In discussions of great American writers who were also military veterans, the name Edgar Allan Poe is unlikely to come up. Yet it should: the iconically doomed poet and inventor of the modern detective story served as a soldier for several of his formative years. Furthermore, in considering a life often marked by painful loss and failure, it might surprise many readers to learn Poe was something of a successful and motivated soldier—that is, until he wasn’t.
After leaving the University of Virginia without a degree (and with significant gambling debts) Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1827 under an assumed name: Edgar A. Perry. It’s unclear why he fudged the official rolls but he may have been reluctant to use his real name for the lingering sake of propriety. “Enlisted soldier” was not a profession typically undertaken by honorable young men in the early 19th century, a time when, paradoxically, Revolutionary War heroes were being venerated by the same dominant culture that looked with scorn upon real-life grunts. Relatively small by today’s standards, the army’s ranks at the time were disproportionately composed of immigrants, many of whom spoke little English: Germans, Irish, and others.
Poe’s exact reasons for wanting to join this motley crew are lost to history. Most likely his motivations were various and complicated, as people’s tend to be. He did not get along well with his foster father, John Allan, who refused to continue supporting him financially. His first book of poems, published the same year as his enlistment, was far from a commercial success. He was a young man in want of a glorious and paying career, and as a boy he would have heard stories of his grandfather David Poe, a major in George Washington’s army. The elder Poe was semi-famous in Baltimore and was remembered and liked by such luminaries as General Lafayette. There is evidence from “Private Perry’s” letters that Poe bragged of this association.
A fated romantic sensibility may have led Poe to attempt to reprise the grand deeds of his ancestor. With his change of name and choice of a disreputable profession, it also seems he wanted to recreate himself, radically obliterating his genteel origins in Richmond society. His biographers have tended to characterize his enlistment in these terms, as an act of youthful adventurism or escapism. His enlistment may have been partly that, but it’s worth pointing out that Poe could have gone to sea, ventured west to the frontier, or otherwise escaped his polite upbringing with any number of drastic courses of action that did not involve soldiering.
Something about the grit and lethal glamour of martial life must have appealed to him, and he excelled during his initial period of army service. Assigned to an artillery unit, he was promoted in only two years to sergeant major, the highest enlisted rank. His superior officers no doubt valued his university education, an exceptionally rare trait for a private soldier. They made him first a clerk, responsible for the unit’s paperwork, and then eventually, his battery’s “artificer,” a now-archaic job that involved calculating explosive loads and fuse lengths for artillery shells.
To be an artificer was to occupy a position of life-and-death responsibility. More than valorous acts of heroism, one’s success or failure on the battlefield would depend on mechanical know-how and attention to detail. As a side benefit, the position came with twice the pay and a daily ration of liquor, best applied conservatively. A miniscule error in a shell’s construction could result in premature detonation and the death of a gun crew. Poe’s promotion to artificer after only a year or so in service was a recognition of his competence, hard work, precision craftsmanship, and keenly applied scientific intellect, all qualities that would later manifest in his writing, and especially his theorizing about poetry, which often reads more like a technical manual than a cry from the heart.
After serving for a while as sergeant major and artificer, he managed to climb the ladder further, securing a spot at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he trained to become a commissioned officer. His military and writing careers overlapped the most here: his early book, Poems, was dedicated, “To the U.S. Corps of Cadets,” with its printing costs funded by pre-sales to his West Point classmates, who may have been led to believe (mistakenly) that the book would contain more of the ridiculous doggerel lampooning the academy’s officers that had made Poe popular among his peers.
The evidence indicates he toed the line as an enlisted man. The same cannot be said of his time at the service academy. He entered West Point in 1830 and was court-martialed and discharged the next year. Numerous tall tales have circulated about his misdeeds as a cadet: that he often passed out drunk on campus after visits to a local tavern; that he was known to start food fights with baked potatoes lobbed in the mess hall; that he showed up to drill naked except for a hat and a cartridge belt; and most outrageously, that he murdered his tactical officer by throwing him into the Hudson River.
In reality, the truth of Poe’s departure from the army was more mundane. Records indicate he cut classes, drill, and chapel too often to make the grade. His drinking has been mythically exaggerated in its frequency and volume, but alcohol did not agree with him and may have contributed to his delinquency—or maybe not. Amazingly, his two initial roommates at West Point were also court-martialed and discharged, in their cases, for drunkenness and other violations. In interviews given long after the fact, one of these former roommates recalled Poe was often drunk, while the other claimed he had never seen Poe drink. Accounts suggest the former roommate was a liar, and the latter, a pyromaniac. Anyway, there’s no mention of alcohol in any of the numerous and detailed charges laid against Poe by the army, which was aggressively prosecuting drunkenness at the time.
The issue of drinking aside, another factor in Poe’s disgraceful exit from West Point was likely the death of his beloved foster mother in 1829, which could only have reopened old psychic wounds related to the death of his biological mother in early childhood. His foster father subsequently remarried in 1830, which effectively cut Poe out of any possible inheritance. Writing 10 years after his court martial, he suggested he had intentionally sabotaged his career in the army because “it does not suit a poor man.”
Like the University of Virginia, West Point now takes a morbid pride in laying claim to the site of one of Poe’s many flameouts. Once purely a black sheep, he’s now embraced by both institutions as a distinguished quasi-alumnus. Of the two, his association with Virginia is better known, with his military service passing mostly unremarked among civilians, even those familiar with his literary output. This is no doubt due to the fact that he was all but silent on the page with regard to his time in the army. One must stretch and scrimp to find any overt military touchstones in his work.
The idea of Cadet Poe, however, is fairly well known among West Point students and faculty. Peter Molin, both a UVA graduate and a former English professor at West Point, described Poe to me as “one of the original bad boys” in the academy’s lore. “There is a tradition of cadets who either were bad boys in the ranks or who turned out to be infamous more than famous, a counter-narrative to the legacy of heroes,” Molin said. As for other cadets who would fit into this tradition, he went on to name the artist James McNeill Whistler (dismissed for insubordination by Commandant Robert E. Lee) and the LSD advocate Timothy Leary (forced to resign after lying to the honor committee about drinking).
I was never at West Point, and while I spent time at UVA and in the enlisted ranks, and picked up a couple English degrees after that, my knowledge of Poe as a veteran comes entirely by way of Molin, especially through his championing of William F. Hecker, author of Private Perry and Mister Poe. Most of the biographical facts and big ideas in this piece derive from that book. Hecker is one of the few scholars to have rigorously considered Poe’s military career as it relates to his poetic sensibility. This approach is novel in the wider field of Poe studies but not surprising given Hecker’s similarities with his subject. Both he and Poe were artillerymen with a literary bent. Sadly, Major Hecker was killed in action in Najaf, Iraq, in 2006. This essay is dedicated to his memory and to the hope that, in his words, more of us would begin to “publicly discourse about the critical and symbiotic relationship between the American nation, its literature, and its military.”
Lo! Death hath rear’d himself a throne
In a strange city, all alone,
Far down within the dim west—
And the good, and the bad, and the worst, and the best,
Have gone to their eternal rest.