Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally:
Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky

Elizabeth D. Leonard
University of North Carolina Press, 2011, 432 pp., $40.00

 Reviewed By Gordon Berg          

If you happen to be writing a book about Joseph Holt, Abraham Lincoln’s Judge Advocate General and prosecutor of those who conspired to assassinate the martyred president, stop right now.  Elizabeth Leonard has already written the definitive biography of this worldly, wealthy, and erudite Kentuckian who suffered political disappointment and family ostracism because of his passionate anti-slavery beliefs and commitment to preserving the Union.

Leonard writes with clarity, energy, and assurance; much as her subject did. When only 17, Holt declared “While we tolerate slavery, we are only feeding and nourishing our own destroyer…”  Holt maintained that slavery was “contrary to every principle of justice, every precept of morality, every feeling of humanity, every sentiment of honor” and he held these beliefs throughout his life.  These views ran counter to those held by most of his family and friends.

A successful lawyer and rising star in the Democratic Party, Holt became Secretary of War in the waning days of James Buchanan’s administration.  By accepting this appointment, Leonard maintains, he “boldly, courageously, and with unshakable commitment chose the Union over Kentucky, over the states, over the South, and -- potentially -- over slavery.”   After the fall of Fort Sumter, Holt wrote to former president Buchanan and declared  “Now that the South has begun an unprovoked and malignant war upon the U.S., I am decidedly in favor of prosecuting the struggle until the citizens of the seceded States shall be made to obey the laws as we obey them."

Leonard reveals that after the fort fell, Lincoln called on Holt and asked him to return to their native state and undertake “an all-out effort to ensure Kentucky’s fidelity and… to transform its supposed neutrality into active military support.”  He crisscrossed the state giving speeches, supporting the recruitment of men loyal to the Union for military service, and clandestinely arranging to supply them with arms.      

Although Holt had no military experience, Lincoln appointed him judge advocate general of the army in September 1862 because, Leonard maintains, he was “a brilliant, rational, stunningly articulate, painstakingly careful attorney, and because he was a fearlessly determined supporter of the Union.”  With thousands of cases to evaluate, Holt was in almost daily contact with the president.  Some of the most interesting cases this former slave owner handled involved the legal, civil, and human rights of slaves and former slaves.  Holt evaluated the evidence evenhandedly, even when the crimes appeared to be perpetrated against white.

Holt vigorously supported Lincoln’s decision to suspend habeas corpus, Congresses enactment of the Second Confiscation Act, and the Emancipation Proclamation, believing them all to be legal as necessities of war.  His intention, Leonard concludes, “was to support the president and his policies unwaveringly…and to make use of all the legal means at his command to move immediately and boldly against the nation’s enemies…”  

One of these legal means was the right of black men to enlist and serve in the Union army.  At the request of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Holt issued an opinion that the Constitution held that men of African descent were people, not property, and therefore could be called upon to bear arms “in defense of the Government under which they live and by which they are protected.”  Holt also held that after the war, black veterans should enjoy all the rights that the Constitution bestowed upon its citizens.

During the trial of the Lincoln conspirators, Holt’s primary task was to gather evidence establishing the guilt of the eight defendants.  He also issued the opinion that they should be tried by military tribunal, not a civilian court.  He sought, in vain, to establish a link between the conspirators and members of the Confederate government.

After the turbulent tenure of Andrew Johnson, Holt looked forward to the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.  In spite of a continuing heavy workload, Congress was determined to shrink the national army and its attendant bureaucracy.  It reduced the staff of the Bureau of Military Justice.  While some politicians and military officers advocated closing the bureau, Holt staunchly defended its existence.  “Some such establishment,” he declared, “is certainly necessary in every civilized country that proposes to submit its military administration to the guidance and limitations of law.” 

Holt remained a hard-working judge advocate general until 1875.  When he died in 1894, he was buried with full military honors in the family cemetery in Stephensport KY, next to relatives who had scorned his devotion to the Union.

Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (  His reviews and articles appear in the Civil War Times and America's Civil War, among other publications.