The Cardinal Edge


During the American Civil War, the United States changed in dramatic fashion. The national crisis of the Civil War encompassed all aspects of the United States. In 1862, a forward-thinking German American intellectual named Francis Lieber lobbied the Lincoln administration to update the United States laws of war. On April 24, 1863, President Lincoln issued General Orders No. 100 or “Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field.” General Orders No. 100, better known as the Lieber Code, modernized the United States laws of war. Not only that, but the Lieber Code traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and impacted European international and military law for decades after the Civil War.

As a revolutionary document, the Lieber Code was an outworking of President Lincoln’s goals for the Union in the Civil War. The Code answered vital questions regarding emancipation and how a massive, modern, biracial, and volunteer army would wage a Civil War against rebellious states. The Lieber Code was often an unsung hero in United States history outside of legal or military history, but upon closer inspection, the Lieber Code was a window into what Lincoln and his cabinet believed about the Civil War. The Lieber Code embodied the answers to the moral, political, constitutional, legal, and international problems that the Union faced. Since the Code played such a key role in the Civil War, this paper investigates the historical and legal context of the Code as well as the drafting and impact of the Code during and after the Civil War.