Vital Signs

Lincoln, the Leiber Code, and Total War

The American Civil War was an unparalleled tragedy for the United States and the world.  For it ensured that, thereafter, civilians everywhere were treated as “legitimate” targets in time of war.

As in all wars, the victor wrote the official history of the conflict to extol its virtue and to demonize its opponent.  Unlike in earlier wars, however, the victorious North also exonerated its conduct by successfully rewriting international law governing warfare.  This was achieved through the adoption of the Leiber Code, which declared total war—the deliberate targeting of civilians, women and children, the sick and the elderly—“lawful,” even justifiable on “humanitarian” grounds.  The Leiber Code was a repudiation of our civilization’s traditional rules of engagement, developed over the previous millennium, which limited the scope of war and protected the life, liberty, and property of civilians.

Lincoln’s strategy was to defeat the Confederacy by targeting Southern civilians.  One of his first acts of war was to order a blockade of Southern ports on April 19, 1861, to deny food and medicine, among other items, to civilians.  Because such acts violated traditional U.S. military rules of conduct, Lincoln needed a new code to justify this behavior.  So he commissioned Francis Leiber, a prominent Northern attorney and scholar, and a...

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