Book Review: Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally



Author: Elizabeth D. Leonard
Copyright 2011
The University of North Caroluna Press
(Civil War America, Gary Gallagher, Editor) 

Throughout most of his life, Joseph Holt was a well-known and well-respected lawyer and politician, known for his hard work and loyalty to the United States, but in the years after his public career ended and as national reconciliation became a popular theme, his fame slipped from public consciousness and knowledge of his work and effort to support the Union also disappeared. In 2011, however, Elizabeth Leonard wrote this book to tell the tale of Joseph Holt’s life and career, and help rescue him from historical oblivion. I wish I had read it sooner.

Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally  is a fine biography of an important, but often overlooked man. Leonard uses a smooth, easy-to-read writing style, combined with in-depth research, to tell the story of a man whose name is not often mentioned in modern Civil War books. Holt, however, had a long, fascinating career in politics and the law before, during, and after the war, and this book describes it in an enjoyable and informative fashion

The story starts with some basic family history and then progresses through a chronological telling of the story of Holt’s life and career.  It is sensible and effective arrangement and does a fine job of showing how Holt grew socially, intellectually and politically, including the support he received and challenges he faced from family, other people and his own natural personality traits. 

He was an intelligent man with a great work ethic, starting from his days as a student and lasting throughout his long political career. He had good family support, including financial support from his grandfather, but also faced the burdens of high family expectations, especially from two uncles who come across as unlikeable in this volume, an aunt, and his brothers, some more helpful than others.

Leonard’s work uses many sources, especially Holt’s own files, to analyze Holt’s personality and how it shaped his career and how people perceived him. He was a successful lawyer and an influential Democratic party speaker, but also chose to avoid seeking election to political office. Despite his reluctance to asking for support from voters, however, he willingly accepted appointment to high-profile public offices. He continued to be a private but proud man who cared deeply about his honor and reputation. He struck back against those he felt had wronged or insulted him. Again, this started during his time as a student, when he defended himself over criticism about a paper he had written, and lasted through the rest of his life, such as when he repeatedly defended his actions in the trial of the Lincoln assassins, even decades after the trial ended. This book strongly illustrates this part of his character. 

Holt’s life was one of apparent ironies and contradictions. One of these ironies, as explored often in this book, is how he remained so steadfastly loyal to the Union throughout the war, with a devotion beyond question, but was less faithful to both of his wives. In both marriages, he spent significant time living away from his bride before they moved in together, and during each marriage, he carried on correspondence, sometimes rather flirtatious, with other women, some of whom were themselves married. He apparently did love his wives, but also enjoyed corresponding with women, family or not, a habit he continued even after his second wife passed (he did not marry for a third time.) Calling him a “ladies’ man” may be an exaggeration, but his  corresponding with other women also brought him pleasure. 

Other contradictions helped define his life and career. He grew up a Democrat and was a solid party loyalist in the pre-war years, often speaking or writing on the party’s behalf. He then held multiple positions in the administration of Democrat James Buchanan, but became a strong supporter of Republican Abraham Lincoln, serving as judge advocate general in his administration. Holt was a slaveholder who supported the Union - not totally unusual, especially among Kentuckians - but he did eventually see the need to abolish slavery to win the war and keep the nation united, which was very rare for an owner of other humans. He was a Southern Unionist long before that term became familiar.

His ambition for higher position and authority and his willingness to accept appointed political offices contrasted with his basic shyness and his refusal to consider elective office. He was a private man in public office, but being an introvert did not stop him from using public writings to defend his reputation or actions. Like stereotypical southern men, he maintained  a strong sense of honor and was willing to overcome his preference for privacy in order to defend himself.

His personal characteristics, such as his sensitivity, sense of honor, privacy, work ethic, and pride combined to form a fascinating persona, and this book describes how such traits worked together in his personal and public lives.

The central theme of the book, however, is Holt’s absolute and unwavering support for the Union. He did not want to see it split before the war, favored a strong effort to win the war to preserve it, and then was one of the foremost advocates of punishing the people responsible for the coming of the war, almost to the point of obsession. Nobody questioned his loyalty, though at the end of his career some people did wonder if his senses of loyalty and Unionism had gone too far as he attempted to punish Confederate leaders and others he associated with Lincoln’s assassination. This questioning led Holt to defend his actions and his honor yet again.

Overall, this is an excellent example of biographical writing, a well-written history and analysis of an important figure whom history has largely forgotten, despite his important roles in the the decades around, and including, the Civil War. He was a Kentuckian who influenced the war and many of his challenges - including being a slaveowner who supported the Union and a man whose family was split by the war - were similar to what many people in his homestate experienced. Contrasts with many fellow Kentuckians, however, also manifested themselves, especially his support of Lincoln and emancipation, two unpopular topics in his home state. Holt did not cave in to peer or even family pressure (from his uncles or proud southern brother Robert especially.) He was his own man in a difficult era, and the contradictions in his life demonstrate his individuality. This book shows how his personal traits and beliefs led him to handle the challenges he faced, and it does so in a very readable manner.  The author clearly did a lot of research and her finished work is an easy and quick read. I gladly recommend this book to people interested in the Civil War, especially those interested in lesser-known people or subjects.

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