Last modified on April 10, 2019, at 00:16

War Department

The War Department was one of the three original cabinet departments of the United States, created by the Congress in 1789 to supervise and supply the Army. It was headed by the Secretary of War, who had civilian responsibilities, such as finance and purchases; he had a minor role in deciding military affairs. In 1947 the department was absorbed by the National Military Establishment (renamed in 1949 as the Department of Defense).


The War Department was a civilian agency created in 1789 to administer the field army under the president (as commander in chief) and the secretary of war. Henry Knox, a senior general before returning to civilian life, was the first secretary.


After the department's poor handling of the War of 1812, reform was urgently needed. John C. Calhoun became secretary and reorganized the department into a system of bureaus, whose chiefs held office for life, and a commanding general in the field, a position not authorized by Congress. Winfield Scott became the senior general, into the start of the Civil War. The bureau chiefs acted as advisers to the secretary of war and at the same time commanded their own troops and field installations. Conflicts among the bureaus were frequent, but in disputes with the commanding general the secretary of war generally supported the bureaus. Congress regulated the affairs of the bureaus in minute detail, and their chiefs looked to that body for support.

Civil War to 1898

The performance of Stephen Vincent Benet as chief of the Ordnance Department shows that the view of the War Department in the late 19th century as an agency dominated by provincial traditionalists and obstructionists is overstated. While chief of ordnance, Benet presided over an impressive list of accomplishments in regard to artillery: a magazine rifle, cooperative means to design and arm coastal defense fortifications, smokeless powder, and a government gun plant staff who set quality standards for the industry and created cost-measuring devices. Benet's accomplishments demonstrate that the War Department worked satisfactorily, and given the constraints within which he had to function, Benet was an innovative bureaucrat and a technological and organizational modernizer.[1]


The Spanish-American War demonstrated that more effective control over the department and bureaus was necessary. In 1903 Secretary Elihu Root sought to achieve this goal in a businesslike manner by appointing a chief of staff as general manager and a European-type general staff for planning. His successor, William Howard Taft, returned to the traditional secretary-bureau chief alliance, subordinating the chief of staff to the adjutant general, a powerful office since its creation in 1775. Indeed, Taft himself had little power as President Theodore Roosevelt made the major decisions.

The armies of the world in 1906, showing the miniscule American Army.

In 1911 Secretary Henry L. Stimson and Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, his chief of staff, revived the Root reforms. The general staff assisted them in their efforts to rationalize the army's organization along modern lines and in supervising the bureaus.

World War I

The bureau chiefs and Congress struck back and in the National Defense Act of 1916 reduced the size and functions of the general staff so much that few members remained when America entered World War I. Secretary Newton D. Baker, supported by President Woodrow Wilson, opposed efforts to control the bureaus and war industry until competition for limited supplies almost paralyzed industry and transportation, especially in the North. Yielding to pressure from Congress and industry, Baker placed Benedict Crowell in charge of munitions and made Maj. Gen. George W. Goethals acting quartermaster general and Gen. Peyton C. March chief of staff. Assisted by industrial advisers, they reorganized the army's supply system and practically wiped out the bureaus as independent agencies. March reorganized the general staff along similar lines and gave it direct authority over departmental operations. The bureaus regained their former independence from Congress after the war.

In the 1920s Gen. John J. Pershing realigned the general staff on the pattern of his American Expeditionary Forces field headquarters, which he commanded. While the general staff had little effective control over the bureaus, the chiefs of staff gradually gained substantial authority over them by 1939, when Gen. George C. Marshall assumed that office.

The War Department administered the CCC camps for young men, 1933-43. There was no military training but a reserve officer was in charge of each camp.

World War II

Marshall's principal task was advising the president on military strategy; he had little time to act as general manager of the department. But the whole organization was poorly geared to direct the army in a global war, for authority and responsibility were still fragmented among many agencies, and the chief of staff was burdened with too many details. Marshall said it was a "poor command post" and, supported by Henry L. Stimson, who was brought in by Franklin D. Roosevelt as secretary of war, he reorganized it after Pearl Harbor under the War Powers Act. He created three new major commands to run the department's operations: the Army Ground Forces to train land troops; the Army Air Forces, which developed an independent air arm; and the Army Service Forces, which directed administrative and logistical operations. The Operations Division acted as Marshall's general planning staff.


After the war Marshall's organization was abandoned for the fragmented prewar pattern, while the independent services continually parried efforts to reestablish firm executive control over their operations. Under the National Security Act of 1947, as amended in 1949, the War Department became the Department of the Army within the Department of Defense and the secretary of the army an operating manager for the new secretary of defense.


  • Cline, Ray S. Washington Command Post: The Operations Division, United States Army in World War II. (1950)
  • Coffman, Edward M. The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898 (1986), about fighting Indians and coastal defense
  • Cosmas, Graham A. An Army for Empire: The United States Army in the Spanish-American War (1971)
  • Hewes Jr, James E. From Root to McNamara: Army Organization and Administration, 1900-1963. (1975), the standard scholarly history online edition
  • Huston, James A. The Sinews of War: Army Logistics, 1775-1953 (1966);
  • Hyman, Harold M. Stanton, The Life of Lincoln's Secretary of War (1962)
  • Karsten, Peter. "Armed Progressives: The Military Reorganizes for the American Century," in Jerry Israel, ed., Building the Organizational Society (1972)
  • Koistinen, Paul A. C. Beating Plowshares into Swords: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1606-1865 (1996); Mobilizing for Modern War: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1865-1919 (1997); Planning War, Pursuing Peace: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1920-1939 (1998); Arsenal of World War II: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1940-1945 (2004) excerpt and text search 1940-45
  • Shannon, Fred D. Organization and Administration of the Union Army, 1861-1865, (2 vol. 1928)
  • Skelton, William B. An American Profession of Arms: The Army Officer Corps, 1784-1861 (1992).
  • Smith, Merritt Roe, ed. Military Enterprise and Technological Change: Perspectives on the American Experience (1985)
  • Russell F. Weigley, Quartermaster General of the Union Army: A Biography of Montgomery C. Meigs (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959),
  • White, Leonard D. The Federalists: a Study in Administrative History, (1948), the standard history of the department
    • White, Leonard D. The Jeffersonians: A Study in Administrative History, 1801-1829 (1954); The Jacksonians: A Study in Administrative History, 1829-60 (1956); 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
  • Wiltse, Charles M. John C. Calhoun,(1944), vol 1.


  1. Daniel R. Beaver, "The U.S. War Department in the Gaslight Era: Stephen Vincent Benet at the Ordnance Department, 1870-91." Journal of Military History 2004 68(1): 105-132. in JSTOR