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New Online: Joseph Holt Papers

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This is a guest post by Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Manuscript Division.

Joseph Holt, pictured in the February 16, 1861, issue of Harper’s Weekly.

The papers of Joseph Holt (1807–94), now available online, document his career as a lawyer, commissioner of patents, United States postmaster general, secretary of war and judge advocate general of the United States Army.

Holt is best known for his service as judge advocate general during the Civil War and for presiding over the military trial of the Abraham Lincoln assassination conspirators, which is recorded in affidavits, depositions, transcribed testimony; correspondence regarding the commission that tried the conspirators; and various versions of the charges against them, as well as Holt’s correspondence about the trial long after its conclusion.

But in addition to the correspondence, diaries and legal papers that are often used to document the life of a historic figure, the Joseph Holt Papers offer abundant ephemera in the form of bills and receipts, calling cards and invitations dating from the 1820s to the 1890s that shed light on Holt’s daily life and provide evidence of the business activity and built environment of the places where he lived and visited.

The bills and receipts, for example, suggest that the Holt household really liked ice cream. In December 1863 alone, he bought almost 20 pints of ice cream from Joseph Shaffield of Washington, D.C. In 1867, he received at least five bills for cakes and multiple pints of ice cream from Shaffield’s successor, C. White, a “dealer in all kinds of fruits, confectionary and ice cream” (see Feb. 1, March 4, July 3, Aug. 1, Sept. 30).

One could speculate that Holt did some Christmas shopping at jewelers M.W. Galt, Bro. & Co. in December 1877, purchasing a brooch, a turquoise and pearl ring, a gold watch and chain and cameo buttons. He paid with a check from Riggs & Co. bank, also in the Holt Papers.

Canceled check from Riggs Bank for jewelry purchases, 1877.
Bill for plants purchased from John Saul, 1883.

Bill and receipts record household costs and improvements made to his house at 236 New Jersey Avenue, S.E., in Washington, D.C., including a variety of paints purchased from L. Martin and awnings ordered from M.G. Copeland in 1876.

Holt paid his gas bill to the Washington Gas Light Company, his water rent and real estate tax to the District of Columbia.

Judging from the bills from nurseryman John Saul over the years, Holt had an abundant garden or bought plants for others. Some varieties were not unusual for a mid-Atlantic garden, but others, like yucca, indicate some horticultural adventurousness on Holt’s part. The illustrations on John Saul’s billheads suggest he sold exotic plants, enticing customers with images of Dracaena Goldieana, Lantania Borbonica, Washingtonia Robusta and Filamentosa.

Bills for now-defunct businesses record their existence in a city, and sometimes illustrate the spaces they once occupied. Plumbers and gas fitters Alexander R. Shepherd & Bros., hatter B. H. Stinemetz and the dry goods company of Perry & Brother included their Pennsylvania Avenue buildings on their billheads. In 1835, Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel in Washington, D.C., looked different from Brown’s Hotel in 1854 and from the greatly expanded Metropolitan Hotel in 1893.

1835 bill
1854 bill
1893 letter










Holt’s international and domestic travels are chronicled in hotel bills, many of which display idealized views of the properties. In the 1840s and 1850s, Holt stayed in Baden, Cairo, Cologne, Geneva and Naples. Within the United States, Holt visited a number of hotels and resorts, including the Girard House in Philadelphia, Barnum’s City Hotel in Baltimore, the Mountain House in Virginia and the International House in Niagara Falls in 1862 and 1876.

Joseph Holt calling card

Clues to Joseph Holt’s professional and social circles are found in the calling cards and invitations he received. While serving in the Buchanan administration, he met Senators Jefferson Davis, Judah P. Benjamin and Stephen A. Douglas, and was invited to events at the White House. His circle during the Civil War and beyond included the Lincolns and General William T. Sherman, among others. In the 1880s, Holt’s circle of friends also included three dogs: Frank, Haddie and Nig, for whom he bought licenses.

Advertisement for Sun Dial Gas Cooking Stoves

Ephemera also records changes in home technology and trends in printing techniques. Bills could double as advertisements for cooking and heating stoves and refrigerators. They displayed a range of paper colors, including green, pink, gold and purple. Some billheads included embossed cameo stamps that were not only colorful and attractive, but also illustrated the nature of their trade. Thomas Geary’s carriage rental cameo further promised hacks could be “furnished for funerals at the shortest notice,” apparently a selling point in 1866.

Invoice from Thomas Geary stables, 1866.


Comments (6)

  1. What an inspiring demonstration of how archives and ephemera can be used to weave an understanding of individuals, businesses, and social and cultural trends of a particular time and place. And as a long-time resident of the District of Columbia, I value learning about life in my city–100+ years ago!

  2. Great article – and of special interest to those of us in Clark County, Indiana. The Civil War camp “Camp Joe Holt” was located on the Ohio River partially in what is now Clarksville and partially in what is now Jeffersonville. This camp was named after Buchanan’s Secretary of War, Joseph Holt. Thank you for providing this information to add to our knowledge of the Camp. I am curious – are there records in the papers indicating that he ever visited the camp named in his honor?

  3. Response from Michelle Krowl:

    Thank you for your comments and inquiry.

    According to Holt’s biographer Elizabeth Leonard, Joseph Holt spoke on July 31, 1861, to a group of Kentuckians at the training site in Jeffersonville, Indiana, named “Camp Joe Holt.” (Since Kentucky was officially a neutral state, Holt spoke in Indiana to avoid seeming to violate Kentucky’s neutrality.) Camp Joe Holt would eventually become a larger garrison. Leonard’s citation for this includes an invitation from C. L. Thomasson the commander of the “Joe Holt Rifles” company, to Joseph Holt on July 13, 1861, in box 29 of the Holt Papers; see

    For the text of Holt’s speech and the sources Leonard cites, you may want to consult pages 147-148 (and 348, note 60) of Leonard’s “Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky.”

    Thanks again for writing.

  4. I am THRILLED to learn that the Joseph Holt papers are now online, making this massive collection widely accessible to researchers around the country and the world. Woo-hoo! As his biographer, I may be biased, but I do think it’s safe to say that Holt is a truly fascinating and under-studied historical figure from a crucial period in our nation’s past. Dig in, folks! There is much to learn here. Many, many thanks to Michelle Krowl and the rest of the superb Library of Congress Manuscripts Reading Room staff for all they have done to make this possible.

  5. I certainly agree with Ms. Leonard’s remark that Joseph Holt is under-studied. His true character has yet to be unveiled, and the broader consequences of his tenure as judge advocate general remain unrecognized. The availability of this resource may help satisfy those deficiencies, particularly if put to use by researchers fluent in French.

  6. I have been enjoying the transcription on this project. I have noticed a lot of correspondence from people thanking Hon. Holt for ice cream and oranges so perhaps some of those pints were gifts.
    I wish they still taught penmanship in schools, some of the writing is so beautiful. It’s interesting how much writing and spelling has changed over the past 250 years.

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