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, changes that by making some 42,000 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.

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. “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 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, 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 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.

Project History

The project to reconstitute the War Department Papers was begun by Ted Crackel more than a dozen years ago, and it has involved years of painstaking work, 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. But in early 2006, the project was transferred to the Center for History & New Media at George Mason University, which is working to realize Crackel’s original vision. Indeed, perhaps uniquely among U.S. institutions, Mason combines the scholarly, technical, and institutional qualities (including substantial staff with credentials in military history, the history of the early republic, historical editing, and especially digital history) necessary to complete the project in a professional and timely manner.

Our online and open access model of publication brings 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.

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. 

Project Staff

  • Christopher Hamner, Principal Investigator, Editor-in-Chief
  • Jim Safley, Associate Editor for the Digital EditionTechnical Lead
  • Kim Nguyen, Web designer
  • Megan Brett, Assistant Editor, 2011-2013, Transcription Editor, 2011-present
  • Jessica Dauterive, Project Manager and Transcription Editor

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
  • 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 at info@wardepartmentpapers.org.