About the Papers of the War Department

Project Overview

On the night of November 8, 1800, fire devastated the War Office, consuming the papers, records, and books stored there. Two weeks later, Secretary of War Samuel Dexter lamented in a letter that “All the papers in my office [have] been destroyed.” For the past two centuries, the official records of the War Department effectively began with Dexter’s letter. Papers of the War Department 1784-1800, an innovative digital editorial project, will change that by making some 55,000 documents of the early War Department many long thought irretrievable but now reconstructed through a painstaking, multi-year research effort available online to scholars, students, and the general public.

These Papers record far more than the era’s military history. Between 1784 and 1800, the War Department was responsible for Indian affairs, veteran affairs, naval affairs (until 1798), as well as militia and army matters. During the 1790s, the Secretary of War spent seven of every ten dollars of the federal budget (debt service excepted). The War Office did business with commercial firms and merchants all across the nation; it was the nation’s largest single consumer of fabric, clothing, shoes, food, medicine, building materials, and weapons of all kinds. “Follow the money,” it is said, if you want to learn what really happened, and in the early days of the Republic that money trail usually led to the War Office. For example, the War Department operated the nation’s only federal social welfare program, providing veterans’ benefits (including payments to widows and orphans) to more than 4,000 persons. It also provided internal security, governance, and diplomacy on the vast frontier, and it was the instrument that shaped relations with Native Americans. In many respects, the papers lost in the War Office fire of 1800 constituted the “national archives” of their time.

Papers of the War Department 1784-1800 will present this collection of more than 55,000 documents in a free, online format with extensive and searchable metadata linked to digitized images of each document, thereby insuring free access for a wide range of users. Scholars will find new evidence on many subjects in the history of the Early Republic, from the handling of Indian affairs, pensions and procurement to the nature of the first American citizens’ relationship with their new Federal government. The Papers of the War Department 1784-1800 offer a window into a time when there was no law beyond the Constitution and when the administration first worked out its understanding and interpretation of that new document. For more than two hundred years these important papers have been lost to scholars, and their absence is one of the key reasons why so little serious military history has been written about this period.

Our online and open access model of publication will bring these fascinating primary sources to non-scholarly audiences as well. Military history enjoys a wide audience, and those amateurs, enthusiasts, interested citizens, and, of course, active and retired members of the military will also seek out this remarkable collection. In addition, we intend to facilitate the incorporation of these sources into high school and college courses in U.S. history. Here, too, we will exploit the possibilities of the electronic medium to make available digital packets of documents along with teaching suggestions. Students and other non-scholarly users need support for analyzing the Papers of the War Department in critical and sophisticated ways. We will provide that, in part, through careful contextual essays and biographical directories. But we will also offer lessons on how professional historians read the kind of documents available in this collection, such as letter books, reports of Indian agents, pension applications, and procurement records.

Our overall ambition, in sum, is to use the best technology of the early twenty-first century to recover and make widely available this vital record of American history that was seemingly lost at the dawn of the nineteenth century.