Skipping Through Revisit Documents

A significant portion of the documents archived on the Papers of the War Department site have been, or still are, located on a revisit list. This list is made up of documents that have not been completely sorted by the items, places, or people mentioned within. Because I was interested in getting a general idea of what is available in this collection, my experience with the PWD this semester mostly involved working through some of these documents. The unorganized and generally un-tagged nature of these documents, listed only by number, makes revisiting less of a specific look at a particular place, person, or keyword, and more of an exploration of the sheer variety of War Department documents in this collection.

As I worked through these documents (in no particular order), I found letters and notifications that ranged from officers sending short notices of receipt and payment, to longer missives sent by military leaders seeking information, supplies, and transport. One letter detailed instructions for hiring engineers and workmen to fortify the Port of Baltimore. Another was written by an officer asking for extra tents as quickly as possibly in order to prevent chaos in his ranks. Choosing documents from the revisit list is an exercise in random chance, but it can also provide an interesting overview of the nature of this collection.

I’m not a specialist in the period covered by these War Department documents, nor do I have much experience with early American history in general. I will probably never have a reason to dig into this archive looking for a source on Revolutionary stock and barrel prices. For my own research, though, I’m sorting through a relatively small selection of sources that are tied into the much larger military and economic picture of the Late Antique world. Based on what I’ve seen, some of the PWD documents might actually be quite useful as a comparative tool.

What I’ve learned from my somewhat random run through the PWD is that the connection of between military events, particularly the management of military elements in different parts of a large geographic area with occasional transportation and shipping problems, and economic factors does not necessarily change that much over time. Some of my sources discuss problems with supplies, with funding for defense and transportation, and in dealing with distant military leaders and politicians who cannot understand the conditions on the front or in borderlands. I need to remember to pay attention to the way my sources talk about logistics and how communication between soldiers and political leaders works (or doesn’t work) across the centuries.

In the end, I can definitely say that I got caught up in the events detailed in these letters; the travails of those stationed in Midwestern forts contrasted interestingly with the experience of officers stationed in stable, comfortable regions of the East Coast, and at one point, I found myself hoping that spare tents replacing those lost in a storm would survive a second voyage.

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