In the following study of Francis Lieber’s General Orders No. 100, which claimed to guide the US military in its war upon the South, was the author’s comment that “Perhaps the most significant element of Lieber’s treatise that betrays the lack of attention to US law comes down to this observation: there is no specific reference to the United States Constitution in General Orders No. 100.” Francis (Franz) Lieber was a German revolutionist who fled his home in 1827, settling in Boston. He lost a son in the War Between the States, who fought for the South.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Opening the Door to Barbarism
“Two years into the conflict, after countless thousands of soldiers had died . . . the United States announced the rules by which it conducted the fighting. These regulations took the form of a document bearing the nondescript title of General Orders No. 100, instructions for the government of the armies of the United States in the field, which was compiled by a professor at Columbia College. Francis Lieber was a German émigré, a classical liberal forced by political persecution from his native country.
But there is a puzzling side to this document that has gone largely unnoticed by historians and legal scholars. Why was it allowed to be created and adopted?
One could argue that the process by which Lieber’s code of war came into being contradicted constitutional principles and the established practices of the United States. The Constitution states that the power to declare war and, even more pertinently, to “make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces” belongs with the Congress.
When the nation created the Articles of War in 1806, it did so through congressional legislation, not executive fiat. With General Orders No. 100, the executive branch took a bolder step than many have realized, by assuming a right to determine the parameters of war making, especially the meaning of “military necessity,” without these policies originating with Congress.
As early as August 1861, he went on record in a public letter to Attorney General Bates concerning why the government could treat Confederates as belligerents without recognizing their nationhood. He had seized upon the rationale that became commonplace in the administration – and that owed itself to international precedents – that humanitarian reasons dictated exchanging prisoners and operating under the rules of war.
Reactions to [Lieber’s work] were predictable, with Republicans mostly supportive and administration opponents either ambivalent or hostile. The New York Herald . . . found some policy commendable . . . but stated flatly that “the inhabitants of the Southern States are not alien enemies, but citizens of the United States in insurrection, and consequently the alleged law of nations does not apply.”
Meanwhile, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and President Jefferson Davis found nothing to praise in the instructions, pointing out how the definition of “military necessity” opened the door to barbarism. Seddon said the order was “the handicraft of one much more familiar with the decrees of the imperial despotisms of the continent of Europe than with Magna Charta, the Petition of Rights, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution of the United States.”
(With Malice Toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era, William A. Blair, UNC Press, excerpts, pp. 93-96; 98)