Civil War Times

STANTON’S HITMAN

When Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton called Joseph Holt into his office on July 18, 1862, it was almost certainly to offer him a powerful post that had just been authorized at the War Department. The previous day President Abraham Lincoln had signed legislation creating the new office of judge advocate general, the nominal function of which would be to review army courts-martial. To that duty Stanton would add some interesting assignments of a more political nature. Holt was interested, but before recommending him for appointment Stanton would have to exercise some suasion on the president, who already had someone else in mind.

Brevet Major John F. Lee, one of Robert E. Lee’s many loyal cousins, had served as judge advocate for the U.S. Army since 1849, reviewing court-martial findings and offering legal recommendations to five presidents. Major Lee was a brother-in-law of Lincoln’s postmaster general, Montgomery Blair, whose entire family expected Lee to get the expanded office. Blair later confirmed that the post had been created for Lee, and had been promised to him. Lee, however, was a conservative. He championed nonpartisan justice and disliked the idea of using military courts to prosecute civilians. As Stanton could have predicted, Holt would readily subordinate justice to politics, and he quickly became an enthusiastic advocate of military tribunals, which provided a more certain means of obtaining convictions.

Stanton knew Holt from having served with him in President James Buchanan’s Cabinet, where Stanton served as attorney general during the last weeks of Buchanan’s term. Holt, a sometimes lawyer and Democratic activist from Kentucky, had run into such financial straits by the age of 50 that his wife begged her brother to take Holt into his law firm to give him an income. At the same time, Holt solicited a government post through Democratic friends, and in September 1857 he

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