Lincoln's Forgotten Ally

Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky

By Elizabeth D. Leonard

432 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 22 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-2183-8
    Published: February 2015
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-6938-3
    Published: October 2011
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-4064-6
    Published: October 2011

Civil War America

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Awards & distinctions

2012 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, Gettysburg College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Joseph Holt, the stern, brilliant, and deeply committed Unionist from Kentucky, spent the first several months of the American Civil War successfully laboring to maintain Kentucky's loyalty to the Union and then went on to serve as President Lincoln's judge advocate general. In Lincoln's Forgotten Ally, Elizabeth Leonard offers the first full-scale biography of Holt, who has long been overlooked and misunderstood by historians and students of the war.

In his capacity as the administration's chief arbiter and enforcer of military law, Holt strove tenaciously, often against strong resistance, to implement Lincoln's wartime policies, including emancipation. After Lincoln's assassination, Holt accepted responsibility for pursuing and bringing to justice everyone involved in John Wilkes Booth's conspiracy. It was because of this role, in which he is often portrayed as a brutal prosecutor, and because of his hard position toward the South, Leonard contends, that Holt's reputation suffered. Leonard argues, however, that Holt should not be defined by what Southern sympathizers and proponents of the Lost Cause came to think of him. Lincoln's Forgotten Ally seeks to restore Holt, who dedicated both his energy and his influence to ensuring that the Federal victory would bring about lasting positive change for the nation, to his rightful place in American memory.

About the Author

Elizabeth D. Leonard is the John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History at Colby College. She is the author of several books, including Lincoln's Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion after the Civil War.
For more information about Elizabeth D. Leonard, visit the Author Page.


"[Leonard] has admirably brought Holt to life. . . . A sympathetic and sensible reading of a difficult personality and the making of federal legal power, recommended for serious readers and university libraries."--Library Journal

"Leonard's book is biography at its best in that it illustrates, informs, and deepens the written history of the American people and one's understanding of human nature."--Journal of Illinois History

“An outstanding example of how even a diffident life like Holt’s can be made emblematic of great themes in an era of great conflict.”--Civil War News

“Leonard skillfully and meticulously reconstructs Holt’s 87-year life. . . . Judge Advocate General Holt will no longer be forgotten.”--Civil War Book Review

“[With] Leonard’s skillful research and careful assessment. . . . Joseph Holt will no longer remain an obscure figure.”--Journal of American History

“[A] well-written, scholarly, and well-documented book. . . . Highly recommended for both academic and general readers interested in the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Lincoln assassination, and legal history.”--The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

Multimedia & Links

Read: Guest blog post by Leonard on "Why We Still Study the Civil War."

Read: Guest post by Leonard on "A Historian’s Review of The Conspirator."