Edgar Allan Poe’s military career? Nevermore!

(Detail from Poe’s court-martial record)
(Source: Library of Congress)
(Source: Library of Congress)

“Charge 1 . . . Gross neglect of Duty.”
“Charge 2 . . . Disobedience of Orders.”

On January 28, 1831, a court-martial convened at the U.S. Military Academy found the defendant guilty of these charges and “adjudg[ed] that the Cadet E. A. Poe be dismissed.”

So ended Edgar Allan Poe’s short career at West Point. He had been admitted to the academy on July 1, 1830, and nearly seven months later, he was out.

In those months, he accumulated an impressive record—though not of the sort to which a cadet usually aspired. The Conduct Roll for July–December 1831 lists the number of offenses committed by cadets and their corresponding demerits. Poe’s name appears about midway down the list of top offenders, with 44 offenses and 106 demerits for the term. The roll for January alone shows Poe at the top of the list with 66 offenses for the month. It would appear that Poe was trying very hard to get kicked out of West Point.

As an example of his neglect of duty, the charges listed his absences from mathematics class “on the 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25 and 26 January 1831.” Just two months earlier, a weekly class report had ranked him among the best students in mathematics. The Consolidated Weekly Class Reports are quite interesting to read. They list the best and worst students in the academic subjects for each week. Poe also placed among the best in French for several weeks.

Selection from the court-martial trial case file of Edgar Allen Poe. (Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1821-1920, RG 393; ARC 301660)
Selection from the court-martial trial case file of Edgar Allan Poe. (Records of U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1821-1920, RG 393; National Archives Identifier 301660)

A 1998 Archives exhibit, “American Originals,” displayed Poe’s court-martial record, and the curator noted that “Poe did well academically but was soon undone by continuing quarrels with his foster father and money problems. During his first term, he decided to leave West Point but could not resign without the consent of his foster father. When Allen did not consent, Poe set out to get himself court-martialed and dismissed.”

Other records in the National Archives relating to Edgar Allan Poe’s military career include enlistment papers and muster rolls from when he served in the U.S. Army from 1827 to 1829, a register of cadet applications to West Point, and letters of recommendation to support his application.

Seven pages from the court-martial case file and Poe’s 1827 Army enlistment papers (under the name Edgar A. Perry) are online and accessible through the National Archives Catalog at Archives.gov. The other records are not digitized yet but are on microfilm (Publication M2031). Although you can’t have instant access to them through a convenient link, if you’re in the neighborhood of the National Archives in Washington, DC, think about dropping in. Poe makes for fascinating reading even if he’s not the author.

7 thoughts on “Edgar Allan Poe’s military career? Nevermore!

  1. Creativity is not valued by highly structures organizations like the military, corporations, academia, and others. Neither those who fall below average nor those who rise above average are valued. Poe’s imagination and unusual way of looking at things had to gall both his superiors and fellow cadets. It’s not surprising that he was court-marshaled.

    1. On the contrary, creativity is a rare and valued attribute in these organisations today. The problem is often the inability to comply with the other requirements of these entities.

  2. I won’t disagree with the comment from gboesky, but I think in this case the record proves more that Poe clearly could have succeeded if he wanted to, but didn’t have any interest in being there, so intentionally went for the court-martial.

    1. There is much reason to believe that Poe, for his countenance alone was bullied as is still typical in all the Service academies. It occurs in colleges and universities alike. Poe was different and lived under an abused father with little love or maternal protection and support from his own mother. Thus, his demeanor and social skills were different enough to set him in opposition to students who relished the structure and restrictive regulations of the Academy environment.

  3. All because he was mad at his father for getting remarried and not telling him. This was how he chose to back at his father.

  4. I was a student at the University of Virginia from 1972 to 1976. While there, Edgar Allen Poe’s room on the Range was cordoned off. From the open door, we could see that there was a poem etched on the window. We clawed through the bushed behind, to the window, held up a mirror and read thus: ” O THOU TIMID ONE, REST NOT THy SPIRIT IN SLUMBER WITHIN THESE UNHALLOWED WALLS. FOR HEREIN LIES THE GHOST OF AN AWFUL CRIME.” The window was broken before I graduated. I hope that poem is recorded somewhere as Poe’s. He was a haunted soul! He was expelled from UVA, as he was from the military academy. At UVA he was expelled for cheating, I believe. UVA had an honor code with only one punishment for lying, stealing or cheating: expulsion.

    1. This is so interesting. Thanks for sharing. The most gifted were often the least appreciated, during their lives.

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