Originally published 04/25/2013
Rick Beard, an independent historian, is senior adviser for the Pennsylvania Civil War 150 and volunteer coordinator of the Civil War Sesquicentennial for the American Association for State and Local History.In October 1861, a legal scholar and historian named Francis Lieber presented the first in a series of lectures entitled “The Laws and Usages of War” at the Columbia College’s new law school in New York City. Though the talks, which ran through the following March, were long and often rambling, they drew up to 100 people each and afterward appeared in The New York Times and other newspapers around the country. The public, eager for insight into how the worsening war would and should be fought, devoured his every word.
Originally published 03/05/2013
Paul Finkelman is the President William McKinley distinguished professor of law and public policy at Albany Law School.The philosopher and legal scholar Francis Lieber was born in 1798 in Germany, and as a young man was wounded in the final skirmishes of the Napoleonic wars. He emigrated to the United States in 1827, after twice being imprisoned by Prussian authorities for his pro-reform political activities. A respected jurist in his home country, he eventually became a professor at Columbia, a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War.Lieber had an affinity for soldiering and war, and when conflict broke out in America, he would have happily enlisted, save that he was already 62 years old. Instead, he advised the Lincoln administration on all manner of legal issues, helping to sort out the complexities of how to treat prisoners, guerillas, confiscated property and civilians in a civil war, when none of the traditional rules of international law seemed to quite apply. In this capacity he made immeasurable contributions to the war effort – and the future of the laws of war.
Originally published 01/25/2013
Francis Lieber, circa 1865. Credit: Library of Congress.American military and political leaders since the Revolutionary War have grappled with the problem of whether conduct in the hellish horror and chaos of war can be regulated by law.Before the Civil War, American troops relied largely on Enlightenment customs of war that grew out of European conflicts, although rules were flexible or ignored depending on the particular commanders, whether military concerns outweighed the niceties of “civilized” war, and the character of the enemy -- whether an organized national military or a band of Indians or Mexican guerilla fighters.
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