nicolay, typically met in the morning, Holt making the half-block trip to the Executive Mansion from his War Department office on Seventeenth Street NW, near F Street. On some occasions, the trio considered more than seventy cases in a single sitting; at least once, they spent six straight hours in consultation.2

For each case that he brought to Lincoln's attention, Holt summarized the charges, the evidence, the sentence, the opinions presented by previous reviewers, and his own recommendations. When Holt and the president disagreed on how to handle a particular case, it was typically Holt who took the harder line, though his often extended written opinions also reveal him to be capable of demonstrating "compassionate good sense." Moreover, Holt was disinclined to try to impose his will on the president. "I certainly have no disposition to oppose the impulses of your kind heart in the matter," he wrote on one occasion, regarding a case where their opinions differed sharply. Holt himself admitted that Lincoln's overarching desire...


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