Text: John H. Ingram, “Chapter 08,” Edgar Allan Poe: Life, Letters, and Opinions (1880), pp. 79-91


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[page 79:]

CHAPTER VIII.

WEST POINT.

IN 1802, the founders of the young republic saw the necessity of officering their troops with skilled soldiers, and, with a foresight their children have not always shown, instituted the West Point Military Academya military school in many respects equal to the best of Europe. Education and subsistence are gratuitous, and a monthly allowance of twenty-eight dollars is made to each of the cadets, so as to place them, as it were, beyond the necessity of appealing to relatives for anything. The course of study covers a period of four years, during which the student is placed under a discipline little less rigid than that of a soldier on active duty. The number of cadets is limited, and very great interest is required, as will be readily comprehended, in order to obtain a nomination.

It was, doubtless, the prospect or promise of receiving a nomination to this institution that induced Poe to return to Mr. Allan’s. General Scott, and other influential friends, interested themselves on the youth’s [page 80:] behalf, and eventually obtained him an appointment. According to the rules of the Military Academy, nominations are not given to candidates after they have attained their twenty-first birthday, consequently Poe was only just in time to receive his appointment. The West Point records show that he was admitted into the institution as a cadet on the 1st of July 1830.

At the time roe was admitted, the Military Academy was anything but a suitable place for the residence of a high-spirited and sensitive youth. The discipline was not only of the most severe description, but the place itself was utterly unfit for the habits of growing lads. An inquiry having been made into the rules and regulations of the institution, in consequence of an excitement caused by the death of some of the cadets, the Board sent in a report to the Secretary of War, about a year previous to the poet’s admission, in which, after the examination of special cases, they said, “With regard to all the cadets, however, it may be averred, that they are constantly tasked to the utmost in the way of mental exertion, while from the nature of the climate, for very nearly an entire moiety of the year, they are, for all the purposes of recreation, debarred from the use of their limbs,” and, to obviate this latter objection, a building for exercise was recommended.

Poe is declared to have entered upon his new [page 81:] mode of living with customary energy — for the idleness which he vaunted to Neal was more in theory than in practice — but he speedily discovered how totally unsuited for him was the strict discipline and monotonous training of such a place as West Point. The wayward and erratic course of existence to which he had been so long accustomed, as well as the fact that he had for so long a time been sole master of his own actions, rendered the restraints of the Academy most galling; nevertheless, that docility and amiability which he generally manifested towards those with whom he came in personal contact, caused him to become a general favourite and a not altogether unhopeful cadet. One of his fellow-cadets, speaking of Poe’s inability to follow the mathematical requirements of the place, says, “His mind was off from the matter-of-fact routine of the drill, which, in such a case as his, seemed practical joking, on some ethereal visionary expedition.” “His utter inefficiency and state of abstractness at that place” were, doubtless, the reasons that caused this authority to deem him “marked for an early death.”

Complaints of the severity of the rules frequently crop up in the press of the period: Niles’ Register for September 19th, 1829, after remarking that [page 82:] “each cadet is to remain four years at the institution, and then serve one year in the military establishmept of the United States,” goes on to state, ” But the service is so strict, and the punishment so uniformly inflicted, that many are suspended or expelled before the expiration of the four years — and it is generally rather a small minority of the whole number that is seen to pass through the whole tour of service; ” finally, the report declares that out of a total of 204 cadets only 26 are without black marks attached to their names. Whether Poe would have been one of the ” small minority ” had not events occurred to render, in his own opinion, his withdrawal requisite, is a debateable subject. According to the most circumstantial account furnished of his residence at West Point,* the poet’s career in the Military Academy was one scarcely calculated to cover him with institutional honours; but Mr. Thomas W. Gibson, its author — a fellow-cadet, and a fellow-prisoner at a subsequent Court-Martial — is occasionally so inaccurate in his memory of the facts, that the whole of his narrative must be received cum granˆ salis.

“Number 28 South Barracks,” says Mr. Gibson, “in the last months of the year of our Lord 1830, was pretty generally regarded as a hard room. Cadets who aspired to high standing [page 83:] on the Merit Roll were not much given to visiting it, at least in day-time. To compensate in some measure for this neglect, however, the inspecting-officer was uncommonly punctual in his visits, and rarely failed to fund some subject for his daily report of demerit. The old barracks have passed away, and are now only a dream of stone and mortar; but the records of the sins of omission and commission of Number 28 and its occupants remain, and are piled carefully away among the dusty archives of the Academy.

“Edgar A. Poe was one of the occupants of the room. ‘Old P——’ [Henderson?] and the writer of this sketch completed the household. . . . Poe at that time, though only about twenty years of age, had the appearance of being much older. He had a worn, weary, discontented look, not easily

forgotten by those who were intimate with him. Poe was easily fretted by any jest at his expense, and was not a little annoyed by a story that some of the class got up, to the effect that he had procured a cadet’s appointment for his son, and the boy having died, the father had substituted himself in his place. Another report current in the corps was that he was a grandson of Benedict Arnold.’ Some good-natured friend told him of it, and Poe did not contradict it, but seemed rather pleased than otherwise at the mistake.

“Very early in his brief career at the Point he established a high reputation for genius, and poems and squibs of local interest were daily issued from Number 28, and went the round of the classes. One of the first things of the kind that he perpetrated was a diatribe in which all of the officers of the Academy, from Colonel Thayer down, were duly if not [page 84:] favourably noticed. I can recall but one stanza. It ran thus: —

“John Locke was a very great name;

Joe Locke was a greater; in short,

The former was well known to Fame,

The latter well known to Report.”

“Joe Locke, it may be remarked by way of explanation, was one of the instructors of tactics, and ex officio Inspector of Barracks, and supervisor of the morals and deportment of cadets generally. In this capacity it was his duty to report to head-quarters every violation of the regulations falling under his observation: a duty in which be was in nowise remiss, as the occupants of Number 28 could severally testify.

“The studies of the Academy Poe utterly ignored. I doubt if he ever studied a page of Lacroix, unless it was to glance hastily over it in the lecture-room while others of his section were reciting. . . .

“The result of one of these foraging parties after supplies created for a time no little excitement in the South Barracks. People had been burned and hung in effigy from time immemorial, but it was reserved for Number 28 to witness the eating of a Professor in effigy. It was a dark, cold, drizzling night, in the last days of November, when this event came off. The brandy bottle had been empty for two days, and just at dusk Poe proposed that we should draw straws-the one who drew the shortest to go down to Old Benny’s and replenish our stock. The straws were drawn, and the lot fell on me.

“Provided with four pounds of candles and Poe’s last blanket for traffic (silver and gold we had not, but such as we had we gave unto Benny), I started just as the bugle sounded to quarters. It was a rough road to travel, but I [page 85:] knew every foot of it by night or day, and reached my place of destination in safety, but drenched to the skin. Old Benny was not in the best of humours that evening. Candles and blankets and regulation shoes, and similar articles of traffic, had accumulated largely on his hands, and the market for them was dull in that neighbourhood. His chickensuppers and bottles of brandy had disappeared very rapidly of late, and he had received little or no money in return.

“At last, however, I succeeded in exchanging the candles and blanket for a bottle of brandy and the hardest-featured, loudest-voiced old gander that it has ever been my lot to encounter. To chop the bird’s head off before venturing into barracks with him was a matter of pure necessity; and thus, in fact, old Benny rendered him before delivery. I reached the suburbs of the barracks about nine o‘clock. The bottle had not as much brandy in it as when I left Old Benny’s; but

I was very confident I had not spilled any. I had carried the gander first over one shoulder and then over the other, and the consequence was, that not only my shirt-front but my face and hands were as bloody as the entire contents of the old gander’s veins and arteries could well make them.

“Poe was on the look-out, and met me some distance from the barracks, and my appearance at once inspired him with the idea of a grand hoax. Our plans were perfected in an instant. The gander was tied, neck and feet and wings together, and the bloody feathers bristling in every direction gave it a nondescript appearance that would have defied recognition as a gander by the most astute naturalist on the continent. Poe took charge of the bottle and preceded me to the room. ‘Old P —— ’ was puzzling his brains over the binomial theorem, and a visitor from the North Barracks was in the room awaiting the result of my expedition. [page 86:]

“Poe had taken his seat, and pretended to be absorbed in the mysteries of ‘Lepons Francaises.’ Laying the gander down at the outside of the door, I walked or rather staggered into the room, pretending to be very drunk, and exhibiting in clothes and face a spectacle not often seen off the stage.

“‘My God! what has happened?’ exclaimed Poe, with well-acted horror.

” ‘Old K —— ! Old K —— !’ I repeated several times, and with gestures intended to be particularly savage.

” ‘Well, what of him ?’ asked Poe.

“He won‘t stop me on the road any more!’ and I produced a large knife that we bad stained with the few drops of blood that remained in the old gander. ’ I have killed him!’

“‘Nonsense!’ said Poe. ‘You are only trying one of your tricks on us.’

” ‘I didn‘t suppose you would believe me,’ I replied, ’so I cut off his head and brought it into barracks. Here it is!’ And reaching out of the door I caught the gander by the legs, and giving it one fearful swing around my head, dashed it at the only candle in the room, and left them all in darkness, with what two of them believed to be the head of one of the Professors. The visitor leaped through the window and alighted in the slop-tub, and made fast time for his own room in the North Barracks-spreading, as he went, the report that I had killed Old K —— , and that his head was then in Number 28. The story gained ready credence, and for a time the excitement in barracks ran high. When we lit the candle again ‘Old P —— ’ was sitting in one corner a blank picture of horror, and it was some time before we could restore him to reason.

The gander was skinned-picking the feathers off was out [page 87:] of the question-and after taps we cut him up in small pieces and cooked him in a tin wash-basin, over an anthracite fire, without seasoning of any kind. It was perhaps the hardest supper on record, but we went through with it without flinching. We bad set out to eat old K- in effigy, and we did it; whether he ever learned of the honours we paid him that night I never learned.”

Comment on this melodramatic and journalistically wrought-out story is needless, unless it be to remark, that it presents a picture of life in the Military Academy of those days which, even if highly coloured, is, doubtless, to some extent representative. Mr. Gibson notes that “the impression left by Poe in his short career at West Point was highly favourable to him. If he made no fast friends, he left no enemies behind him. But up to that time he had given,” in the opinion of his fellow-cadet, ” no indication of the genius which has since secured for him a world-wide fame. His acquaintance with English literature,” says Mr. Gibson, ” was extensive and accurate, and his verbal memory wonderful. He would repeat both prose and poetry by the hour, and seldom or never repeated the same passage twice to the same audience.”

Until the close of 1830, Poe would appear to have maintained, if not a very high, at all events, a respectable position in the institution. In November of that year the Inspector issued a warning to the cadets of the approaching semi-annual examination, and pointed [page 88:] out that “if dismissed, strong and satisfactory reasons will be required to obtain a restoration,” showing thereby that dismissal from the Academy was considered no unusual occurrence, nor an unpardonable offence. The young poet would appear to have passed through the old year without committing any crime sufficiently heinous to bring down upon his head the threatened terrors. On the 31st of December a Court-Martial was ordered to meet on the following 7th of January, and was subsequently adjourned until the 28th instant. Up to the 7th of January Poe would appear to have maintained his position in the Academy, but by that date events appear to have occurred to render him determined to leave the service. He wished to resign, but without the consent of parent or guardian his resignation could not be accepted, and Mr. Allan, it is declared, withheld the required permission.* The second marriage of Mr. Allan to the young and ” beautiful Miss Patterson,” soon after the death of his first wife, and the birth of a son and heir, it is presumed, influenced the poet’s godfather in withholding his consent. A young wife, and the prospect of a young family, were undoubtedly sufficient inducements for a man of Mr. Allan’s temperament to make him endeavour to retain his godson in a place where his claims upon the home purse need be little [page 89:] or nothing, and whence he could at once proceed to a profession without calling upon his guardian for any pecuniary or other aid. As usual, Poe had his own views upon the subject, and, with his customary impetuosity, took the decision into his own hands. His plan of proceeding and its result — evidently foreseen and desired by him — will be best comprehended by a recapitulation of the ” orders ” issued in his case pursuant to the General Court-Martial. It should, however, be pointed out, that had the prisoner pleaded “guilty” to all the charges made against him, some leniency might have been shown, and his dismission not have been ordered; but, in order to offence unpardonable, he entered a plea of “not guilty” to an easily proveable charge, and then, to render his case utterly hopeless, declined to plead.

“MILITARY ACADEMY ORDER No. 7.

“ENGINEER DEPARTMENT, WASHINGTON, February 8, 1831

“At the General Court-Martial, of which Lieutenant Thomas J. Leslie, of the Corps of Engineers, is President, convened at West Point, New York, on the 5th ult., in virtue of Military Academy Order No. 46, dated the 31st December 1830, was arraigned and tried . . . . .

Cadet E. A. Poe.

“The Court next proceeded to the trial of Cadet E. A. Poe of the U. S. Military Academy on the following charges and specifications:

“CHARGE 1st. — Gross neglect of duty.

“Specification 1st, — In this, that he, the said Cadet Poe, did absent himself from the following parades and roll-calls between the 7th January and 27th January 1831, viz., absent from evening parade on the 8th, 9th, 1501, 20th, 2411, and 25th January 183 1; absent from reveillé call on the 8th, 16th, 17th, 19th, 21st, 25th, and 26th January 1831; absent from class parade on the 17th, 18th, 19th, loth, 24th, and 25th January 1831; absent from guard mounting on the 16th January 1831, and absent from church parade on the 23rd January 1831; all of which at West Point, New York.

“Specification 2nd. — In this, that he, the said Cadet E. A. Poe, did absent himself from all his Academical duties between the 15th and 27th January 1831. . . .

“CHARGE 2nd. — Disobedience of orders.

“Specification 1st. — In this, that he, the said Cadet Poe, after having been directed by the officer of the day to attend church on the 23rd January 1831, did fail to obey such order; this at West Point, New York.

“Specification 2nd. — In this, that lie, the said Cadet Poe, did fail to attend the Academy on the 25th January 1831, after having been directed so to do by the officer of the day; this at West Point, New York.

“To which charges and specifications the prisoner pleaded as follows:-To the 1st specification of the 1st charge ‘Not Guilty;’ to the 2nd specification of the 1st charge, ‘Guilty;’ and ‘Guilty’ to the 2nd charge and its specifications. . . .

“The Court, after mature deliberation on the testimony adduced, find the prisoner ‘Guilty’ of the 1st specification, 1st charge, and confirm his plea to the remainder of the charges and specifications, and adjudge that he, Cadet E. A. Poe, be dismissed the service of the United States. . . . [page 91:]

“The proceedings of the General Court-Martial, . . . in the cases of Cadets —— , —— , E. A. Poe, —— , —— , have been laid before the Secretary of War and are approved. . .

“Cadet Edgar A. Poe will be dismissed the service of the United States, and cease to be considered a member of the Military Academy after the 6th March 1831:”

During; the trial ample evidence was adduced for the prosecution, and only one witness, Cadet Henderson, who “roomed” with the prisoner, and whose evidence amounted to nothing, appeared for the defence; Poe himself, indeed, declined to plead, and evidently had, deliberately, determined to leave the service. Upon the 7th of January the Court-Martial met to try various offenders; and upon the very next day, and every day up to the date of the adjourned sitting, he purposely absented himself from all duties’ The fact most certainly was that, apart from his dislike to the military profession, he saw that his prospects of a wealthy inheritance were shattered, and he determined at once to seek a livelihood in a profession more in accordance with his natural tastes.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 81:]

* Duyckinck’s Cyclopedia of American Literature, vol. ii., Article “Poe, E. A.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 82:]

* Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, November 1867, pp. 754-756.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 83:]

* Arnold was Governor of West point at the time when his treachery to the Americans was discovered through the apprehension of Major Andrè. — J. H. I.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 88:]

* Didier, Life of E. A. Poe, p. 44.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - EAP:HLLO, 1880] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - E. A. P.: His Life, Letters and Opinions (J. H. Ingram) (Chapter 08)