Who counts as the first soldier/vet who dissented mostly through literature? My bet is our old friends Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. But then I remember Edgar Allan Poe, who dropped out of the University of Virginia and enlisted in the Army as “Edward W. Perry” in 1827.
Private Perry’s” enlistment was not really a natural progression from Poe’s Revolutionary-hero grandfather. His father David, a traveling actor who died when Edgar was two, had already fallen far from that tree. Poe then found himself the stepson of another of Virginia’s old military martinets, John Allan, an old Scot who kept young Poe on a short lease, and yanked hard when the young man dropped out of the university because of his debts. As Poe wrote in an angry letter years later: “It was then that I became dissolute, for how could it be otherwise? I could associate with no students, except those who were in a similar situation with myself.The military was perhaps the only way for Poe to redeem himself in Allan’s eyes, even after he’d fled to Boston and finished Tamerlane his first book of poems. So in May 1827, the 18-year-old enlisted in the First Artillery for a five-year term, using the false name “Edgar A. Perry,” the false age of 22, and the false occupation of “shipping clerk.” That October, his battery was ordered to Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina,ii later described in his first hit novel, The Gold Bug:
The vegetation, as might be supposed, is scant, or at least dwarfish. No trees of any magnitude are to be seen. Near the western extremity, where Fort Moultrie stands, and where are some miserable frame buildings, tenanted, during summer, by the fugitives from Charleston dust and fever, may be found, indeed, the bristly palmetto; but the whole island, with the exception of this western point, and a line of hard, white beach on the sea-coast, is covered with a dense undergrowth of the sweet myrtle so much prized by the horticulturists of England.
The young man reportedly felt quite at home at Moultrie, where he quickly rose to the rank of Regimental Sergeant-Major, the highest rank for a non-commissioned officer. He befriended fellow artists like Thomas Downey, who called himself a “musician” on his enlistment papers, and like him had enlisted as much for the money as for national pride. And a fellow soldier at his next duty station called the young sergeant-major “highly worthy of confidence.”
Poe’s officers included many veterans of the ongoing Indian Wars, right up to General Winfield Scott, who came to South Carolina while still in the middle of the Black Hawk War, and would know before long what it meant to be the target of Poe’s satire.Poe grew bored before his five-year term was up, yearning for a more collegial atmosphere. He decided that West Point could supply it and secured a substitute to serve in his place. As he told Allan: “After nearly 2 years conduct with which no fault could be found — in the army, as a common soldier — I earned, myself, by the most humiliating privations — a Cadet’s warrant which you could have obtained at any time for asking.”
Thomas W. Gibson, Poe’s first West Point roommate, found his fellow occupant of the Barracks to seem older than his 20 years, with a “worn, weary, discontented look, not easily forgotten by those who were intimate with him.” In an essay in 1867, Gibson added that Poe was “easily fretted by any jest at his expense,” and did not discourage swirling rumors that he was the grandson not of David Poe but Benedict Arnold.
Relatively well-liked, Poe was soon tagged as a “January Colt,” unlikely to make it past the winter exams, but his peers looked forward to his sharp poetic chronicles of life at the academy under Thayer. “Poems and squibs of local interest were daily issued from Number 28 and went the round of the Classes,” writes Gibson. In particular, Poe wrote a long screed poking fun at tactics instructor Lt. Joseph Locke, who the poet remembered from his enlisted days:
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.
Better historians and scholars than I will ever be have looked at Poe’s stories and gleaned glimpses of both his military lives. If you have, please tell me in comments about it!