Progress on the refreshed PWD

October 4th, 2018

We have been making great progress on refreshing the Papers of the War Department website and reworking the transcription system.

Just last week we had an in-house testing session to evaluate the new transcription system. It lets transcribers rotate and zoom in on page images, a feature we expect many of you will appreciate. Transcribers will still be able to easily switch between transcribing a page and the Discussion option for communicating with the Editors.

Below is a sneak peek of the new layout for browsing documents. This is not the final design, but gives an idea of what’s coming:

Screen Shot 2018-10-01 at 11.46.12 AM

We’re working on additional features which should make working on the Papers of the War Department an even more rewarding experience. The site should be available, with the new look, new resources, and new transcription system, in early 2019. Stay tuned!

The update of the Papers of the War Department is made possible by an American Council of Learned Societies Digital Extension Grants

Community Transcription: December 2016

January 10th, 2017

Happy New Year!

December 2016 marked the sixty-eighth month since we opened the War Department archives to community transcription, and over five years after launch we still receive requests for transcriber accounts! Here is a snapshot of transcription activity for last month:

Twenty new transcriber signed up last month which brings the total number of transcribers up to 2,810 as of December 31, 2016. These individuals who signed up in December mentioned an interest in people and topics such as John Sevier, land grants, and the battle of the Wabash.

Newly transcribed documents include ones regarding protection of frontiers, permission to travel to New York, letter to the accountant of the Navy, request for account information, sundry accounts, transport of goods and bookkeeping, Mr. Pierce’s absence, and quarters for recruits.

Our community of transcribers have added 53 transcribed pages to War Department documents, with the total number of saves being 19,674. Overall, we have had 666,856 page views.

For the month of January, we are encouraging our volunteers to transcribe documents relating to illness. The following documents mention this theme and are in need of transcription: silence on sending accounts due to illness, leave of absence due to illness, and the grave illness of Mrs. Clymer. Follow us on Twitter (@wardeptpapers) where we’ll be posting more documents in need of transcription throughout the month.

Interested in contributing to the project? Individuals can register for a transcription account and become a transcription associate.

Discovering Foreign Policy in the PWD

October 27th, 2016

Elected and appointed officials in the 1790s faced a number of challenges when the war between Great Britain and France forced the United States into a defensive position. Federalists and Republicans debated loyalties as each faction sought to protect the commercial and political interests of the new nation. The Papers of the War Department offer a number of documents relevant to researchers interested in foreign policy of the early American republic. This post highlights documents that reveal some of this history.

Amidst their own revolutionary transitions, the French government declared war against Great Britain in 1793. President George Washington declared the United States would remain neutral in the conflict, and refused a request from their ambassador to provide military and financial support. Having already established a treaty with France years prior, the United States began negotiating with Great Britain to resolve remaining tensions following the Revolutionary War. The negotiations produced the Jay Treaty in 1795 that maintained peace with Britain. Angered by this new treaty, French ships began to stop, search, and seize American merchant ships for “contraband” supplies heading for British territories. In an effort to end merchant ship seizures, President John Adams sent ambassadors to France in 1797 to re-negotiate the American-French Treaty of Amity and Commerce. However, negotiations failed and resulted in the establishment of the US Navy as well as an undeclared conflict known today as the Quasi War. Assaults on American vessels continued until 1800 with the signing of the Treaty of Mortefontaine between the United States and France.

Below is a selection of documents relating to foreign policy, arranged chronologically:

  1. Notes Concerning the Conduct of the French Minister”: Letter from Alexander Hamilton (Secretary of the Treasury) to unknown recipient lists reasons the actions of the French ambassador, Charles Genêt, were deemed unacceptable by the United States.
    Unavailable on PWD, can be found here]
  2. Extract of a Letter…Concerning U.S.-British Relations”: Letter from John Jay (Chief Justice) to Edmund Randolph (Secretary of State) discussing negotiations of the treaty Jay negotiated with Great Britain and the United States.
  3. On the nation’s resistance to a large military establishment”: Letter draft from James McHenry (Secretary of War) to unknown recipient advocates for expanding the military and acknowledges popular resistance to maintaining a large military.
    Needs Transcription]
  4. Detailed Response…Regarding Relations with France”: Letter from James McHenry (Secretary of War) to John Adams (President) discussing relations with France and avoiding war. Advice given to avoid appearing to favor Britain.
    Needs Transcription]
  5. Requests Defence of US Merchant Ships against French”: Letter from William Hindman (Representative from Maryland) to James McHenry (Secretary of War) discussing the Direct House Tax and the need to defend American merchant ships against French attacks.
    Needs Transcription]
  6. Federalist anger over Adam’s peace commission to France”: Letter from Uriah Tracy (Senator from Connecticut) to James McHenry (Secretary of War) illustrates Federalist opinion of France. Alludes to peace talks leading to the Convention of 1800 and a treaty with France.

The documents referenced in this post are only a handful of examples that reveal opinions and disagreements over foreign policies from the early republic. To read more on what the PWD has to offer relating to this topic, see
these two blog posts. To uncover them all, explore our collection.

Interested in transcribing documents to increase the discoverability of the past? We encourage you to request a transcription account. The secrets of the past can be brought to the present with your help!

Any questions, comments, or suggestions for a future post? Please email us, we look forward to hearing from you!

Transcribing Can Be An Unexpected Research Method

July 29th, 2016

Editors’ Note: This post was written by Associate Editor Ron Martin, a valued colleague and friend, some time ago. It is published posthumously in his honor.

On occasion, volunteers who transcribe documents for large collection projects can find unexpected bonuses as repayment for their time. When these projects overlap with one’s research, the transcription process uncovers minute details that might otherwise escape notice.

While transcribing for the Papers of the War Department: 1784 to 1800, I chose to work on documents related to Fort Niagara in New York State because the topic fits into my other research. The fort sits at the mouth of the Niagara River, across from Fort George and the Canadian town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. During the War of 1812, the artillery pieces at Fort Niagara rained shells and hot shot onto the opposite shore, setting fires amongst the houses and harassing the British troops.

Before the war, however, the fort housed American troops during a time of peace with the British. The officers on both sides faced similar difficulties, such as providing rations for their troops in the middle of winter and ensuring that the payroll arrived on time. One letter from William Simmons to James McHenry reports that $245.05 is overdue to pay the soldiers and officers at Fort Niagara.

That the American and British officers had similar difficulties is not, however, remarkable or new knowledge to any scholar of the Niagara frontier (or any other outposts during the late eighteenth century). The particular scrap of information that I found interesting was in a report from the fort commander, James Bruff, to William Simmons of the Accountants Office.

In his report, Bruff laments the costs that he incurs by hosting foreign (meaning British) officers for dinners and parties. During the peace between the two nations, officers from both sides regularly crossed the river to visit their counterparts. In fact, according to the report printed on July 15th, 1812, in Baltimore’s Federal Republican, when the British officers at Fort George received notice of the declaration of the War of 1812, they were hosting Americans for dinner. Graciously, the British troops escorted the Americans back to their side of the river so that hostilities might commence promptly in the morning.

Following an explanation of the costs he has incurred, Bruff makes an interesting comparison:

The British officers who have commanded here at Oswego inform me that their pay wou’d not support a table, and that their government make an allowance for that purpose (in some instances) exceeding their pay: shall our government (founded on justice) be the only one that requires officers to be polite, conciliating and to keep up an intercourse with foreigners & foreign officers at their private expense?

Even if Bruff was exaggerating the tales he heard from British officers, his complaint highlights the complex nature of international relations across the border between the British Lower and Upper Canadas and the newly formed United States of America. American officers could simply look across the river to see British defensive strategy or ask a British officer about their supply chain and resource management. The comparison was not only easy to make, but also highlighted how much further the American military would need to improve to be classed amongst the powerful imperial states.

The borders along the Niagara and St. Lawrence Rivers were unusual; although the political bodies of each nation clashed from time to time, the military forces on those frontiers traded goods, information, customs, and meals. Despite the distinction that political allegiance created, the Niagara River was a permeable border across which people moved freely even on the day before war.

In my research for my dissertation, I hope to uncover such connections that crossed the political boundaries to better understand the lives of people who lived on the borders; in particular, I hope to explore how the war disrupted those connections and how families negotiated that contested space.

My time spent transcribing was not meant to link so well with my research, but as it turns out, volunteering to work with historical material can uncover unexpected, valuable information for historians and history enthusiasts alike.

The War Department in the Classroom

February 24th, 2016

In this guest post, Zayna Bizri describes her approach to using the Papers of the War Department in the classroom and offers suggestions for those who wish to do the same. Bizri is a doctoral candidate in History at George Mason University; her dissertation is tentatively titled “Selling Her the Military: Recruiting Women into the Armed Forces in World War II”

In the Fall semester of 2015, I taught an upper-level undergraduate course, War and American Society, which focused on the connections between the military and the broader culture. I wanted my students working with primary sources as soon as possible, so I used the Papers of the War Department Project as part of a series of Workshop Days where they learned the day-to-day job of being a historian. The PWD project covered two Workshop Days.

I randomly divided students into work groups of 5-6 students each; each group selected documents to transcribe that all fit in the same theme of their choice. Each student would be responsible for transcribing at least two pages, and reviewing at least two others, meaning that each page had at least two sets of eyes on it. Most groups selected a series of documents, letters or reports on the same topic. One group found a letter that was a report of an attack on a frontier settlement and were able to follow the correspondence to its end. Two groups of six students selected 12-13 page documents; in these groups each student transcribed two pages and reviewed four, so that each student saw at least half the document.

Students needed to register as transcriptionists, and we did that during the first Workshop Day. They then browsed through the list of documents needing transcription and made their selections. The final transcriptions had to be submitted to the site by the next Workshop Day, and each group presented their findings in class.

The students enjoyed the opportunity to work with documents so early in the semester, though the eighteenth century handwriting proved confusing for several. I had thought that some of the students would use documents from the PWD project as a part of their semester-long research project. None did so, but several found documents or topics that set them on a search that led them to their eventual topic. I hoped that a few would be inspired to continue transcribing, and some have.

Based on my experience, I have a few recommendations for others who want to use the Papers in their classes.

First, coordinating with the admins of the Papers of the War Department is crucial to the success of the project. Warn them when your students will be signing up. I gave them a few days warning that 50+ new logins were coming in, and I told my students that it would take some time to get all the logins approved, so everyone was aware of the lag time.

Second, I believe that this assignment would work for either individual or group work. I opted for group work because I felt that a group was more likely to take on a large document.

Third, there is currently no way to “park” or reserve a document to transcribe at a future date. If a transcriber begins entering information on the document, other transcribers will see that it is in progress, but there is no guarantee that they will not transcribe it anyway. In our case, the group that selected the 13 page document completed their transcriptions offline, and found that in the two weeks between selecting and posting, another transcriber had completed and posted the document. In that case, they provided the transcription to me.

Finally, I believe the in-class presentation of findings was an important part of their selection process. Because they would have to present a coherent set of documents, and then answer questions about their choice, they took their time reviewing the documents, instead of picking what they thought would be the simplest set to transcribe.

I found this project to be quite successful. It introduced students to both primary source documents and the role of the digital in historical work. I will refine it for future classes based on the recommendations above.

A War Department of Twelve

May 15th, 2013

Today, the Pentagon alone employs upwards of 30,000 people. Contrast this with Secretary of War James McHenry’s diminutive War Department Staff of 1798, working out of an office “at the Northeast corner of Chestnut and Fifth Street,” in Philadelphia.

Yellow Fever’s Challenges to the Government in Philadelphia

April 30th, 2013

In 1797 the city of Philadelphia experienced an epidemic of Yellow Fever. The residents of the city were all too familiar with the disease. In 1793, the city had faced one of the worst epidemics in the early republic. When the devastating Yellow Fever outbreak hit the city of 50,000, nearly 20,000 fled the city and almost 5,000 people perished.

Only four years later when Yellow Fever again gripped the city in the fall of 1797, residents had to weigh the benefits and costs of remaining in the city.  One such resident was President John Adams. Adams had the power to decide whether the government would stay in Philadelphia, the nation’s capital at the time, or relocate.

In a letter to Adams, U.S. Attorney General Charles Lee hoped “the cold of winter in the climate at Philadelphia to be an antidote to the Yellow Fever as the experience of 1793 seems to warrant.” But Lee warned Adams against the potential “danger to the health and lives of the members” of Congress. In a letter to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, Adams asserted that he also hoped the fever would die down during the cold winter months. He optimistically decided Congress should continue to meet in Philadelphia.

Perhaps his decision not to disrupt the schedule of Congress had to do with foreign affairs. Friction with France, trading with Prussia, and treaties with England and Russia were all top priorities in Adams’ letters.  The epidemic helps to show the many challenges facing the government of the early republic from unexpected sources, like Yellow Fever.

Loyal Citizen or Lying Cheat?

April 17th, 2013

When his 1798 claim for a reward of ten dollars for capturing and returning a deserter was denied by the Accountant of the War Department, Hugh McAlister appealed the decision by writing directly to the President of the United States. McAlister argued that he was a “well known friend to the Constitution” and that William Simmons, the Accountant, had only denied the claim because of a preexisting prejudice.

He was right that Simmons was prejudiced against him. Simmons remembered that McAlister had been implicated in a case of forgery in 1797. Joseph Humprheys, one of the witnesses in the case, had alleged that McAlister was part of a scheme to forge to forge soldier’s powers of attorney and thereby take their pay or land. If nothing else, McAlister was the Notary Public who had certified as true the forged powers of attorney, and while he was not convicted, Simmons and others believed him to have been guilty.

However, Simmons did not mention McAlister’s history in his denial of the claim, instead pointing out that the deserter McAlister claimed to have returned did not appear in any Muster Roll, nor had the army advertised for a deserter by that name or appearance.  The “deserter” may never have been in the Army at all! Usually, civilian captures of deserters took place after the War Department advertised in newspapers with the name and description of the deserter, which they only did once a military attempt to retrieve the deserter had failed. The fact that there was no soldier by that name in Muster Rolls, no account of a military attempt to recover the man, nor any advertising may have suggested to Simmons that McAlister was trying a new form of fraud.

President John Adams referred the matter to Secretary of War James McHenry, who wrote to William Simmons for clarification. Simmons defended his decision in letters to McHenry and the President. In his letter to Adams, Simmons pointed out not only the lack of evidence for McAlister’s claim but the man’s history of fraud. His shorter reply to McHenry, however, only mentioned the lack of evidence, and McHenry apparently felt that Simmons was not answering his questions appropriately. In a letter dated October 25, McHenry asked Adams whether he thought that Simmons’ behavior in the matter amounted to insubordination.

There does not seem to be any indication that McAlister’s claim was every paid. Whether or not McAlister was trying to defraud the War Department, and whether he’d committed fraud before, his letter of complaint to the President for a $10 reward caused a great deal of drama in the War Department offices.

What were Charleville Muskets?

April 5th, 2013

This collection includes ubiquitous references to the Charleville musket or the “Charleville pattern.”   Charlevilles were originally made  in France in the early 176os. The name Charleville comes from the name of the arsenal in northeastern France where they were produced.  Charlevilles  became a mainstay for the colonists during the American Revolution thanks in part to the efforts of Lafayette and the American Silas Deane.  Because France was not officially at war with Britain until 1778, they had to find workarounds in the manner of shipping.   Thus shiploads of Charlevilles would sometimes make their way to the West Indies first, where they were then reembarked and transported  on American vessels to  America. These were .69 caliber smoothbores–packing a punch for sure, but not very accurate and so generally employed in mass formations at a standard rate of fire  of about two to three rounds per minute.   In some documents you’ll find references to either Black Walnut or Maple as the preferred wood for the stocks.  In this document, there is reference to the “Charleville pattern,” but it very likely means the  Springfield Musket of 1795, manufactured at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts.



The Embargo

March 19th, 2013

One of the strengths of the War Department’s papers are the opportunities they provide to learn about the international policies of the Early Republic. An insight on how leaders attempted to negotiate their place in the world as a new nation can be seen in one May 9, 1794 letter.

In 1793 war had broken out between England and revolutionary France. The United States was concerned about how this conflict would affect them. As a nation with a small military that is also physically isolated, the U.S. had used economic sanctions and embargos as a tactic to avoid direct war with Europe since the American Revolution. Some thought that this was the right approach in 1793. But not all agreed. Congressmen Fisher Ames of Massachusetts worried that this embargo would “not make our commerce better” while the “enemy… are not to be wounded in any way.”

Debate on the issue continued until 1794 when British actions pushed the American hand. English ships in the West Indies captured American vessels trading with French merchants there and the U.S. was forced to issue an embargo.

In this May 9 letter Secretary of War Henry Knox warns Governor of Virginia Henry Lee of incoming ships from Europe that would soon arrive at the ports in Norfolk, Virginia. Worried that the embargo may be breached, Knox encouraged Lee to make sure that the ships were turned back. However, he wanted to make sure that the Governor tread lightly in order to prevent the embargo from becoming a war.  Knox urged him to “take such prudent precautions for the prevention of misunderstandings as the delicate state of public affairs strongly requires.”

Luckily, any major problems in the Norfolk ports seem to have been avoided. The embargo would end with the Jay Treaty, which was signed in November of 1794, but did not take effect until February of 1796.  This treaty resolved many of the continuing problems remaining after the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which had ended the American Revolution, and ushered in a decade of peaceful trade between American and Britain.

View the Original Document Here: