April 24, 1863 – U.S. Issues Code of Conduct for Warring Combatants

On this day in history, President Lincoln signed the Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, General Order № 100, popularly known as the Lieber Instructions, because they were prepared by Francis Lieber.

Professor Francis Lieber

Professor Francis Lieber

Lieber had fought for Prussia in the Napoleonic Wars and later became a Professor of History and Political Economy at South Carolina College (what later became Columbia University). In 1857 he moved north to Columbia Law School where he taught International Law and Civil and Common Law until his death in 1872. He published his series of lectures on the laws and usages of war as “International Law, or, Rules Regulating the Intercourse of States in Peace and War.”

During the American Civil War, Lieber’s three sons were all serving (two for the Union and one for the Confederacy). While in St. Louis searching for one of his sons who had been wounded, Lieber met Union General Henry Halleck, and when Halleck became General-in-Chief in July, 1862, Halleck solicited Lieber’s views on some of the knottier questions presented by war. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton also looked to Lieber for advice. Thus Halleck and Stanton decided to invite Lieber to Washington to sit on a committee to revise the 1806 Articles of War.

Henry Halleck

Henry Halleck

The standards were deemed necessary because the large armies required by the Civil War were made up mostly of untrained volunteers, and often commanded by officers who had no familiarity with established military procedure, rights and duties of officers, treatment of soldiers and civilians, and so on. A lot of confusion and conflicting orders were issued, which frequently had to be rescinded.

Lieber did most of the writing for the new set of rules for armies in the field, and Halleck edited the draft to make sure nothing conflicted with Lincoln’s policies. Then Lincoln issued them on this day in history.

The document included considerations for ethical behavior, insisting on humane treatment of civilian populations in occupied areas. It was the first expressly codified law that forbade giving “no quarter” to the enemy (i.e., killing prisoners of war), except in such cases when the survival of the unit that held these prisoners was threatened. It forbade the use of poisons, stating that use of such puts any force who uses them entirely outside the pale of the civilized nations and peoples; it forbade the use of torture to extract confessions; it described the rights and duties of prisoners of war and of capturing forces. It described the state of war, the state of occupied territories, the ends of war, and discusses permissible and impermissible means to attain those ends; it discussed the nature of states and sovereignties, and insurrections, rebellions, and wars.

The Lieber Code also defended the lawfulness of Emancipation under the laws of war and insisted that those same laws prohibited discrimination on the basis of color among combatants.

European jurists and treaty negotiators picked up Lieber’s text and used it as the basis for negotiations that ultimately formed the basis of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. Some of its harsher measures were abolished by the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, however.

You can read the full text of the Lieber Code here.

lieber_code004 copy_outline

April 22, 1915 – Germans Use Gas Warfare in Ypres, Belgium

On this day in history, Germans fired more than 150 tons (168 long tons) of lethal chlorine gas over the four mile front against two French colonial divisions (Moroccan and Algerian troops) at Ypres in Belgium, during the so-called Second Battle of Ypres. Poison gas had been used before at the Battle of Bolimov three months earlier but the gas liquified in the cold and became inert.

The German troops carried 5,730 gas cylinders, weighing 90 pounds each, to the front by hand. They relied on the prevailing winds to carry the gas towards enemy lines, which inevitably resulted in a large number of German casualties as well.

German infantrymen wearing gas masks in a trench on the Western Front

German infantrymen wearing gas masks in a trench on the Western Front

The French troops in the path of the gas cloud had some 6,000 casualties, many of whom died within ten minutes. The chlorine gas, being denser than air, quickly filled the trenches, forcing the troops to climb out into heavy enemy fire.

Apparently, captured German soldiers had previously revealed the imminent use of gas on the Western Front, but their warnings were not heeded. 

The Allies were outraged, but the Germans retorted that the French had been manufacturing and employing the gas in battle well before Ypres. (The French did employ gas first during World War I, in August 1914. They used tear-gas grenades containing xylyl bromide to meet the initial German advance in Belgium and northeastern France.) The gases employed by the Germans, however, were much deadlier, and included chlorine gas, phosphene gas, and mustard gas. Britain and France also began to use these in response to their use by Germany.

U.S. Soldiers in training, about to enter a tear gas trench at Camp Dix, New Jersey, ca. 1918.

U.S. Soldiers in training, about to enter a tear gas trench at Camp Dix, New Jersey, ca. 1918.

The British were the first to respond, with “Special Gas Companies.” The men who served in these companies weren’t allowed to refer to the word “gas” in their operations, however. Instead they had to call their gas canisters”accessories”; use of the word “gas” brought with it a threatened punishment.

The Allied forces who used gas had the same problems as did the Germans; the air currents were fickle, and could turn the attack on their own men. It became apparent that a more reliable delivery mechanism was needed, and experiments began with gas-filled artillery shells and other devices. By 1918 the use of poison gases had become widespread, particularly on the Western Front.  If the war had continued into 1919 both sides had planned on inserting poison gases into 30%-50% of manufactured shells.

In total, while there were some 1.25 million casualties from gas used in the were, there were only about 91,000 deaths from gas poisoning, with over 50 percent of those fatalities suffered by the poorly equipped Russian army.

Gas masks in use in Mesopotamia in 1918.

Gas masks in use in Mesopotamia in 1918.

After the Armistice, the wartime use of poison gases was outlawed in 1925 – a ban that is, at least in theory, still in force today. Even at that time, the Germans continued to work on developing poisonous gas, and in the early 1920s invented Zyklon B, a cyanide-based pesticide used by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust to murder physically and intellectually disabled people, political undesirables, and Jews. It was pumped into locked gas chambers after they were filled with victims.

Book Review of “50 Things You Should Know About The First World War” by Jim Eldridge

I think this is a very good book for many reasons, but it’s quite obvious it was written from a British point of view (Professor Ian Beckett of Rutherford College, University of Kent, is listed as Consultant), especially because of its glaring omissions.

But let’s start with the positives.  The book is loaded with reader-friendly infographics, excellent and colorful maps, photos, fact boxes, and pretty good, if brief, coverage of most aspects of the war.  I don’t think anyone is going to be bored by the history lessons in this book.

The only criticism I have of [that part of] the book is the inclusion of too many exclamation marks.  The whole war was unimaginable; there is no reason to keep throwing in exclamations!

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Let’s proceed to the first hint you get that this book was produced in Britain, which would be the story of the Gallipoli Campaign. The area of the battle was extremely important; the Dardanelles is a narrow strait leading to the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus and the Black Sea.

The Dardanelles, a long narrow strait dividing the Balkans (Europe) along the Gallipoli peninsula from Asia Minor

The Dardanelles, a long narrow strait dividing the Balkans (Europe) along the Gallipoli peninsula from Asia Minor

It was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, blocking off both a supply route to the Russians and preventing the Allies from conquering the Ottomans. The Battle of Gallipoli turned out to be a huge disaster for the Allies, giving true meaning to the term “turkey shoot” since the Turks had an open field of fire from the heights on the Allies trying to advance. But  most tellingly:  whose idea was it, and who was responsible for its poor planning and execution?  None other than Winston Churchill, at that time First Lord of the Admiralty, never mentioned anywhere in the book.

Gaba Tepe (Anzac), the spot where the Australians "landed" upon the Gallipoli Peninsula. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

Gaba Tepe (Anzac), the spot where the Australians “landed” upon the Gallipoli Peninsula. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

Churchill fails to appear at least two additional times when he definitely should have.  The next occasion came with the sinking of the Lusitania, which was a major factor in bringing the U.S. into the war.  Churchill has long been suspected of knowing the Lusitania would be in danger, but of welcoming the opportunity to get the U.S. involved.  As Hampton Sides wrote in a recent review of Erik Larson’s new book about the Lusitania:

Shortly before the disaster, Churchill had written in a confidential letter that it was ‘most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.’ Afterward, he all but celebrated the sinking as a great Allied victory, saying, ‘The poor babies who perished in the ocean struck a blow at German power more deadly than could have been achieved by the sacrifice of a hundred thousand fighting men.’”

But the most important omission of the many roles of Churchill comes with the very sketchy discussion of the part the British played in the disposition of the Middle East – including Saudi Arabia and Palestine, the awful effects of which we are still experiencing today.  The ways in which the Allies decided to split up the region were rather mind-numbingly complex, but were designed to ensure, inter alia, that Britain would have access to the oil in the area.  [And in fact, the current leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, specifically referenced his intention to erase the shame of the secret French-British pact of 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, as one of the goals of his movement.] Certainly there were a number of other important players who divided up the Middle East like pieces on a chess board, but Churchill was a major actor. 

T. E. Lawrence, or more familiarly, "Lawrence of Arabia"

T. E. Lawrence, or more familiarly, “Lawrence of Arabia”

There are a couple of other flagrant omissions, besides that of Churchill.  The text makes it seem as if the Russian Revolution was mainly a reaction to the wealth gap, war failures, and food shortages experienced during the reign of the Russian leader at the time, Nicholas II.  Certainly these played a role, but Russia had a long history of such problems, and new ideologies, both in Russia specifically and roiling the waters throughout Europe generally, made a huge contribution as well.  The book only records that Lenin, who was a “revolutionary,” and his group of “Bolsheviks” (undefined), set up a “communist” state (likewise unexplained).

Finally, towards the end of the book, the casualties are toted up, along with mention of “shell shock” (today called PTSD) and the single phrase about civilians that “many more died from disease or famine brought about the war.”  In fact, the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, spread with the help of troop movements around the world, killed more people than the war itself, estimated by the U.S. Department of Health  at somewhere between 30 and 50 million people. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history.  A fifth of the world’s population was infected including 28% of all Americans.  An estimated 675,000 Americans died of influenza during the pandemic, ten times as many as in the world war.  That seems like it would be worth a mention.

But, the fact is, there are numerous histories of World War I, and depending on the historian, country of origin, archives accessed, and year published, you will see many different versions of what happened.  This book does a great job at introducing the subject to students.  All the eye-popping pictures and facts will no doubt inspire further inquiries, at which time the omitted portions of the history will become clear.

Evaluation:  Great maps and infographics with plenty of photos will make the time fly as you learn the basics about the Great War. The publisher recommends the book for ages 7 and up.

Rating:  3.5/5

Published in the US. by QEB Publishing, 2014

Churchill in 1916 (he managed better with his second chance at a world war....)

Churchill in 1916 (he managed better with his second chance at a world war….)

April 18, 1949 – Ireland Leaves the Commonwealth of Great Britain

On this day in history, the Irish Parliament officially became a republic, pursuant to the Republic of Ireland Act passed on December 21, 1948.

The Act was scheduled to come into force on April 18 which was the 33rd anniversary of the Easter Rising. (The Easter Rising was an armed insurrection by Irish republicans that began in Ireland during Easter Week, 1916 with the aim of ending British rule in Ireland. The British were able to suppress the Rising quickly, and most of the leaders were executed. This creation of martyrs only fed support for republicanism, eventually leading to a war of independence. The cause was aided immeasurably by the 1921 publication by William Butler Yeats of his poem “Easter, 1916” in which he wrote about the leaders who were killed):

I write it out in a verse –

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.”

You can read the entire poem here.

On June 2, 1949, the British Parliament passed The Ireland Act recognizing Ireland and Northern Ireland as constitutional entities.

You can see the latest amended version of the Act here.


April 16, 1848 – Slave Escape Foiled in D.C.

On the evening of April 15, 1848, at least 75 slaves from the D.C. area, both adults and children, tried to escape slavery with the help of two white men, Daniel Drayton and Edward Sayres, who chartered a 64-foot schooner, The Pearl, for their departure.

In the dark, the would-be escapees made their way in small groups to a wharf in Southeast D.C. and they set sail down the Potomac River. Unfortunately, bad weather delayed the voyage, giving whites enough time to form a posse. The posse traveled by steamboat and overtook The Pearl at Point Lookout, 100 miles southeast of D.C. the next morning, on this day in history. They took everyone back to Washington.


As the news of the escape attempt spread, pro-slavery rioters attacked abolitionist businesses. Drayton and Sayres were put in the city jail, from which a lynch mob attempted to remove them. Most of the escapees were sold South to slave dealers in New Orleans and Georgia.

Historians believe this was the nation’s largest single escape attempt.

On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed “An Act for the release of certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia,” known as the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862.

Originally sponsored by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, the act provided for the freedom of all enslaved persons within the District of Columbia, compensation (up to $300) of loyal persons who filed a petition to the Commissioners affirming their claim on the manumitted person(s), and the opportunity for those emancipated to emigrate to another country such as Haiti or Liberia by offering $100 for that purpose.

Senator Henry Wilson

Senator Henry Wilson

The Act passed easily in both the House (92-38) and Senate (29-14). In the months following the enactment of the law, commissioners approved more than 930 petitions, granting freedom to 2,989 former slaves.

Wilson went on to introduce the first post-war civil rights bill in 1865 and also influenced Congress’s passage of constitutional amendments to guarantee citizenship rights to African Americans. Elected Vice President in 1873, he became ill shortly after taking office and died on November 22, 1875.

April 13, 1873 – The Colfax Massacre

As DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University Eric Foner, writing in The Washington Post (3/28/08) points out, “Scholars estimate that during Reconstruction, the turbulent period that followed the Civil War, upwards of 3,000 persons were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups. That’s roughly the same number of Americans who have died at the hands of Osama bin Laden.”

“The single most egregious act of terrorism during Reconstruction” (per Foner) took place in the Colfax area of Louisiana in 1873. In the1872 local election, a Confederate veteran supported by Democrats was running for sheriff against the Republican candidate. There was uncertainty over the winner, and unrest ensued.

Freedman rightly feared a Democratic victory. As Foner writes, “Organized violence emerged around Colfax almost as soon as the Civil War ended, targeting black leaders, school teachers, freedmen who tried to acquire land, and, once blacks won the right to vote, local officeholders.”

When the federal government supported the Republican governor by sending federal troops to Louisiana, the white residents of the state refused to cooperate. Freed black men serving in the militia of Grant Parish cordoned off the county seat of Colfax and began drilling and digging trenches. They were able to hold the town for three weeks.

Local whites, including The White League, a paramilitary group intent on securing white rule in Louisiana, began to mobilize. Rumors circulated that local blacks had initiated a “reign of terror” and were roaming the countryside with the intent to “exterminate” all white people they found. Rumors and political tensions, as usual, were expressed with a sexual subtext. Accounts of the time said that whites believed rumors of alleged threats by freedmen’s claiming they would seek revenge and take local white women for wives (or worse).


On Easter Sunday, April 13, heavily armed whites overpowered the defenders (many of them holed up in the courthouse), and an indiscriminate slaughter followed, including the massacre of some fifty blacks who lay down their arms under a white flag of surrender. The final death toll remains unknown, but is estimated at around 150 blacks and three whites. Afterwards, the bodies of some of the blacks were mutilated to serve as a “lesson” to blacks in the vicinity.

In response to these incidents and others throughout the South, President Grant ordered federal troops to restore order. But most of the relief was temporary. After Colfax, the federal government convicted only three whites for the murders. In the end, they were freed in 1876 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in U.S. v. Cruikshank, declared that they had been convicted unconstitutionally. Foner laments “Cruikshank hammered the final nail into the coffin of federal efforts to protect the basic rights of black citizens in the South. Reconstruction effectively ended a year later, and the Jim Crow era began.”


April 12, 1861 – The American Civil War Began With the Attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina

In 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the United States. As more states followed suit and the Confederate States of America took shape, many federal installations in the South were taken over by state governments. Fort Sumter, in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, continued to fly the U.S. flag, even as Confederate forces surrounded it. President Lincoln had just taken office and no shots had yet been fired when he received an urgent appeal from Major Robert Anderson, the commander at Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor. They were running low on supplies, and the Confederates had so ringed the fort with military batteries that it seemed impossible any provisions could get through with anything less than “twenty thousand good and well disciplined men.” President Lincoln notified Governor Francis Pickens of South Carolina that he needed to send provisions – food only – to the men stranded in the middle of the harbor at Fort Sumter. Pickens contacted Jefferson Davis, who directed communications to be exchanged between Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard and Major Anderson.

Major Robert Anderson

Major Robert Anderson

As it turned out, Anderson had been Beauregard’s teacher at West Point. Beauregard was extremely courteous in his demand that Anderson evacuate the fort. Anderson thanked him for his communications, and declined with “regret.” The next day, April 12, at 3:20 in the morning, Anderson received this message:

By authority of Brigadier-General Beauregard, commanding the Provisional Forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time. We have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servants.”

One hour later, the Civil War began.



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