Media Resource

The Papers of the War Department

The Papers of the War Department project was created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and funded by the NEH Division of Research and the NEH Office of Digital Humanities. The project gives users free access to over 42,000 War Department documents that date from 1784 to 1800. The topics of these papers examine a broad range of issues, events, and trends that occurred during the Early Republic, including distribution of clothing and disbursement of pensions, correspondence between officers and department leadership about interactions with Indigenous groups, and the general operations of the largest government agency of the time. Lifelong learners, students, and others interested in history will appreciate the opportunity to engage with these primary sources through a transcription project housed on the Papers of the War Department website.  

This media resource includes three videos that answer a series of questions about the role of the War Department in the nation’s development from the late 18th century through the creation of the Department of Defense following WWII. Each video is accompanied by questions, resources, and information that can serve as a catalyst for student research. 

The War Department and the Early Republic

This video, Introduction to the Papers of the War Department, looks at the early history of the U.S. War Department and how it evolved over time into the Department of Defense. 

What is the War Department? (00:00-1:05) 

On August 7, 1789, President George Washington signed legislation that mandated the establishment of the United States Department of War and named Henry Knox, a former officer in the Continental Army, the first United States Secretary of War. The new federal agency was charged with negotiating with Indigenous tribes, overseeing veteran affairs, and managing national and international security. Across all of this work, the War Department produced detailed records that provide insight into how the agency assisted citizens during the Early Republic. 

When and why did the War Department evolve into the Department of Defense? (1:06-1:28) 

  • Why does the nation need a War Department/Department of Defense? 
  • What is the proper role of government when providing for a common defense? 

Precedents set by officials of the War Department continue to shape the operations of the Department of Defense—the successor to the War Department. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act which established the Department of the Air Force and merged it with the War Department and the Navy Department to create the National Military Establishment. This new government agency was presided over by a single administrator known as the Secretary of Defense. The secretaries of each branch also held cabinet-level status until 1949 when an amendment to the law withdrew the status to grant the Secretary of Defense more power and altered the name of the National Military Establishment to the Department of Defense.

What can the Papers of the War Department tell us about the Early Republic? (1:28-3:55) 

  • What other supplies do you think the War Department would need to acquire for the military? 
  • What other issues was the War Department involved in during this era?
  • Future research: How did the roles and responsibilities of the War Department change during the 19th century?

What can the Papers of the War Department tell us about women in the Early Republic? (3:56-4:22) 

  • How does this challenge perceptions about the role of women in the Early Republic? 
  • Future research: What roles have women played in the U.S. military across history? EDSITEment provides a Smithsonian Learning Lab collection on Race, Gender, and the U.S. Military to support inquiries into this research question.  
The War Department and Indigenous Peoples

This video, The War Department and Indigenous Peoples, provides compelling ideas for using primary sources available through this collection to investigate the roles and responsibilities of the War Department following the American Revolution and early tensions between the U.S. government and Indigenous peoples. 

Papers of the War Department in the Classroom (00:00-00:58) 

  • Within the Teach section of The Papers of the War Department website, educators can find modules for high school and undergraduate students on pensions, counterfeiting, Indigenous Diplomacy, and the Quasi-War. Through these modules, students can engage with primary source documents that tell the accounts of widows and the diplomatic efforts of Indigenous tribal leaders

Indigenous Tribes and the War Department (00:59-2:45) 

  • When the Constitutional Convention repealed the Articles of Confederation in 1787, the War Department acted as a bridge between the old government and the new government. During the transition period, under the guidance of Knox, the War Department continued to manage the military, as well as the national and diplomatic affairs of the country. To guide relationships with Indigenous tribes, Knox developed policies founded on the basis of diplomacy and negotiation. As the nascent nation continued to expand into Indigenous land, Native Americans negotiated, resisted, and collaborated with officials of the War Department in order to preserve their cultures and societies. 
  • While the dominant perspective reflected in the letters and reports included in the Papers of the War Department is limited to government officials, the documents elucidate the complexity embedded within negotiations with Indigenous tribes. For more information on the importance of engaging with multiple perspectives, check out EDSITEment’s Ask an NEH Expert video. 

How can the general public engage with these documents? (2:46-4:06) 

  • Another segment of The Papers of the War Department is a community transcription project that allows users to contribute to the collection by browsing a broad range of documents and transcribing them at their leisure. The digital aspect of The Papers of the War Department project also provides educators, students, and the general public with easier access to primary sources that examine the experiences of people living in the Early Republic. 

Why are the Papers of the War Department significant now? (4:07-5:40) 

  •  EDSITEment’s Ask an NEH Expert: Historical Significance resource will help students understand how to evaluate both the short-term and long-term significance of historical events. The resource includes questions that can be applied when examining documents from The Papers of the War Department. 
The Papers, Digital Humanities, and Public History 

This video, Origins of the Papers of the War Department, examines the history of the project and how technology has transformed the work of historians and opportunities in digital public humanities. 

How have digital humanities projects continued to evolve? (00:00-03:15)

  • Until the early 1990s, historians assumed the fire that occurred on November 8, 1800 rendered it impossible to examine the work of the War Department before that year. In 1994, historian Ted Crackel realized that copies of the records that burned in the fire existed in archives throughout the country. For a decade he traveled across the United States, Canada, England, France, and Scotland to gather approximately 50,000 documents. Crackel planned to make these documents accessible via CD-Rom, but work on the project temporarily halted in 2004 when he became editor of the George Washington Papers. In 2006, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media at George Mason University assumed responsibility for the project and vowed to fulfill and build upon Crackel’s original vision for the project. Since then, the Rosenzweig Center has created an accessible platform that provides audiences the ability to learn about and engage with the early work of the U.S. War Department. 

To what extent has technology transformed access to and studies in the humanities? (03:16-03:52)

  • Our podcast materials for the BackStory episode entitled Saving American History offers a look at how archivists and historians have created records, databases, and collections that future generations use to study and understand the past. As a counterpoint, consider our materials for the BackStory episode entitled Man vs. the Machine: Technophobia and American Society on the role of technologies in society to analyze the pros and cons of innovation. 

How does this project fit into the work of public history and historical preservation? (03:53-05:08)

What else can I find at the Papers of the War Department site? 

  • The Guides section of The Papers of the War Department site includes resources to help readers understand the documents as well as information on how to use and transcribe the primary sources.