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Orlando M. Poe, Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer

by Paul Taylor, Kent State University Press, 2009, $65

When the U.S. Military Academy was established in West Point, N.Y., in 1802, early officials envisioned that its primary study focus would be artillery and engineering, but during the Civil War the academy’s best-known graduates were achieving public renown mainly for other skills. Knowledge of engineering still played a vital role in both armies, however, and among its most prominent practitioners was Orlando Metcalfe Poe.

For all his talents, Poe’s Civil War career is a case study in how political backing— or the lack of it—can be more critical toward one’s professional advancement than talent and achievement. Poe’s engineering abilities, which included topography and mapmaking, were instrumental in the early Union victory at Rich Mountain, Va., and made him an invaluable member of Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s staff. When McClellan fell out of favor, however, Poe’s career nosedived along with him. Denied the brigadier general’s position he coveted, Captain Poe was “banished” to the Western theater, where as chief engineer to Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman he carried out the order to burn Atlanta in 1864, and built the roads and bridges that made Sherman’s March to the Sea possible.

The respect and friendship he earned from Sherman ultimately recouped Poe’s fortunes at the end of the war, when he finally achieved the rank of brevet brigadier general. After serving with distinction on the Lighthouse Board, designing and erecting vitally needed lighthouses on the Great Lakes, Poe was recalled in 1874 by newly appointed General of the Army Sherman to rejoin his staff as an aide de camp. With Sherman’s retirement in 1884, Poe’s final years were spent designing locks for the Soo Canal, including what, upon completion in 1896, was the largest shipping lock in the world at Saulte Ste. Marie, Michigan.

Taylor’s Orlando M. Poe stands out among Civil War biographies for its comprehensive treatment of its subject at both the personal and professional level. Readers with an interest in the United States’ formative years during and following the Civil War will find it an exceptionally detailed look at a man very much of his time, who played a significant role in shaping his country’s future.


Originally published in the March 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here