Historian Francis Lieber's unlikely career in the Civil War

Historians in the News
tags: NYT, Civil War, laws of war, Francis Lieber, Rick Beard

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.

Lieber was an unlikely public intellectual. He had arrived in the United States from Prussia in 1827. Unable to secure a permanent teaching post at a Northern university, he had spent over 20 apparently uncomfortable years teaching at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), where his decidedly unsympathetic views on states’ rights and slavery made him an outlier among his Southern colleagues. His decision to relocate to New York City in 1857 proved fortuitous. Columbia College, in the midst of expanding its faculty, appointed him a professor of history and political science, and in 1860, the law school named him professor of political science. Lieber retained his affiliation with Columbia until his death in 1872....

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