- Lincoln’s Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion after the Civil War
Abraham Lincoln's assassination has received considerable attention in recent years. Edward Steers's superb Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (2001) comes first to mind. In Lincoln's Avengers Elizabeth Leonard goes over much the same ground but differs by her concentration on Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, the lead investigator and prosecutor of the accused conspirators. More important conceptually, she sees Lincoln's assassination as the beginning of Reconstruction, not just the last chapter of the Civil War. The assassination, after all, substituted Andrew Johnson, the "stubborn, intractable scrapper" (xii) and white supremacist, for Abraham Lincoln, the flexible pragmatist and black men's friend. The ensuing political warfare between Johnson and the Republican Congress led in turn to congressional adoption of civil rights and votes for blacks as the most acceptable way to reconstruct and readmit an unrepentant South. Leonard starts with the John Wilkes Booth conspiracy in early 1865, continues through the murder, the resulting trials and executions, and ends with the election of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868. The binding thread is supplied by Joseph Holt. [End Page 113]
Holt was a Kentucky Democrat who served as secretary of war in the final months of the Buchanan administration. He stood firmly against secession and supported the incoming Lincoln administration thereafter. Like Mary Todd Lincoln, he had close relatives on the other side. Holt was a protégé and political ally of Edwin M. Stanton, the Pennsylvania Democrat-turned-Republican who served as attorney general under Buchanan and secretary of war under Lincoln and Johnson. It was Stanton who secured Holt's appointment as secretary of war in 1860 and judge advocate general of the army in 1862.
The two men were as one in 1865 and afterward in their determination to ferret out Booth's accomplices and bring them to justice. Holt was directly in charge of both the pursuit and the subsequent prosecutions in special military tribunals. Although Leonard confesses admiration for Holt, she concedes his excessive zeal to hang even doubtful suspects like Mary Suratt, the Washington boardinghouse keeper who knew and entertained some of the conspirators. Suratt was one of four people hanged following the assassination trials; four others including Dr. Samuel Mudd were imprisoned for several years in the Dry Tortugas, off south Florida. Holt also secured the military trial, conviction, and execution in November 1865 of Henry Wirz, commandant of the infamous Andersonville prison.
Holt was never content to stop with these small fry. He firmly believed that Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders had ordered Lincoln's assassination. One of his greatest disappointments, therefore, was Andrew Johnson's release of Davis. Other disappointments came with the mistrial of John Surratt, son of Mary, in 1867 and Andrew Johnson's own acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial of 1868.
Johnson himself had been one of the targets of Booth and his confederates; he was spared only by the apparent loss of nerve of the designated assassin, George Atzerodt. Yet Johnson's growing concern to protect the white South from reconstruction and racial equality turned him against further prosecutions for rebellion or assassination. His release of Jefferson Davis added fuel to the political fire developing with Congress. The most paranoid Republicans even came to believe that Johnson himself had been part of the Booth conspiracy.
Leonard's contribution hangs largely on her coverage of Holt and her case for the assassination as the opening gun of Reconstruction. It is a good case. Otherwise, much of her book covers familiar ground regarding the assassination conspiracy, the prosecutions, and the growing controversy over Reconstruction. Leonard writes well and tells a good story. Minor gaffes such as identifying Clement L. Vallandigham as an Ohio state legislator rather [End Page 114] than congressman and crediting the ratification of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to special state conventions rather than the legislatures are not hanging offenses. She has mined the relevant sources...