Pensions for Veterans, Widows, and Orphans in the Papers of the War Department online collection


This lesson invites students to explore letters to the War Department at the end of the eighteenth century. Each of these letters was written in regards to a petition for money from the federal government on the basis of a veteran’s service during the War of Independence. Students will analyze a variety of primary sources from the Papers of the War Department collection to learn more about the claims, attitudes, and expectations made by both American citizens and agents of the government in the country’s first years. This lesson is suitable for history classes focused on colonial and early American history, and for government and civics classes focused on life under the new Constitution.

Historical Background

What does the country owe those who serve it in wartime? What does the nation owe the surviving spouses and children of those who are killed in its defense?

These questions of national obligation remain profoundly important in the twenty-first century. They were no less important at the end of the eighteenth century, as the young United States confronted the question of what to do for those who had served in the Continental Army—the army that won the country its independence in the long war against Great Britain.

To modern Americans, it seems obvious and a matter of simple justice that the country would help support those who had served it in war. But the idea was not so straightforward in the country’s early years. Determining who had earned what, and managing the logistics of these payments, proved an enormous challenge to the embryonic federal government, and to the War Department, the largest office within that new national government.

Beginning in the spring of 1778—before the United States had even won its independence from Great Britain—the Congress authorized payments of half-pay to the widows and orphans of officers killed in the War of Independence. Starting in 1789, the newly-formed War Department assumed responsibility for making these payments, as well as other pensions claimed by veterans of the Continental Army. The War Department itself did not create policy; Congress legislated the terms and conditions under which service members and their families could claim money from the Federal government. But the task making rulings according to Congress’ legislation and then disbursing funds fell to the War Department.

Though it was one of the most significant Federal departments created by the new Constitution, the War Department in its early years was very small. Its modest office housed the Secretary of War, two clerks responsible for day-to-day correspondence, and two or three other functionaries who carried out the activities of the department: ordering arms and supplies, investigating claims lodged against the military, maintaining the army, policing the boundaries of the new nation and—after the end of the War of Independence—looking after those who had served in the Army according to Congress’ direction. That program became the very first national social-welfare program in the new United States.

Lesson Objective

To explore the relationship between the new United States government and its citizens by exploring their interactions in the first national welfare program: pensions for veterans, widows, and orphans of the War of Independence. Students will discover how different the attitudes toward military veterans and military service were in the 1790s compared to today.

Lesson Materials