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The Conspirator

Posted By - Fred L. Borch III
Mar 28, 2011 at 8:43pm | Filed Under “The Conspirator

“Brig. Gen. Joseph Holt - His Role as Chief Prosecutor in the Military Tribunal”

Joseph Holt, a Kentucky lawyer and staunch Unionist, was confirmed by the Congress as President Lincoln's Judge Advocate General on September 3, 1862. This made Holt the top lawyer in the Army, and the principal legal advisor to Lincoln on all military legal matters. Holt was a well-known figure in political circles, as he had served in President Buchanan's administration as Commissioner of Patents (1857), Postmaster General (1859), and Secretary of War (1861). Holt worked closely with Lincoln during the Civil War and met regularly with the President in the White House to discuss courts-martial; by law, Lincoln had to approve every death sentence imposed by a court-martial, and Holt brought these records of trial to Lincoln and discussed each case with him.

After the decision was made to try Mary Surratt and the other seven conspirators at a military commission, Brigadier General Holt took charge of the proceedings. He was considered by his contemporaries to be an excellent courtroom lawyer and was widely respected and admired. But, although Holt had overall responsibility for the prosecution of the conspirators, much of the work (especially the questioning at trial) was done by his two able assistants: Judge Advocate Major Henry L. Burnett and Special Judge Advocate John A. Bingham. That said, when the proceedings began on May 9, 1865 in Washington City, it was Holt who had shaped their form.

First, no doubt assisted by his friend (and boss) Secretary of War Stanton, Holt had chosen the seven generals and two colonels who would sit as the commission members. All were Unionists who owed their commissions as officers to the president and who presumably felt a strong personal loyalty to him. These men were unlikely to develop any sympathy for the conspirators, much less consider acquitting them. In any event, there was no "presumption of innocence" at a military commission.

Second, because the charge of conspiracy leveled against Mary Surratt and her seven co-conspirators included claims that the leaders of the Confederacy were involved in the plot to kill Lincoln, Holt and his assistants introduced much evidence that had nothing to do with Surratt or the seven defendants. For example, the military commission heard testimony that Confederate agents had plotted to infect Northern cities with small-pox infected blankets and that Union prisoners had been mistreated at Andersonville prison.

Third, Holt used both direct evidence (for example, the testimony of Lloyd that Mary had come to him on the afternoon of the assassination and told him to get the 'shooting irons' ready) and circumstantial evidence (for example, that Mary ran the boarding house that hatched the conspiracy to kill Lincoln) to put together a very strong case against her. Her guilt was a foregone conclusion -- the only question was whether she would hang for her part in the conspiracy.

At the end of a two-day deliberation, the commission voted to hang Mary Surratt. At the same time, five members signed a petition requesting that President Johnson commute Mary's sentence. What happened to this petition continues to be controversial. General Holt insisted that he delivered the clemency petition to Johnson -- and that the president rejected it. Johnson later denied having seen it. But this claim by Andrew Johnson seems disingenuous because he had the power to commute Mary's sentence at any time if he had felt justice required such clemency. Additionally, when Johnson suspended the writ of habeas corpus in Mary's case -- thereby rendering the writ that Aiken had obtained from Judge Wiley a nullity -- Johnson made it clear that he did not want Mary to escape the hangman's noose.

But Johnson's charge that Holt had withheld the petition from him stuck to Holt; he spent the rest of his life attempting to vindicate himself of the charge.

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  • MaL10407
    03/30/2011 at 3:38pm


    Though I'm sure the outcome wouldn't have been much different, it is interesting that they went with prosecuting the conspirators via military tribunal rather than by their peers/civilians. From what I've read Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was the only member of the cabinet that did not want a military tribunal. He believed that Lincoln would have wanted a civilian trial instead, and that's part of the reason he held that specific opinion. Either way I am so excited for this film and have always wanted them to do one about this extremely fascinating topic!

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  • lizzybennett
    03/30/2011 at 3:31pm


    I have always personally wondered what Lincoln might have done if he had lived and had the knoledge of the John Wilkes Booth Plot and everyone envolved? But if you look at the reasons behind Holt and AG James Speed actions just hours /days after the death of the President it seems to me that they saw it clearly and acted Lincoln might have expected them to even given the closeness of Speed Family to Lincoln and the loyalty that came with it. It is a shame that the Holt House in Kentucky is not open for the public ,maybe the fil will reawaken the powers that be to do something about it.

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  • wanderingchild5
    03/30/2011 at 3:24pm


    This is so interesting! I can't wait to see how this is portrayed in the movie.

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Fred L. Borch III

U.S. Army (Ret.) Historian

Colonel Fred L. Borch (Ret.) is the Regimental Historian and Archivist for the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps - one of only two full-time legal historians in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Fred served 25 years as a military lawyer in the Army Judge Advocate General's Corps. His areas of... More

Fred L. Borch III

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