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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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  • laverge-01
    11/03/2011 at 6:28pm


    There is an excellent new book that was just released on Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt. Entitled Lincoln's Forgotten Ally, it is written by Dr. Elizabeth Leonard of Colby College

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  • brian123
    10/04/2011 at 4:48pm



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  • americanhistory1on1
    09/29/2011 at 5:01am


    It amazes me how totally dysfunctual the Justice system was back in the "good old days". In order to get someone convicted of a crime you only needed to follow a few simple steps. 1-Pick your target. 2-gather any witnesses (best if they do not like the target to begin with) and bribe or coerce them by any means to achieve your goal. 3-Convince whatever jury happens to be there at that moment that your target is guilty of whatever crime you picked. Using said witnesses. Last but not least 4- Invite the entire neighborhood to a public execution (a popular form of entertainment back then) and you are set. Oh, it helps if what you were intending to do happens to be politically correct. Even if it is not.

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  • laverge-01
    09/13/2011 at 9:10pm


    In response to the question as to whether or not Mrs. Surratt ever denied that she had told Lloyd to have the shooting irons ready: First, there were no outbursts or words uttered by any of the conspirators during the sessions of the court. At no time, were they asked to personally answer any question. Also remember that in 1865, no citizen of the United States, except those residing in Maine, had the right to testify in their own defense. That's a whole other story, but one that was actually supposed to protect a defendant from self-incrimination.

    We have no idea what Mrs. Surratt may have said in private to her lawyers (who actually only met with her in the courtroom when the court was not in session - not in the prison cell). She made two statements upon her arrest - one on April 17 and another on April 28. At no time did she admit to anything in those statements.

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  • sunday
    08/21/2011 at 6:23pm


    Hi Colonel Borch,

    I just saw the film for the first time a few days ago. I have a question. Did Mary Surratt, as shown in the film in a courtroom outburst, actually deny that she had instructed Lloyd to have the firearms,etc., ready the night of the assasination? Did she at any point ever deny this?


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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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