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Help transcribe War Department papers

This isn’t a new resource to genealogists overall, but it sure is a new resource for The Legal Genealogist… and it’s yet another opportunity for us all to pitch in and help out in making information more readily available online.

It’s called the Papers of the War Department 1784-1800, and it is definitely worth a look.

WarDeptPapers of the War Department 1784-1800 is a project of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in Virginia, with funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Its aim is to recreate in one location as many as possible of the records of the War Department for the critical earliest years of the United States.

Why is that needed? Here’s what the site says:

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, will change that by making some 55,000 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.

These 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 will present this collection of more than 55,000 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 of the War Department 1784-1800 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.1

It’s a lofty goal, and it’s a fabulous resource. Want to read about, say, the fever that gripped Philadelphia in August 1799? James McHenry’s letter to John Adams about that is online here. Interested in the Treaty of Peace, Amity and Commerce between the State of Georgia and the Creek Nation, 3 November 1786? You can read it here. Want to see concern for a woman who had neither bread nor wood? There’s a letter online here.

Just for the period of 1782, you can read about the travails of the southern Army in the Revolutionary War through a set of letters from Benjamin Lincoln, the first Secretary of War, to or from General Nathaniel Greene, commanding the troops in the Carolinas:

• 10 July 1782: Lincoln expresses sympathy for the sufferings of General Greene’s troops. Greene’s army entitled to better fare. Mentions the meritorious and gallant exertions of Greene’s troops under extreme difficulties. Lincoln believes they merited a better fate. He regrets that he is unable to redress the army’s grievances. Other extracts mention supplies and clothing during the Revolutionary War.

• 30 September 1782: Lincoln desires to be informed by General Greene if Greene will be able to provide clothing for the troops he will retain with his army. Lincoln has no doubt that the clothing can be provided if Charleston is evacuated by the British. But despite difficulties and little hope of success he will ship the clothing from Philadelphia if it cannot be obtained in Charleston.

• 5 November 1782: If Greene’s whole army is to remain before Charleston and the British do not leave the city, large supplies of clothing must be forwarded to Greene’s army. Hopes that the necessary clothing can be procured in Charleston if it should be evacuated. Lincoln desires earliest information on these matters.

• 11 November 1782: Greene informs Lincoln that he is taking measures to obtain clothing for the troops. He reports that he has on hand only a small part of his army’s winter clothing. After issuing clothing to the troops going to the north he will have only a small pittance left. Greene discusses his financial arrangements for paying for the clothing through bills drawn on the Continental Army’s Financier.

• 1 December 1782: Lincoln trusts that General Greene will be able to supply his troops with clothing from the warehouses in Charleston. If the clothing cannot be supplied from Charleston, Lincoln hopes he can supply the clothing from Virginia which he thinks can be speedily forwarded in a coasting craft to Charleston.

• 16 December 1782: Lincoln is exceedingly oblidged by General Greene’s attention to the arrangement and the manner in which Greene conducted it. He is equally pleased with Greene’s care in procuring clothing for his troops which has relieved Lincoln’s long anxiety about supplying the clothing. Mr. Morris will honor Greene’s draughts and appears satisfied with the steps Greene has taken.

• 19 December 1782: Greene informs Lincoln that in consequence of Lincoln’s orders Greene had taken measures to provide winter clothing to his soldiers. Greene reports that Banks and Company have furnished most of the articles wanted and will provide the rest. Complains that prices goods are high. Reports that demand for cloths among the planters is so great that clothing can sell at high prices.

And there is so much more.

So… how can we help?

The project is enlisting citizen-transcribers to help turn these digital images into searchable text with every single word, every single name, captured forever. So far, the project has enlisted more than 2,000 transcribers, but so much more remains to be done.

It’s easy to sign up to be a citizen-archivist-transcriber with this project. Just head over to the Become a Transcription Associate page where there is a link to register.

Once you’re registered, you can choose a document you’re particularly interested in — the site suggests that “a genealogist researching a distant relative who served in the Revolutionary War might transcribe correspondence between that soldier’s widow and the War Department about his pension”2 — or choose from a list of Documents Nominated for Transcription.

There’s plenty of help available — even a set of transcription guidelines — so come on out and join in.

It’s a fun way to contribute to our nation’s history!


  1. About the Papers of the War Department: Project Overview,” Papers of the War Department 1784-1800 ( : accessed 5 Apr 2015).
  2. Become a Transcription Associate,” Papers of the War Department 1784-1800 ( : accessed 5 Apr 2015).
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