United States Department of War

Last updated

United States Department of War
Seal of the United States Department of War.png
Seal of the U.S. Department of War
Department overview
FormedAugust 7, 1789;234 years ago (1789-08-07)
Preceding department
DissolvedSeptember 18, 1947;76 years ago (1947-09-18)
Superseding agencies
Department executive
Child department

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, also bearing 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 on September 18, 1947.


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 throughout its existence.

The War Department existed from August 7, 1789 [1] until September 18, 1947, when it split into the Department of the Army and the Department of the Air Force. The Department of the Army and Department of the Air Force later joined the Department of the Navy under the United States Department of Defense in 1949.


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

18th century

The Department of War traces its origins to the committees created by the Second Continental Congress in 1775 to oversee the Revolutionary War. Individual committees were formed for each issue, including committees to secure ammunition, to raise funds for gunpowder, and to organize a national militia. These committees were consolidated into the Board of War and Ordnance in 1776, operated by members of Congress. A second board was created in 1777, the Board of War, to operate separately from Congress. [2] The Congress of the Confederation eventually replaced the system of boards with the Department of War. [3] Only five positions were created within the department upon its creation: the Secretary at War, an assistant, a secretary, and two clerks. [4]

Shortly after the establishment of a government under President George Washington in 1789, Congress reestablished the War Department as a civilian agency to administer the field army under the president (as commander-in-chief) and the secretary of war. [5] Retired senior General Henry Knox, then in civilian life, served as the first United States Secretary of War. [6] When the department was created, the president was authorized to appoint two inspectors to oversee the troops. Congress created several additional offices over the course of the 1790s, including the major general, brigadier general, quartermaster general, chaplain, surgeon general, adjutant general, superintendent of military stores, paymaster general, judge advocate, inspector general, physician general, apothecary general, purveyor, and accountant. [7]

Forming and organizing the department and the army fell to Secretary Knox, while direct field command of the small Regular Army fell to President Washington.[ citation needed ] In 1798, Congress authorized President John Adams to create a second provisional army under the command of former President Washington in anticipation of the Quasi-War, but this army was never utilized. [8] The Department of War was also responsible for overseeing interactions with Native Americans in its early years. [9]

On November 8, 1800, the War Department building with its records and files was consumed by fire. [10]

19th century

The United States Military Academy at West Point and the Army Corps of Engineers were established in 1802. [11] The Department of War was reduced in size following the end of the Quasi-War in 1802, but it was subsequently expanded in the years leading up to the War of 1812. [12] To accommodate this expansion, sub-departments were created within the department, with each one led by a general staff officer. [13] These sub-departments were reformed into a modern system of bureaus by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun in 1818. [14] Secretary Calhoun created the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1824, which served as the main agency within the War Department for addressing the issues regarding Native Americans until 1849, when Congress transferred it to the newly founded Department of the Interior. [15] [16] The U.S. Soldiers' Home was created in 1851. [17]

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. [18] During the Reconstruction era, 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.

U.S. War Department weather map depicting weather conditions on October 21, 1879, over New England at 7:35 am. Produced for the U.S. Army during the War of the Pacific. War Department Weather Map October 21st 1879.jpg
U.S. War Department weather map depicting weather conditions on October 21, 1879, over New England at 7:35 am. Produced for the U.S. Army during the War of the Pacific.

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. [19]


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. [20] 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. [21]

Secretary of War Elihu Root (1899–1904) sought to appoint a chief of staff as general manager and a European-type general staff for planning, aiming to achieve this goal in a businesslike manner, but General Nelson A. Miles stymied his efforts. Root enlarged the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York and established the United States Army War College and the General Staff. He changed the procedures for promotions and organized schools for the special branches of the service. He also devised the principle of rotating officers from staff to line. Concerned about the new territories acquired after the Spanish–American War, 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, 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, Secretary Taft exercised little power; President Theodore Roosevelt made the major decisions. In 1911, Secretary Henry L. Stimson and Major General Leonard Wood, his chief of staff, revived the Root reforms. The general staff assisted them in their efforts to rationalize the organization of the army along modern lines and in supervising the bureaus. [22]

World War I

The Congress reversed these changes in support of the bureaus and in the National Defense Act of 1916 reduced the size and functions of the general staff to few members before America entered World War I on April 6, 1917. President Woodrow Wilson supported Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, who 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, Secretary Baker placed Benedict Crowell in charge of munitions and made Major General George W. Goethals acting quartermaster general and General 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. The Commission on Training Camp Activities addressed moral standards of the troops. [23]

In the 1920s, General John J. Pershing realigned the general staff on the pattern of his American Expeditionary Force (AEF) field headquarters, which he commanded. The general staff in the early 1920s exercised little effective control over the bureaus, but the chiefs of staff gradually gained substantial authority over them by 1939, when General George C. Marshall assumed the office of Army Chief of Staff.

World War II

During World War II, General Marshall principally advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt on military strategy and expended little effort in acting as general manager of the Department of War. Many agencies still fragmented authority, burdening the chief of staff with too many details, making the whole Department of War poorly geared toward directing the army in a global war. General Marshall described the chief of staff then as a "poor command post." President Roosevelt brought in Henry L. Stimson as Secretary of War; after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Stimson supported Marshall in reorganizing the army under the War Powers Act of 1941. He divided the Army of the United States (AUS) into three autonomous components to conduct the operations of the War Department: the Army Ground Forces (AGF) trained land troops; the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) 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 Marshall. By 1942, the Army Air Forces gained virtual independence in every way from the rest of the army. [24]


After World War II, the Department of War abandoned Marshall's organization 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 split the War Department into the Department of the Army and the Department of the Air Force, and the Secretary of the Army and Secretary of the Air Force served as operating managers for the new Secretary of Defense.

Office space

The State, War, and Navy Building in 1917 State, War, & Navy Building - Washington, D.C..jpg
The State, War, and Navy Building in 1917

In the early years, between 1797 and 1800, the Department of War was headquartered in Philadelphia; it moved with the other federal agencies to the new national capital at Washington, D.C., in 1800. In 1820, headquarters moved into a building at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, adjacent to the Executive Mansion, part of a complex of four matching brick Georgian/Federal style buildings for Cabinet departments with War in the northwest, Navy in the southwest and to the other side: State to the northeast and Treasury in the southeast. The War Department building was supplemented in the 1850s by a building across the street to the west known as the Annex and became very important during the 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.

By the 1930s, the Department of State squeezed the War Department from its office space, and the White House also desired additional office space. In August 1939, Secretary of War Harry H. Woodring and Acting Chief of Staff of the Army George C. Marshall moved their offices into 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 into the present day. [25]

Coming into office with World War II raging in Europe and Asia, 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. [26] [27] 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. [28] 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.


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

The National Security Act of 1947 established the National Military Establishment, later renamed the United States Department of Defense. On the same day this act was signed, Executive Order 9877 assigned primary military functions and responsibilities [29] with the former War Department split between the Department of the Army and Department of the Air Force.

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 are the Army War College, the Naval War College and the Air War College, which still train U.S. military officers in battlefield tactics and the strategy of war fighting.

Seal of the department

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.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">United States Department of State</span> Executive department of the U.S. federal government

The United States Department of State (DOS), or simply the State Department, is an executive department of the U.S. federal government responsible for the country's foreign policy and relations. Equivalent to the ministry of foreign affairs of other nations, its primary duties are advising the U.S. president on international relations, administering diplomatic missions, negotiating international treaties and agreements, and representing the U.S. at the United Nations. The department is headquartered in the Harry S Truman Building, a few blocks from the White House, in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C.; "Foggy Bottom" is thus sometimes used as a metonym.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">George C. Marshall</span> American army officer and statesman (1880–1959)

George Catlett Marshall Jr. was an American army officer and statesman. He rose through the United States Army to become Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, then served as Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense under Truman. Winston Churchill lauded Marshall as the "organizer of victory" for his leadership of the Allied victory in World War II. After the war, he spent a frustrating year trying and failing to avoid the impending Chinese Civil War. As Secretary of State, Marshall advocated for a U.S. economic and political commitment to post-war European recovery, including the Marshall Plan that bore his name. In recognition of this work, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953, the only Army general ever to be so honored.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">United States Secretary of Defense</span> Leader of the United States armed forces following the president

The United States secretary of defense (SecDef) is the head of the United States Department of Defense, the executive department of the U.S. Armed Forces, and is a high-ranking member of the federal cabinet. The secretary of defense's position of command and authority over the military is second only to that of the president of the United States, who is the commander-in-chief. This position corresponds to what is generally known as a defense minister in many other countries. The secretary of defense is appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate, and is by custom a member of the Cabinet and by law a member of the National Security Council.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Leslie Groves</span> American military officer (1896–1970)

Leslie Richard Groves Jr. was a United States Army Corps of Engineers officer who oversaw the construction of the Pentagon and directed the Manhattan Project, a top secret research project that developed the atomic bomb during World War II.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Henry L. Stimson</span> American general, Secretary of War, and statesman (1867–1950)

Henry Lewis Stimson was an American statesman, lawyer, and Republican Party politician. Over his long career, he emerged as a leading figure in U.S. foreign policy by serving in both Republican and Democratic administrations. He served as Secretary of War (1911–1913) under President William Howard Taft, Secretary of State (1929–1933) under President Herbert Hoover, and again Secretary of War (1940–1945) under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, overseeing American military efforts during World War II.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">United States Army Forces in the Far East</span> Military unit

United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) was a military formation of the United States Army active from 1941 to 1946. The new command's headquarters was created on 26 July 1941, at No. 1, Calle Victoria, Manila, Luzon, the Philippines, with General Douglas MacArthur as commander. The Chief of Staff was Brigadier General Richard K. Sutherland and the Deputy Chief of Staff was Lieutenant Colonel Richard J. Marshall. The core of this command was drawn from the Office of the Military Advisor to the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Joint Chiefs of Staff</span> Senior-most military leaders who advise U.S. executive government

The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) is the body of the most senior uniformed leaders within the United States Department of Defense, which advises the president of the United States, the secretary of defense, the Homeland Security Council and the National Security Council on military matters. The composition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is defined by statute and consists of a chairman (CJCS), a vice chairman (VJCS), the chiefs of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, and the chief of the National Guard Bureau. Each of the individual service chiefs, outside their JCS obligations, works directly under the secretaries of their respective military departments, e.g. the secretary of the Army, the secretary of the Navy, and the secretary of the Air Force.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Walter Short</span> U.S. Army Major general

Walter Campbell Short was a lieutenant general and major general of the United States Army and the U.S. military commander responsible for the defense of U.S. military installations in Hawaii at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chief of Staff of the United States Army</span> Statutory office held by a four-star general in the United States Army

The chief of staff of the Army (CSA) is a statutory position in the United States Army held by a general officer. As the highest-ranking officer assigned to serve in the Department of the Army, the chief is the principal military advisor and a deputy to the secretary of the Army. In a separate capacity, the CSA is a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, thereby, a military advisor to the National Security Council, the secretary of defense, and the president of the United States. The CSA is typically the highest-ranking officer on active duty in the U.S. Army unless the chairman or the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are Army officers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Combined Chiefs of Staff</span> Supreme military staff for the United States and Britain during World War II

The Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) was the supreme military staff for the United States and Britain during World War II. It set all the major policy decisions for the two nations, subject to the approvals of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">General of the Armies</span> Highest possible officer rank of the United States Army

General of the Armies of the United States, more commonly referred to as General of the Armies, is the highest military rank in the United States Army. The rank has been conferred three times: to John J. Pershing in 1919, as a personal accolade for his command of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I, and to George Washington in 1976, as a posthumous honor during the United States Bicentennial celebrations. In December 2022, Congress authorized the president to posthumously appoint Ulysses S. Grant to the rank.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Walter Reed Army Medical Center</span> Military unit

The Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC), officially known as Walter Reed General Hospital (WRGH) until 1951, was the U.S. Army's flagship medical center from 1909 to 2011. Located on 113 acres (46 ha) in Washington, D.C., it served more than 150,000 active and retired personnel from all branches of the United States Armed Forces. The center was named after Walter Reed, a U.S. Army physician and sergeant who led the team that confirmed that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes rather than direct physical contact.

The United States maintained its Constitutional Republic government structure throughout World War II. Certain expediencies were taken within the existing structure of the Federal government, such as conscription and other violations of civil liberties, including the internment and later dispersal of Japanese-Americans. Still, elections were held as scheduled in 1944.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">National Guard Bureau</span> Federal agency responsible for the administration of the United States National Guard

The National Guard Bureau is the federal agency responsible for the administration of the National Guard established by the United States Congress as a joint bureau of the Department of the Army and the Department of the Air Force. It was created by the Militia Act of 1903. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, elevated the National Guard to a joint function of the Department of Defense. The 2007 NDAA, from the previous year, elevated the chief of the National Guard Bureau from a lieutenant general to a four-star general.

General of the Army is a five-star general officer rank in the United States Army. It is generally equivalent to the rank of Field Marshal in other countries. In the United States, a General of the Army ranks above generals and is equivalent to a fleet admiral and a general of the Air Force. The General of the Army insignia consisted of five 38-inch (9.5 mm) stars in a pentagonal pattern, with touching points. The insignia was paired with the gold and enameled United States coat of arms on service coat shoulder loops. The silver colored five-star metal insignia alone would be worn for use as a collar insignia of grade and on the garrison cap. Soft shoulder epaulets with five 716-inch (11 mm) stars in silver thread and gold-threaded United States coat of arms on green cloth were worn with shirts and sweaters.

In the United States Armed Forces, a lieutenant general is a three-star general officer in the United States Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Space Force.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">United States Department of Defense</span> Executive department of the United States federal government

The United States Department of Defense is an executive branch department of the federal government of the United States charged with coordinating and supervising all agencies and functions of the U.S. government directly related to national security and the United States Armed Forces. As of June 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense is the largest employer in the world, with over 1.34 million active-duty service members, including soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen, and guardians. The Department of Defense also maintains over 778,000 National Guard and reservists, and over 747,000 civilians bringing the total to over 2.87 million employees. Headquartered at the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., the Department of Defense's stated mission is to provide "the military forces needed to deter war and ensure our nation's security".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Main Navy and Munitions Buildings</span> 20th-century temporary war buildings on the National Mall

The Main Navy and Munitions Buildings were constructed in 1918 along Constitution Avenue on Washington, D.C.'s National Mall as the largest of a set of temporary war buildings on the National Mall. Both buildings were constructed by the Navy's Bureau of Yards and Docks, with the United States Department of War occupying the Munitions Building. To make the buildings more resistant to fire, the buildings were constructed using concrete. With solid construction, the temporary buildings remained used long after the end of World War I.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">The Pentagon</span> Headquarters of the US Department of Defense in Arlington, Virginia

The Pentagon is the headquarters building of the United States Department of Defense, in Arlington County, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. It was constructed on an accelerated schedule during World War II. As a symbol of the U.S. military, the phrase The Pentagon is often used as a metonym for the Department of Defense and its leadership.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Organizational structure of the United States Department of Defense</span>

The United States Department of Defense (DoD) has a complex organizational structure. It includes the Army, Navy, the Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force, the Unified combatant commands, U.S. elements of multinational commands, as well as non-combat agencies such as the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. The DoD's annual budget was roughly US$496.1 billion in 2015. This figure is the base amount and does not include the $64.3 billion spent on "War/Non-War Supplementals". Including those items brings the total to $560.6 billion for 2015.


  1. "The Establishment of the Department of War – US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives". house.gov. Retrieved December 16, 2016.
  2. Short 1923, pp. 37–40.
  3. Short 1923, pp. 61–62.
  4. Short 1923, pp. 70–71.
  5. 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.
  6. Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword the Beginnings of the Military Establishment in America (1975) ch 6
  7. Short 1923, pp. 119–122.
  8. Short 1923, p. 121.
  9. Short 1923, p. 125.
  10. Business Methods in the War Department: Report of the Board Appointed in Compliance with the Request of the Senate Select Committee to Investigate the Methods of Business in the Executive Departments. United States War Dept Board on Business Methods. U.S. Government Printing Office. August 17, 1889. p.  184 via Internet Archive. War Department Building burn in 1814.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  11. Short 1923, p. 123.
  12. Short 1923, p. 122.
  13. Short 1923, p. 126.
  14. Short 1923, p. 131.
  15. 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
  16. Francis P. Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (Abridged Edition 1986) excerpt and text search
  17. Short 1923, p. 135.
  18. George R. Bentley, A History of the Freedmen's Bureau (1955)
  19. Robert Marshall Utley, Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866–1891 (1984)
  20. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987) p. 154, 203
  21. Graham A. Cosmas, An Army for Empire: The United States Army and the Spanish–American War (1971)
  22. Warren Zimmermann, First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power (2002)
  23. "Moral Uplifting – World War I Centennial". www.worldwar1centennial.org. Retrieved November 12, 2022.
  24. Elting E. Morison, Turmoil and Tradition: A Study of the Life and Times of Henry L. Stimson (1960).
  25. Goldberg, Alfred (1992). The Pentagon: The First Fifty Years. Office of Secretary of Defense / Government Printing Office. pp. 4–9.
  26. "Intro – Secretaries of War and Secretaries of the Army". United States Army Center of Military History. 1992. Archived from the original on December 28, 2007. Retrieved October 17, 2008.
  27. 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. ISBN   978-1400063031.
  28. Goldberg, Alfred (1992). The Pentagon: The First Fifty Years. Office of Secretary of Defense / Government Printing Office. p. 22.
  29. "USAF Established". Archived from the original on January 14, 2012. Retrieved June 23, 2014.


External images
1945 War Department Organization