Lincoln and the Lieber Code
On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation, a rewrite of a preliminary September 22, 1862 release, mostly freed the slaves. Civil War raged and Lincoln’s pen was mightier than the sword.
“Liberty is a slow fruit,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in November 1862, “and now comes Lincoln’s Proclamation…The President by this act has paroled all the slaves in America; they will no more fight against us; and it relieves our race once and for all of its crime and false position.” Cotton: what wrath it wrought.
Abraham Lincoln, Illinois lawyer and 16th President of the United States, was born February 12, 1809 in a log cabin in Kentucky. The hard-working son of frontier farmers—Lincoln’s parents emigrated from Virginia—he spent his formative years in Indiana. Lincoln learned poetry from his stepmother, attended school “by-littles,” and joined a Springfield, Illinois Poetical Society in the late 1830s.
Scottish poet Robert Burns was “a kindred spirit.” Abe wrote his first poem in his youth. “Abraham Lincoln/his hand and his pen/he will be good but/god knows When.” He penned his last documented verse on July 19, 1863 in response to the Union victory at Gettysburg.
Until 1860 Abraham Lincoln had been only “an occasional critic of slavery.” Compromise was the challenge: The Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The latter overturned the Missouri Compromise.
In 1854 Lincoln, a Congressional candidate, fought to repeal the Kansas-Nebraska Act. On October 16, 1854, in a three-hour speech in Peoria, Illinois, Lincoln addressed the slavery issue:
“Let it not be said I am contending for the establishment of political and social equality between whites and blacks…I am combating what is set up as moral argument for allowing [blacks] to be taken where they have never yet been—arguing against the extension of a bad thing [slavery]….” Lincoln initially supported gradual emancipation, colonization, and equality of a type.
“Nebraska is urged as a great Union-saving measure,” candidate Lincoln continued. “Well, I too, go for saving the Union….” President Lincoln was elected in 1860, in the wake of sectional unrest.
By 1863 the Civil War, a costly conflict of staggering proportions, was taking its toll. What was President Lincoln’s Union-saving solution then? Reconciliation was no longer a dilemma. Lincoln “wanted the [Union] Army to strike more vigorous blows,” to engage “in the hard hand of war.”
At the President’s invitation, Columbia College’s Francis Lieber, LL.D., codified the laws of war. Section I, Article 16: Military necessity does not admit of cruelty—that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture to extort confessions. It does not admit of the use of poison in any way….” By jurist Lieber’s standards, George Washington’s May 1754 brutal Jumonville massacre approximated a war crime.
On April 24, 1863 President Lincoln, authorized by his war powers as commander-in-chief, issued General Orders No. 100. “The U.S. War Department has officially proclaimed the instructions for the government of the armies of the United States in the field, prepared by Francis Lieber, Ll.D., and revised by a board of officers,” The Alexandria Gazette reported on May 20, 1863. “Having been approved by the President of the United States, he commands that they be published.”
“[Section I, Article 4]…As martial law is executed by military force, it is incumbent upon those who administer it to be strictly guided by the principles of justice, honor and humanity—virtues adorning a soldier even more than other men, for the very reason that he possesses the power of his arms against the unarmed.” Some of Lieber’s laws remain; as part of the 1899 and 1907 Hague treaties, also the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the US Army Field Manual on the Law of Land Warfare.
President Lincoln finally embraced the Lieber Code on May 24, 1863, but only after designating April 30th as “a day of National humiliation, fasting and prayer [so] that our imperiled Nationality may be preserved.”
As the secession crisis unfolded, Lincoln studied military strategy. He concluded that a Union win depended on reducing Confederate armies. To accomplish this Lincoln relied on the North’s manpower, firepower, and ability to conduct simultaneous operations. In Grant, Lincoln finally found a General who agreed with his plan.
On December 9, 1863, Lincoln’s hard-war military strategy succeeding, the President proclaimed his reconstruction policy:
“Therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do proclaim, declare, and make known to all persons who have, directly or by implication, participated in the existing rebellion, except as hereinafter excepted, that a full pardon is hereby granted to them and each of them, with restoration of all rights of property, except as to slaves, and in property cases where rights of third parties shall have intervened, and upon the condition that every such person shall take and subscribe an oath, and henceforward keep and maintain said oath inviolate; and which oath shall be registered for permanent preservation, and shall be of the tenor and effect following, to wit:
“I, ____, do solemnly swear, in presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the union of the States thereunder; and that I will in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all acts of Congress passed during the existing rebellion with reference to slaves, so long and so far as not repealed, modified, or held void by Congress, or by decision of the Supreme Court; and that I will, in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all proclamations of the President made during the existing rebellion having reference to slaves, so long and so far as not modified or declared void by decision of the Supreme Court. So help me God.”
“The persons excepted from the benefits of the foregoing provisions are all who are, or shall have been, civil or diplomatic officers or agents of the so-called Confederate Government; all who have left judicial stations under the United States to aid the rebellion; all who are, or shall have been, military or naval officers of said so-called confederate government about the rank of colonel in the army, or of lieutenant in the navy; all who left seats in the United States Congress to aid the rebellion; all who resigned commissions in the army or navy of the United States, and afterwards aided the rebellion; and all who have engaged in any way in treating colored persons or white persons in charge of such, otherwise than lawfully as prisoners of war, and which persons may have been found in the United States service as soldiers, seamen, or in any other capacity.”
“And I do further proclaim, declare and make known, that whenever, in any of the States of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina, a number of persons, not less than one-tenth in number of the votes cast in such State at the 1860 Presidential election, each having taken the oath aforesaid, and not having since violated it, and being a qualified voter of the election law of the State, existing immediately before the so-called act of secession, and excluding all others, shall re-establish a State government which shall be republican, and in nowise contravening said oath, such shall be recognized as the true government of the State….”
“The World thinks the Message is a creditable specimen of political dexterity, in view of the approaching Presidential campaign,” The Alexandria Gazette recounted on December 12, 1863. “As a scheme for the reconstruction of the Union it is deemed simply absurd.”
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” Lincoln wrote in his 1865 Inaugural Address. Lincoln borrowed much from poet Burns’ writing including his rhythmic beat. Nothing was more upbeat than confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865.
Abraham Lincoln paid for war with his life. “The curtain rose slowly on the second act, and while all were enjoying the eccentricities of Asa Trenchard…a muffled pistol shot was heard,” an eyewitness account read. “Within [Ford’s] theatre the wildest confusion for a time prevailed.”
President Lincoln was assassinated less than one week after Lee’s surrender. His 1860s Presidential railroad car, his funeral car was built in Alexandria’s Union-occupied car shops. American slavery and involuntary servitude were not legally abolished until 1866, following ratification of the 13th Amendment.
President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers Home, a District of Columbia National Trust for Historic Preservation property, commemorates the Emancipation Proclamation’s 150th anniversary with an original exhibit. Freedom’s Eve, The Cottage’s New Year’s Eve gala is open to the public. Albert Nelson See’s Civil War diary and artifacts are also on December display. For more information: visit www.lincolncottage.org.
~ Written by: Sarah Becker