D. H. Dilbeck: Did Union Armies Really Wage a Just War? The Lieber Code and Sherman’s March to the Sea

A More Civil War cover imageToday we welcome a guest post from D.H. Dilbeck, author of A More Civil War: How the Union Waged A Just War, now available in paperback from UNC Press.

During the Civil War, Americans confronted profound moral problems about how to fight in the conflict. In his innovative book, D. H. Dilbeck reveals how the Union sought to wage a just war against the Confederacy. He shows that northerners fought according to a distinct “moral vision of war,” an array of ideas about the nature of a truly just and humane military effort. Dilbeck explores how Union soldiers abided by official just-war policies as they battled guerrillas, occupied cities, retaliated against enemy soldiers, and came into contact with Confederate civilians.

In today’s post, Dilbeck explores how effective Lieber’s code for the Union Army really was, paying special attention to Sherman’s infamous “March to the Sea.”

A More Civil War is available now in paperback, and as an ebook.


In a previous post, I briefly considered how the Union’s Lieber code defined a justly waged war. According to that pioneering code of military conduct, a truly just war effort is a “vigorous” one that does nearly whatever is necessary to end a war victoriously as quickly as possible. Yet Francis Lieber’s code also adamantly insisted that a people at war must not abandon all their peacetime moral obligations, so certain constraints should always remain on an army. The Lieber code’s 157 articles tried—with specificity and comprehensiveness—to define those constraints for officers and soldiers alike.

It’s one thing for an official code of conduct to triumphantly proclaim, as Lieber’s code did, “Men who take up arms against one another in public war do not cease on this account to be moral beings, responsible to one another and to God.” It’s another thing entirely for an army to actually abide by such a sentiment.

President Abraham Lincoln officially issued the Lieber code to Union armies in May 1863. When he did, the Civil War was only half finished. For the two remaining years of the war, did Union armies adhere to the vision of just warfare contained in the Lieber code?

Before trying to answer that question—by looking to William T. Sherman’s infamous “March to the Sea” in 1864—a few disclaimers are in order. First, it is not hard to find plenty of examples of Union armies acting contrary to what the code commanded. The war occasioned no shortage of true atrocities, a fact that’s best never to forget. On top of that, it’s a quite tricky matter to determine how completely Lieber’s code actually shaped the behavior of Union soldiers. Even when soldiers acted in consonance with the code, it’s not always clear that they were deliberately trying to do so—that is, that they were fully aware of the demands of the code’s articles and working to abide by them.

Even so, it’s clear that the code was widely circulated among Union officers and soldiers after the spring of 1863, and that the conduct of Union armies for the remainder of the war, more often than not, cohered with the code.

There are several possible ways to explore how fully the Union army adhered to the Lieber code. But the spirit of the code was perhaps nowhere more fully realized—for good and ill—than in Sherman’s March across Georgia in late 1864. The March, like the code, embodied the spirit of a vigorous (and therefore hopefully short) war that proceeded within certain restraints.

On the eve of the March, Sherman issued Special Field Orders 120, which tried to set forth rules to govern soldier conduct in three particular situations: foraging for food, destroying property, and seizing property. Although Sherman infamously directed his men to “forage liberally” in Special Field Orders 120, he also ordered brigade commanders to carefully organize the foraging parties, which only “discrete officers” were to command. Soldiers not a part of these parties should not forage. The liberal foraging, Sherman hoped, would proceed in a strictly controlled manner, limited to a select number of soldiers. He granted foraging parties the right to take a wide array of provisions if needed—meats and vegetables and fruits and corn meal and so forth—but he also forbade them from entering civilian homes without prior authorization. While Sherman left corps commanders wide discretion, he did firmly establish one general principle: in places where “the army is unmolested,” Federals should destroy as little as possible; in areas infested by guerrillas or where local civilians impeded Federal progress by burning bridges or obstructing roads, corps commanders were to “order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility.”

The best recent studies of Sherman’s March have convincingly overturned the notorious legend that long surrounded it—that Sherman’s army utterly devastated the Georgia countryside, waging an ominously modern form of total warfare. The spirit of Special Field Orders 120 seems, more often than not, to have governed soldier conduct. Still, acts of both unexpected restraint and great devastation defined Sherman’s March to Savannah. Union soldiers committed both. In doing so, they merely behaved according to the underlying logic of the Lieber code—which sought to hasten the war’s end through a “vigorous war,” while also preventing the loss of all moral restraint.

Whether the vision of just conduct contained in the Lieber code truly amounts to a just war is a question that deserves consideration from all students of the Civil War. Most Union officers and soldiers believed that it did. And for that reason, most of them—most of the time—acted in ways that abided by the spirit and letter of the Lieber code.


D. H. Dilbeck is a historian from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and the author of Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet.