Joseph Holt (January 6, 1807 – August 1, 1894) was an American lawyer, soldier, and politician. As a leading member of the Buchanan administration, he succeeded in convincing Buchanan to oppose the secession of the South. He returned to Kentucky and successfully battled the secessionist element thereby helping to keep Kentucky in the Union. President Abraham Lincoln appointed him the Judge Advocate General of the United States Army. He served as Lincoln’s chief arbiter and enforcer of military law, and supporter of emancipation. His most famous roles came in the Lincoln assassination trials.
Joseph Holt was born in Breckinridge County, Kentucky, on January 6, 1807. He was educated at St. Joseph’s College in Bardstown, Kentucky and Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. He settled in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and set up a law office in town. He married Mary Harrison and moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1832. There, he became assistant editor of the Louisville Public Advertiser and the Commonwealth’s Attorney from 1833 to 1835. Holt moved to Port Gibson, Mississippi, and practiced law there as well as in Natchez, Mississippi and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Holt and his wife contracted tuberculosis. Mary died of it, and Joseph returned to Louisville to recuperate.
Following Mary’s death, Holt remarried, to Margaret Wickliffe. In 1857, Holt was appointed Commissioner of Patents by PresidentBuchanan and moved to Washington D.C.. He served until 1859 when Buchanan appointed him Postmaster General. The Buchanan administration was shaken in December 1860 and January 1861, when the Confederacy was formed and many cabinet members resigned, but Holt was both against slavery and strongly for the Union. Supported by his close ally Attorney General Edwin M. Stanton, he was appointed Secretary of War upon the resignation of John B. Floyd of Virginia, who joined the Confederacy. Stanton and Holt convinced President Buchanan he had to speak out against secession as an illegal act. Buchanan did so, but he also thought he had no power whatever to stop the secession. When Lincoln took office, Holt returned to Kentucky and worked successfully to keep the state out of the Confederacy. Kentucky was virtually neutral until Confederate units invaded in 1862, and the Unionist element took control.