An Africanist in the American Revolution

Before beginning the Papers of the War Department rotation, I was mostly interested in learning about the archive itself, how the content was collected, and about the process of managing volunteers for crowdsource transcriptions. As someone who studies the history of South Africa, and who knows little about the American Revolution, I did not expect to find much content that would be particularly applicable to my own research or interests.

In the end, I spent most of my time reading correspondence between Nathaniel Greene and Benjamin Lincoln which dealt with the provisioning of troops in the Southern Colonies, specifically with the provisioning of clothing and shoes. So what does the constant squabbling over the price of shoes have to do with the South African colonial frontier? Actually, it’s not so far off the mark.

The early nineteenth century was a time of constant warfare on the eastern edge of European settlement in South Africa. The Imperial military was reluctant to commit resources to these conflicts, but they were constantly being harassed by land-hungry settlers, eager to use military muscle against their African competitors. Accusations of war-profiteering were ripe within the colony.

Reading about the price of shoes, I was struck by the possibilities for war-profiteering in newly developed military bureaucracies such as the War Department. I considered the organization of the department, still in its infancy, and wondered on which model(s) it had been modeled after. Did early American leaders build upon their experience as part of the Colonial British military bureaucracy? Or did the War Department represent a significant shift from similar European agencies?

Aside from sparking an interest in the War Department, working with the PWD documents caused me to think about the formation of early military bureaucracies in a deep sense that I had never considered. The creation of the War Department must have been an involved process, and this reminded me that the British colonial military bureaucracy which affects my work did not appear out of thin air either.

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