Top of page

Collection Joseph Holt Papers

About this Collection

The papers of commissioner of patents, United States postmaster general, secretary of war, judge advocate general of the United States Army, and lawyer Joseph Holt (1807-1894) consists of 20,000 items in 118 containers and three oversize folders. The material spans the years 1797-1917, with the bulk concentrated in the period 1859-1889. The collection consists principally of correspondence supplemented by diaries, ledgers, account books, bills and receipts, briefs and other legal papers, newspaper clippings, speeches, photographs, and printed matter.

Holt's career as a newspaper editor, lawyer, local politician, cabinet member, and first judge advocate general of the United States Army is reflected in this collection. Holt's correspondence from the 1830s and 1840s relates largely to legal matters and politics in Kentucky and Mississippi. The emerging sectional conflict, which ultimately led to the Civil War, drew Holt into national politics. On the eve of the war he occupied a prominent place in the ranks of the Democratic Party. In 1859, he was appointed postmaster general by President James Buchanan. In January 1861, he became secretary of war, an appointment he later described in an article entitled "How I Became Secretary of War." Among Holt's tasks as secretary of war was keeping the peace in the capital during Abraham Lincoln's inauguration. Correspondence between Holt and U.S. Army commander Winfield Scott reflects concern over numerous rumors of planned assassination attempts.

Though a Southerner and a Democrat, Holt supported the Union. In September 1862, President Lincoln appointed Holt as judge advocate general of the army, a newly created post with responsibility for the establishment of military commissions with jurisdiction over military and civilian offenders. On May 4, 1865, a military commission was convened to prosecute the conspirators charged with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The Holt Papers contain voluminous correspondence regarding the commission as well as affidavits, depositions, transcribed testimony, various versions of the charges against the conspirators, as well as Holt's correspondence about the trial long after the trial concluded.

The ledgers, account books, and bills and receipts in the Financial Papers series, and invitations in the Miscellany series complement Holt's general and personal correspondence in documenting Holt's day-to-day activities, his interests, domestic and international travel, and the political and social circles in which Holt moved, especially in Washington, D.C. The extensive collection of bills and receipts offers especially useful ephemera records of businesses operating in the District of Columbia between the late 1850s and early 1890s.

Correspondents represented in the Joseph Holt Papers include Jeremiah S. Black, James Buchanan, Simon Cameron, James A. Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, John Marshall Harlan, Albert Gallatin Hawes, John Hay, Ethan Allen Hitchcock, Mary Harrison Holt, Margaret Wickliffe Holt, Samuel P. Holt, Thomas H. Holt, Reverdy Johnson, Harriet Lane Johnston, Horatio King, Francis Lieber, Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay, Amelie L. de Noircy, Benjamin Rush, Winfield Scott, J. Marion Sims, James Speed, Edwin McMasters Stanton, Lew Wallace, and Louis J. Weichmann.

A finding aid (PDF and HTML) to the Joseph Holt Papers is available online with links to the digital content on this site.

The collection is arranged in seven series:

  • Series 1: General Correspondence and Related Material, 1817-1894
    Consists of bound volumes (numbered 1-97) containing letters received and sent by Joseph Holt. Series 1 includes transcripts of the trial of the Abraham Lincoln assassination conspirators, drafts of the charges, transcripts of correspondence, legal miscellany, speeches to the juries, and other miscellaneous items. The material in this series is arranged and bound chronologically, with some items filed out of order, such as the trial of Lincoln assassination conspirators (see volumes 92-93).
  • Series 2: Personal Correspondence, 1832-1895
    Includes mainly correspondence with family members and friends. The materials are arranged chronologically. Holt corresponded with some friends in French, and this undated material can be found in container 101.
  • Series 3: Winfield Scott Correspondence, 1860-1861, 1907
    Contains correspondence between Secretary of War Joseph Holt and General Winfield Scott, commander-in-chief of the United States Army, during the secession crisis of 1860-1861 and leading up to the presidential inauguration of Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1861. The letters are arranged chronologically.
  • Series 4: Diaries, Notebooks, and Epistolary Record, 1836-1892
    The materials in this series are organized into three groupings identified in the series title, and arranged chronologically within each grouping.
  • Series 5: Financial Papers, 1822-1894
    Consists of a completed checkbook with check stubs, ledgers, account books, bills and receipts, and an indenture. The items are arranged by type of material, and chronologically therein.
  • Series 6: Miscellany, 1797-1917
    Invitations, acceptances, calling cards, legal notes, a French copybook, roll book, passport, clippings, photographs, printed matter, an article by Holt, editorial remarks, an autobiography of Holt, and scrapbooks. The items are arranged by type of material.
  • Series 7: Oversize, 1830-1850
    This series includes maps, financial papers, newspapers, and printed matter that are arranged and described according to the series, container, and folder from which the items were removed.