The Civil War Era

When the Civil War finally erupted, Columbia faculty, students, and alumni were drawn into the conflict along with the rest of the nation. While most of the faculty had previously been recitent in discussing and combating slavery, this changed during the war: University President Charles King was an outspoken opponent, and Professor Francis Lieber played an important role in the Union war effort. Of course not all Columbians were pro-Union, but the vast majority remained enthusiastically loyal.

Francis Lieber

 Francis Lieber

Francis Lieber was a lawyer, political philosopher and one of Columbia University’s most distinguished professors of his era. A veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, Lieber came to the United States in the 1820s fleeing political persecution.

Lieber was both an unrelenting opponent of slavery and, for a time, a slaveholder himself, having traded and owned slaves while he taught at the University of South Carolina. At the same time, he publicly denounced not merely slavery, but white supremacy as a whole – a sentiment rare for his era. Despite having sons on both sides of the war, Lieber adamantly supported the Union, and became a legal advisor to the Lincoln administration. Later in life, he joined the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction.

Lieber is most remembered for writing the Lieber Code, a manual of conduct for the Union Army containing, among other protocols, policies relating to humane treatment of prisoners. The Lieber Code would later become one of the foundations of the Geneva Conventions.

Hamilton Fish

Hamilton Fish

Hamilton Fish was a New York politician and lawyer active during the Civil War era. He was, at various times, a Representative, Lieutenant Governor, Governor, and Senator for New York State. Born of the wealthy Fish merchant family, Hamilton Fish was both a Columbia graduate and trustee.

Fish was a committed Whig politician, and so was largely uninterested in anti-slavery throughout a considerable portion of his political career. His emphasis on national unity led him to oppose the Kansas Nebraska Act, but he blamed both abolitionists and Southern firebrands alike for the rising sectional conflict. Fish’s views may have been influenced by his legal clients, many of whom had commercial ties to the South.

The coming of the Civil War, however, changed Fish’s tune. After a last-ditch peace effort failed, Fish would become a strong supporter of the Union, and one of the founders of the famous pro-war Union League Club.

Fish later went on to become Ulysses S. Grant’s Secretary of State

George Templeton Strong

George Templeton Strong

George Templeton Strong was a prominent lawyer during the Civil War era. Strong was both a graduate and trustee of Columbia College, and was a founder of Columbia Law School.

Strong is principally remembered today (particularly among historians) for his diaries: he was a prolific diarist, writing daily for the majority of his life. A typical elite man of his time, Strong disparaged black people frequently in his diaries – and he also thought little of the city’s Irish and Jewish populations (to put it charitably).

Still, as the sectional conflict reared its ugly head, Strong was increasingly driven towards the Republican cause. While in 1850 (after the Compromise of 1850) he wrote that “slave-holding is no sin,” by 1854 (after the Kansas-Nebraska debacle) he thought otherwise, and by 1861 he considered arming slaves to end the Confederate rebellion. Still, he retained his racist attitudes: reiterating the views of many Northerners of his time, he wrote, “we northerners object to slavery on grounds of political economy, not ethics.” By the end of the war, however, Strong nursed an ethical objection as well, asking that “God pardon our blindness of three years ago.”

During the Civil War, Strong served as treasurer of the US sanitary commission, a precursor to the Red Cross. He was also a founding member of the Union League Club.

Judith K. Schafer. "Strong, George Templeton"; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000;

"Lieber, Francis". 2016. In The Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press.