Like many businesses, the Poe Museum will be closed Monday in observance of Memorial Day to give our employees a chance to honor those brave men and women who died serving in the US Armed Forces. Monday will also be the 187th anniversary of Poe’s enlistment in the US Army, so this weekend is a great time to visit the Poe Museum to learn more about Poe’s military career. Active duty military will receive $1 off their admission to the Museum.
Poe enlisted in Boston on May 26, 1827, when he was eighteen. Seven months earlier, mounting debt had forced the young author to drop out of the University of Virginia and return to his boyhood home with his foster father John Allan in Richmond. On March 19, Mr. Allan quarreled with Poe and threw him out of the house, so Poe decided to sail for Boston to seek his fortune. It was there he published his first book, a small volume entitled Tamerlane, in June. Only about fifty copies were printed, and they were not distributed.
The above engraving shows Boston Harbor as it would have appeared when Poe was there.
Opinions differ as to why Poe decided to enlist. He may have been inspired by his service, three years earlier, on the Junior Morgan Riflemen entrusted with escorting the Marquis de Lafayette around Richmond during the Revolutionary War hero’s 1824 tour of America. Poe could have been inspired by his childhood hero, the British poet Lord Byron, who joined the Greeks in their battle for independence.
What is certain is that Poe enlisted for five years under the alias Edgar A. Perry. Maybe Poe used this name because he was still hiding from debt collectors. Maybe he was ashamed because the class-conscious young gentleman considered himself to be of the class of people who be officers rather than enlisted men (who, in Poe’s time tended to be immigrants and the poor). We may never know because Poe did not publicly admit to enlisting. In his autobiographical memo, he fabricates a story about trying to join the Greek Wars of Independence.
The poet was assigned to Battery H of the First Artillery at Fort Independence, Boston Harbor. In July, Poe became a clerk and would spend much of his time filing paperwork. His desk job probably relieved him of many of the tasks required of other enlisted men, including guard duty and fort maintenance. Poe’s battery went to Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, in November. It was there that Poe advanced to the position of artificer, the most technically demanding job in the army of his day. It was also one of the most dangerous because he would be responsible for mixing explosives. Poe excelled and soon attained the rank of regimental sergeant major, an accomplishment which usually took about seventeen years.
By the time his battery was assigned to Fortress Monroe in Virginia (pictured above), Poe had already decided to end his enlistment early in order to study at the United States Military Academy at West Point. This would be a highly unusual move because no enlisted man in the previous decade had become a West Point Cadet. Fortunately, Poe had the support of his officers. He wrote John Allan that an officer had agreed to discharge him on the condition that he reconcile with Allan.
Back in Richmond, Poe’s devoted foster mother Mrs. Allan was dying. Poe was unable to reach the city until the night after her burial. During this visit, he was able to reconcile briefly with Allan, who would seek recommendations on Poe’s behalf in order to gain him admittance to West Point. Poe returned to Fortress Monroe and promptly hired a substitute to serve the remainder of his enlistment for him.
Poe’s officers provided Poe recommendations that attest to his exceptional service. J. Howard, Lieut. 1st Artillery wrote, “…he at once performed the duties of company clerk and assistant in the Subsistent Department, both of which duties were promptly and faithfully done. his habits are good, and intirely free from drinking…”
Bt. Capt. H. W. Griswold described Poe as “exemplary in his deportment, prompt & faithful in the discharge of his duties…” and “highly worthy of confidence…”
Lt. Col. W. J. Worth added Poe’s “deportment has been highly praise worthy & deserving of confidence. His education is of a very high order and he appears to be free from bad habits in fact the testimony of Lt. Howard & Adjt. Griswold is full to that point — Understanding he is thro’ his friends an applicant for cadets warrant, I unhesitatingly recommend him as promising to acquit himself of the obligations of that station studiously & faithfully.”
Among those writing recommendations for Poe was Andrew Stevenson, Speaker of the House of Representatives. Eventually they secured Poe an appointment to West Point (pictured below), and arrived there on June 20, 1830. Poe soon wrote Allan, “Upon arriving here I delivered my letters of recommn & was very politely received by Capn Hitchcock & Mr Ross — The examination for admission is just over — a great many cadets of good family &c have been rejected as deficient…James D Brown, son of Jas Brown Jr has also been dismissed for deficiency after staying here 3 years…Of 130 Cadets appointed every year only 30 or 35 ever graduate — the rest being dismissed for bad conduct or deficiency the Regulations are rigid in the extreme…”
Poe performed well in his classes, attaining the seventeenth highest score in Mathematics and third in French among the eighty-seven fourth-classmen; but he soon decided he did not belong there. Once again, he was deep in debt. Mr. Allan had never paid the substitute, who had written Allan on the subject, unfortunately enclosing a letter in which Poe blames Allan’s delay in paying on his drunkenness. Poe would later explain in his autobiographical memo, “The army does not suit a poor man—so I left West Point abruptly.”
In a January 3, 1831 letter to John Allan, Poe writes, “You sent me to W. Point like a beggar. The same difficulties are threatening me as before at Charlottesville — and I must resign… I have no energy left, nor health. If it was possible, to put up with the fatigues of this place, and the inconveniences which my absolute want of necessaries subject me to, and as I mentioned before it is my intention to resign. For this end it will be necessary that you (as my nominal guardian) enclose me your written permission. It will be useless to refuse me this last request — for I can leave the place without any permission — your refusal would only deprive me of the little pay which is now due as mileage…From the time of writing this I shall neglect my studies and duties at the institution — if I do not receive your answer in 10 days — I will leave the point without — for otherwise I should subject myself to dismission.” Poe had made up his mind to get himself expelled.
Poe’s roommates, Thomas Pickering Jones of Tennessee and Thomas W. Gibson of Indiana, would both be court martialed and expelled. Jones was charged with drunkenness while Gibson’s offenses included not only drunkenness but also setting fire to a building. Although Poe would also be expelled after only nine months, the list of charges does not include anything as dramatic as pyromania or drunkenness. He was charged with “gross neglect of duty” and “disobeyance of orders. The record recounts that Poe “did absent himself from all his Academical duties between the 15th & 27 Jan’y 1831, viz. absent from Mathematical recitation on the 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25 & 26th Jan’y 1831” and that “after having been directed by the officer of the day to attend church on the 23d January 1831, [Poe] did fail to obey such order…” He was found “Guilty.”
Poe left West Point on February 19, but his aspirations for a military career continued. Less than a month later, he wrote Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy, West Point, “I intend by the first opportunity to proceed to Paris with the view of obtaining, thro’ the interest of the Marquis de La Fayette, an appointment (if possible) in the Polish Army . . . . The object of this letter is . . . to request that you will give me such assistance as may lie in your power in furtherance of my views. A certificate of ‘standing’ in my class is all that I have any right to expect. Any thing farther — a letter to a friend in Paris — or to the Marquis — would be a kindness which I should never forget.”
Of course, Poe was unable to join the Polish Army, but, as mentioned earlier, he would tell his biographers he went to join the Greeks instead.
A month after writing Thayer, Poe published his third book of poetry. Poems of Edgar A. Poe is dedicated to the U.S. Corps of Cadets, and 139 of the 232 those Cadets paid $1.25 each to finance the book’s publication. Learn more about the Poe Museum’s copy of this book here.
Though his military career was over by the time he was twenty-two, Poe would proudly wear his West Point great coat for the rest of his life. He is wearing it in the below daguerreotype taken the year before his death.
Some scholars believe the highly technical training Poe received as an artificer may have inspired his disciplined and technical poetry. His knowledge of projectiles and the calculations required to make them hit their intended target may also have played a part in his science fiction tale “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” and his cosmological essay Eureka.
For further reading about Poe’s time in the Army, we recommend the book Private Perry and Mister Poe by William F. Hecker. You can also visit the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe near Hampton, Virginia.