Preview: Elizabeth Leonard, “Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally”

13 10 2011

I’m reading Elizabeth Leonard’s Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky right now and thoroughly enjoying it. The preface of this book is the real hook. A while back I interviewed Prof. Leonard about Men of Color: To Arms, and thought I’d go straight to the source to give you all a reason to read a biography of a man about whom I think it’s safe to say most of my readers know very little. She replied promptly, and I’ll let her speak for herself:

I first encountered Joseph Holt when I was doing the research for my book Yankee Women (1994), almost twenty years ago. Holt had written a lengthy legal brief explaining to Andrew Johnson (who was by then president) why it did not make sense to permit Mary Walker, a woman doctor who had served as a contract surgeon for the Union army during the last year of the war, to continue with the army once the war was over, though she very much wanted to do so. Holt’s reasoning was that there was no precedent for a woman doctor in the peacetime army, and therefore she should be dismissed. But he did suggest that Johnson award her the Congressional Medal of Honor first, which he did. Back then, all I knew was that I was furious at this guy Joseph Holt for making it impossible for Mary Walker to remain with the army! But later, when I was doing the research for my book Lincoln’s Avengers (2004), I came to know Holt much better in the context of the Lincoln assassination and its aftermath, and I came to respect him deeply, despite his rather prickly personality and some serious blunders he made in connection with the assassination conspiracy trial. As I made my way through his massive archive in the Library of Congress, I also learned, to my great surprise, that he and Mary Walker had become friends many years after the war: they had a cordial correspondence, and occasionally ran into each other in Washington!

I guess one of the things that intrigues me most about Holt is that he was such a complex character — a former slaveholder who became a dedicated supporter of Emancipation, a southerner whose whole family went with the Confederacy while he remained unwaveringly committed to the Union, a prickly character whom some people despised, but whom others adored. He’s a conundrum, and I’m still working out my own thoughts about him, even though I’ve spent years researching and writing his biography.

I hope that readers will come away from Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally with a much richer understanding of, and appreciation for, this very complicated man. Joseph Holt has been largely forgotten by history: even in his home state of Kentucky very few people have ever even heard of him! Moreover, when he is “remembered” by anyone, it is usually only in the context of the Lincoln assassination conspiracy trial and in what I consider an utterly simplistic and negative way (see the film “The Conspirator” for an example), which denies some of the deeper issues at stake during that trial, and also denies the extent of Holt’s many other contributions to the nation’s history, the Union’s survival, and postwar efforts to ensure that the Confederacy did not rise again and that the freedpeople’s rights and long-term welfare were protected. He deserves a lot better from history!

There is an effort now to try to preserve the Holt family home in Stephensport, Kentucky, and I asked Prof. Leonard about how folks can help:

I am not sure about the current status of the rehab of his house, though I know that there are a few very dedicated folks in Breckinridge County who are trying to restore the place. But it is a terrible mess: left uninhabited for many years, it suffered from neglect, vandalism, and bad weather. The job of restoring it will be a huge and expensive one, but I hope that it will be a success in the end, because it must have been a magnificent place at one time, and you can really feel that when you see it. If anyone is interested, they can go to this website for more information. But please be advised: the information on that website about Holt’s life and family is not entirely accurate, having been written before my book appeared, and there is a photograph on the site that seems to be intended as a photograph of Holt, but is definitely not him — I think it must have been one of his black servants.

Give Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally a shot. I think you’ll be glad you did. And here’s a quick video clip of her discussing the book on C-Span.

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