Sunday, October 5, 2014

Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History

By John Fabian Witt

The laws of war govern the conduct of nations at war.  They are generally agreed terms that are internationally recognized as to how warfare is to be conducted, and what actions are not sanctioned by it.  Today we familiar with them as the Geneva Conventions.  They are result of hundreds of years of negotiations between nations and adapted to meet the evolving mores of their time.  But how were they developed and who was their author?  John Fabian Witt’s book “Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History” has the answer.

What we recognize today as the rules and laws of war were largely authored by a German-American jurist and political philosopher Frances Lieber.  His laws of war were encoded as Abraham Lincoln’s General Orders, No. 100 issued April 24, 1863 at the height of the American Civil War.  Before that however Professor Witt traces the rules of war from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 to the Mexican War, The Civil War until the issuance of General Orders No. 100. 

A good deal of time is spent in the discussion of what to do with slaves during a time of war.  Once captured are they to be set free?  Are they to be enlisted by the conquering foe and used as combatants against their former owners?  Or are they to be returned to their owners once the hostilities have ceased?  These questions were debated and argued over from the outbreak of the American  Revolution until slavery was at last abolished at the close of the Civil War.

Professor Witt deftly handles Major-General William T. Sherman’s idea of a harsh and total war against civilians and soldiers alike, employed during his March to the Sea and the Carolina Campaign, and argues it benefitted the Union by lessening the length of the war.  It therefore the “hard hand of war” was the most humane way of bringing hostilities to a close with the least amount of human suffering.  A view later endorsed by German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke.

Prize Courts and trials of civilians by Military Commissions are also thoroughly discussed, by the author.  Through it all Professor Witt shows how the guiding hand of Francis Lieber shaped the laws of war which are still largely in effect today.

“Lincoln’s Code,” is expertly researched and wonderfully written.  Its title may lead you to think it is exclusively Abraham Lincoln’s military policy during the Civil War, but it is so much more than that.  It is a book that not only belongs on the shelves of every student of the Civil War, but should also be equally shelved in law libraries across the country.

ISBN 978-1416569831, Free Press, © 2012, Hardcover, 512 pages, Photographs & Illustrations,  End Notes, Appendix & Index. $32.00.  To purchase this book click HERE.

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