Cover image for Lincoln's avengers : justice, revenge, and reunion after the Civil War
Lincoln's avengers : justice, revenge, and reunion after the Civil War
Leonard, Elizabeth D.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W. W. Norton & Co., [2004]

Physical Description:
xviii, 367 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E457.5 .L46 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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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?

Author Notes

Elizabeth D. Leonard is the John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Associate Professor of History at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

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 generaloseph 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 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Lincoln is assassinated and Secretary of State William H. Seward then stabbed: were the trials revenge or reconciliation, muses the author of Yankee Women. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

In a wide-ranging work that embraces military law, personal vendettas, and Reconstruction politics, Leonard (Colby College) describes the trials of the assassins of Abraham Lincoln as an exercise in denied justice. The author depicts Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt as a prosecutor bent less on justice than on vengeance for the murdered Lincoln, leading to the execution of Mary Surratt and others on marginal evidence. Likewise, Henry Wirtz, commander of the notorious Andersonville prison camp, was executed less for his own individual actions than as a symbol of Confederate treason. Simultaneously, President Andrew Johnson denied justice to many Americans by stifling harsh Reconstruction policies, thus ensuring that the former slaves faced decades of repression. The book, however, suffers by trying to do too much. Whereas the trial of the Lincoln assassins itself is a dramatic story, the author tries to fit it into a broader context of Reconstruction that may not convince some readers. Leonard also assesses the trial of the Lincoln assassins through the lens of civil law, ignoring that the defendants faced a military court with a totally different legal theory and practice. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Most collections. S. J. Ramold Virginia State University

Table of Contents

Prefacep. XI
Acknowledgmentsp. XV
1 "That Fearful Night" The Assassination and the Making of an Avengerp. 3
2 "A Vindictive Clique of Villains" The Pursuit and Capture of the Suspectsp. 33
3 "A Disposition to Preserve Law and Order" Joseph Holt and the First Trial of the Assassinsp. 67
4 "A Stupendous Retribution" Conviction and Punishment of Eight Co-Conspiratorsp. 103
5 "In Violation of the Laws and Customs of War" Going After Henry Wirz of Andersonvillep. 137
6 "Forbearance and Forgiveness" Andrew Johnson's Vision for Southern Restorationp. 165
7 "Traitors, Confessed Perjurers and Suborners" The Unraveling of Revengep. 193
8 "A Well-Dressed and Very Presentable Young Man" The Trial of John Surratt Jr.p. 229
9 "The Wicked Man Now Acting as President" The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Collapse of Holt's Agendap. 265
Epiloguep. 291
Notesp. 305
Indexp. 357