Skip to comments.The Military Career of Edgar Allan Poe
Posted on 01/20/2006 11:26:40 AM PST by robowombat
The Military Career of Edgar Allan Poe James Kenny
In the early part of 1827, Edgar Allan Poe arrived in Boston and immediately made arrangements for the publication of his first book, a collection of poems under the title of the main poem, Tamerlane. This book was published by Calvin F. S. Thomas, but Poe paid all the costs of publication.
Surprisingly, Poe did not mention himself as the author. Rather, he signed himself "A Bostonian," naming the city in which he had been born but which otherwise meant nothing to him at this date. By signing the book this way, Poe probably figured that his book would be more flatteringly reviewed since Boston was the literary hub of America.
Unfortunately, Poe's money and time were wasted as the book did not sell. Poe claimed it had been "suppressed for private reasons," but the truth was that it was published by an obscure printer with no knowledge of distribution; and therefore, no paper reviewed it and nobody bought it (Lindsay 54-55).
Sadly, Poe was now penniless as he sought for means of earning a living. "There were none. he had been trained as a Southern gentleman, his education had not been finished, and he had no knowledge of any trade or craft other than writing, and that, far from supporting him, had proved an expense" (Lindsay 55). Like many other young men in similar situations, Poe turned to the government and enlisted in the United States Army.
The War Department records show that Poe enlisted in the army on May 26, 1827, under the alias of Edgar A. Perry. Although only eighteen, Poe listed his age as twenty-two, and stated that he was a clerk from Boston. His enlistment records describe him as having gray eyes, brown hair, a fair complexion, and a height of five feet, eight inches. He was immediately assigned to Battery "H" of the First Artillery, stationed at Fort Independence, Boston Harbour.
Details of the next eighteen months of Poe's life are very scarce. "But as the army in this period was not geared to war--the time from 1815 to 1846 has been called the "Thirty Years' Peace"--military life generally concentrated on drills and housekeeping" (Silverman 42). Nonetheless, Edgar prospered under military discipline and distinguished himself as a fine soldier in the eyes of his superiors. A lieutenant at Fortress Monroe described Poe's habits as "good, and entirely free from drinking," and an adjutant there described Poe as being "highly worthy of confidence." As a result, on New Year's Day, 1829, Poe was promoted to sergeant major for artillery, the highest possible rank for a non-commissioned officer.
Poe's "success" as a soldier did not mean that he was happy with his life in the army. After two years of service, Edgar felt that he had had enough of the army, having served, he said, "as long as suits my ends or my inclination;" however, he had a five-year commitment. He soon realized how difficult it would be to receive an early discharge from the army. Desperate and discouraged at the prospect of "wasting" the prime of his life, Poe approached the commanding officer of his company, Lieutenant Howard, with his plea for early release. Poe disclosed his real age to Howard and gave a brief account of his troublesome life, including his quarreling with Allan. Howard agreed to release Poe on one condition: a reconciliation with John Allan. Howard proceeded to write to Allan, suggesting a reconciliation with Edgar and a family reunion. This letter probably represented Allan's first news of Poe in two years, and Allan replied by saying Edgar "had better remain as he is until the termination of his enlistment" (Silverman 43).
Not satisfied with this response, Poe wrote to Allan himself. He described himself as a changed man, who was proud of himself and confident in his abilities to make something of his life. Poe asked Allan to give him a chance to prove himself and to "fulfill your highest wishes." He ended his letter by asking Allan to write Lieutenant Howard requesting Poe's immediate discharge.
Allan did not reply, nor did he reply to any of the subsequent letters sent by Poe. As a result, Edgar changed his strategy. Rather than sounding as if he were trying to get out of his commitment, Poe wrote that he needed to terminate his enlistment in order to better himself by attending the United States Military Academy at West Point and earning his commission.
Whether John Allan responded to this letter is unknown, but a reconciliation was near at hand. On February 28, 1829, Fanny Allan died at the age of forty-four. Fanny was very interested in Poe's welfare and during her illness greatly desired to see him. As a result, John Allan wrote and asked Poe to come to her deathbed. Unfortunately, by the time Poe received the letter and secured a military leave, Mrs. Allan lay dead. Poe arrived the day after her burial and was so overcome with grief that he had to be assisted from the graveyard.
Fanny's death softened John Allan as he bought Edgar appropriate clothes for the mournful homecoming, and he also agreed to support Edgar's plans to end his enlistment and enter West Point. Several days later, Poe returned to his regiment feeling confident that he would soon be procuring a cadet's appointment to the Military Academy at West Point.
Upon arriving back with his regiment, however, he soon realized that in order to leave the army he had to buy a substitute. This should have cost twelve dollars, but since his commanding officers were absent and they alone had the power to muster a recruit for this sum, Poe had to pay seventy-five dollars to the man who was to take his place.
When Allan heard word of this, he was outraged and convinced that he had been cheated. It was his opinion that Poe had lied to him and used the extra money to support his drinking and gambling problems. Nevertheless, Allan still went about procuring various letters of recommendation from prominent citizens of Richmond. They included a former governor of Virginia, James Preston, who was familiar with some of Edgar's poetry and referred to Poe as "a young gentleman of genius." Allan also induced two other prominent citizens, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives, to write letters for Edgar to take with him when personally presenting his application to the Secretary of War, John H. Eaton (Silverman 48).
After his discharge in April 1829, Poe took these recommendations, along with a letter from John Allan himself, to Secretary Eaton. The tone of Allan's letter was very cold, but it did ask Eaton "to aid this youth in the promotion of his future prospects." He also added that "it will afford me great pleasure to reciprocate any kindness you can show him." Allan, however, made it quite clear that he was under no obligation to Poe and that Edgar was no relation of his. In May, Allan wrote a separate letter to Poe advising him to find out details of his grandfather's service during the Revolutionary War, because "it may be of service and cannot do you any harm" (Symons 31).
Next, Poe traveled to Washington, where he had what seems to have been a friendly interview with Secretary Eaton. Poe learned there was a waiting list for appointments to the Academy and that there were forty-seven other candidates ahead of him. Rejections, resignations and dismissals were common, however; and Poe was hopeful that he would be admitted in September (Symons 31). Edgar did not return to Richmond, but instead visited his father's family in Baltimore. It was during this visit that Poe met for the first time two women who were to play major parts in his life. The first was his aunt Maria Clemm, whom he came to regard as his mother, and the other was her daughter Virginia, who later became his wife (Symons 31).
In July, probably at John Allan's prompting, Poe again spoke with Secretary Eaton. Eaton told Poe that there had been a number of resignation and rejections and that Poe was now eleventh on the waiting list. There was still a chance that Edgar could obtain a September appointment, but only if ten more people lost their appointments. Eaton also assured Poe that if he did not get into the September class, then he would be among the first on the roll for the following June, when his appointment was certain. Realizing that he would probably have to wait nearly a year before attending West Point, Poe returned to Baltimore.
While in Baltimore, Poe introduced himself to the prestigious William Wirt, former Attorney General of the United States, and one-time resident of Virginia. He asked Wirt's opinion of a lengthy fantasy poem entitled "Al Aaraaf." Wirt believed that modern readers would thoroughly enjoy the poem, but doubted that old-fashioned ones like himself would "take." As a result, he advised Poe to seek an introduction to a literary critic in Philadelphia, such as Robert Walsh, editor of the American Quarterly Review. While in Philadelphia, Poe attempted to find a publisher for his volume of works, which included "Al Aaraaf" and other poems; but due to his inability to provide financial backing for his proposed volume, Poe was unable to have his works published. Once again, Poe returned to Baltimore, where a couple of young men named Hatch and Dunning published Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems under terms which Poe described as "advantageous to me" (Silverman 50-51).
Its publication and Poe's continual requests for financial support, created yet another crisis in the relationship between Poe and Allan. It was Allan's belief that Edgar was to make the army his career, and with this understanding, Allan had renewed his financial support of Poe. The publication of the poems, combined with no news about West Point, made Allan irritable about sending Edgar further supplies of money.
Several weeks later, Poe returned home to Richmond for what proved to be one of the last times while John Allan was alive. The visit was a friendly one, probably because in March 1830 Poe received his formal acceptance as a cadet. He left Richmond in May and entered West Point in June.
By 1830, West Point had become famous for producing fine officers who were disciplined, democratic in nature and knowledgeable in the science of war. These qualities were not very consistent with Poe's personality, so it is clear that he had other motives for entering the Academy. The first of these was to prove himself in John Allan's eyes. The second reason for wanting to enter West Point was that "only by becoming a cadet could he free himself from life as an enlisted man while still retaining Allan's approval and support" (Symons 37). In addition, Poe may have believed that life as a cadet would be much easier than that of an ordinary soldier. As it turned out, such was not the case.
Poe quickly learned that the Academy was much different than what he expected. Edgar found the great amounts of studying to be "incessant," but as always he tried to excel, and did so as both linguist and mathematician. At the general examination in January 1831, Edgar placed seventeenth in mathematics and third in French. In addition, Poe wrote many new poems while at West Point, and his literary endeavors and achievements became well known among the cadets. In all, Edgar acted effectively under the strict regime of West Point.
All of this changed in the fall when Edgar learned that John Allan had remarried. His second wife was Louisa Gabriella Patterson, a woman twenty years younger than Allan. In addition, Allan had also fathered illegitimate twin sons in July. "Childless during his twenty-six years with Fanny, and now very wealthy, he remained vigorous and evidently desired heirs" (Silverman 63).
These events meant that others would now receive the attention that Poe so greatly longed for from Allan. Poe feared that he was being shut out of John Allan's life, and this notion was confirmed at the end of the year when Allan sent what he called his final letter, saying that he no longer wished to continue communicating with Edgar. Edgar's unpardonable offense seems to have been a letter he sent to Sergeant "Bully" Graves, his army substitute, in which he described Allan as "not very often sober." This slur, combined with Allan's starting a new life and new family, left Edgar estranged from Allan.
On January 3, he sent Allan the longest letter he had ever written. In the letter, Poe revealed all his suppressed outrage. He accused Allan of ruining his health and told Allan of his decision to quit the Academy, saying he was too exhausted and too strapped for money "to put up with the fatigues of this place;" however, Edgar's withdrawal from the Academy required Allan's permission; so Poe ended his letter by saying, "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" (Silverman 65).
Allan did not respond, and Edgar did as he promised. He completely neglected all of his duties and was court-martialed. On January 28, at a general court-martial convened at the Academy, Poe was found guilty on all charges and dismissed from the service of the United States. Prior to his departure, however, Poe persuaded 131 of the cadets to each put up a dollar and a quarter in order to finance the cost of printing a new edition of his poems. This large subscription reflected Edgar's reputation as a "fellow of talent."
Edgar Allan Poe's military career ended on February 19, 1831, when he left West Point and made his way to New York City.
Works Cited Lindsay, Philip. The Haunted Man: A Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Philosophical Library, 1954. Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.
Symons, Julian. The Tell-Tale Heart: The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.
Interesting that you are citing the Naval Academy ... West Point taught me that Poe showed up to formation naked ... except for his ammo belts and rifle .... hence he was drummed out....
I have always liked to read Poe's poetry. It seems his sensitivities towards life were magnified, and yet he has a feeling of well-being. I knew he had a conflicted life as a young man, but his work has inspired millions since. Thanks for this posting, I enjoyed reading it.
I like to read a number of Poe's poems. However, they read like recordings of psychedelic dreams (like many 60's songs...)
No argument here, he did write a lot of angst into his poetry, but I thought it to be more real to him than babble of the mind. He seeed to hide in his work, and thus, it was real to me.
While at West Point, Poe heard a tale about several soldiers burying a fellow soldier alive (He was a jerk.). It was where he got the idea for "The Cask of Amontillado."
I'm doing some research on Poe and just came across your post. Read it with great interest. I've always been a fan of Poe's short stories.
As have I. I've been trying to recall the name of one of my favorite EAP cautionary tales about a scientist, his daughter, and playing God. Can't remember the title.
I haven't gone thru ALL his short stories, although I'm starting to reread his collected works. If I locate the story in question, I'll ping you!
You're most welcome!
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