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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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  • AStudentofHistory
    06/22/2011 at 12:16pm

    AStudentofHistory

    General David Hunter who rose to fame for his stance on socially integrating the Army in South Carolina after Lincoln dismissed John C. Fremont for taking the charge in transforming or reconstructing the nation was President of the Tribunal to investigate the assasination-prior to the trial. This same General failed to instruct Holt as far as I am concerned who should be on trial! Of all people, I thought Hunter understood the machinations of the Confederacy in the assasination! Lincoln was not the first President to be Assasinated for his stance on the Slavery Question: Zachary Taylor was! Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and Gettyburg Address got him killed as sure as wet follows rain! Furthermore, the Great Emancipators of Slaves were Fremont and Hunter-take it from a student of History. But Ole' Abe gets the glory!

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  • AStudentofHistory
    06/22/2011 at 12:13pm

    AStudentofHistory

    I General David Hunter who rose to fame for his stance on socially integrating the Army in South Carolina after Lincoln dismissed John C. Fremont for taking the charge in transforming or reconstructing the nation. This same General failed to instruct Holt as far as I am concerned who should be on trial. Of all people, I thought Hunter understood the machinations of the Confederacy in the assasination. Lincoln was not the first President to be Assasinated for his stance on the Slavery Question: Zachary Taylor was! Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and Gettyburg Address got him killed as sure as wet follows rain!

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  • laverge-01
    06/07/2011 at 6:45pm

    laverge-01

    Good post and may this film intrigue more people about US history.

    One note on Dr. Mudd's involvement. If you have not read His Name is Still Mudd or Blood on the Moon by Edward Steers, you should. You will learn a lot more than what most have been told about Mudd. There is much evidence to indicate he was part of the kidnap conspiracy. Booth met with him more than once. Mudd introduced him to chief secret agent for the Confederacy in lower Maryland, Thomas Harbin. On December 23, 1864, Mudd traveled to Washington, introduced Booth to the Surratts, and got them involved in the kidnapping.

    There is no evidence to indicate that Mudd knew about the assassination until Booth and Herold showed up on his door on April 15. However, he surely recognized him and Booth bragged to Lloyd at Surratt's Tavern about killing Lincoln - why not tell someone you know.

    Mudd went to the village of Bryantown shortly after noon and learned what had happened from troops there. Did he report the strangers at his house? No, he went home and sent them on their way under the cover of approaching darkness. He didn't report the fugitives until the next day at church, when he asked his COUSIN to report to the troops.

    The authorities caught him in so many lies before the trial that Mudd's own lawyer later commented that his (Mudd's) own prevarications did him in. He got off lucky, he failed to hang by one vote.

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  • nasfell
    06/07/2011 at 5:02pm

    nasfell

    I believe one thing should be noted...at the time this happened the end of the War..there were so many bitter feelings...that anyone involved would have been judged very harsh...Our beloved President had been gunned down..the first..to have been killed in office, over 650,000 americans died in this war ...how could anyone involved in the war either north or south been without bitter feelings...I loved the movie and look forward to the Movie on Lincoln that Spielberg is producing for next year...One thing about the Civil War...everyone that studies, reads or just scans articles..will come away with their own opinions...which makes it the greatest debated war in history..there is no clear and defined way to examine this war...except to love the subject and history of our country!

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  • nasfell
    06/07/2011 at 4:50pm

    nasfell

    There are several concerns over the idea that Samuel Mudd was part of the plot to Kill Lincoln...to this date there is not sound evidence that he was. I believe he was a victim of circumstances...in the book regarding the capture of John Wilkes Booth..they imply that once Mudd become aware of what had happened...all he wanted was to Booth to leave...
    It must be remembered that Mudd was a Doctor and would have help anyone in need...the question is open ended and will remain so.
    As the movie attests and the storys shows many aspects of the plot were never really investigated because Staton was focused on those that were obviously guilty..I believe that Mary was also a victim of the circumstances...it really is not a moment of history to be proud of!!!!

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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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