June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
The young poet became a legendary plebe in the few painful months he spent at West Point
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.”
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.
His reputation among both cadets and professors was not entirely due to his facility in academics, however. At twenty-one his health was already beginning to fail, and his face, which Gibson described as “worn, weary, discontented,” added a decade to the age difference between him and his classmates. He was outraged at a story some classmates had perpetrated that he had procured a cadet’s appointment for his son and then taken his place upon the boy’s death. George Washington Cullum, in the class ahead of Poe, remembered he had the “look of a man marked for an early death.”
Poe was pleased, however, by another rumor current in the corps: that he was a grandson of Benedict Arnold. He pointedly refused to deny it and seemed to enjoy fostering an aura of mystery about himself; he told his friends little of his former life.
Like most of the cadets of his time—and for two decades to come—Poe more than once sneaked away from the barracks during the evening to patronize the tavern of Benny Havens, just outside the gate. Jones claims that Poe was often drunk, but none of his other friends remember it and there is no record of his ever having been punished for drinking (as were so many others). Furthermore, Jones proves himself a highly impeachable source in his long, detailed reminiscence of Poe’s farewell to his roommates, written three months after Jones himself had been dismissed. Stories about Poe’s drinking feats still persist at the academy, but Gibson, usually a reliable source, was probably nearest the truth: “I don’t think he was ever intoxicated while at the Academy, but he had already acquired the more dangerous habit of constant drinking.”
Poe filled the study hours in barracks with vigorous discourse—generally a monologue—on English literature, and in composing poems lampooning the officers at the academy. Both his memory and his knowledge of English literature were exceptional, and he could hold forth on the English classics for hours. “The whole bent of his mind at that time seemed to be toward criticism—or, more properly speaking, caviling,” says Gibson. “Whether it was Shakespeare or Byron, Addison or Johnson—the acknowledged classic or the latest poetaster—all came in alike for his critical censure. … I never heard him speak in terms of praise of any English writer, living or dead.”
Cullum was probably correct in saying that Poe’s comrades thought him “slightly cracked.” As one classmate wrote home several months later: “He is thought a fellow of talent here but he is too mad a poet to like mathematics.” The matter of his popularity among his classmates was ultimately decided, however, in his favor because of his verses caricaturing the officers; he recited them often to unfailingly appreciative audiences. A typical one was about Lieutenant Joseph Lorenzo Locke of the department of tactics and concerned the reporting of cadets for infringements of regulations:
The satiric lines were not Poe’s only poetic efforts. He was now working sporadically on contributions to a new volume that he would bring out the following year, but the writing did not come easily. The academic atmosphere at West Point was as severe as its military discipline; despite the excellence of its engineering education, the academy was hardly a sympathetic surrounding for a young romantic poet searching for his voice. The cadet regulations for 1830 reveal how sparse his sources of inspiration were:
Cadets are allowed to take from the Library only such books as are calculated to assist them in their class studies. No cadet shall enter beyond the Librarian’s table or take down any book from its place.
No cadet shall keep in his room any novel, poem, or other book, not relating to his studies, without permission from the Superintendent.
On October 1 Cadet Poe, like his classmates, signed a paper obligating him to five years’ service in the Army. Four days later, in Richmond, John Allan remarried. These were two contributions to Poe’s deteriorating outlook, and the final one would follow shortly. He now realized the futility of his hopes for a quick success at the academy and in the officer corps; gloomy years of hard work stretched before him. Further, it was now also apparent that despite his academic abilities he would not be at the head of his class. He was doing well enough to attract the attention of Colonel Thayer, but then, the superintendent made it a practice to know all of his cadets by name.
His guardian’s remarriage was a sudden and more serious disappointment. Though Poe probably could not know that the new wife had borne Allan’s illegitimate twins in July, he was convinced she was a fortune hunter; he knew well enough that her presence dealt a severe blow to his hopes for an inheritance. Moreover, he was arguing with Allan again about money. It was customary for cadets to receive allowances from home to supplement their meager twenty-eightdollar-a-month cadet pay, but despite all entreaty Allan would send nothing and Poe was impoverished. He owed money to classmates, and probably to Benny Havens.
Despite all this, Poe, still flushed with the ease of his academic success and hoping to regain Allan’s favor, wrote to his guardian on the sixth of November: “I have a very excellent Standing in my class—in the first section in everything and have great hopes of doing well. … I am very much pleased with Colonel Thayer, and indeed with everything at the institution …”
Suddenly the storm hit. When Poe left the First Artillery in 1829, he had left owing money to “Bully” Graves, whether the re-enlistment money or perhaps a gambling debt. In his correspondence to Bully, Poe speaks of his debts to him and to a Sergeant Griffith at the same time, promising to pay as soon as possible. Shortly before leaving for the academy, having successfully kept his army creditors at bay for more than a year, Poe wrote Graves one more letter, describing his destitute state and promising to give them the money as soon as he could get it from his guardian, which he was having great difficulty doing. He used an unfortunate excuse: “Mr. A is not very often sober—.”
Now, in November, having heard nothing from Poe since he entered the academy, Bully finally lost his patience and sent the letter to Poe’s guardian. Allan was hurt, for he still had some respect for Poe, but his overwhelming reaction was cold, persistent outrage. As Mrs. Allan later remarked, with a touch of vehemence, he “sent him the money and banished Poe from his affections.” In December Allan sent a letter to Poe cursing him and formally breaking all ties, ordering “no further communication.”
Poe’s reply, on January 3, 1831, clearly touches the spirit of all the difficulties between the two men, and the confused, anguished state of the young romantic:
I suppose, (altho’ you desire no further communication with yourself, on my part,) that your restriction does not extend to my answering your final letter …
Did I, when an infant, sollicit your charity and protection, or was it of your own free will, that you volunteered your services in my behalf? [He speaks of his poverty at the University of Virginia and Allan’s condemnation.] … I call God to witness that I have never loved dissipation—Those who know me know that my pursuits and habits are very far from anything of the kind. But I was drawn into it by my companions.
You sent me to W. Point like a beggar. The same difficulties are threatening me as before at Charlottesville—and I must resign. ’
As regards Sergt. Graves—I did write him that letter. As to the truth of its contents, I leave it to God, and your own conscience.—The time in which I wrote it was within a half hour after you had embittered every feeling of my heart against you by your abuse of my family [Allan had on several occasions made references to the illegitimacy of Poe’s sister] and myself, under your own roof—and at a time when you knew that my heart was almost breaking.
I have no more to say—except that my future life (which thank God will not endure long) must be passed in indigence and sickness. I have no energy left, nor health. If it was possible, to put up with the fatigues of this place, and the inconveniences which my absolute want of necessaries subject me to, and as I mentioned before it is my intention to resign. For this end it will be necessary that you (as my nominal guardian) enclose me your written permission. It will be useless to refuse me this last request—for I can leave the place without any permission—your refusal would only deprive me of the little pay which is now due as mileage.
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.
On the outside of this strangely confused plea (it was folded into its own envelope) is a note in John Allan’s hand: “I rec d this on the ioth & did not from its conclusion deem it necessary to reply. I make this note on the 10th & can see no good Reason to alter my opinion. I do not think the Boy has one good quality. He may do or act as he pleases, tho’ I w d have saved him but [not] on his own terms & conditions since I cannot believe a word he writes. His letter is the most barefaced one sided statement.” The final break had occurred.
The pay of which Poe speaks in his letter is the travel pay allotted to cadets, which dismissed cadets did not receive; since he had no intention of returning home, he needed it desperately.
The very day—the third of January—on which he wrote the letter, Poe, with the rest of the corps, took a series of examinations ordered by the inspector general. Failure of these examinations meant dismissal, but Poe passed them with excellent grades. When the class standings for the first semester were published on January 9, Poe stood third in French and seventeenth in mathematics in his class of sixty-seven.
In the six days between writing Allan and the announcement of the test results something had gone seriously wrong. Brooding in his room, reading and rereading Allan’s letter of condemnation, the young poet felt disappointment and frustration multiplying in his mind. The total collapse of his fortune, the failure of all the expectations he had desperately been keeping alive, his utter helplessness in his situation, drove him into a frenzy. He refused all intercourse with roommates and classmates. On January 7, the fourth day after writing the letter, he began missing formations.
He knew that Allan could not possibly have received his letter, but apparently he was not yet calculatingly seeking expulsion. His state of mind seems as confused as it was desperate. He wanted Allan’s permission so that he could receive his pay, and as a sign of Allan’s partial understanding, even forgiveness; yet he may also have wanted to disgrace his foster father for all his past cruelties and the present injustice—to defame Allan’s earnestly sought respectability, to begin the retribution—but he had to wait for his answer to be sure.
After missing all formations for three days Poe regained his equilibrium and began attending class again on Monday the tenth. Surprisingly, no direct punishment ensued. All that week he attended classes with erratic faithfulness, hoping for his answer. By the end of the week nothing had come. On Saturday he once again began absenting himself from all formations and stayed in his room, eating little, for a week.
Finally, on January 23, the officer of the day entered his room and ordered Poe to attend chapel; resolutely he refused. He was placed under arrest. Two days later, in the academy’s final attempt, he was once again ordered to attend class and again refused.
Poe’s court-martial was convened on January 28 (Gibson was also tried for violating cadet limits). He was charged with two specifications of gross neglect of duties and also disobedience of orders; he pleaded not guilty to one specification of gross neglect in order to ensure his dismissal upon conviction, and guilty to the rest. He was not represented by counsel, and the character testimony of his only witness, classmate John Henderson, was valueless.
His dismissal was to take effect officially on March 6, but on February 19 he left the academy for New York City. On the twenty-first he sent Allan a pitiful letter begging for money and describing his distressed state:
I left West Point two days ago and travelling to N. York without a cloak or any other clothing of importance, I have caught a most violent cold and am confined to my bed. … I shall never rise from my bed—besides a most violent cold on my lungs my ear discharges blood and matter continually and my headache is distracting. …
A note entered on the back by Allan two years later assures us that the guardian never answered. He thus completed the dissolution of the only family relationship Edgar Poe had ever known.
Poe recovered at least partially from his illness rapidly enough to make sketchy preparations for the publication of the 1831 volume of his verse, Israfel , and then, strangely, to return to West Point. He had received special permission from Colonel Thayer—which indicates the extent of the “mad poet’s” impression upon the educator—to solicit subscriptions for his book among the corps. His classmates subscribed almost to a man, as did many of the upperclassmen, at a dollar twenty-five a volume. This was a measure not of Poe’s personal popularity but of the renown at the academy of his satirical verses, which the cadets believed to be the basis of the book. Poe did not attempt to disillusion them. When the cheaply bound pamphlet finally arrived, containing not a single academy ditty, the cadets were incensed; they had been cheated. Fifty years later the resentment was still strong enough for the venerable George Washington Cullum (who had risen to become superintendent of the academy himself) to remember the now-famous Poe primarily as the author of a book of “ridiculous doggerel.” It may have been largely the book’s fault that Poe’s few contacts with his former classmates in later life were all failures. West Point became an altogether unpleasant memory for him.
Poe’s final formal contact with West Point came on the tenth of March, four days after his official dismissal, when he wrote a strange letter to Colonel Thayer:
Sir, Having no longer any ties which can bind me to my native country—no prospects—nor any friends—I intend by the first opportunity to proceed to Paris with the view of obtaining thro’ the interest of the Marquis de La Fayette, an appointment (if possible) in the Polish Army. In the event of the interference of France in behalf of Poland this may easily be effected—at all events it will be my only feasible plan of procedure.
The object of this letter is respectfully to request that you will give me such assistance as may lie in your power in furtherance of my views.
A certificate of “standing” in my class is all that I have any right to expect. Anything farther—a letter to a friend in Paris—or to the Marquis—would be a kindness which I should never forget.
Most respectfully, Yr. Obt. St., Edgar A Poe.
Some of the scholars who know of the existence of this letter regard it as enlightening concerning Poe’s unbalanced frame of mind at the start of an ill-understood portion of his life. Others, pointing to the possible pun in “Poe-lish,” consider it an obvious though somewhat ill-conceived joke. In history it is generally foolish to say that we will never know something, but this curious letter will probably remain a mystery. Colonel Thayer, at any rate, did not take it seriously. As though in concurrence with John Allan, he never answered it.
Edgar Allan Poe eventually became a fixture of West Point tradition, partly because of his later fame, partly because of his strange behavior as a cadet. The corps itself has embellished the legend of his departure until scarcely a modern cadet knows the truth of it. The most popular version says that Poe was filled suddenly with overwhelming disgust at the academy one evening at retreat parade, and planting his rifle in the ground by its fixed bayonet, carefully placed his full-dress hat upon it and walked from the field and straight through the gate. Another, more flamboyant rendition tells how Poe, already determined to leave, heard the uniform for a parade announced as “white cartridge belts, under arms”; he appeared wearing nothing else and was summarily court-martialed.
Perhaps the most singular aspect of his cadet career, his very failure to graduate or survive even his first year, is what has endeared him to the subsequent legions of the corps. Every cadet dreams many times of alleviating the mental and physical strains of academy life by the simplest of means—removing them entirely—and to each of them in his moment of stress Edgar Allan Poe has become the Man Who Got Away With It.