An act of August 7, 1789 (1 Stat 49), established in the executive branch of the Federal Government a department of war, whose principal officer was the Secretary of War. The Secretary was authorized "to perform and execute such duties as shall from time to time be enjoined on him... by the President of the United States, ... relative to military commissions, or to the land or naal forces, ships, or warlike stores of the United States, or to such other matters respecting military or naval affairs, as the President of the United States shall assign to the said department, or relative to the granting of lands to persons entitled thereto, for military services rendered to the United States, or relative to Indian affairs..." This act also provided the Secretary with a chief clerk to act for the Secretary in his absence and to have custody of all records of the Department.
Although this first act authorized the granting of bounty lands for military service, it made no provision for military pensions. The following month Congress directed the President (act of September 29, 1789 (1 Stat. 95) to continue invalid military pension payments, which had until then been granted and paid by the states. Three years later, under an act of March 23, 1792 (1 Stat. 243), the Secretary of War was assigned the duty of administering the issuance of military pensions.
On April 30, 1798, Congress created the Department of the Navy (1 Stat. 553), and naval affairs were withdrawn from the jurisdiction of the Secretary of War and transferred to the newly named Secretary of the Navy. Responsibility for the Navy was the first of many of the Secretary of War's duties to be assigned to other offices and officials in the War Department or to offices outside the Department.
Early in the 19th century it became apparent that the administration of military and Indian affairs and of pension matters was too great a task for direct supervision by any one office, and various subordinate units were established in the War Department to handle specific functions. Between 1812 and 1850, Congress created the Adjutant General's Department, the Quartermaster's Department, the Pay Department, the Ordnance Department, the Topographical Bureau, and the Engineer Department, all of which took over functions formerly handled by the Secretary of War. The Office of Indian Affairs was established in the War Department on March 22, 1824, and in 1833 a Commissioner of Pensions was appointed to serve in the Office of the Secretary of War. After 1840, the Commissioner's duties were placed under the direction of the Secretaries of War and Navy. When the Department of the Interior was established by an act of March 3, 1848 (9 Stat. 395), the Secretary of teh Interior assumed powers previously exercised by the Secretary of War over the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and by the Secretaries of War and the Navy over the Commissioner of Pensions.
During the Civil War several new offices were established in the War Department: the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, the Bureau of Military Justice (later the Judge Advocate General's Department), the Office of the Commissary General of Prisoners, the Provost Marshal General's Bureau, and the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. As a result of these new offices, throughout the 19th century the concerns of the Secretary's Office became more and more restricted to matters of broad policy and general administration. This generalization of the Secretary's duties is reflected in his records. By the end of the Civil War, correspondence on substantive matters was routinely forwarded to other offices and bureaus of the War Department.
Until the outbreak of the Civil War, there had been no Assistant Secretary of War, but the press of war duties led to the appointment of an Assistant Secretary in August 1861 (12 Stat. 2870291). Congress assigned him no specific responsibilities, and he handled whatever duties the Secretary of War chose to delegate to him. The position gained no importance and was abolished shortly after the war by an act of March 2, 1867 (14 Stat. 22). It was reestablished briefly between 1882 and 1884 and became a permanent position on March 5, 1890 (26 Stat. 17). Again, the Assistant Secretary was given no specific duties but rather was to aid the Secretary of War in whatever ways he prescribed. For nearly two decades the Assistant Secretary occupied himself with that work for which the Secretary himself had no time or interest. American involvement in World War I brought the Assistant Secretary his first substantive duties. In August 1918 Assistant Secretary of War Benedict Crowell was appointed Director of Munitions, the coordinator of munitions procurement. The National Defense Act of June 4, 1920 (41 Stat. 762-765), assigned the Assistant Secretary of War specific responsibility for military procurement and industrial mobilization planning.
A July 1926 act provided for an additional assistant secretary to aid the Secretary in fostering military aeronautics (44 Stat. 784). Although this position was never formerly abolished, it remained vacant from 1933 to 1941. In December 1940 the Office of the Under Secretary of War was created (54 Stat. 1224), and the Assistant Secretary of War's material procurement responsibilities were transferred to the new office. Thereafter, the Assistant Secretary performed general administrative duties as assigned by the Secretary of War.
Related 19th century records are in the following record groups: Record Group 15, Records of the Veteran's Administration; Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; Record Group 94
, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917; and Record Group 203, Records of the Office of the Chief of Finance (Army)
Secretary of War during the Lincoln Administration: