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Lincoln's Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion After the Civil War Hardcover – March, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From 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 Holta 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.
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From Booklist

While most Civil War histories treat the Lincoln assassination as the closing act in the epic ordeal, history professor Leonard views the murder and subsequent trial of the conspirators as the opening phase of the Reconstruction period. Hovering over the trial were two questions: How was the defeated South to be treated? How far should the federal government go in attempting to protect the freed slaves? Lincoln had hoped that the "better angels of our nature" would prevail. His murder unleashed a vengeful spirit among Republicans and war Democrats. Of course, the most renowned avenger was Secretary of War Stanton. But Leonard's chronicle highlights the role of the relatively obscure judge advocate general Joseph Holt, a former slaveholder who served as chief investigator and prosecutor at the trial of the conspirators and took to the task with an unsettling zeal. An excellent addition to Civil War and Reconstruction collections. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (March 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393048683
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393048681
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,305,085 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on May 22, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The shock and deep mourning our nation went into in April 1865 is something we have never really gotten over. The first presidential assassination, that of Abraham Lincoln, has prompted countless books ever since, and endless questions of what our nation would have been like had he lived. It might be thought that all the details have been covered, but Elizabeth D. Leonard, a professor of history at Colby College, has found a flawed hero who supervised the hunt and prosecution of the conspirators that killed Lincoln; his story is told in her book _Lincoln's Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion after the Civil War_ (Norton). Of course the plotters' dirty work is covered here, and their prosecution and sentencing; it may be familiar, but it is told with vivid detail. What is different in Leonard's book is that she shows how the political and national mood after the Civil War changed the outcome of those proceedings, which in turn had effects on Reconstruction itself.
Leonard tells this story by examining the life and work of Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, a former slaveholder who during the civil war was in charge of thousands of military commissions to prosecute both soldiers and civilians. The day after Lincoln's assassination, Holt took charge of the detection of the conspirators and their prosecution. It was only a matter of months before the military commission tried the conspirators, found all of them guilty, hanged four (including Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the federal government) and imprisoned the others. Many histories of these events end there, but Holt thought he was just getting started.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Ricky Hunter on July 7, 2005
Format: Paperback
Elizabeth D. Leonard's Lincoln's Avengers is a different sort of Lincoln murder book. It does have all the usual suspects and covers all of their details adequately, particulary the issues surrounding Mary Surratt. The book's strength, however, is to look at the events through the eyes of Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt as a way to see the tragedy not so much as the last gasp of the Civil War but as the first shot in the battle over Reconstruction. If nothing else, and there is much else, it gives the reader a chance to clearly glimpse a lesser known figure of history in Holt. The most riveting sections of the book involve his determinatin to avenge the murder, as well as all the other injustices he saw from the civil war, as Andrew Johnson devises an entirely different plan for the South. A powerful and important addition to books on the this fascinating period of time.
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Format: Hardcover
What many of us know about Lincoln's assasination is probably limited to the following: he was killed by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater while attending a play. This book enlarges that knowledge from the point of view of Judge Advocate Joseph Holt, who made it his personal mission to bring anyone involved in the assasination to justice. In addition, Holt's goal was also to bring the highest leaders of the Confederacy to justice, including former Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Professor Leonard also places the events following assasination, especially the trial of the first eight, and subsequent attempts to bring others to justice, in the context of Reconstruction and the division among the victorius Union about how to effect it, particularly whether to do so punitively or with mercy. The reader has a clear sense of all the forces at play and how they interacted and influenced events in such a way to impact US political and racial developments for a long time to come.

The personal stories are gripping, not only of Holt but especially that of Mary Surrat, one of the eight co-conspirators tried and one of the four who was executed by hanging. The details of the story leave one wondering whether Mary Surrat was ultimately guilty or not, and to Leonard's credit, she presents only the historical evidence, without attempting to sway the reader one way or another.

If you want to learn more about this pivotal event in American history, this is a good book with which to start.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By C. Ellen Connally on January 19, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Elizbeth Leonard's subtitle to her book LINCOLN'S AVENGERS - JUSTICE, REVENGE AND REUNION AFTER THE CIVIL WAR sets the tone and the theme of the story she relates of how the nation - through Judge Advocate Joseph Holt - rushed to judgment to punish those involved in the Lincoln Assassination. For a nation that is used to having trials years after an event, it's amazing that Lincoln was shot on April 14, died on April 15 and four people were hung for the crime on July 7 - of the same year - and other people went to jail for extended sentences within another month.

Leonard combines the story of those trials and how they were an integral part of the story of Reconstruction. For the most part, contemporary Americans tend to look at the assassination and its wake and Reconstruction as separate events. But Leonard shows how they were very much intertwined. While not going about a concerted effort to debunk the belief that high officials in the Confederacy or the Confederate Secret Service were a part of the Lincoln assassination, she methodically shots holes in this theory and other conspiracy theories related to Lincoln's death.

For those interested in the blight of Jefferson Davis, she demonstrates that once the Lincoln conspirators were executed and as time passed, the nation lost interest in further punishment of Confederate leaders. For those interested in the Johnson presidency, she shows his view of the South and his fights with congress.

For those interested in Reconstruction and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, this is an excellent work that takes a view from a different perspective and is well worth reading.
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