War Department, United States, federal executive department organized (1789) to administer the military establishment. It was reconstituted (1947) as the Dept. of the Army when the military administration was reorganized (see Defense, United States Department of ). During the American Revolution, military affairs were largely supervised by the Continental Congress, and under the Articles of Confederation a secretary of war was put in charge of defense matters.
In Aug., 1789, the U.S. War Dept., headed by the Secretary of War with cabinet rank, was created to organize and maintain the U.S. army—under the command of the President in time of peace and war. Subsequent legislation expanded the department’s organization, and until 1903 the commanding general of the army and various staff departments aided the Secretary in guiding the military establishment. Its supervision of naval affairs was soon transferred (Apr., 1798) to the U.S. Dept. of the Navy.
At times the War Dept. supervised quasimilitary matters—e.g., the distribution of bounty lands, pensions (see Interior, United States Department of the ), Indian affairs (see Indian Affairs, Bureau of ), and the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War, but by the 20th cent. the only such responsibilities that remained were the construction of public works in connection with rivers and harbors and the maintenance and operation of the Panama Canal.
Meanwhile, the purely military functions of the department were vastly expanded in war periods, and after the Spanish-American War the War Dept. was thoroughly reorganized (1903). The office of the commanding general of the army was abolished, and the general staff corps was established to coordinate the army under the direction of the chief of staff, who was charged with supervising the planning of national defense and with the mobilization of the military forces. Thereafter the War Dept. absorbed several new functions; it was given supervision over the newly created National Guard , and under the National Defense Act of 1916 the officers’ reserve corps was created within the department’s organization.
This act also established the office of Assistant Secretary of War to coordinate the procurement of munitions. After World War I the War Dept. was again revamped (1922). Its scope of military activities, however, remained wide, stretching from the supervision of the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) to the guidance of insular affairs and occupied territories and to the intricate organization of defense. In World War II plans were laid to coordinate the activities of the armed services, and with the creation (1947) of the National Military Establishment—which later became (1949) the U.S. Dept. of Defense—the War Dept. was reconstituted as the Dept. of the Army, which became a division of the Dept. of Defense. The Secretary of War, holding a post with high cabinet rank, became the Secretary of the Army, an office without cabinet rank, and several of the department’s functions, notably those connected with the air arm, were transferred.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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