The modern laws of armed conflict apply in war zones around the world. But they have surprising roots right here in the United States. In the midst of the American Civil War, the administration of Abraham Lincoln issued the modern world’s first restatement of the customary rules of civilized warfare. Drafted by an eccentric and learned Prussian immigrant and law professor named Francis Lieber, the Union’s law of war project shaped the Civil War in ways that are often overlooked. It also quickly became vastly influential the world over. Yet its beginnings present a puzzle. Why would the Union have invested in the laws of war? The answer, it turns out, tells us much about the laws of war today, and reveals a hidden dimension of the United States’ deadliest conflict.
Professor Witt is the author of Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History, which won the 2013 Bancroft Prize in history of the Americas and was selected as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, as a New York Times Notable Book for 2012, and as the winner of the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award.