Letter from Edgar Allan Poe to Colonel Sylvanus Thayer: One Last Request

Authored by Robert B. Repenning

This handwritten letter by Edgar Allan Poe dated March 10, 1831, just four days after his official court-martial dismissal from the United States Military Academy, West Point, requests the assistance of the USMA Superintendent, in securing an appointment into the Polish Army. Poland was embroiled in the Polish-Russian War of 1830-1831.

On May 26, 1827, Edgar Allan Poe, under the alias of Edgar A. Perry, enlisted as a private in the United States Army (Howard 2003, 55). Thus began a curious, lesser known, chapter in the life of one of America’s greatest writers. In less than a year, serving in the 1st Artillery Regiment, Poe was promoted to the unit’s artificer. As artificer, “both officers and gun crews relied on him to craft the artillery bombs properly and oversee the ammunition supply for the battery” (Hecker 2005, xxxiv). Within seven months, Poe would be selected “from the regiments nearly 500 authorized enlisted men to become” (Howard 2003, 56) sergeant major.  

Poe shared a similar upbringing with the officers, and as sergeant major, Poe interacted more with officers. But in the military, unless Poe went to West Point, it would be near impossible to obtain a commission (Helfers 1949, 31), and enter into the upper-class world of the military officer (Hecker 2005, xliii). Therefore, Poe took the unusual step for an enlisted man and applied to the United States Military (USMA) at West Point and on July 1, 1830, was admitted as a cadet. Given his military experience, he believed that he would only have to be a cadet for six months. However, this mistaken belief was quickly dashed when he learned that he must spend the required four years at West Point.

Ironically, within six months Poe would leave West Point, primarily due to the disintegrating relationship with his foster father, John Allen. Poe methodically went about authoring his dismissal by absenting himself from parades, roll calls, classes and chapel (Hecker 2005). The official record shows that on March 6, 1831, Edgar Allan Poe’s military career ended with his court-martial and officially dismissal from the USMA, West Point for “General neglect of duty.”

Poe’s last official act, regarding West Point occurred four days after his dismissal, on March 10, 1831. A despondent Poe writes a letter to the Superintendent, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer making one last request. Given the tone of the letter, Poe must have felt completely at wit’s end, as he declared himself friendless, without ties and expressed his willingness to leave his country, in service of another nation. 

This letter is a cry for help which gives a glimpse into this psychologically wounded man. It is poignant, considering that just like some of the last letters he wrote to John Allen, this letter went unanswered. The feelings of loss and alienation that Edgar Allan Poe experienced in his early years, not only return but would haunt him for the rest of his life. While legends arose from Poe’s West Point tenure about his drunken exploits that are not substantiated by the official record, it is a fact that “Poe struggled with drinking and depression his entire life” (Giammarco 2013, 5).

It is not certain what Colonel Thayer’s motivation was for not answering this letter, however, it would seem Thayer saw it best not to add fuel to Poe’s mania. There is compelling reason to believe that Thayer held Poe in regard, despite his character flaws and his psychological illness. It is fitting that Thayer who charged the USMA with mandate “duty, honor and country,” would act honorably in a way mirroring the Vincentian tradition by his “awareness and esteem for all individuals” (St. John’s University 2020).   

References

Allen, Hervey. 1934. Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Farrar and Renehart, Inc.

Beidler, Philip. 2012. “Soldier Poe.” The Midwest Quarterly 53 (4) (Summer): 329-343,311,315. https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-297138806/soldier-poe.

Giammarco, Erica. 2013. “Edgar Allan Poe: A Psychological Profile.” Personality and Individual Differences 54 (1): 3–6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2012.07.027.

Hecker, William F., ed. 2005. Private Perry and Mister Poe: The West Point Poems, 1831: Facsimile Edition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Helfers, Melvin C. 1949. “The Military Career of Edgar Allan Poe.” Masters thesis, Duke University.

Howard, Michael L. 2003. “Seeds of a Soldier: The True Story of Edgar Allan Poe – The Sergeant Major.” Army Space Journal: A Professional Journal on Army Space Operations, 10 (1),  22-25.

Russell, J. Thomas. 1972. Edgar Allen Poe: The Army Years. West Point, NY: USMA.

St. John’s University. 2020. “Our Mission.” https://www.stjohns.edu/about/our-mission.

Tieman, J. S. 2016. “Sergeant Major Edgar Allan Poe.” International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic  Studies, 13: 351– 366. https://doi: 10.1002/aps.1483.

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