Lincoln's Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Jospeh Holt of Kentucky, Elizabeth Leonard, Univ. Of North Carolina Press, 448 pages, notes, bibliography, index, $40.00, Release Date: October 10, 2011.
Lincoln's Forgotten Ally, Review by William C. Davis, History Book Club.
First impressions are important, and for most people who first see his hard stare and cold features, impressions of Joseph Holt seldom improve upon familiarity. When he is recalled at all, it is as the implacable and merciless prosecutor of the conspirators involved in the kidnapping and assassination plots against Abraham Lincoln. Almost a century and a half after the trial of the criminals, Holt is still largely remembered for allegedly suborning perjury and paying for damning testimony to take the trial beyond just those immediately involved, seeking to implicate Confederate President Jefferson Davis and others in high position in the Lost Cause.
Elizabeth D. Leonard's new Lincoln's Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky is a welcome tonic to long-held prejudices. If Holt was indeed relentless in his pursuit of Lincoln's killers, still he was also firmly opposed to slavery and a staunch supporter of the Union from the outset despite being a Democrat from slave-holding Kentucky.
He served in the lackluster cabinet of the equally lackluster President James Buchanan, first as postmaster general, and then as secretary of war after scandal rocked the administration. When war broke out Holt at first took a commission as colonel of a Union infantry regiment, but in 1862 Lincoln appointed him judge advocate general of the Union army. No one likes a prosecutor as a rule, and as judge advocate, prosecution was Holt's mandate. He pursued the case against General Fitz-John Porter, a popular and capable officer who ran afoul of internal army politics, and then became the guiding force behind the trials of the Lincoln conspirators. The convictions were perhaps his greatest success, though the manner in which they were obtained tarnished his image ever after, and effectively ended any hopes he may have had for a postwar political career.
Lincoln's Forgotten Ally is the first full biography we have had of Holt, and the author is more than equal to the task of taking a two-dimensional figure and putting flesh on his bones. Throughout Holt's life his devotion to the Union comes through, from his efforts to keep Kentucky from seceding, to his work in making the Emancipation Proclamation effective, and his postwar efforts to use his office to make sure that military forces occupying the South during Reconstruction effectively implemented the reforms implicit in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, while combating the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other extremists. When he died in 1894, his body was wrapped in a battle flag that he had kept for that purpose for almost 30 years.
Combining in-depth research and able narrative with measured judgment, Elizabeth D. Leonard has given Holt that necessary third dimension at last, and in the process filled an important void in our understanding of the men and measures that turned Lincoln's vision into a reality.
Text and Image Source: History Book Club