- Lincoln's Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky by Elizabeth D. Leonard
The Civil War is littered with examples of promising people who never quite lived up to expectations and eventually faded quietly into obscurity. Don Carlos Buell was supposedly destined for battlefield glory. Kate Chase's beauty and charm would never be forgotten. Schuyler Colfax would surely make a fine president someday.
To be fair, by most standards, Joseph Holt was indeed a successful man; and yet few people today have ever heard of him. Scion of a wealthy Kentucky family, Holt possessed every marker for success. "He was strikingly bright, bookish, and unusually serious," Leonard writes (8). He was a talented lawyer, an excellent administrator, and on the political front possessed considerable oratorical skills that won him renown in the Democratic Party. There was even some talk of his running for the [End Page 150] presidency during the 1850s. But he steadfastly refused to stand for elective office, choosing instead a succession of appointed government posts: Kentucky state attorney, commissioner of patents, postmaster general and (very briefly) secretary of war in the Buchanan administration, and finally judge advocate general for Abraham Lincoln, a post he held until he eventually retired in 1875.
Holt brought to all of these posts a consistent set of virtues, what Leonard describes as an "apparently unshakable professional integrity, and his commitment to fairness and justice" (90). In that hyperpartisan age he was known for his impartiality and incorruptibility, winning the respect of friends and foes alike. While he was a southerner and a slaveholder, he was also a thoughtful and serious critic of the peculiar institution who eventually came to embrace emancipation, a principled stance that cost him friends and family support. "When he found himself forced to choose between slavery and the Union, Holt's decision became virtually unconflicted; slavery must go," Leonard writes (67).
His various jobs also gave him a front-row seat to the momentous events of the time. He witnessed the secession crisis from within President Buchanan's embattled administration, with quite a few people believing "he was a more decisive, stable, and reliable Union man than Buchanan himself " (107). As Lincoln's judge advocate general, he acted as the president's chief adviser in matters related to military justice and wartime civil liberties, and he came to admire the president, observing that Lincoln "has the courage to look traitors in the face" (146). Perhaps most dramatically (and controversially) of all, Holt played a key role in the events surrounding the Lincoln assassination, acting as the government's chief prosecutor in the trial of the Booth conspirators, a role which won him praise in some quarters but condemnation in others. He was also a bitter and outspoken critic of Andrew Johnson, who had publicly castigated Holt's actions during the Booth conspiracy trial.
"No member of Abraham Lincoln's administration or the postwar federal government—indeed, no Civil War-era political figure—has been more unjustly neglected by historians, more misrepresented by Americans' collective historical 'memory,' and, in the end, more completely forgotten than Joseph Holt," Leonard argues at the beginning of Lincoln's Forgotten Ally (1-2). This reads at first like a species of hyperbole; and yet by the end of the book, Leonard builds a convincing case, pointing out that Americans' memory of Holt fell victim to the determined efforts by post-Reconstruction Americans to denigrate or obscure entirely the contributions of passionate pro-Union and proemancipation men like Holt. Still, to her credit Leonard does not let her advocacy sink into hagiography. She forthrightly [End Page 151] exposes Holt's flaws: his tendency to hold grudges, his "inclination toward dark moods," his thin-skinned sensitivity to slights (real and imagined), and his occasional neglect of family life while pursuing his professional career (35).
One suspects that Holt's internal struggles with the morality of slavery mirrored that of many other Americans, and therein lies another strength in Lincoln...