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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
Allan was reluctant to help his ungrateful ward, in spite of hearty recommendations from Poe’s officers. But on February 28, 1829, Mrs. Allan died; on her deathbed she pleaded with her husband to help her favorite. When Poe returned home on leave the night after the burial, Allan’s conscience was strong enough to effect a formal reconciliation.
Under the regulations of the day a man could be discharged from the Army if he could find an acceptable substitute. One of Poe’s comrades, Sergeant Samuel “Bully” Graves, had finished his current enlistment and agreed to re-enlist in “Edgar Perry’s” place for the sum of seventy-five dollars. Poe paid him twenty-five dollars and gave him a note for the remaining fifty, which Allan agreed to pay. The guardian subsequently sent Poe one hundred dollars, fifty of which were to go to Bully; but whether Poe paid off his debt to Bully is, unfortunately, not certain. At any rate Poe was discharged on April 15, 1829, somehow still in debt to Sergeant Graves, a debt that would have serious consequences for him later.
Poe went to Washington to present his letters to the Secretary of War, then in May took up residence in Baltimore, living in near-destitution. Here he published his second volume of poetry (his first had been published at his own expense in Boston before he entered the Army). In January, 1830, circumstances forced him to return to Richmond, where he and Allan managed to live together in a strained atmosphere. Serious quarrelling erupted through the mails shortly after Poe’s departure for West Point; Allan accused him of stealing some books. Poe’s reply, in a letter of June 28 from the academy, was “I have taken nothing except what I considered my own property.” There was no longer a Mrs. Allan to intercede for him.
Poe passed his West Point entrance examinations easily, but lied about his age a second time because the academy required that entering cadets be younger than twenty-one. Though he was actually twenty-one years and five months old, he gave his age as nineteen years, five months.
On June 23 the new class stored its equipment in North Barracks and moved across the parade ground to set up summer encampment on the site of Fort Clinton, the fortress that had made West Point a key position in the Revolutionary War. The new cadets still ate in the mess hall, but they slept on the ground in their small, sparsely accoutered tents; until August 19, when an order forbade it, they bathed in the Hudson.
On the first of July the new class was admitted to the corps of cadets and the summer encampment began in earnest. The discipline was very strict—cadets were permitted a few personal possessions and nothing else—and the work was hard. They rose at five-thirty and drilled for an hour before breakfast. Another hour, later in the morning, euphemistically labeled artillery drill, consisted mainly of hauling ponderous artillery pieces about the parade grounds, as the academy had no horses yet. There were three hours of afternoon and evening drill, and each cadet stood guard duty at least once a week.
Finally on August 13 summer encampment ended, and the corps of cadets returned to barracks for the beginning of the academic year. Cadet E. A. Poe, sadly disappointed with his rigorous introduction to life at West Point, moved into Room 28 on the second floor of South Barracks.
Poe’s two roommates were Thomas W. Gibson of Indiana and Timothy Pickering Jones of Tennessee; neither would graduate. Gibson was to be court-martialed with Poe and four times afterward too—once for setting fire to the icehouse, twice for “Drinking, or otherwise partaking of intoxicating liquors,” and finally for setting fire to a small building near the barracks after first disabling all nearby pumps. Each time, until the final incident, Gibson was dismissed by the court-martial but returned to duty by order of the Secretary of War. Jones, the other roommate, was court-martialed and dismissed in mid-November of 1830 for refusing to attend classes and formations—his method of circumventing the academy regulation that no cadet could resign without written permission from his parents. The lesson was not lost on Poe.
On September 1 academics began, and Poe learned the secret of good education that Colonel Thayer had brought back from his studies in Europe: thoroughness. Every cadet recited at the blackboard in every subject every day; five days a week there were nine hours of recitation daily. The subjects of primary importance were French, mathematics, natural and experimental philosophy (physics and chemistry), and engineering, but the new fourth class studied French and mathematics almost exclusively—and the mathematics textbooks were in French. All of a cadet’s time was accounted for, and only about a half hour a day was allocated for recreation.
In this new atmosphere Poe seemed at first to thrive. He had far more free time than his classmates, as he never had to study hard; it became a matter of class tradition that he never spent more than two minutes preparing a lesson, a legend that still survives about him at the academy.