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Unknown Soldier: A Poet at the Point

By Philip Beidler
4/5/2017 • MHQ Magazine

Edgar Allan Poe’s turbulent stint in the United States Army.

In biographical legend Edgar Allan Poe is remembered as a tortured aesthete, a solitary romantic genius, unrecognized and adrift in a cash-and-carry society. He is also recalled as a drunkard, an opium addict, a philanderer. But one descriptive term less often invoked remains among the most important to understanding his life and work. The term is “soldier.”

Poe’s military experience was uniformed and official, including nearly two years of service in the ranks of the U.S. Army artillery, with assignments to Fort Independence in Boston, Fort Moultrie in South Carolina, and Fortress Monroe in Virginia. It also included two semesters as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

His years of military life, 1827 to 1831, also turn out to be some of the most crucial in Poe’s literary life, framing as they do the production of his first three books of poetry—the self-published Tamerlane and Other Poems of 1827; the enlarged and pretentiously retitled Al Araaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems of 1829; and the Poems of 1831. His military years paid other literary dividends, supplying major elements of well-known stories ranging from “The Gold Bug” to “The Cask of Amontillado.” His inside view of the antebellum professional army contributes to his satire of the politically aspiring Indian fighter General John A. B. C. Smith, hero of “the late Bugaboo and Kickapoo Campaign,” in “The Man that Was Used Up.”

The proximate causes of Poe’s interlude in the U.S. Army—a peacetime standing force reduced to an underfunded core of regulars, divided between isolated coastal defenses and frontier outposts— can be traced to a pedestrian set of personal circumstances, namely, leaving the University of Virginia after only one semester, under a cloud of unpaid debts. In Charlottesville Poe was a dreamy son of actors, alone among faculty pedants and unruly classmates—mainly rich, philistine, plantation young bloods. During this time he was also spurned by his childhood sweetheart, Elmira Royster, and plunged into a bitter quarrel and endless rounds of recrimination with his rich guardian and financial benefactor, John Allan. Allan had sent him off to college but refused to supply appropriate funds. Pressured—perhaps overwhelmed—by these circumstances, Poe assumed the name Henri Le Rennet and ran off to Boston, where on May 26, 1827, giving another new name, Edgar A. Perry; a new age, 22 (he was actually 18); and a new occupation, “clerk,” he signed enlistment papers for the U.S. Army.

More or less simultaneously with his enlistment, he paid Calvin Tomas, a printer his own age, to publish his first book of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems. Authorship was attributed to “a Bostonian.” Its meager run of copies disappeared almost without a trace. It would eventually become the holy grail of American book collectors. By enlisting in the army, Poe effectively acted out the fate of the character in his beloved first book—that is, he got lost and started a new life.

Later, Poe would write more stories about Byronic-Napoleonic interludes in Greece, Russia, and France—in the vein of 20th-century military vagabonds running of to join the French Foreign Legion. These legends were Poe’s characteristic way of making up for the hard American facts of his existence—his reduced status as the fallen son of a doomed English actress and the abandoned scion of a profligate, cowardly, drunken offspring of a Revolutionary War quartermaster general, the source of the family’s claim to fame. Vanish from his earlier world Poe did, and in Battery H of the First Regiment of Artillery, then quartered in Boston Harbor, he achieved the anonymity he wanted, and with it came low pay, cruelty, and boredom.

As an enlisted man, Poe found himself among immigrants and displaced unskilled laborers, plus a fair share of America’s ne’er-do-wells, petty criminals, drunkards, bankrupts, and illiterates. Fortunately for a person of his capabilities, some intellectual prestige and professional respect may have attended being in the artillery—along with the engineers, considered an elite branch of the army. Like the engineers, artillerists could be found mainly along the Eastern Seaboard in established posts and coastal fortifications—as opposed to being consigned to the Western stockades or the disease-ridden Florida swamps to keep an eye on the Seminoles. In the artillery, real skills were required, such as reading and comprehending drill and gunnery manuals, responding to complex instructions, and making mathematical calculations. Poe may also have benefited from his knowledge of French, regarded as the language of military science.

After basic training, Poe was quickly designated an artificer, that is, one to be trusted for the ability to translate theory into technological know-how and professional practice. Evidently, he was also the kind of enlisted soldier who catches the eye of unit officers. Accordingly, with his intelligence, literacy, neatness, and good manners, a kind of general military bearing suggesting officer-class origins, Poe became in short order an administrative functionary with broad responsibilities, akin to those of a unit clerk and staff assistant. He soon rose to the rank of regimental sergeant major, at the time the highest noncommissioned officer rating in the army.

The remainder of Poe’s enlisted experience must be largely reckoned on knowledge about his major duty stations. His stay at Boston’s Fort Independence was brief and mainly for training. To some degree civilized and metropolitan, the fort was old and well established, with barracks and housing for dependents. Fort Moultrie, a major coastal city fortification in South Carolina, stood beside the channel into Charleston Harbor on a godforsaken sandy tract of scrub oak, sea grass, and swamp called Sullivan’s Island. In the late 1820s, it was everything one might have imagined: hot, fetid, and disease infested, a place of ghostly shipwreck terrors and pirate legends. It was Poe’s one real experience of a place that might be considered truly exotic and tropical. Accordingly, it became the source of one of his most distinctive atmospheric tales and the most widely known use of his military travel as a setting for literature: “The Gold Bug.”

Fortress Monroe, on the coast of Virginia, was Poe’s last posting. Although comparably forlorn in geography, it was then the site of one of the army’s Schools of Practice, in this case for the artillery; accordingly, it was among the most well-established and militarily civilized installations.

There is some question as to whether Poe wrote poetry while at any of his duty stations, but what is known is that he must have assembled and prepared for publication the contents of a second volume, Al Araaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems while at Fortress Monroe. There, whether in answer to the call of poetic vocation or in response to the drudgery and boredom of enlisted service, Poe began agitating for release from the army.

After negotiating for a replacement enlisted man (a common practice at the time), Poe decided, under some duress, to apply to West Point. Poe’s exceptional performance as an enlisted soldier, his high intelligence, military bearing, and gentlemanly manners had already won him the notice of various superior officers, many of them drawn from the upper social classes. As part of the application process, he solicited and obtained the endorsements of former commanders and augmented those with testimonials squeezed out of others of important rank and political influence. Aver many months of corresponding, petitioning, waiting, and personal trips—including a walk from Baltimore, where Poe had found temporary housing with his Aunt Maria Clemm, to Washington to meet with Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war, John Eaton— his application was advanced with help from his stepfather, John Allan, whose connections provided a letter endorsing Poe from Mississippi senator Powhatan Ellis. Poe got in. Arriving at West Point and passing entrance exams, in June 1830, he enrolled in the new summer and fall class.

At West Point: Entire legends have been propagated about the author’s sojourn there—not least by West Point historians delighted to have such a colorful subject among the ranks. His record at West Point was short and mostly unhappy—although less than the academic and military disaster that has been claimed. Poe proved good at studies in which he had training, and again, his French served him well. He is alleged to have been poor at other subjects, notably mathematics, though this is belied by his initial record, which placed him 17th among 80-some cadets at the end of first semester.

Much has been made of Poe’s West Point fondness for alcohol, including regular over-the-wall outings to the tavern of the legendary Benny Havens, along with drinking and feasting escapades in barracks and cruel and strange practical jokes (a comparable legend of indiscipline was compiled by a Mississippi young blood named Jefferson Davis). In fact, Poe seems to have been an average offender.

At 21, he was older than most cadets— many were in their early teens—and did not take to their adolescent antics. In the classroom, he was a classic example of the quick study, reputedly mastering the day’s homework on the spot while others recited. As a former NCO, he didn’t like the cadet-style discipline and drill—mandatory formations, inspections, the tedious small-change of regimentation, which, as a gifted enlisted man, he had found ways of avoiding. In the military expressions of our own era, it all must have seemed so Mickey Mouse or, in author Paul Fussell’s inimitable phrasing, chickenshit.

Poe’s fall from grace at West Point took the shape of an early second-semester plummet. Again, personal disaster seems to have been precipitated by a renewal of hostilities with his erstwhile guardian and sometime benefactor Allan, who was by then a new husband and father of twins. Poe, in the course of covering a debt problem in securing a replacement for his enlisted position, got into some nasty correspondence with Allan, including a letter branding Allan a drunkard. In response, Allan announced his final, irrevocable disownment of Poe. Poe’s counterthreat to get himself thrown out of the academy was something Allan could not prevent and was easily accomplished. Records show class absences, formations missed, orders disobeyed. One alleged offense—under orders to appear on the parade ground with “crossed belts, under arms,” that is, wearing cartridge belts crossed over the chest and carrying a weapon, he arrived with the required items but otherwise naked—was probably an urban legend. Dwight Eisenhower, it should be noted, was accused of a similar caper.

Poe set about compiling a mountainous record of specific infractions: six absences from evening parade; seven from reveille call; six from class parade; one from guard mount; one from church parade. He stopped going to class for two straight weeks. Court-martial proceedings were instituted.

In the event, Poe was free of the U.S. Army, through a court-martial. The specific charges were gross neglect of duty and insubordination—refusal to obey the order of a superior officer. Had he still been an enlisted man, such disobedience would have brought severe penalties. Under combat conditions, they could have been worse. In Poe’s case, dismissal from the West Point corps of cadets was more like getting thrown out of college. There was a parting—perhaps delusional—shot: The poet drafted an official letter to Superintendent Sylvanus Tayer asking for an endorsement as a candidate for an officer appointment in the Polish Army. There is no record of Tayer’s issuing a reply.

Poe returned to the civilian world in a characteristic aura of rebellion, disgrace, and resentment. With the record of what would now be a dishonorable discharge, he launched himself as a literary figure, though he carried along a fatal instinct for self-destruction. But from the experience of his service came a legacy of short stories, and the opening to his 1831 Poems read, “To the U.S. Corps of Cadets Tis Volume is Respectfully Dedicated.”

 

Philip Beidler’s most recent book is The Victory Album: Reflections on the Good Life After the Good War (2010), a personal and social history of growing up in post–World War II America.

Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.

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