(Originally appeared in the New York Tribune of September 2, 1873)

There appeared an anonymous communication, written from Washington under the signature of Truth, so grossly calumnious of General Joseph Holt, Judge Advocate General in the trial of the assassins of President Lincoln, that he demanded the name of the author, who proved to be John T. Ford, of Fords Theater, where the fearful tragedy was enacted, and who, at the time, was committed to the Carroll Prison, where he was kept on suspicion, it is presumed over a month, when he was liberated without being brought to trial. Naturally enough, perhaps, he harbored a strong prejudice against General Holt, and sought to defame his character under cover through the press. Among other things he accused General Holt with having kept Mrs. Surratt heavily manacled during her trial, and also of virtually depriving her of reputable counsel refer- ring to the Hon. Reverdy Johnson, who, as clearly appears by his argument, which was upon the question of jurisdiction, voluntarily withdrew, leaving the case in the hands of his associate counsel, Messrs. Clampitt and Aiken. General Holt met the other charge by a letter, addressed to him, under date of September 4, 1873, from General J. F. Hartranft, who, referring to Fords article in the Tribune, said: I think it proper, in justice to you, to declare publicly that its statements, so far as they relate to occurrences within my own observation, are absolute falsehoods. As marshal of the court before whom the conspirators were tried, I had charge of Mrs. Surratt before, during, and after the time of her trial, in all a period of about two months, dnring which she never had a manacle or manacles on either hands or feet; and the thought of manacling her 1 Professor Hadley attributes a recent increase in railway accidents to this employment of new men, citing in evidence the fact that in the majority of detailed railroad reports we find some allusion to increased wages as an important element in expense. He attributes it, however, to the special demand was not, to my knowledge, ever entertained by any one in authority. One would suppose that proof so conclusive ought to set forever at rest the manacle charge; and as regards the reference to Reverdy Johnson, it is plain beyond doubt that had he desired to continue in the case, assuredly there was no power that could have prevented him from doing so. Yet, notwithstanding this and the overwhelming testimony on the other more serious and wanton charge against General Holt of withholding from President Johnson the recommendation of five members of the court that the sentence of Mrs. Surratt be commuted to imprisonment in the penitentiary, John. T. Ford appears again in the North American Review for April, 1889, in an article reiterating the falsehoods of his anonymous communication, and trying to show that General Holt was guilty of withholding from President Johnson the aforesaid recommendatiots of Mrs. Surratt to mercy. Now, in as brief a manner as possible, I will recite some of the stronger evidence, clearly proving the falsity of this last charge, made first before President Johnsons term expired, and afterwards by Johnson himself, when he was seeking to curry favor with the South in the hope of being elected to the presi- dency. He did not dare to make the charge while he was at the head of the Government, because he knew if he did that General Holt would instantly demand, as he did ask for, in 1866, a court of inquiry, which the President declined to order, and that all the facts and circumstances of the case would come out. General Holt, I think, took little, if any, public notice of this slander until he found it had received the indorsement for railroad labor, due to the larger proportionate amount of local traffic under the operation of the Inter-State Commerce Act, or, more commonly, to unhealthy competition and abnor- mally low freight rates. ( Quarterly Journal of Economics, January, 1889, pp. 174, 175.)Stanton when Judge Holt came in. He said, I have just come from a conference with the President over the proceedings of the military commission.~ Well, asked Mr. Stanton, what has he done? He has approved the findings and sentence of the court, replied Judge Holt. What did he say about the recom- mendation to mercy of Mrs. Surratt? He said that she must be punished with the rest; that no reasons were given for his interposition by those asking for clemency in her case, except age and sex. Now, is there a fair-minded person living who would require more or better proof that the recommendation for the commutation of the sentence of Mrs. Surratt to imprisonment for life was in President Johnsons office, and that the question was fully considered by him in conference with several, if not with all, of the members of his Cabinet before the day of execution? True, no one states that he actually saw it in the Presidents hands, though Judge Bingham says both Secretaries Stanton and Seward told him it was presented to him and duly considered before the death sentence was approved. But Attorney-General Speed, a direct eyewitness, could, had he chosen to speak, have made this fact certain beyond doubt or cavil. Mr. Ford professes amazement at General Holts anxiety for more de- tailed testimony from Mr. Speed, as indicated by their correspondence on the subject in the North American Review for July, 1888. I am myself free to confess that I do not think any additional proof whatever is at all necessary for General Holts complete vindication; but Mr. Speed had been a lifelong friend of his, and knowing that he saw the aforesaid recommendation in the Presidents own hands, is it strange he should in- sist that he should tell him so? He may be, and is, I think, over-sensitive. In his preface to Pittmans book of the trial, Major Ben: Perley Poore, who unwittingly repeats the false newspaper manacle story, observes, General Holt is an inflexibly upright administrator of justice, yet humanities have a large place in his heart; and General Mussey, speaking of the call made by General Holt at the White House on the morn- ing of the execution, when Miss Surratt was there and the President had refused to see her or any one in her mothers behalf, overruling, also, at the same time, Judge Wylies writ of habeas corpus, says, I shall never lose the impression made upon me of your [General Holts] deep pity for her [Miss Surratt] and of the pain which her distress caused you. But will Mr. .Ford or any other of General Holts persistent calumniators be so kind as to state why General Holt should have been so anxious for Mr. Speed to tell the whole truth, had he not known, beyond the remotest question, that it would have been conclusive testimony in his favor? Would he have asked Mr. Speed to say more than he did say, if he had had the least doubt on that point? Surely not. It is not the purpose of this article to go into the evidence regarding either Mrs. Surratts guilt or inno- cence; but I cannot refrain from brief comment on the following quotation from Mr. Fords article, wherein, referring to Mrs. Surratt, he says The very man of God who shrived her soul for eternity was said to be constrained to promise that she should not communicate with the world. As the poor martyr walked in her shroud tothe scaffold, it is also said that she begged the priest by her side to let her tell the people she was innocent. She was told that the Church was permitted only to prepare her soul for eternity; that already she was dead to all else. This looks strangely, to say the least; and I am re- minded by it that it was just this which the late John9 M. Brodhead, Second Comptroller of the Treasury, once told me was, in his view, conclusive proof of Mrs. Surratts guilt~ He believed that had not the priest known from her confession that she was guilty, he would never have prohibited her from declaring her innocence, but would himself have insisted on it to the last moment. One thing is certain, there was no man living who more firmly believed in her guilty participation in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln than President Johnson, who, in commenting on the appeals made to him for clemency, said at the time to Rev. J. George Butler of St. Pauls Church, Washington, that he could not be moved; for, in his own significant language, Mrs. Surratt kept the nest that hatched tile egg.  I have observed that General Holt at one time asked for a court of inquiry. It was in September, s866. In his answer, November 54, s866, Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, wrote to Brevet Major General Holt, Judge Advocate General, as follows: Your letter of the iith of September applying for a court of inquiry upon certain imputations therein mentioned as made against you, of official misconduct in relation to the prosecution of Mrs. Surratt and others charged with the assassination of the late President, Abraham Lincoln, and in the preparation of testimony against Jefferson Davis and others, charged with complicity in said crime, has been submitted to the President (Johnson), who deems it unnecessary for your vindication to order a court of inquiry. In communicating the Presidents decision, it is proper for me to express my own conviction that all charges and imputations against your official conduct are, in my judgment, groundless. So far as I have any knowledge or information, your official duties as judge advocate general, in the cases referred to, and in all others, have been performed fairly, justly, and with distinguished ability, integrity, and patriotism, and in strict conformity with the requirements of your high office and the obligations of an officer and a gentleman.

This entry was posted in Featured, Historical Documents. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Browse by Topic