About Joseph Holt
General Joseph Holt (January 6, 1807 – August 1, 1894) was a leading member of the Buchanan administration and was Judge Advocate General of the United States Army, most notably during the Lincoln assassination trials.
Born in Breckinridge County, Kentucky, on January 6, 1807, he was educated at Saint Joseph's College in Bardstown, Kentucky and Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. He settled in Elizabethtown, Kentucky and set up a law office in town. He married Mary Harrison and moved to Louisville, Kentucky in 1832. There where he became assistant editor of the Louisville Advertiser and the Commonwealth's Attorney from 1833 to 1835. Holt moved to Port Gibson, Mississippi, and practiced law there, as well as in Natchez, Mississippi and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Holt and his wife contracted tuberculosis. Mary died of it, and Joseph returned to Kentucky to recuperate.
James Buchanan's administration
Holt remarried, to Margaret Wickliffe. In 1857, Holt was appointed Commissioner of Patents by President Buchanan, and moved to Washington. He served in this position until 1859 when Buchanan appointed him Postmaster General. The Buchanan administration was shaken in December 1860 and January 1861, when the Confederacy was formed and many cabinet members resigned, but Holt was anti-slavery and a strong supporter of the Union. He was appointed Secretary of War upon the resignation of John B. Floyd of Virginia. Holt served as Secretary of War until the end of Buchanan's presidency.
Judge Advocate General
Holt joined the Army as a colonel in 1862 and was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to be the Judge Advocate General of the Union Army; two years later, he was promoted to brigadier general. He was the first Judge Advocate General to hold general's rank. In this position he personally prosecuted the court-martial against Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter for crimes of disobedience of a lawful order and misbehavior in front of the enemy. Lincoln also offered Holt the position of Secretary of the Interior that same year and Attorney General later in 1864, but Holt declined both offices. He was one of the many politicians considered for the Republican Vice Presidential nomination in 1864. The VP nomination went to Andrew Johnson, and Lincoln was re-elected.
Abraham Lincoln assassination
On April 14, 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Booth's accomplice Lewis Powell attacked Secretary of State Seward, and Vice President Johnson was also targeted. Holt prepared an order for the signature of now-President Johnson for the arrest of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and five other suspects. Booth was caught on April 26, 1865, but was killed by Boston Corbett, a soldier who violated orders.
As Judge Advocate General of the Army, Holt was the chief prosecutor in the trial of the accused conspirators before a military commission chaired by General David Hunter. Two assistant judge advocates, John Bingham and General Henry Burnett assisted Holt. The defendants were George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Powell (a/k/a Paine), Samuel Arnold, Michael O'Laughlen, Edman Spangler, Samuel Mudd, and Mary Surratt. The trial began on May 10, 1865, and lasted two months. Holt and Bingham attempted to obscure the fact that there were two plots. The first plot was to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners held by the Union. The second was to assassinate Lincoln, Johnson and Seward and throw the government into chaos. It was important for the prosecution not to reveal the existence of a diary taken from the body of Booth. The diary made it clear that the assassination plan dated from the 14th of April. Surprisingly, the defense did not call for Booth's diary to be produced in court. Holt was accused of withholding evidence, but it was never proven.
On June 29, 1865, the eight were found guilty of conspiracy to kill the President. Arnold, O'Laughlen, and Mudd were sentenced to life in prison, Spangler to six years in prison, and Atzerodt, Herold, Powell, and Mrs. Surratt to be hanged. They were executed July 7, 1865. O'Laughlen died in prison in 1867. Arnold, Spangler, and Mudd were pardoned by President Johnson in early 1869. Accusations still remain that Mrs. Surratt's sentence of hanging was reduced but that Holt purposely delayed its taking effect until it was too late.
Holt's public image was besmirched by the trial and his prosecution of it, and many historians believe that the controversy surrounding it ended Holt's political career. In 1866, Holt issued a pamphlet titled Vindication of Judge Advocate General Holt From the Foul Slanders of Traitors, Confessed Perjurers and Suborners, Acting in the Interest of Jefferson Davis in which he attempted to defend himself against the various allegations and clear up some of the confusion stemming from the trial.
Holt served as Judge Advocate General until he retired on December 1, 1875. He had a quiet retirement and died in Washington on August 1, 1894. He is buried in the Holt Family Cemetery in Stephensport, Kentucky. Holt County, Nebraska is named after him.