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The Lieber Code of 1863 and Its Effect On Modern Warfare

Gen. Henry Halleck, in attempting to come to a clear logical policy in dealing with the guerrilla problem in Missouri, asked Professor Francis Lieber, a Prussian veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, a professor at Columbia University, and an authority on military thought at the time, for his opinion on the issue. His response to Halleck provided justification for execution of guerrillas as robbers and pirates. It was also the basis for War Department General Order No. 100, issued 24 April 1863 which provided the legal framework for the war. The concept of military necessity allowing confiscation or destruction of private property when required to defeat the enemy found its basis in Lieber’s analysis. The is one of the foundations of the concept of total war otherwise known as Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field and approved and signed by President Abraham Lincoln. This was the justification for Sheridan in the Shenandoah, Sherman in Georgia and other such campaigns that took the war to the people.

Its 157 paragraphs dealt with such varied concepts as partisans; confiscating private property; paroles; prisoner exchange and flags of truce; safe conduct-spies-traitors and captured messengers; deserters, POW’s, hostages and booty; public and private property; martial law and military necessity; retaliation and military juristiction.

This was a massive listing of many concepts necessary to the definition of the rules of war and serves as the basis upon which US and other nation’s forces behave in combat zones today. The rules, however, do not seem to bind the behavior of terriorists and the constraints placed upon forces such as ours appears to be a big disadvantage. The question in how to proceed to combat the terriorist enemy as well as reasonably protect friendly force?


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