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United States Department of War

United States Department of War
The seal of the U.S. Department of War.
Executive department overview
Formed 1789
Dissolved 1949
Superseding agency Department of the Army
Department of the Air Force
Minister responsible , Secretary of War
Child agencies U.S. Army
U.S. Air Force

The United States Department of War, also called the War Department (and occasionally War Office in the early years), was the United States Cabinet department originally responsible for the operation and maintenance of the United States Army. The War Department also bore responsibility for naval affairs until the establishment of the Navy Department in 1798 and for most land-based air forces until the creation of the Department of the Air Force in 1947. The Secretary of War headed the war department throughout its existence.

The War Department existed from 1789 until September 18, 1947, when it split into Department of the Army and Department of the Air Force and joined the Department of the Navy as part of the new joint National Military Establishment (NME), renamed the United States Department of Defense in 1949.

The Secretary of War, a civilian with such responsibilities as finance and purchases and a minor role in directing military affairs, headed the War Department.


  • History 1
    • 1790-1800 1.1
    • 1800–1860 1.2
    • American Civil War to 1898 1.3
    • 1898–1939 1.4
    • World War I 1.5
    • World War II 1.6
    • Postwar 1.7
  • Office space 2
  • Organization 3
  • Seal of the department 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes and references 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • External links 8


The seal of the Board of War and Ordnance, which the U.S. War Department's seal is derived from.
The emblem of the Department of the Army, derived from the seal of the U.S. War Department.

Shortly after the establishment of a strong government under President Congress created the War Department as a civilian agency to administer the field army under the president (as commander in chief) and the secretary of war.[1] Retired senior General Henry Knox, then in civilian life, served as the first United States Secretary of War.[2]


Forming and organizing the department and the army fell to Secretary Knox. Direct field command of the small Regular Army by President Washington leading a column of troops west through Pennsylvania to Alexander Hamilton to deal with the rising tide of maritime incidents between American commerce ships and the new French Republic was authorized by second President John Adams in 1798 and the remote possibility of land invasion was an interesting adventure.


Foundation of the new Winfield Scott became the senior general until the start of the American Civil War in 1861. The bureau chiefs acted as advisers to the Secretary of War while commanding their own troops and field installations. The bureaus frequently conflicted among themselves, but in disputes with the commanding general, the Secretary of War generally supported the bureaus. Congress regulated the affairs of the bureaus in detail, and their chiefs looked to that body for support.[3]

Calhoun set up the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1824, the main agency within the War Department for dealing with Native Americans until 1849, when the Congress transferred it to the newly founded Department of the Interior.[4][5]

American Civil War to 1898

During the American Civil War, the War Department responsibilities expanded. It handled the recruiting, training, supply, medical care, transportation and pay of two million soldiers, comprising both the regular army and the much larger temporary volunteer army. A separate command structure took charge of military operations.

In the late stages of the war, the Department took charge of refugees and freedmen (freed slaves) in the American South through the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands.[6] During Reconstruction, this bureau played a major role in supporting the new Republican governments in the southern states. When military Reconstruction ended in 1877, the U.S. Army removed the last troops from military occupation of the American South, and the last Republican state governments in the region ended.

The Army comprised hundreds of small detachments in forts around the West, dealing with Indians, and in coastal artillery units in port cities, dealing with the threat of a naval attack.[7]


The United States Army, with 39,000 men in 1890 was the smallest and least powerful army of any major power in the late 19th century. By contrast, France had an army of 542,000.[8] Temporary volunteers and state militia units mostly fought the Spanish-American War of 1898. This conflict demonstrated the need for more effective control over the department and its bureaus.[9]

Secretary of War Spanish-American War, Elihu Root worked out the procedures for turning Cuba over to the Cubans, wrote the charter of government for the Philippines, and eliminated tariffs on goods imported to the United States from Puerto Rico.

Root's successor as Secretary of War,

  • Reconstruction of War Department Records from 1784-1800
  • Official Reports of the War of the Rebellion {US Civil War} 1861-1865 {published 1880–1901}
  • US Army General Orders for 1885
  • U.S. War Department, Operations Division Diary, 1941-1946, Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library
  • Works by United States Department of War at Project Gutenberg
  • American State Papers, 1789 to 1837 – Library of Congress
External images
1945 War Department Organization

External links

  • Cline, Ray S. Washington Command Post: The Operations Division, United States Army in World War II. (1950)
  • Coffman, Edward M. The Regulars: The American Army, 1898–1941 (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Coffman, Edward M. The hilt of the sword: the career of Peyton C. March (1966), on World War I
  • Hewes, James E. From Root to McNamara: Army Organization and Administration, 1900–1963. (1975)
  • Koistinen, Paul A. C. Beating Plowshares into Swords: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1606–1865 (1996) excerpt and text search
  • Koistinen, Paul A. C. Mobilizing for modern war: the political economy of American warfare, 1865–1919 (1997)
  • Koistinen, Paul A. C. Planning War, Pursuing Peace: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1920–1939 (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Koistinen, Paul A. C. Arsenal of World War II: the political economy of American warfare, 1940–1945 (2004)
  • Shannon, Fred. The Organization and Administration of the Union Army 1861–1865 (2 vol 1928) vol 1 excerpt and text search; vol 2 excerpt and text search
  • Pogue, Forrest C. George C. Marshall, Volume 2: Ordeal and hope, 1939–1942 (1967)
  • Pogue, Forrest C. George C. Marshall, organizer of victory, 1943–1945 (1973)
  • White, Leonard D. The Federalists: a Study in Administrative History, (1948).
  • White, Leonard D. The Jeffersonians: A Study in Administrative History, 1801–1829 (1965)
  • White, Leonard D. The Jacksonians: A Study in Administrative History, 1829–1861. (1965)
  • White, Leonard D. The Republican Era, 1869–1901 a Study in Administrative History, (1958)
  • Wilson, Mark R. The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861–1865 (2006) excerpt and text search


  1. ^ Chap. VII. 1 Stat. 49 from "A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U. S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875". Library of Congress, Law Library of Congress. Retrieved March 24, 2012.
  2. ^ Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword the Beginnings of the Military Establishment in America (1975) ch 6
  3. ^ Charles M. Wiltse, John C. Calhoun, Nationalist, 1782–1828 (1944) pp. 142-54
  4. ^ William S. Belko, "'John C. Calhoun and the Creation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs: An Essay on Political Rivalry, Ideology, and Policymaking in the Early Republic," South Carolina Historical Magazine 2004 105(3): 170–197. ISSN 0038-3082
  5. ^ Francis P. Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (Abridged Edition 1986) excerpt and text search
  6. ^ George R. Bentley, A History of the Freedmen's Bureau (1955)
  7. ^ Robert Marshall Utley, Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866–1891 (1984)
  8. ^ Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987) p. 154, 203
  9. ^ Graham A. Cosmas, An Army for Empire: The United States Army and the Spanish–American War (1971)
  10. ^ Warren Zimmermann, First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power (2002)
  11. ^ Elting E. Morison, Turmoil and Tradition: A Study of the Life and Times of Henry L. Stimson (1960).
  12. ^ Goldberg, Alfred (1992). The Pentagon: The First Fifty Years. Office of Secretary of Defense / Government Printing Office. pp. 4–9. 
  13. ^ "Intro - Secretaries of War and Secretaries of the Army".  
  14. ^ Vogel, Steve (2007). The Pentagon - A History: The Untold Story of the Wartime Race to Build the Pentagon and to Restore it Sixty Years Later. Random House. pp. 29–33. 
  15. ^ Goldberg, Alfred (1992). The Pentagon: The First Fifty Years. Office of Secretary of Defense / Government Printing Office. p. 22. 
  16. ^ [1]

Notes and references

See also

The date "MDCCLXXVIII" and the designation "War Office" are indicative of the origin of the seal. The date (1778) refers to the year of its adoption. The term "War Office" used during the Revolution, and for many years afterward, was associated with the Headquarters of the Army.

Seal of the department

In the aftermath of World War II, the American government (among others around the world) decided to abandon the word 'War' when referring to the civilian leadership of their military. One vestige of the former nomenclature is the War College, which still trains military officers of the United States in battlefield tactics and the strategy of war fighting.

The National Security Act of 1947 merged the Department of War and the Department of the Navy into the National Military Establishment, later the United States Department of Defense. On the same day this act was signed, Executive Order 9877 assigned primary military functions and responsibilities[16] with the former War Department functions divided between the new Army and Air Force departments.

The United States Secretary of War, a member of the United States Cabinet, headed the War Department.


Coming into office with World War II breaking out in Europe, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson faced with the situation of the War Department spread through the overcrowded Munitions Building and numerous other buildings across Washington, D.C., and suburban Maryland and Virginia.[13][14] On July 28, 1941, Congress authorized funding for a new Department of War building in Arlington, Virginia, which would house the entire department under one roof.[15] When construction of the Pentagon was completed in 1943, the Secretary of War vacated the Munitions Building and the department began moving into the Pentagon.

By the 1930s, the Munitions Building, a temporary structure built on the National Mall during World War I. In the late 1930s, the government constructed the War Department Building (renamed in 2000 as the Harry S Truman Building) at 21st and C Streets in Foggy Bottom, but upon completion, the new building did not solve the space problem of the department, and the Department of State ultimately used it and continues to use it in present day.[12]

In the early years, between 1797 and 1800, the Department of War was headquartered in Civil War with President Abraham Lincoln visiting the War Office's telegraph room for constant updates and reports and walking back and forth to the "Residence". The original 1820 structures for War and Navy on the west side of the now famous White House was replaced in 1888 by construction of a new building of French Empire design with mansard roofs, the "State, War, and Navy Building" (now the Old Executive Office Building, and later renamed to honor General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower), built in the same location as its predecessors.

State, War, and Navy Building in 1917

Office space

After World War II, the Department of War abandoned organization of General George Marshall for the fragmented prewar pattern while the independent services continually parried efforts to reestablish firm executive control over their operations. The National Security Act of 1947, as amended in 1949, split the War Department into the Department of the Army and the Department of the Air Force, both within the Department of Defense, and the secretary of the army served as an operating manager for the new Secretary of Defense.


During War Powers Act of 1941. He divided the Army of the United States into three autonomous components to conduct the operations of the War Department: the Army Ground Forces trained land troops; the Army Air Forces (AAF) developed an independent air arm; and the Services of Supply (later Army Service Forces) directed administrative and logistical operations. The Operations Division acted as general planning staff for General Marshall. By 1942, the Army Air Forces gained virtual independence in every way from the rest of the Army.[11]

World War II

In the 1920s, General George C. Marshall assumed the office of chief of staff.

The Congress reversed these changes in support of the bureaus and in the Peyton C. March chief of staff. Assisted by industrial advisers, they reorganized the supply system of the army and practically wiped out the bureaus as quasi-independent agencies. General March reorganized the general staff along similar lines and gave it direct authority over departmental operations. After the war, the Congress again granted the bureaus their former independence.

World War I


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