Community Transcription-Seven Months On

October 27th, 2011

Another month, another 50 users…

It’s been seven months now since we opened the War Department archives to community transcription. Way back in March we offered the Scripto transcription tool, and ever since then we have been steadily adding finished documents to our archive. What started with just a dozen or so volunteers has grown into an active, vigorous community of volunteer transcribers.

We offer here another snapshot at our transcription activity.

To date, we have 356 users-approximately 71 of them have transcribed within the last 90 days-this is relatively steady over the last few months. Those transcribers have made more than 2,246 saves to War Department Documents. That translates to approximately 512 finished documents, along with another 181 documents begun. Editors have nominated an additional 180 for transcription. Additionally, transcribers have initiated approximately 115 conversations using the “talk” feature.

Our transcribers truly represent a cross-section of life: we have university professors, genealogists, students, editors, librarians, historical re-enactors, hobbyists, and many other kinds of folks transcribing. There are transcribers from nearly every American state, from the Seneca Nation, Australia, and from the Creek Nation. Their interests range from personal research, to genealogy, to professional projects. Some of our transcribers had extensive experience with historical documents when they began; for others, this is their first encounter with two hundred-year old letters and handwriting.

As we continue forward with the project, users may still register for a transcription account.

Document Spotlight-Death of a Judge

October 24th, 2011

Recently, it seems that several of our recent spotlights have involved finances or logistics. For a fresh subject, we turn today to a different set of interests.  Transcriber AprilleMcKay recently transcribed a document detailing a W Sargeant’s opinion on filling a vacant judgeship.

Mr. Sargeant expresses his opinions concerning several candidates: General Putnam has a military background and is well-connected. Mr. Putnam is very intelligent and a very respectable man. Sargeant, though, makes it clear that although heprefers Putnam, he has no influence and means no impropriety.

Read the document here:

There are many more documents awaiting transcription. Take a moment to register ( and choose a document to begin your adventure. You will be doing important work by adding to the historical record, and you never know what you will read!

The Greaton Women and the War Department

October 19th, 2011

Here and there between the lists of supplies and records of accounts paid, you find the story of a family or a woman whose life was tied to the Department. Two such women were members of the Greaton family of Massachusetts, both of whom wrote to the War Department in the 1790s.

The first lady to write was Sarah Greaton, wife of General John  Greaton. She wrote to Secretary of War Henry Knoxin in July 1791 ( this letter does not survive) and again in March 1792, trying to secure money due her husband for his service in the Revolutionary War. From the March letter it seems that previous attempts to receive the funds had fallen afoul of one problem after another. According to the Daughters of the American Revolution and other genealogical records, General Greaton died in December 1783. Between his death and writing to Knox, Sarah Greaton worked to support herself and her children. It is not clear what finally moved her to write to Knox over seven years after being widowed, but she did.

It is also unclear whether Sarah Greaton’s appeal to Knox was succesful, but if it was, that success may have been the motivation for her relative Sally Greaton to write Timothy Pickering in 1795. Sally Greaton was the wife of Captain Richard H. Greaton, who was probably the son of General and Mrs. Greaton, making Sally Greaton Sarah’s daughter-in-law. Apparently, Captain Greaton established regular payments of a portion of his pay to his wife before he departed for an assignment in the West, but the disbursement was stopped by the War Office in April 1795 when the power of attorney apparently expired. In order for anyone to receive money on behalf of a soldier, they had to obtain a power of attorney signed by the solider. Sally Greaton had no access to her husband’s pay without valid legal documentation, hence her letters to the War Department.

Between October 1795 and May 1796 Sally Greaton engaged in correspondence with Secretary of War Timothy Pickering, Accountant William Simmons, and Accountant Peter Hagner. Sally Greaton seems to have renewed her request for access to her husband’s pay every three months. The language she used in the letters was apologetic and appealing, trying to reinforce her need for the $30 per month she received from her husband. In a letter to Caleb Swan in March 1796, William Simmons wrote he believed Mrs. Greaton depended on the money in order to sustain her family, and this is the impression Sally Greaton gave in all of her letters: that of a person desperately trying to make ends meet. Like her mother-in-law, Sally Greaton appealed to the sensibilities of the men in the War Department, asking them to “oblige a distressed female,” as Sarah Greaton had asked Knox to “pity the unfortunate family of a brother officer.”

The letters Simmons wrote to War Department agents and Sally Greaton state that she received her money while her husband was away. By late November 1796,  Captain Richard Greaton was in Boston, writing his own letters to William Simmons. Before he left that summer, he was careful to make specific arrangements with William Simmons to establish $20 per month to be received in Boston for his children. The person named in the power of attorney which facilitated the disbursement was Samuel Heath, who may have been Captain Greaton’s brother-in-law.

There are no further letters mentioning Mrs. Sally Greaton following Captain Greaton’s stay in Boston. It is possible that, with a legal agent and the power of attorney established, she no longer needed to write the War Department. It is also possible that she died some time between her last letter to William Simmons in May 1796 and Captain Greaton’s departure from Boston a year later. He did not mention her in his letter requesting instructions for a power of attorney, and in September 1797 he wrote Simmons and mentioned his sisters and mother but not his wife. Genealogical records, which provided hints for the relationships between the Mrs. Greatons and Mr. Heath, do not list a death date for Mrs. Richard H. Greaton.

The language they used in their letters conveys the stress and frustration Sally and Sarah Greaton must have felt. However, had they not been in financial trouble, they would not have left behind the written record which tells this small part of their life story. What other glimpses into the lives of civilians and military families are hiding in the papers of the War Department, waiting to be discovered?

Document Spotlight-Military Supply List

October 17th, 2011

Volunteer Cpartrid recently transcribed a document that illustrates the logistical and financial arrangements military officers were constantly making. A quick glance at this list of supplies and expenses shows just how much money it cost a couple units to operate on the frontier for a year.

2,000 dollars is a lot of money for fuel, and amazingly, transporting 20 loads or ordinance and other supplies cost a whopping 7,500 dollars. Add in other expenses–barracks, saddles and tools, and gifts for Indian tribes–and you end up with nearly 30,000 dollars.

Read the document here:

There are many more documents awaiting transcription. Take a moment to register ( and choose a document to begin your adventure. You will be doing important work by adding to the historical record, and you never know what you will read!

Document Spotlight-More Pension Inquiries

October 12th, 2011

If you read even a few War Department papers it is easy to see just how much time and energy the department spent verifying records for pensions, death benefits, and other financial matters. One can almost see clerks searching muster rolls and other documents to determine eligibility.

Transcriber Karenwalters recently came across a letter asking for such an inquiry. The original request sought to determine the status of a Captain Peter Withington on 11 May 1777. The writer wonders whether Withington was mustered dead on that day, or whether he had been discharged. Perhaps it meant the difference between a survivor’s benefit and a pension for Withington’s family.

Read the entire letter at

There are many more documents awaiting transcription. Take a moment to register ( and choose a document to begin your adventure. You will be doing important work by adding to the historical record, and you never know what you will read!


The Jeffersonian Revolution, and its Implications for the War Department and Federalist Party

October 4th, 2011

The ascension of the Democratic-Republicans to Congress in 1801, along with the election of Thomas Jefferson in the same year, represented a clear break from Federalist policy in the latter half of the 1790s. Led by Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist Party possessed control of both houses of Congress from 1797 to 1800 (the fifth and sixth Congresses), and enjoyed control of the executive branch. The Federalists generally supported a stronger, more centralized national government, with protective tariffs, a National Bank, and – most pertinent to the War Department Papers collection – a strong national military.

In the final years of the eighteenth century, relations between the United States and France deteriorated rapidly. The French were upset over alleged favoritism toward the British on the part of the American government, along with a refusal by the United States to repay its debts to France from the Revolutionary War (the U.S. argued that the debts had been owed to the French Crown, not the French Republic).

The French began seizing American ships trading with Britain in 1796 (Secretary of State Timothy Pickering reported that the number was 316 merchant ships), and in 1798 the United States learned of the notorious “XYZ Affair,” when the French demanded a large bribe from a U.S. agent simply for the privilege of speaking with them.

The “Quasi-War” with France soon broke out, along with an explosion in the military budget, inspired in part by none other than Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was elevated to the position of Major General of the United States Army, organizing the so-called “Provisional Army.” The size of the United States Navy also markedly increased.

Total military spending increased from $1.6 million in 1796, to $3.5 million in 1798, and $6.1 in 1800 – more than tripling the size of the military in a few short years. This alarmed the likes of Jefferson and his supporters, who believed that a standing army represented a serious threat to the republic and the liberties of the citizens within it. Only a decade prior, some Anti-Federalists even insisted that a prohibition of standing armies be included in the Bill of Rights.

Opposition to Hamilton and the Federalist Party was growing rapidly. The Alien & Sedition Acts, passed in 1798, attempted to silence their critics, but only backfired. Hamilton sensed these changes in a few of his letters on the eve of what became known as the “Revolution of 1800.” In a letter to Senator Rufus King, Hamilton believed the Federalist Party to be “in a sad Dilemma,” and that “Sympathy with the French Revolution” seemed to lessen the enthusiasm of the Democratic-Republicans in the Quasi-War.

Dissensions within the Federalist Party itself compounded the problems. Hamilton in 1800 claimed that President Adams was plagued by “Perverseness and capriciousness,” and that this resulted from a “Vanity and Jealousy” of Hamilton’s own power and influence. Adams’s opinion of Hamilton was no better – as he believed Hamilton to be “a man devoid of every moral principle, a bastard.”

In the elections of 1800, the Democratic-Republicans won in a landslide. From having a minority share of the votes in the 6th Congress, the Democratic-Republicans came to have 61% in the 7th Congress, and 72% in the 8th Congress. Adams became the last Federalist President, although the Whig Party later adopted a similar Hamiltonian platform.

Officers in the military establishment had feared that reductions in their budget would result from the new “democratic influence” in government, and they were absolutely right — The military budget for the War Department sank from $6.1 million in 1800, to $2.2 million in 1802. The military budget remained below the $3 million figure until 1807 when tensions with Britain increased. Not until the War of 1812, however, did the military budget equal the budget in 1800.

Document Spotlight-Bad News for Captain Bliss

October 3rd, 2011

Parkehyde, one of our volunteer transcribers recently finished a document that highlights a frequent situation in the early War Department. A Captain Bliss had evidently asked for an accounting of money due him. After a check of the relevant paperwork, however, the Commissioner of Army Accounts determined that Captain Bliss was not owed any funds. Furthermore, the letter advises Bliss that it could be a waste of his time to pursue the matter further, although, even in the eighteenth century, he was free to speak with counsel. It is at the same time a personal story, a bureaucratic story, and a military one.

Read the entire letter at

There are many more documents awaiting transcription. Take a moment to register ( and choose a document to begin your adventure. You will be doing important work by adding to the historical record, and you never know what you will read!