Lincoln's Code of War

with John Fabian Witt

The next edition of Liberty Law Talk is with professor and author John Fabian Witt on the subject of his new book Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History. Recently named by the New York Times to its 100 Notable Books’ List for 2012, Witt’s account of the laws of war in American history illustrates the tensions and conflicts that have followed from America’s intention since the Declaration of Independence to fight under the existing laws of war, appealing to them for protection, while also using them to advance American interests. Witt’s account moves through the War for Independence, The War of 1812, the Indian Wars, and the Mexican-American War before arriving at the centerpiece of the book, Lincoln’s Code.

The story behind Lincoln’s Code, the laws of war promulgated by Lincoln in 1863 (General Order No. 100) and followed by the Union Army, is fascinating and, Witt argues, was tied to the Emancipation Proclamation and the need to utilize the newly freed slaves on behalf of the Union effort. The code’s drafter, Francis Lieber, was a Prussian who fought against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, came to America, taught at South Carolina College, and then moved to New York to teach at Columbia College’s nascent law school. Fascinated by war, Lieber’s code of war was central to the war effort of the Federal army. Readers and listeners can obviously judge for themselves if that was a good thing or a bad thing. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous March to the Sea does not appear to run afoul of the code. Lieber’s code was widely adopted by European nations in the late 19th century, and subsequently formed the basis for the multilateral treaties on the conduct of war-making in the 20th century.