Lincoln on Trial: Southern Civilians and the Law of War

By Burrus M. Carnahan | Go to book overview

Conclusion
“Government Should Not Act for Revenge”

Under the standards of his time, President Lincoln did not authorize or condone any violations of the laws of war against enemy civilians. Beyond this generalization, the record suggests additional conclusions that may be drawn on Lincoln’s policies toward Southern civilians and how those policies reflect his leadership style and personality.

As Union armies inexorably advanced into hostile areas, Southern civilians began to approach Abraham Lincoln for relief from military decisions. When Lincoln dealt with these petitions he concentrated on two issues—revenge and military necessity. Acts based on military necessity usually were legitimate. Acts of revenge never were. The government, Lincoln believed, “can properly have no motive of revenge, no purpose to punish merely for punishment’s sake.”1 By forestalling acts of revenge, the president also reinforced one of the central concepts of the contemporary law of war. The Lieber Code repeatedly denounced revenge as an unlawful motive for military action.2

Often, revenge and military necessity were opposite sides of the same coin. An act of revenge or malice would be based on emotion, and one of the basest human emotions at that, not on rational military calculation or the “cold, calculating unimpassioned reason” that Lincoln regarded as the only sound basis for government policy.3 “He glorified the operation of reason,” Allen Guelzo has observed, “and shunned appeals to passion.”4

In its essence, the principle of military necessity is the application of reason to the waging of war. The Lieber Code defined military necessity as “those measures which are indispensable for securing the ends of the war.”5 The words “necessity” and “indispensable” should not be taken literally. The code explained:

Military necessity admits of all direct destruction of life or limb

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