Revolutionary and Civil War Ethics

U.S. Military Ethics (1775-1865)

By Brandon Eng


To define military ethics, one would have to identify two separate matters that coincide together. First being the extent of military force used when engaging the enemy and the second incorporating an ethos or code of conduct that the military personnel abide by. Throughout mankind, hundreds if not thousands of wars and conflicts have been fought with at least one of these measures of military ethical standards. This modern characterization of military ethics are said to be created from a centuries old historic theory called, “Just War Theory.” The original theory consisted of two separate parts. The first part is called, “the right to go to war.” There must be a moral explanation for a country or civilization to declare war on another. This reasoning must be justifiable if men and women are to bear arms, for the overall purpose of the war and with the unfortunate possibility of death. The second part of this theory is called, “The conduct in war.” There must be guidelines or rules of engagement for militaries to follow while conducting warfare or when deadly forceful actions are being initiated on the battlefield or in a civilian populated zone. Understanding both of these areas, generates a military force to be well-trained and have well-disciplined personnel, as well as a strong, proficient, yet morally just command. These principles are what transformed the United States Military to be the strongest military in the world today. However, this was not always the occasion, as the country’s first military was created at the time of the American Revolution. This newly created rebellious army was mainly consisting of everyday citizens who lacked proper military training and did not have ample military ethical codes to stand by. Fast forwarding almost one hundred years later to the U.S. Civil War time period, the United States military was transformed into a well-structured, well-equipped fighting force. This article will look further into the transformation of the United States military’s ethics from its conception in 1775, to the end of the civil war in 1865.
United States militia during the Revolutionary War

Just War Theory

“War is always judged twice, first with reference to the reasons states have for fighting, secondly with reference to the means they adopt.”(Qtd. Walzer p.21) Before evaluating the early United States military’s ethics, it is important to review the principles that make up the Just War Theory. As stated, the first part of the theory is, “the right to go to war.” To elaborate on this topic, a civilized state can declare a justifiable war when all initial peaceful resolutions have been expired, unless the declaring of war is in a
Aftermath of War

defensive response to a prior attack, which then by all means peaceful solutions are inadequate. The Conduct in War section covers the military force used against the enemy and the surrounding civilian population. Combatant actions can be conducted against the enemy force and not against the civilian population. However, civilians being killed or harmed can only be acceptable if they are unpreventable of a strategic military target that is vital in the overall military operation on achieving victory over its enemy. Other conduct covered is the medical treatment toward the injured or wounded, the humanitarian treatment toward prisoners captured, and the proper moral and ethical values that military personnel are ingrained with in becoming a warrior. This theory though morally constructed can also be seen as extremely controversial and argumentative, as there are conflicting sides. Killing one another and occupying or entering ones territory can be seen as unethical or inhuman behavior. “Here men and women do what they must to save themselves and their communities, and morality and law have no place.”(Qtd. Walzer p.3) Further along these occurrences will be clarified while reviewing the military ethics during these two historical wars.

Revolutionary War
The revolting against the British tyranny was built up over several events starting with, “The American Revenue act of 1764.” This act was one of the first accumulating taxes imposed on the Colonial Americans resulting in an economic decrease, which also resulted with a much larger British military presence. Later that year the “Currency Act” was enforced which governed all of the Colonists trading capabilities. By 1774 several other Acts were passed by British Parliament and several unfortunate historical events occurred. One being, “The Boston Massacre” where five Colonists were slayed in the streets of Boston as they confronted the British troops in protest.
Boston Massacre

Another event is one of the most important Acts with argumentative relation to the “Just War Theory,” it is the “The Quartering Act of 1765.” This Act pertains to mutiny against the King George III‘s rule and is punishable by death. At the time of the Colonists forming the Continental congress the men discussed the futures for their people and their land, but in all actuality it wasn’t their land. It was King George III’s land. The members understood that they themselves were breaking the law by forming their own secretive government, with thoughts of one day creating their own nation. It seems absurd to think that the forming of the United States of America was unethical. But the lands were colonized by the British and many citizens were British loyalist who would never think of the intolerable act of deceiving the crown. As generations were continuously born in the Americas, the culture of the people started to change apart from the British culture.
In February 1775, the entire state of Massachusetts was seen as rebellious, and the British military sent 700 soldiers to seize munitions from a nearby militia. On the way to the munitions depot, the British troops were confronted by 77 militia men. These men were poorly trained with no military ethical bearings. The British or “Redcoats,” were one of the most feared and organized militaries in the world. The 77 militia men had no chance on defeating the 700 Redcoats and they took several immediate casualties.  However, the militia men were not trying to defeat the British, but slow them down, so the rest of the militia could mass at Concord where the munitions depot was located. The British were surprised when confronted by a standing militia of 500 plus men who were ready for battle. The British took heavy casualties and as they retreated back to Boston they were ambushed along the way. When viewing the conduct in war during this time period, it is militarily unethical to attack an enemy if they are withdrawing from the battlefield in defeat or if surrendered. However, this patriotic militia did not understand the ethical standards of war or they did not care for them.
General George Washington

The newly appointed General George Washington arrived outside the city of Boston with reinforcements and cannons and took the command of the militia. The Continental Army had now been formed and it was Washington’s duty for the army to follow “the rules and discipline of war.” These rules were outdated and didn’t cover the welfare of the army itself as they were originally British rules of war. General Washington was not the greatest combat effective general, but he did however do something quite well which was lead and motivate the moral of his men. A famous Washington quote he made to his army is, “The hour is fast approaching, on which the Honor and Success of this army and the safety of our bleeding country depend. Remember officers and soldiers, that you are free men, fighting for the blessings of Liberty—that slavery will be your portion, and that of your posterity, if you do not acquit yourselves like men.”
The British were eventually pushed out of Boston, but British reinforcements arriving from England fiercely struck back resulting in the Continental Army retreating south. The army was in need of advanced training and military ethics as the Redcoats were too advanced. After many more battles and defeats Washington turned to a Prussian born military officer to serve as the Major General. His name is Friedrich “Baron” Von Steuben. Baron Von Steuben helped form the Continental Army into a self-sufficient, well-organized, and military ethical fighting force. He brought discipline and in his training he implied more advanced warfare than the Redcoats were equipped with, as the

Prussian military had cultivated warfare. Von Steuben trained 100 men who were to become the finest officers. These men were instructed to move throughout the colonies and continue to train other soldiers of the general’s standards. The military ethics,_1780.jpg
Frederich Von Steuben

enforced on the Continental Army was a discipline the army lacked. He taught the Patriots how to properly drill and form ranks. He taught the men how to fire and reload their weapons efficiently as well as how to set up a camp with sanitation and housing of soldiers in separate areas. Before his knowledge, soldiers would eat and urinate in the same area of camp. He also taught a modified code of conduct that the world was to follow when at war. With his advanced trainings he wrote a book titled,

“Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States.” In short, this is known as “the bluebook,” and is still used for training the 21st century soldier. One of the Major Generals famous quotes is ”You say to your soldier, Do this, and he doeth it, but I am obliged to say, this is the reason that you ought to do that, and then he does it.” In 1783 the Continental Army finally sufficient and with the support from the French military the British were defeated and withdrew from the soon to be United States of America.

The Civil War
From 1861 to 1865 the United States of America was in a brutal civil war leaving an estimated 750,000 Americans killed. Since the founding of the country and the signing of the U.S. constitution, many issues existed between northern and southern states. One of the main issues between these states was the fact that slavery was still considered legal in the south, as states can mandate their own laws. The South’s main crop was cotton and slavery was seen the most economical for plantation owners as they owned these African Americans who were considered private property. Other issues the southern states were conflicting from the north was taxes, tariffs, and state law vs federal law. These issues resulted in an uprising by the south joining together and forming the Confederacy. April 12 1861 southern militias attacked Ft. Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. The fort was bombarded and eventually taken control of by the South as the northern troops, were out gunned and low on supplies with result of withdrawing from the fort. This siege on the fort was the start of the American Civil War.
African American Union Soldiers

The United States military at the time were advanced on both sides of the battlefield. Both had a form of command and both sides had disciplined soldiers. The code of conduct originated from Baron Von Steuben nearly one hundred years prior was well engraved into the military. The main ethical difference between the revolutionary war and the civil war were not the ethos of the military but, the rules and laws of war enforced by President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1863 Lincoln’s administration authorized the new rules which were created by Francis Lieber, Lincoln’s wartime legal authority. This was known as “General Orders No. 100: The Lieber Code.” It also is considered to be called, “The Lincoln Code.” This new code was written by means to be moral and legal reasoning at times in war. It was adopted by many nations from around the world and played an influential role in creating international rules of war for all nations. The general order consists of 10 sections and 157 articles covering all aspects of fighting an ethical war, with all actions being morally humane as possible. This war itself is considered justifiable by most, as the southern states refused to agree with the north on humanitarian rights for the Blacks. The nation’s founding fathers beliefs’ were, “that all men are created equal and that every man has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” However, the South’s stance was that the blacks are not men, they are not free, and that they are private property. This civil war can also be seen as just because; all peaceful solutions could not resolve the issues and the President found the South uprising to be radical as it was an act of treason against the United States of America. The war was seen as inevitable.
Abraham Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln strongly opposed slavery, and with his powers he would do everything possible to be sure to end the confederacy existence. He started by allowing blacks to join the Union’s army who would immediately become free men. An estimated 200,000 black men enlisted. Nonetheless the south did not recognize them as free men, even when The Lieber Code stated that African American union soldiers cannot be enslaved or killed if captured. The south disregarded this rule. President Lincoln himself broke some of the ethical rules, and one of the instances is allowing General Sherman and his unit rampage through Georgia and South Carolina. “As anticipated, the soldiers destroyed much property in South Carolina. Besides feeding themselves and their draft animals on the produce of the land and also constantly renewing their stock of draft animals at the expense of the farms they passed, they burned many more houses than they had in Georgia.” (Qtd.Woodworth.p334) This being unethical to civilians was indeed a strategy to lower the moral of the confederacy.
Though The Lieber Code was not completely followed by the north and the south, many rules were agreed upon. To recite a few; prisoner exchange did occur several times with no combative confrontation. Poisoning the enemy or captive prisoner was forbidden and was not proven to exist by either side. Assassination on government leaders, ambassadors, and legal officials was against the code and was agreed upon. A spy being caught was punishable by death whether he or she obtained crucial information or not. Interfering with religious beliefs or institutions was not tolerable as well. For the entirety of the Lieber Code visit
U.S. military ethics have been developed over time from its surfacing of an Army in 1775. They are meant to be morally righteous and are for the better good of protecting civilians during the time of war. Overall, throughout these two wars we have witnessed a militia which stood as unethical, transform into an 18th century military with the highest standards in the world. The wars can be argued whether they are justifiable or if the outcomes would have eventually been the same through extended peaceful negotiations. “War is always judged twice, first with reference to the reasons states have for fighting, secondly with reference to the means they adopt.”(Qtd. Walzer p.21) Although we have rules to follow at the time of war, winning the war and restoring peace is the most important. As reviewed it is highly unlikely for a military to follow all of its military ethics in process to achieve its victory over its enemies. War is hell and laws may not be suitable in hell.


Work Cited
1. Web.
2. Web.
3. The Lieber Code. General Orders NO. 100. Instructions For the Government of the Armies of The United States in the field. Adjutant Generals office.1898. Washington Government Printing Office.
4. Steuben, Frederich Von. Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States.
5. Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars. New York, NY. 1977. Print
6. Walzer, Michael. Arguing about War. 2004. Print
7. Woodworth, Steven. This Great Struggle Americas Civil War.2011 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers inc. 2011. Print


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