Kentucky native Joseph Holt was born into a slaveholding family, and Sandy Holt was one of his several slaves. They stayed together until Joseph Holt transferred Sandy Holt to his brother’s possession and moved to Washington to join the Buchanan Administration in 1857. Seven years later, Sandy Holt ran away to enlist in the United States Colored Troops. In their separate worlds, both men stood for the Union and fought against slavery.
In her new and sixth book, Slaves, Slaveholders, and a Kentucky Community’s Struggle toward Freedom, John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History Elizabeth D. Leonard reveals the intertwined lives of Black and White Kentuckians throughout the Civil War era. The Holts were emblematic of the tensions between these groups: Whites against Blacks, slaves against slave owners, brothers against brothers.
“Why this family?” asks Leonard in the preface of the book, then explains: “Because until they escaped from slavery to join the Union army, several of the men who appear in this book were held in bondage by members of this extended family—the Holts of the region of Breckinridge County known, eponymously, as Holt’s Bottom.”
The book dives first into Joseph Holt’s life and documents his transformation from defending to dismantling the institution of slavery. Changing ideas translated into changing family dynamics too; different views on slavery and the Civil War caused his family members to drift apart and pitted them against each other.
The story of Sandy Holt was much more complicated than that of Joseph Holt—an educated, wealthy, white man. Leonard meticulously reconstructs Sandy Holt’s life, piece by piece, bit by bit. To complement his narrative, Leonard also turned to stories of other former slaves who fought alongside him. Perusing newspaper articles, military logs, pension records, and depositions, Leonard diligently forms a collective biography of the men who helped defeat the Confederates and unites them to tell their complete story.
The final chapter explores the lives of these men in the aftermath of the war. Once-enslaved veterans returned to Kentucky and found a life almost as hard as the one they left behind.
Leonard said she hopes this will show that there are ways to tell incomplete, but significant, stories no matter how hard it may be to weave together different accounts. “It’s a valuable contribution to the literature, I’d say. It’s not a typical Civil War book.”