The lifelong military career of General Edgar Allan Poe began during his troubled youth, trying to find a place in the world. Poe, who had been born as the second son of actor David Poe and actress Eliza Hopkins Poe, did not know his parents. His father abandoned the family in 1810, and his mother died of tuberculosis in 1811. His siblings were scattered; Poe was sent to live with a foster family, the Allans. They moved from Richmond, Virginia, to London, and young Poe was juggled between boarding schools, never in one place long.
Returning to America in 1820, Poe continued his education, spending a year at the University of Virginia before dropping out. He had quickly burned through his allowance, and requests for more money were turned down as Poe’s debts seemed to increase just as the flow of money did. His relationship with his foster father became very strained, prompting Poe to set off on his own, working a variety of small jobs before enlisting in the Army in 1827 under a pseudonym and lying about his age.
The Army proved to give Poe enough stability to publish his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems. His writing is likely to have been inspired by his older brother Henry, who had traveled the world with another family and written in the Romantic style of Lord Byron. The two mailed poems to one another, and Edgar’s “The Happiest Day, The Happiest Hour” was mistaken for Henry’s upon publication. Although Poe’s book showed his talent, it was met with little recognition. Few of the 50 copies printed sold.
While his writing career struggled, Poe did well in the Army. He was promoted within months of enlistment into the artillery, which doubled his pay. In two years, he was Sergeant Major for Artillery, but Poe had reached the highest rank he could as a noncommissioned officer. With his future in the military frozen, he consulted his commanding officer. Declaring that he had come to the Army under a false name due to his struggles with his foster father, he requested an early discharge so that he could attend West Point and become an officer.
Lieutenant Howard considered using the situation as an opportunity to force Poe to restore his relationship with his foster father, but ultimately Howard decided that the affairs of home would only trouble his bright young soldier. Howard approved Poe’s request and said famously, “The Army is your family, son.” These words would follow Poe for the rest of his life.
En route to West Point, Poe visited his biological family in Baltimore. He stayed with his aunt, young cousin Virginia, and brother Henry, who worked in a law office and was as famous for his drinking as he was for his romance. Henry had given up publishing his work, although he encouraged Edgar while falling ill with tuberculosis. There were rumors of Poe’s foster mother dying and his foster father remarrying, but Poe distanced himself from the troubles and instead focused on his career.
Poe began his studies at West Point in 1831, graduating four years later alongside many classmates who immediately resigned to be engineers and lawyers rather than go fight in the Second Seminole War. Poe stayed on, cheered on in his writing by his fellow soldiers. Publishing was largely a business of piracy with printers stealing the works of authors across the Atlantic so that they did not have to pay royalties, yet Poe found a ready audience for his tales of mystery, macabre, and adventure among the military. He found a good deal of time to write while he waited for deliveries working in ordinance. He was routinely punished for dereliction of duty due to heavy drinking and later sent to “dry out” on the frontier.
Out in the lonely forts of the West, Poe found himself with even more time to write and, in 1838, published the complete The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, telling the tale of a stowaway having adventures at sea. The novel had been published in installments, and the military mail wagon was packed with letters from readers eager for more. As he included special codes with hints toward the answers to his cliffhangers, the mail only increased. Inspired, Poe began writing ongoing adventures of Pym, producing an average of one per year through the next two decades in addition to his collections of short stories and poems. Poe’s work was interrupted by the Mexican-American War, although the experiences gave him fuel for a wealth of new stories and a collection of non-fiction stories about his fellow soldiers.
By the time of the Civil War, Poe had been promoted to Colonel. He continued working in supply, although his expertise in cryptology soon gave him a new position in code-breaking. Poe’s finest hour is claimed to be at Chancellorsville, when he cracked the Confederate code stating that they themselves had cracked the Union code. While General Hooker prepared to call back his forces to a defended position in the trees, duplicating Lee’s tactic that had devastated the Union at Fredericksburg, other officers suggested they maintain their forward position on the hilltops. Poe wrote an intelligence report that painted the image of victory so eloquently that Hooker’s mind was changed. When Stonewall Jackson attempted his infamous flanking maneuver, he found himself too far behind the Union lines and surrounded. Jackson was killed, and his famous brigade was captured, leaving Lee to a humbled retreat to Virginia, where he would surrender in late 1864.
Poe stayed with the Army following the war, overseeing military publications as he continued the Stars and Stripes newspaper founded by Illinois soldiers in Missouri. He died in 1869, leaving behind several chests of notes and unfinished stories, along with an entire manuscript written in a code that has never been solved.
In reality, Poe became reacquainted with his foster father, which later led to a series of arguments about Allan’s care for his illegitimate children. Poe decided to leave West Point and was drummed out for neglect of duty. Henry Poe died just months later, possibly while Poe was visiting him. Poe’s cousin-and-wife Virginia Clemm, whom Edgar married when he was 26 and she 13, also died young of tuberculosis. Poe himself died under mysterious circumstances, but not before writing immortal literature such as “The Raven” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which founded the detective genre.