Lincoln's Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion after the Civil War


Did the federal government mete out justice or revenge in response to Lincoln's assassination?
On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth, and Secretary of State William H. Seward was brutally stabbed. Clearly a conspiracy was afoot. Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt was put in charge of the investigation and trial. He first set out to punish all of Booth's accomplices and then wanted to go after Jefferson Davis, whom he felt had instigated the ...

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Did the federal government mete out justice or revenge in response to Lincoln's assassination?
On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth, and Secretary of State William H. Seward was brutally stabbed. Clearly a conspiracy was afoot. Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt was put in charge of the investigation and trial. He first set out to punish all of Booth's accomplices and then wanted to go after Jefferson Davis, whom he felt had instigated the assassination—despite stern opposition, not least of all from Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson. Elizabeth D. Leonard tells for the first time the full story of the two assassination trials. She explores the questions that made these trials pivotal in American history: Were they to be used to make the South pay for secession? Were they to be fair trials based on the evidence? Or were they to be points of reconciliation, with the South forgiven at all costs to create a solid union?

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Colby College historian Leonard (Yankee Women) writes with clarity and balance about the oft-conflicting quests for justice, revenge and peace in the troubled early years of Reconstruction. Moving from Lincoln's assassination to Grant's inauguration, Leonard exhumes Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt to serve as the book's focus. Holt had the task of prosecuting the alleged conspirators in the assassination plots against Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward, as well as Andersonville commandant-cum-war criminal Henry Wirz. The understudied Holt a former slaveholder and Kentucky loyalist, but also a staunch and vengeful Unionist makes a fascinating central figure, and early on Leonard confesses her "sympathy and compassion" for the man. The book, however, is scrupulously fair to Holt's legacy, which encompassed a dedication to justice and truth, but also a zeal that bred the enmity of such powerful men as Andrew Johnson and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. "If, like Lincoln himself," Leonard writes, "he must stretch both law and convention in some measure to save the Republic, Holt was quite prepared to do so." Her analysis of the motivations of Holt's main foil, Johnson, is sparse, which is understandable considering Johnson kept no diary and was a poor correspondent. But she significantly challenges the received wisdom that Johnson carried on Lincoln's legacy of leniency, arguing that Johnson was a much more avid supporter of "undemanding reconciliation" with the South. By arguing what "Lincoln might have done," Leonard deals in counterfactuals that some readers will certainly contest. Overall, however, the book is exquisite history, as Leonard makes excellent use of overlooked primary materials to weave a taut narrative with fluid prose. (Mar.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Lincoln is assassinated and Secretary of State William H. Seward then stabbed: were the trials revenge or reconciliation, muses the author of Yankee Women. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
If Lincoln's assassination was the final shot of the Civil War, the punishment of those responsible was a decisive step in casting the course of Reconstruction. So argues Leonard (History/Colby Coll.; All the Daring of the Soldier, 1999, etc.), who focuses on Joseph Holt, head of the Union's Bureau of Military Justice. In early 1865, the 58-year-old Holt, a staunch Union man despite his southern origins, gave thanks for Lee's surrender and the end of the Confederacy. John Wilkes Booth's murder of the president came as a complete shock. The machinery of law enforcement went into high gear in search of the assassins; within days, Booth was shot to death in a burning barn near Port Royal, Virginia. His demise meant that questions would forever linger about the fates of his eight alleged co-conspirators, whose military trial was orchestrated by Holt. Leonard carefully and impartially summarizes the tribunal, pointing out the dubious nature of testimony from several key witnesses-notably Louis J. Weichmann, who may have been as guilty as any of the accused-and the exceptional zeal with which Holt prosecuted his case. Four of the defendants were hanged, the rest imprisoned. John Surratt Jr., whose mother was one of those executed, stayed at large for more than a year before being captured, but his trial ended with a hung jury. Meanwhile, President Andrew Johnson pardoned numerous Confederate officials and military officers, vetoed laws meant to expedite full citizenship for ex-slaves, and attempted to fire Holt and his superior, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Outraged, the radical Republican Congress responded by impeaching Johnson, falling one vote short of conviction in the Senate. With theelection of Ulysses S. Grant to succeed Johnson, the Reconstruction effort faded into a familiar story of apathy, ineptitude, and corruption. Competent and detailed, yet a curiously bloodless account of an era whose events can still stir violent passions.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393326772
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/17/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 1,418,691
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth D. Leonard is the John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History at Colby College. The author of several books, including Yankee Women, All the Daring of a Soldier, Lincoln’s Avengers, and Men of Color to Arms!, she lives in Waterville, Maine.

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Table of Contents

1 "That Fearful Night": The Assassination and the Making of an Avenger 3
2 "A Vindictive Clique of Villains": The Pursuit and Capture of the Suspects 33
3 "A Disposition to Preserve Law and Order": Joseph Holt and the First Trial of the Assassins 67
4 "A Stupendous Retribution": Conviction and Punishment of Eight Co-Conspirators 103
5 "In Violation of the Laws and Customs of War": Going After Henry Wirz of Andersonville 137
6 "Forbearance and Forgiveness": Andrew Johnson's Vision for Southern Restoration 165
7 "Traitors, Confessed Perjurers and Suborners": The Unraveling of Revenge 193
8 "A Well-Dressed and Very Presentable Young Man": The Trial of John Surratt, Jr. 229
9 "The Wicked Man Now Acting as President": The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Collapse of Holt's Agenda 265
Epilogue 291
Notes 305
Index 357
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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2007

    Great subject -- wasted effort

    I had recently read James Swanson's fantastic book about the assassination of Lincoln and the subsequent manhunt for the conspirators. However, that book essentially ends with the capture of the conspirators and doesn¿t really go into the trial and executions. That is why I was so pleased to find Leonard¿s book which focus on what happened after the conspirators were captured. Interestingly though, she writes not only about the trial of the immediate Lincoln conspirators, but also the trial and execution of the Confederate general in command of the notorious Andersonville prison camp and the trial of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Sadly, what is undoubtedly a great subject matter falls completely flat. Leonard¿s writing style is not compelling. While she does a good job of conveying the paranoia that existed regarding a grand conspiracy by the highest levels of Confederate leadership to inflict one last grievous wound on the Union, her description of the trials that followed were anything but a page turner. I had to work to get through it. Surely there is a better book out there on this subject ¿ and if there isn¿t, someone needs to write one!

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