[This article is crossposted at UNCPressCivilWar150.com.]
Joseph Holt, the stern, brilliant, and deeply committed Unionist from Kentucky, spent the first several months of the American Civil War successfully laboring to maintain Kentucky’s loyalty to the Union, then went on to serve as President Lincoln’s judge advocate general. In Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky, Elizabeth Leonard offers the first full-scale biography of Holt, who has long been overlooked and misunderstood by historians and students of the war.
You can join in online for an upcoming virtual book-signing event with Leonard, courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop. Visit virtualbooksigning.net on Saturday, November 12, 12 noon (Central), to participate.
The following is an excerpt from Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally (pp. 2-3):
Born in 1807 not far from where the dilapidated mansion stands, Joseph Holt spent his earliest years as the quiet, deeply reserved but extremely bright and bookish second son of a slaveholding lawyer/farmer and his wife. By 1860, though, the fifty-three-year-old Holt had gone far. A wealthy and highly accomplished attorney living and working in the nation’s capital, he was considered a serious contender to oppose Lincoln for the nation’s highest office by many of the leading lights in the Democratic Party, of which he and his family had long been loyal supporters.
By that time, Holt had already served in James Buchanan’s administration for three years, first as commissioner of patents and then in the president’s cabinet as postmaster general. For reasons that had to do with both his fundamental nature and his sense of where his duty lay, Holt dismissed his supporters’ encouragements to seek the presidency himself. Then, in the wake of Lincoln’s election, as Buchanan’s cabinet began to crumble, Holt accepted an emergency appointment as secretary of war. In this post, he strove courageously from December 31, 1860, to March 6, 1861, to hold the collapsing nation and the federal government together.
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln became president. Just over a month later war erupted in Charleston Harbor. Although Lincoln’s April 15 call for troops to put down the rebellion drove four previously undecided states into the Confederacy, four other states that lay long the border between slavery and freedom remained ambivalent. Among these, perhaps the most important was resource-rich Kentucky, which Lincoln and Holt agreed must be held. Over the course of the next several months they worked together—successfully—to sustain their native state’s loyalty to the Union and then transform that loyalty into armed support. Profoundly grateful for all of Holt’s efforts on behalf of the nation thus far, Lincoln was also impressed by Holt’s brilliant legal mind, his sense of personal and national honor, and his stern commitment to duty. Moreover, he was certain that Holt would both endorse and enforce his administration’s war policies. And so, in September 1862, Lincoln appointed Holt judge advocate general of the U.S. Army. Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally is, in part, the story of Holt’s dedicated wartime collaboration with Lincoln—not least on the question of emancipation. For although he had grown up with slavery and even, for a time, became a slave owner in his own right, Holt eventually—and decisively—rejected this central feature of the world from which he had come and embraced instead, with passion and supreme resolution, Lincoln’s vision for a new world in which all people could be free.
From LINCOLN’S FORGOTTEN ALLY: JUDGE ADVOCATE GENERAL JOSEPH HOLT OF KENTUCKY by Elizabeth D. Leonard. Copyright (c) 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Elizabeth Leonard is John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History at Colby College (Maine).