Civil War Justice: The Correspondence of Joseph Holt, Judge Advocate General

Joseph Holt (1807-1894) served as a newspaper editor, lawyer, and political figure in his native Kentucky, and then as commissioner of patents, postmaster general, and secretary of war in the James Buchanan administration. Though a southerner and a Democrat, Holt supported the Union during the Civil War, which put him at odds with much of his slaveowning family in the South.

In September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Holt as judge advocate general of the United States Army to oversee military commissions with jurisdiction over military and civilian offenders, and provide guidance on military law. Holt spent long hours with Lincoln reviewing courts-martial cases requiring the president’s attention. The most controversial of Holt’s duties involved collecting evidence and trying by military commission the conspirators charged with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

The Holt Papers contain voluminous correspondence from all periods of Holt’s life and career, as well as affidavits, depositions, transcribed testimony, various versions of the charges against the Lincoln conspirators, and communications about Lincoln’s assassination and the conspiracy trial long after its conclusion.