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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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 FreemanCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved