D) Carman Cumming: Reviews

Joseph Holt, the Union Judge Advocate General

Two events this year have focussed new attention on Joseph Holt, the Union  judge advocate general and one of the most interesting personalities of the Lincoln assassination drama.  The first event, of course, is the Robert Redford movie The Conspirator, on the trial and execution of Mary Surratt. The second is the publication of Elizabeth D. Leonard’s Holt biography, Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally, a follow-up to her 2004 book, Lincoln’s Avengers.

Unfortunately, neither the movie nor the book probes the most serious accusations that have been brought against Holt on the major episode of his life, his supervision   of   the Lincoln military commission trials.  The question is whether Holt, furious over Lincoln’s death, simply made shockingly bad judgments (as even his supporters concede) or whether he knowingly perverted the high principles he claimed.

IMDb review of The Conspirators. (IMDb reviews can be found at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0968264/)

In the case of the movie, the limitations may be understandable: Movie makers tend to focus on fairly narrow personal drama. The work of the military commission was highly complex and dealt with two distinct themes: the case against the eight defendants, and the testimony implicating the Confederate government in the conspiracy. The movie covers just one slice of the first part (giving Holt a very unhistorical role as a modern-style prosecutor of Mary Surratt) while saying little about the crucial second part.

In the case of the book, the limitations are more disappointing, especially since Prof. Leonard provides a mass of new and minute detail on many aspects of Holt’s life, including his agonizing change of view on slavery (he was Kentuckian and former slave owner) and his close relationships with a number of women. Readers might well hope for new facts and insights as well on the key episode of his life.  A great deal of information already known on that episode deserves further exploration. Some of it is admittedly biased or ambiguous, but some is specific and damning.

To her credit, Leonard, in her generally admiring book, concedes that Holt handled the commission badly.  She writes that there is “simply no escaping the conclusion”  that Holt’s conduct in the critical trial “did not entirely live up to his longstanding and well-deserved reputation for being meticulously even-handed” in matters of law.

But she goes on quickly to explain and excuse. Holt, she says, “undoubtedly did the best he could under horrible circumstances to maintain the highest possible standards of justice.”  Some of his decisions, however, were clearly affected by the war, by the weight of his grief over Lincoln’s death; and by his “towering rage” toward those who had tried to break up the country to enhance their own power and protect slavery.

Because of these factors Holt was overwhelmed, “some would say justifiably”  with a desire to make Lincoln’s enemies pay, if only to ensure that Lincoln’s great sacrifice and the Union’s victory would not be squandered. This caused him to make ”with almost breathtaking blindness. . . some very bad judgment calls indeed.” (21-14)

But were these bad calls unconscious errors or deliberate malfeasance?

The worst blots on Holt’s record concern the several commission witnesses who—it eventually became clear—gave totally false testimony implicating the Confederate government. The question is not whether Holt and War Secretary Stanton (who hovered always in his background) conspired to produce this testimony, but whether they worked to cover it up when its falsity became clear. On that question there is evidence that casts Holt in a very bad light indeed.

Some of this evidence relates to Charles Dunham (alias Sandford Conover, James Watson Wallace, etc.) who was the subject of my 2004 book, Devil’s Game. But the most telling probably deals with “Dr.” James B. Merritt, a witness who is said by some writers to have been recruited and trained by Dunham. Well before the executions of Mary Surratt and three others, Holt had on his desk clear evidence that Merritt was a liar and fraud, and he failed to act on it. Worse, he continued to employ the three most notorious witnesses—Dunham, Merritt and Richard Montgomery–long after he knew of their deceit.

While the evidence of these three did not directly implicate the eight people on trial, it did create a widespread belief—shared by the court—that the whole plot was part of a huge conspiracy, directed from Richmond, to kill  many Northern leaders and inflict on the North such horrors as yellow fever or water system poisoning. That evidence (not entirely imaginary) affected the case all the way from the initial decision to hold a military rather than civil trial, to mysterious rejection of the court’s recommendation to spare Mary Surratt’s life.

In a larger historical context, the evidence also produced widespread public conviction of the South’s guilt, destroying Lincoln’s admirable determination to end the war with “malice toward none.”  The history of the false witnesses, and their toleration by Stanton and Holt, is thus crucial in understanding the times. Without doubt, Holt could have, and should have, charged Dunham and Merritt (at least) with perjury in their commission testimony, and did not. If he had done so, he might have eased the post-assassination hatred in both North and South.  And he might have gained himself a true reputation for rectitude.

Such “might-have-beens” may be bootless, but inevitably they color historical evaluation. Leonard remarks in her book that my own writing on Holt shows “little respect” for the man, and in that she is entirely correct. It may be that I underrate the mass of solid work Holt did in a thankless office. But his toleration of Dunham’s unbelievable “School for Perjury” and Merritt’s incredible “Chapman Letters” affair (to pick just two examples) are not grounds for respect.

The story of Holt`s relations with these and other witnesses is highly complicated, but any serious examination of his career should cover, among many others,   these questions:

1.  How did he deal with Merritt and the “Davison” letter?

This letter, which led to Merritt’s appearance as a witness, was sent to the war department ostensibly by a Canadian magistrate named “Davison.” It told how Merritt, a reputable local doctor in Ayr, Canada West (Ontario) had come to the magistrate days before the assassination to warn of the plot, and that he, to his later regret, had turned the man away.

This letter quickly brought Merritt to Washington–but back in Canada official inquiries showed that the only magistrate in the area who answered the letter’s description spelled his name “Davidson”–and insisted he had never had dealings with Merritt. The letter was thus clearly a fake and should have sunk Merritt instantly since he had told investigators the same story, thus linking himself to the letter. Not only did Holt and his prosecutors withhold this information from the military commission, but prosecutor John Bingham, in his powerful final summation, cited the original letter as support for Merritt’s reliability. The doctor ended up receiving the enormous sum of $6,000 for his testimony—paid out on the same day as the executions.

2. Why did Holt and Stanton keep all three of the most suspect witnesses in the department’s pay for months or years after they were known to be frauds?  In the case of Dunham, it’s clear that even before his testimony Holt had at least some inkling of Dunham’s wartime propaganda  tricks, including several invented Southern spies and assassination plots. When General John A. Dix warned from Montreal of Dunham’s unreliability, Holt not only continued to trust his testimony but personally led him through a difficult second appearance at the commission. Two months later both he and Stanton interviewed Dunham before hiring him to seek more evidence of Southern war crimes.

Almost a year later Holt was confronted with firm evidence from his own people of Dunham’s continuing villainy.  But while dropping the scoundrel from his payroll he refrained from laying charges until his hand was forced by Dunham’s further mischief. In this period Dunham is said to have disappeared, but there is evidence Holt knew where he was and took no action until Dunham, in collaboration with the New York Herald, mounted an ingenious new plot that manufactured evidence to show that Holt had manufactured evidence against Davis.

The motivation–and the controllers–of this plot, are murky. But it is clear that by this point in Washington’s bitterly divided politics, Democrats were keen to sabotage Holt, partly to get control of the immense store of dangerous information held by his Bureau of Military Justice.

Modern history, written mostly by northerners, tends to slide over these events. One possible reason for this is a kind of conventional wisdom that while much of the testimony was undoubtedly invention, it still reflected real Southern campaigns to burn cities, spread yellow fever and so forth.  If Southerners were capable of such acts, was it not probable they also condoned assassination?

Such beliefs were natural enough in the mood of post-assassination fury, but were much exaggerated and, regrettably, reappear unchallenged in many modern books. An example—just one of many–is a 2005 book by Jane Singer called The Confederate Dirty War, which takes as fact one of Dunham’s inventions on a plot to poison New York City’s water.   Similarly, many modern books have Booth plotting with Confederate leaders in Canada in the spring of 1865—a very crucial point if true, but lacking convincing evidence.

Another bit of modern conventional thinking on the military commission is that the false testimony was quickly exposed and therefore caused little harm. Even Robin Winks, the brilliant Yale historian, wrote that Dunham’s testimony was “shown to be perjured,” though in fact it was never officially challenged. (Winks, 367). Other modern writers like Charles Higham and Claire Hoy have Dunham–or Dunham and Merritt–convicted of perjury even before the  commission trials ended.

While it’s true that Confederates quickly attacked the suspect witnesses, it is not true  that “the press” quickly exposed their villainy or that they were charged with perjuring themselves. When the military commission ended, both judges and the public still trusted the fabricated testimony. The Confederate complaints were generally brushed aside as predictable propaganda.

Dunham was later convicted of perjury, but not on the commission testimony. He was charged in the fall of 1866 only after Holt was forced to act in the face of his further outrageous fabrications. Holt himself wrote the indictment in this case,  although it was supposedly a civil matter, carefully avoiding all mention of the military commission lies and suppressing the stories of Dunham collaborators, including his wife.

This switch by Dunham to the pro-Davis campaign in 1866 has inspired several modern writers, led by William Tidwell, to think that Dunham was actually a Confederate agent who offered his false testimony only so it could be torn down, to discredit other “more reliable” evidence against the |Confederate government.  That theory is highly unlikely. If Dunham had been a Confederate agent he could quickly have torn down the “big conspiracy” structure.  And it appears that the commission prosecutors had no other “reliable” evidence implicating Davis that needed to be discredited.

Further work is needed on Holt’s part in these episodes and also on some of his wartime activities, particularly the propaganda campaign he waged in 1864 against Peace Democrats. As William Hanchett notes, in a balanced discussion of Holt, he was the principal agent by which, under controversial wartime law, political prisoners came under military control. (The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, 1986, p. 63)

Holt’s post-war work, too, offers some questionable acts, including his final decision in 1865 (not mentioned by Prof. Leonard) to send to execution the rebellious Sioux chiefs Medicine Bottle and Little Six. The two had been shanghaied in British territory and brought into the U.S., so their military commission convictions, first suspended and then upheld by Holt, appear to be a violation of international law. (See Winks, Civil War Years, 174-76). These episodes, and many others, will need closer analysis before any final verdict can be returned on Holt.


Carman Cumming is a member of the Civil War Round Table of Ottawa.  He worked as a reporter and editor in Canada and the United State before becoming a professor of journalism at Carleton University, Ottawa.

In 2004 the University of Illinois Press published his Devil’s Game: The Civil War Intrigues of Charles Dunham(University of Illinois Press, 2004).

Book Description: (published by:Seekbook.com.com.au)

“Devil’s Game” traces the amazing career of Charles A. Dunham, Civil War spy, forger, journalist, and master of dirty tricks. Writing for a variety of New York papers under alternate names, Dunham routinely faked stories, created new identities, and later boldly cast himself to play those roles. He achieved his greatest infamy when he was called to testify in Washington concerning Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Many parts of Dunham’s career remain shadowy, but Cumming offers the first detailed tour of Dunham’s convoluted, high-stakes, international deceits, including his effort to sell Lincoln on plans for a raid to capture Jefferson Davis. Exhaustively researched and unprecedented in depth, this carefully crafted assessment of Dunham’s motives, personality, and the complex effects of his schemes changes assumptions about covert operations during the Civil War.

 Amazon.com – both new and used copies available.