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 is an innovative digital editorial project which reconstructed these records through a painstaking multi-year research effort and makes them freely available online.

The 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.

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 presents this collection of more than 42,000 documents in a free, online format with extensive and searchable metadata linked to digitized images of each document, ensuring free access for a wide range of users. Readers will find 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 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.

The project to reconstitute the War Department Papers was begun by Ted Crackel in the early 1990s. It involved years of effort, including visits to more than 200 repositories and the consulting of more than 3,000 collections in the United States, Canada, England, France, and Scotland. In 2004, however, work on the project was essentially suspended when Crackel became the editor of the George Washington Papers. The project was transferred to the Center for History & New Media at George Mason University in early 2006, where staff spent years completing the archive. Every document is indexed with the notable people, places, and topics it contains.

The Papers is not only an online collection of digitized documents. It also represents an innovative digital editorial and transcription project. Since 2011, members of the public have been able to participate in this process of fully transcribing the documents in the collection by making their own transcriptions and uploading them to the collection. Volunteer transcribers include teachers, students, retired documentary editors, members of American Indian nations, and many others in the United States and abroad. The Papers site offers resources to help individuals learn more about historical handwriting and letter writing, and teaching modules for use at the high school or undergraduate level.

This site is built on Omeka S. The transcription interface runs on Scripto. Our work is made possible thanks to funding from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Historic Publications and Records Commission.

Project Staff

  • Christopher Hamner, Principal Investigator, Editor-in-Chief
  • Megan Brett, Assistant Editor, 2011-2013, Transcription Editor, 2011-present, Project Manager 2013-present

Project Alumni

  • Roy Rosenzweig, Principal Investigator, 2006-2007
  • Sharon Leon, Project Director, 2011-2017
  • Tom Scheinfeldt, Project Director, 2006-2010
  • Jane Turner Censer, Consulting Editor
  • Ron Martin, Associate Editor, 2008-2015
  • Laura Veprek, Web Designer, 2006-2008
  • Jim Safley, Associate Editor for the Digital EditionTechnical Lead, 2006-2021
  • Kim Nguyen, Web designer, 2017-2021
  • Jessica Dauterive, Project Manager and Transcription Editor 2019-2020
  • Alyssa Toby Fahringer, Transcription Editor, 2015-2019, Project Manager, 2017-2019
  • Kristin Conlin, Assistant Editor, 2006-2011
  • Dick Harless, Assistant Editor, 2006-2011
  • Ben Huggins, Assistant Editor, 2006-2007
  • Mark Phillips, Assistant Editor, 2007-2009
  • Jenny Reeder, Assistant Editor, 2008-2010
  • Jonathan Barth, Assistant Editor, 2009-2012
  • Alexa Potter, Assistant Editor, 2010-2011
  • David Goure, Intern, 2006-2008

Get in touch with the Papers of the War Department team.