At the beginning of the Federal Government the control of naval as well as of military and Indian affairs was vested in the War Department, established by an act of Congress of August 7, 1789. The chief naval business during the nine years that followed was the construction of six vessels of the United States Navy.
A separate administration of naval affairs was established in 1798. An act of Congress approved on April 30 of that year provided
"That there shall be an executive department under the denomination of the Department of the Navy, the chief officer of which shall be called the Secretary of the Navy, whose duty it shall be to execute such orders as he shall receive from the President of the United States, relative to the procurement of naval stores and materials and the construction, armament, equipment and employment of vessels of war, as well as all other matters connected with the naval establishment of the United States."
The act authorized the Secretary of the Navy to appoint "a principal clerk and other such clerks as he shall think necessary," fixed the compensation of the Secretary at $3,000 a year, and empowered him "to take possession of all the records, books and documents and all other matters and things appertaining to this department, which are now deposited in the office of the Secretary at War."
During the century and a half since the beginning of the Navy Department its history has been one of expansion, particularly during wars; and as its powers and duties have increased, the growing burden of administrative detail has led to specialization of function after another from the Office of the Secretary. In a sense the process began with an act of July 11, 1796, which established a separate Marine Corps, subject in most respects to the authority of the Secretary of the Navy but not strictly a part of the Navy and not completely under the administration of the Navy Department.
Of the three main reorganizations that the Navy Department has undergone, the first was affected by an act of February 7, 1815, which established a Board of Navy Commissioners to discharge under the superintendence of the Secretary of the Navy "all the ministerial duties" of the Office of the Secretary. In general, the authority of the Board was confined to procuring stores and materials and constructing, arming, and equipping vessels of war, while the Secretary retained immediate charge of matters of naval personnel and naval discipline, appointments of both civil and naval personnel, the detaining of officers, and the movement of vessels. This system continued for twenty-seven years.
The second reorganization of the Navy Department was brought about by an act of August 31, 1842, which abolished the Board of Navy Commissioners and created five bureaus: the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, the Bureau of Navy Yards and Docks, the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing, the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography, and the Bureau of Construction, Equipment, and Repairs. Of these bureaus the first survives unchanged in both name and functions, the second with a slight change in name, and the third under a different name (Bureau of Supplies and Accounts, so denominated by an act of July 19, 1892).
In the third reorganization, by an act of July 5,1862, the system of bureaus was confirmed and extended. The Bureau of Yards and Docks (first so named in this act), Medicine and Surgery, and Provisions and Clothing were continued without change. The Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography was divided into a Bureau of Navigation (renamed the Bureau of Naval Personnel by an act of May 13, 1942) and a Bureau of Ordnance. The Bureau of Construction, Equipment, and Repairs was divided into a Bureau of Construction and Repair, a Bureau of Steam Engineering, and a Bureau of Equipment and Recruiting. The only new functions assigned to a bureau by this reorganization was that of recruiting, formerly exercised by the Office of the Secretary.
Since 1862 the main changes in the system of bureaus have included the transfer of functions relative to enlisted men from the Bureau of Equipment and Recruiting (renamed in consequence the Bureau of Equipment) to the Bureau of Navigation by a general order of June 25, 1889; the dissolution of the Bureau of Equipment by an act of Congress of June 30, 1914; the establishment of the Bureau of Aeronautics by an act of July 12, 1921; and the consolidation of the Bureau of Engineering (so renamed in 1920) and the Bureau of Construction and Repair to form the Bureau of Ships, by an act of June 20, 1940.
Several more or less autonomous agencies within the Navy Department but outside the Secretary's Office have never achieved the status of bureaus. The oldest of these are the Hydrgraphic Office and the Naval Observatory (which originated in the Dept of Charts and Instruments, established by an order of December 6, 1830, and were separately organized by an act of June 21, 1866) and the Office of Naval Intelligence (established by a general order of March 23, 1882).
The effect of these changes upon the Office of the Secretary of the Navy may be summarized as follows: From 1798 to 1815 the Secretary's Office exercised all the administrative functions of the Navy Department except those assigned to the several navy yards and to the Marine Corps. In 1815 a number of functions, including chiefly procurement, construction, repair, and equipment, were separated from the Secretary's Office and assigned to the Board of Navy Commissioners, from which (with functions relative to hydrography and astronomy) they were transferred in 1842 to four bureaus. In 1842 most functions relative to medicine and surgury, and in 1862 most functions relateive to enlisted men, were transferred to bureaus. In addition, functions relative to the appointment and detail of officers of the Navy, originally handled by the Secretary himself or by an Office of Detail established in his office in March 1861, were in practice separated from the Secretary's Office on April 28, 1865, when the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation was ordered to take charge of the Office of Detail, though the Office of Detail remained nominally within the Secretary's Office until by a general order of June 25, 1889, its functions were explicitly vested in the Bureau of Navigation. All these functions have continued ever since to be carried on by units outside the Secretary's Office, under general supervision from that Office with respect to policy. All other functions that have been exercised at any time by the Secretary's Office are still centered there.
Within the Office itself, however, two groups of functions have been delegated to units that have become more or less autonomous. The Office of the Judge Advocate General, established within the Secretary's Office by an act of June 9, 1890, has received cognizance over all matters relative to courts martial and courts of inquiry, to boards for the promotion and retirement of officers, and to prisoners of war, prize vessels, and cargoes, contracts, claims, and legal questions in general. To the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, established within the Secretary's Office by an act of March 3, 1915, have been assigned the general functions of planning and coordinating naval operations and preparing for war. The degrees of autonomy of these two Offices have become greater or less at various times. At present the Office of the Judge Advocate General is part of the Executive Office of the Secretary, and the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations is separate from the Executive Office of the Secretary.
As a result of the various separations of functions from and wihtin the Secretary's Office, there remain in the Office proper, exclusive of the Offices of the Judge Advocate General and the Chief of Naval Operations and apart from the general supervision and responsibility vested by law in the Secretary, only two large classes of specific functions: those relative to civil personnel and those relative to finance. Information respecting the adminsitration of these matters, and of such other functions as the operation of naval petroleum and oil-shale reserves and the conduct of public relations, is given in later parts of this checklist; and the Offices of the Chief Clerk, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and the Under Secretary of the Navy, parts of the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, are also discussed at later points.
Though the general directions of adminstrative development in the Navy Department has thus been toward the detachment of functions from the Office of the Secretary, what appears to be an opposite tendency has manifested itself during the last twenty five years. The establishment within the Secretary's Office of a Navy Yard Division in 1921, an Office of the Director of Naval Petroleum and Oil-Shale Reserves in 1924, and an Office of Procurement and Material in 1942 may exhibit such a tendency.
One other characteristic of naval administration remains to be mentioned: the heavy reliance of the Department upon boards and commissions. Most of these have been appointed to examine and report upon specific matters and have been dissolved after the receipt of their final reports. Others, however, such as the Naval Consulting Board (established in 1915) and the Compensation Board (established in 1917), now in abeyance, have endured for periods longer than twenty-five eyars; and the Board of Inspection and Survey (established in compliance with an act of August 5, 1882) has become a division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Boards have often served adminsitrative needs that involved the functions of two or more bureaus or offices, or those of both the Navy and the Army.
For purposes of descriptive and adminsitrative control the National Archives has allocated the reocrds of the Navy Department to a number of record groups. The records described in this checklist comprise of those parts of Record Group 80, General Records of the Department of the Navy, that have been transferred to the custody of the Archivist. They consist of (1) records of the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, (2) records of the Board of Navy Commissioners, and (3) records of such boards and commissions as have reported to the Secretary of the Navy on matters under his immediate cognizance.
A very close relationship naturally exists between the records in Record Group 80 and those in Record Group 125, REcords of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Navy) and in Record Group 38, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. In a broad sense the records in these two groups are records of the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, but they have been allocated by the National Archives to separate record gropus betcause of both the autonomous nature of the two Offices and the specialized character and quantity of their records. Nevertheless, many series of records of the Office of the Secretary, the Office of the Judge Advocate General, and the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations were stored together by the Navy Department and had not been segregated before their transfer to the National Archives. The closeness of their connection is even greater than this fact might exhibit, for in 1908 the Office of the Judge Advocate General and in 1915 the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations began to incorporate their correspondence, or a large part of it, with the correspondence of the Office of the Secretary of the Navy in a single general file that was common to the three Offices, 1918-40 (Entry 15), and the indexes and registers that accompany these files are so organized that it would not be possible to separate each of the files into three parts on the basis of offices of origin.
Before the general nature and arrangement of the records in Record Group 80 can be understood, their relation to the Naval Records Collection of the Offices of Naval Records and LIbrary (Record Group 45) must be explained. This Office, originally known as the Office of LIbrary and Naval War Records and also by other designations, was established when an act of March 23, 1882, created the Office of Naval Intelligence and placed the Library of the Navy Department within it. The Library began in the same year to collect and prepare for publication records relating to the naval history of the Civil War; and an act of July 7, 1884, made the first of many annual appropriations for the collection and compilation (and in later years for the publication) of "the naval records of the War of the Rebellion. In connection with this work the Office of Library and Naval War Records brought together as many as possible of the records of the Navy Department relating to the period of the Civil War, as well as records obtained from private sources. Its collecting activities were later extended to naval records of other periods, from 1648 to the present; and by 1926 it had accumulated in a single collection most of the records of that had originated as records in the Office of the Secretary of the Navy before 1886, nearly all the records of the Board of Navy Commissioners, and many records from other sources, both official and private.
In consequence, a large part of the records that would be considered as General Records of the Department of the Navy (Record Group 80) if the Naval Records Collection had not been formed are physically and adminsitratively separated from the General REcords, and have been allocated to Record Group 45, Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library. Nearly all records in the Collection that are of date previous to 1911 are now in the custody of the Archivist of the United States and have been described in a preliminary checklist compiled in the National Archives.
The records that are excluded from Record Group 80 only because they are in Record Group 45 are physically of two kinds: volumes and binders, and loose papers. In the preliminary checklist mentioned above, the volumes and binders are listed as forming approximate 127 series. The loose papers derived by the Collection from records of the Office of the Secretary of teh Navy cannot be listed as series, for they have been combined with loose papers from many other sources to form an Area File and a Subject File, each of which is organized by methods peculiar to the Office of Naval Records and Library and unrelated to the original arrangements of the papers. All papers inserted into these files have lost their integrity not only as parts of series but as records of particular agencies of origin.
The records described in this checklist of the General Records or entered in it by cross reference to the Naval Records Collection (exclusive of ledgers, daybooks, inventories, and lists) exhibit three successive patterns with regard to methods of record-keeping; and these patterns, with various dfferences in the dates at which one pattern gave way to another, have prevailed throughout the Navy Department and most other branches of the Federal Government.
(1) From the beginning of the Federal Government to about 1885 the general system of record-keeping in the Navy Department was to enter handwritten copies of letters sent in bound volumes known as "letter books" and to bind letetrs received, both in series determined usually by classes of correspondents and arranged within each series by date, with separate indexes or registers in most volumes and also with consolidated indexes or registers for letters received and for letters sent. New series were detached from old series when it became convenient to maintain certain classes of correspondence separately, and other new series were begun when new classes of correspondents appeared.
(2) A different system was instituted in the Navy Department by a regulation issued by the Secretary of the Navy on January 13, 1885. Thereafter letters received and press copies or carbon copies of related letters sent were folded, stamped, and briefed as serially numbered units, usually 3.5 inches wide and 8 inches long, which were filed in numerical order in narrow wooden boxes. Bound series of letters sent and of letters received, classified and labeled according to classes of correspondents, were thus succeeded, with some exceptions, by general files. In the Secretary's Office most of these exceptions were discontinued by a special order of October 30, 1886. Bound indexes were continued in the Secretary's Office till June 30, 1897. after which date they were replaced by card indexes; and chronological or numerical registers ("briefing records"), the prepartion of which was required by the regulation of 1885, were also continued there till June 1897, after which date they were replaced by card registers ("history cards").