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Cadet Edgar Allan Poe
The young poet became a legendary plebe in the few painful months he spent at West Point
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
One morning in June, 1830, Edgar Allan Poe rode the steamer from New York up the Hudson River to West Point. His spirits, like his expectations, were uncharacteristically high. He was about to become a cadet at the United States Military Academy, but he anticipated only a brief cadet career; with his prior military experience he expected to be an officer soon.
The academy Poe was entering was only twenty-eight years old, but under the guidance of its superintendent, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, it was already beginning to establish a wide reputation as the nation’s first engineering college. It was still a small institution, though, and an isolated one; its twenty-five or thirty buildings, laid out haphazardly in the idyllically beautiful Hudson scene, presented what was later described as “the effect of a somewhat irregular village.”
New Cadet Poe was quartered with his future classmates in the South Barracks and began preparation for his entrance examinations. South Barracks was the academy’s principal cadet quarters, a three-story building of stone masonry whose eleven-footsquare rooms the cadets shared in twos and threes. The only furniture permitted in the rooms—and supplied by the cadets themselves—was a washbasin, two buckets, one small table, three chairs, bookshelves, and a musket rack above the open fireplace. The cadets slept on narrow mattresses spread on the floor and in winter were forced to study wrapped in bedding, as the barracks were severely cold.
The members of the future class of 1834 spent a good part of June preparing themselves for the oral entrance examinations, principally in “English grammar, geography, and the principles of arithmetic.” The cadets drilled two and a half hours each day and received instruction for two hours in the morning; the remaining time was spent studying. Clearly it was an unadorned, Spartan existence they were entering into, harder duty than the former Sergeant Major Poe was accustomed to. On June 28 he wrote his guardian, John Allan of Richmond, that “the Regulations are rigid in the extreme.”
Neither Poe’s motives for coming to West Point nor his behavior as a cadet can be understood apart from his explosive relationship with this man John Allan. Many of the minor facts of Poe’s curious military career are unknown today, providing latitude for prolonged scholarly debate over his reasons and his personal integrity. His actions at West Point have always seemed particularly confusing and contradictory, but his correspondence with Allan makes it clear that their relationship had reached a critical point and that the young poet was deeply disturbed. Comparisons of the military records of the academy with his letters make it possible for us to speculate with some assurance about his stormy state of mind and the motives that caused him both to enter West Point and to leave it, changing the course of his life.
Poe’s parents, both relatively obscure actors, died before he was three, and he was taken home, though never officially adopted, by Mrs. Frances Allan, a friend of his mother’s. She spoiled the child, and he adored her; John Allan, a junior partner in a prosperous general merchandising firm, became a stern but just father and made no secret of his pride in the boy’s “precocious and pretty ways.” Edgar Poe became the darling of the family and merged its name into his.
In the fall of 1824 the young Poe, quite by accident, discovered evidence of his foster father’s marital infidelity with a lady in Richmond. It was the beginning of the bitterness between them, and Poe appointed himself his foster mother’s champion in the family quarrels. Allan sent the lad off to the University of Virginia in February of 1826 but allowed him only a pittance to live on. The school at the time was attended largely by the sons of rich, aristocratic families, and Poe fell in with them wholeheartedly. In less than a year he had run up over twenty-five hundred dollars in debts, and Allan, bombarded with letters from creditors, decided not to let him return.
Further arguments between guardian and ward began at once. Allan wanted him to read law, but Poe already had notions of a literary career. The first real break occurred in March of 1827; following a violent argument Poe left home.
On May 26, 1827, he enlisted in the Army under the assumed name of Edgar A. Perry; he lied about his age to make himself seem older. In a day when the lower ranks of the Army were made up principally of foreign mercenaries and native Americans were greatly favored, he rose rapidly through the ranks. On the first of January, 1829, as a member of the First Artillery, stationed at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, he was promoted to sergeant major, the highest noncommissioned rank.
Duty at Fortress Monroe, especially for a noncommissioned officer, was the softest in the United States Army. Poe had very few military duties and was permitted to fraternize with the officers. It was pleasant but a bit discouraging; twenty-year-old Poe had risen as far as he could without a commission. Now, however, he saw a way to advance himself beyond the ranks and to regain the favor (and, perhaps, the inheritance) of his guardian. He wrote to Allan, apologizing for their disagreements and asking for his help in obtaining an appointment to West Point: ”… having already passed thro the practical part even the higher portion of the Artillery arm, my cadetship would only be considered as a necessary form which I am positive I could run thro in 6 months.”