Military history

Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History

Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History

Pulitzer Prize Finalist
Bancroft Prize Winner
ABA Silver Gavel Award Winner
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

In the closing days of 1862, just three weeks before Emancipation, the administration of Abraham Lincoln commissioned a code setting forth the laws of war for US armies. It announced standards of conduct in wartime—concerning torture, prisoners of war, civilians, spies, and slaves—that shaped the course of the Civil War. By the twentieth century, Lincoln’s code would be incorporated into the Geneva Conventions and form the basis of a new international law of war.

In this deeply original book, John Fabian Witt tells the fascinating history of the laws of war and its eminent cast of characters—Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Lincoln—as they crafted the articles that would change the course of world history. Witt’s engrossing exploration of the dilemmas at the heart of the laws of war is a prehistory of our own era. Lincoln’s Code reveals that the heated controversies of twenty-first-century warfare have roots going back to the beginnings of American history. It is a compelling story of ideals under pressure and a landmark contribution to our understanding of the American experience.


Part I: You Have Brought Me into Hell!

1. The Rights of Humanity

Washington and the Moral Logic of War

Jefferson’s Savage Enlightenment

Franklin and the Mythology of the Revolution

2. The Rules of Civilized Warfare

The Art of Neutrality

A Path to War

American War, American Slavery

3. A False Feeling of Mercy

Lawyers, Soldiers, and Seamen

The God of Scalps

Andrew Jackson and the Militia Tradition

4. Rules of Wrong




Part II: A Few Things Barbarous or Cruel

5. We Don’t Practise the Law of Nations

A Strange Inconsistency

Dog Eat Dog

Hero of the Hour

6. Blood Is the Rich Dew of History

Would to God, I, Too, Could Act!

Clausewitz in New York

Guerrillas in Missouri

7. Act of Justice

Worse Than Savages

The Highest Principles Known to Christian Civilization

Abstain from All Violence

8. To Save the Country

Simply as Men

Responsible to God

No Distinction of Color

9. Smashing Things to the Sea

A Most Solemn Obligation

Holt’s Bright Young Men

Which Party Can Whip

10. Soldiers and Gentlemen

To Assassinate Everybody

A Citizen of Indiana

Combatants in Open War

Part III: The Howling Desert

11. Glenn’s Brigade

Stay the Hand of Retribution

The House in the Wood

To the Philippines and Back Again



Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field



Abbreviations Used in the Notes