Joseph Holt was born on the banks of the Ohio in Breckinridge County, Kentucky, on January 6, 1807. Educated at St. Joseph's and Centre colleges, he opened a law office in Elizabethtown at the age of twenty-one. He soon became noted as a magnetic speaker in behalf of the Democratic party, moved successively to Louisville and to Mississippi, was a newspaper editor and commonwealth's attorney, accumulated a substantial fortune, and in 1842 went into partial retirement to recuperate from tuberculosis. He emerged in 1856 to campaign for James Buchanan and was rewarded by receiving an appointment as commissioner of patents, an office which took him to Washington, where he spent the rest of his life. In 1859 Holt became postmaster-general and during the last weeks of the Buchanan administration served as Secretary of War. Until the outbreak of the Civil War he was opposed to coercion of a state by the Federal government, denounced the personal liberty bills passed by some northern states in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law, and interdicted abolitionist material from the mails within the borders of Virginia. However, his latent loyalty to the Union asserted itself and his decision hardened into an intense devotion to the Federal cause. Instrumental in holding a majority of Kentuckians to the North, Holt was appointed, by President Lincoln, judge advocate general of the army with rank of colonel on September 3, 1862 and that of brigadier general on June 22, 1864. In this office Holt implemented the administration's policy of keeping in jail without recourse to habeas corpus and trying by military commission individuals who would normally have been tried by civil courts. The most notable of these extralegal proceedings were the trials of ex-Congressman Clement L. Vallandingham of Ohio, the Lincoln conspirators, and Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville. None of these prosecutions was creditable to the government, the perjury of its witnesses in the trial of the President's assassins and the suppression of evidence and of the recommendation of mercy for Mrs. Sur-ratt appearing particularly shocking. Holt retired in 1875 and died, blind and alone, in his Washington home on August 1, 1894. He was buried in the family cemetery at Holt, Kentucky.
Reference: Generals in Blue. Lives of the Union Commanders by Ezra J. Warner. Louisiana State University Press. Baton Rouge.