A Breckinridge County native, Joseph Holt (1807-1894) was a famous Kentuckian who had a long career in the national spotlight. He was a prominent lawyer who served as Commissioner of Patents (1857), Postmaster General (1859) and Secretary of War (1860) under President James Buchanan.
He achieved national prominence serving in the administration of
President Abraham Lincoln, who appointed him the nation's first Judge
Advocate General of the United States Army, a position he held from 1862 to
1875. His most memorable role as JAG came following the assassination
of President Lincoln, when Holt presided over the trial of the Lincoln
assassination conspirators including the first woman ever hanged by the
federal government, Mary Surratt.
Holt was born in rural
Breckinridge County in 1807 to John and Eleanor (Stephens) Holt, who
owned many acres of land in the vicinity. Judge Holt's maternal
grandfather, Captain Richard Stephens, received a 10,000-acre land
grant for his service during the Revolutionary War. The original house they built, on this site, burned and this one took its place.
Holt was given the opportunity to obtain a good education because of
his grandfather. Holt attended St. Joseph's College in Bardstown and
Centre College in Danville. He became a practicing attorney in
Elizabethtown 1828-1832 then moved to Louisville where he was the
assistant editor of the Louisville Advertiser and the Commonwealth's
Attorney. Later he moved to Mississippi where he practiced law in Port
Gibson and Vicksburg and was very successful. In 1842, Holt contracted
tuberculosis, retired and returned to Louisville and became involved in
Judge Holt was a believer and supporter of the Union
and played a key role in keeping Kentucky from leaving the Union during
the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln appointed him to the newly
created office of Judge Advocate General in 1862, with the rank of
Colonel. Two years later he was promoted to Brigadier General and named
to lead the new Bureau of Military Justice.
During Judge Holt's
lifetime, he returned frequently to visit his Breckinridge County
family home. He was married twice, to his first wife Mary L. Harrison
in 1839 and following her death to Margaret Wickliffe in 1850. Both
wives are buried with their respective families in Bardstown. Following
Judge Holt's death in 1894, his body was returned to Breckinridge
County and he is buried along with his parents and other relatives in
the family cemetery.
John Bingham (L), Holt, Henry Burnett (R) three prosecutors in charge of Lincoln's assassination trial.