Lincoln's Chief Avenger: Judge
Advocate General Joseph Holt
Elizabeth D. Leonard
[A]mong those great men who in those trying days gave
themselves, with entire devotion, to the service of their country,
one who brought to that service the ripest learning, the most
fervid eloquence, the most varied attainments, who labored with
modesty and shunned applause, who in the day of triumph sat
reserved and silent and grateful … was Joseph Holt, of
—James G. Blaine1
THE MAN WHO PRESIDED OVER THE TRIAL OF THE LINCOLN assassination conspirators as Judge Advocate General was a lifelong Democrat who, four years earlier, played a crucial role in saving his and the late president's common native state—Kentucky—for the Union.
Joseph Holt was born two years before his fellow Kentuckian in Breckinridge County, Kentucky, on January 6, 1807, the son of John and Eleanor Stephens Holt. As a young child Holt attended a neighborhood school. Then, when he was fourteen, Holt's wealthy and ambitious slaveholding parents sent the bright and articulate young Joseph off to school—first to St. Joseph's College in Bardstown and then to the prestigious and expensive Centre College in Danville. Following his graduation, Holt studied law in Lexington with Robert Wickliffe, and by 1828, at the age of twenty-one, he and his partner, Benjamin Hardin, opened their first law office in Elizabethtown, not far from where Lincoln himself had been born.