Anne Whitehouse

Edgar Allan Poe and His Brother Henry

Doppelgänger No.1 by Sebastian Bieniek

The Romantic theme of the doppelgänger, or double, was central to Poe’s prose and poetry— and his life. For Poe, doppelgängers were not only a literary theme; they formed a crucial aspect of his very existence, and when he didn’t find them, he created them. The most profound example of a doppelgänger in Poe’s life was his actual brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, known as Henry, who was two years his elder. Though born to the same parents, they grew up apart. When Henry was an infant, his parents left him in the care of his paternal grandparents in Baltimore, David Poe, Sr. and Elizabeth Cairnes Poe, while they pursued theatrical careers and contributed to his support when they were able. Henry remained with his grandparents after his father’s disappearance and his mother’s death, while Edgar was taken in by the Allans and Rosalie by the Mackenzies. In February, 1813, fourteen months after Elizabeth Arnold Poe’s death, the children’s aunt Eliza Poe in Baltimore wrote Frances Allan, “Henry frequently speaks of his little brother and expressed a great desire to see him, tell him he sends his best love to him.”[1] Perhaps out of a fear of losing her foster son to his birth family, Frances did not reply. Two years later, the Allans left for England, not returning for five years, in 1820.

The event that connected the two brothers was the Marquis de Lafayette’s triumphal tour of the United States from August 1824-September 1825. As the last surviving French general of the Revolutionary War, Lafayette was invited by President Monroe to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the United States. Over a thirteenth-month period, the sixty-six-year-old[2] former general traveled six thousand miles by horseback, stagecoach, canal barge, and steamboat to each of the twenty-four states of the Union. Wherever he went, he was feted by elderly veterans, prominent citizens and common folk of all ages. He was celebrated as the last living leader and hero at the nation’s defining moment. Counties, towns, streets, and babies were named after him. Those who saw him remembered the event as a crucial experience to be recounted to their children and grandchildren.

Lafayette was more beloved in the United States than in his native France. It had always been thus. An aristocrat dedicated to the principles of democracy and a staunch opponent of slavery, he denounced the Jacobins during the French Revolution, was burnt in effigy by the mob, fled Paris, was captured by the Austrians, and imprisoned for five years as a dangerous radical. Thanks to the influence of Washington, Jefferson, Monroe and others, the harsh terms of his imprisonment were mitigated, and his release negotiated by Napoleon in 1797. A man of principle, Lafayette opposed Napoleon’s rule as unconstitutional. After his release and in the chaotic years that followed of the Empire, the monarchy, and the Bourbon restoration, Lafayette was prevented from participating in French politics and retired from public life to the countryside.

His American tour proved to be lucrative, when, at President Monroe’s request, Congress voted him $200,000 in gratitude for his services to the country along with a large tract of public lands in Florida, prompting his friend Thomas Jefferson’s wistful remark that he wished he could enjoy the same benefits.

Lafayette was an important figure in Poe family lore because of David Poe, Sr.’s connection to him, and Lafayette’s visit to Baltimore was a great event for the family. When Lafayette attended the ball in his honor at Baltimore’s Halliday Street theater on October 8, 1824, he asked for his old friend and benefactor:

I have not seen among these my friendly and patriotic commissary, Mr. David Poe, who resided in Baltimore when I was here, and of his own very limited means supplied me with five hundred dollars to aid in clothing my troops, and whose wife, with her own hands, cut out five hundred pairs of pantaloons, and superintended the making of them for the use of my men.[3]

Informed that Mr. Poe was dead, but that his widow was alive, Lafayette expressed a wish to see her. Elizabeth Cairnes Poe paid a call on him the next day and was received most affectionately.

The following day Lafayette visited David Poe’s grave, where he remarked, Ici reste un coeur noble (here lies a noble heart).[4] Later that month, when Lafayette visited Richmond, fifteen-year-old Edgar was there to greet him with the Junior Morgan Riflemen, a young volunteer company, as his bodyguard, inspiring a compliment from Allan’s business partner, Charles Ellis: “Never was I prouder of him [Edgar] than when…he walked up and down in front of the marquee erected on the Capitol Square under which the old general held a grand reception.[5]

Found among John Allan’s papers after his death was a copy of an extraordinary letter from him addressed to Edgar’s brother Henry in Baltimore, dated November 1, 1824, days just after Ellis’s favorable description of young Edgar’s military welcome of Lafayette in Richmond and weeks after Lafayette met Edgar’s grandmother:

I have just seen your letter of the 25th ult. to Edgar and am much afflicted, that he has not written you. He has had little else to do, for me he does nothing & seems quite miserable, sulky & ill-tempered to all the Family. How we have acted to produce this is beyond my conception — why I have put up so long with his conduct is little less wonderful. The boy possesses not a Spark of affection for us not a particle of gratitude for all my care and kindness towards him. I have given him a much superior Education than ever I received myself. If Rosalie has to relie on any affection from him God in his mercy preserve her — I fear his associates have led him to adopt a line of thinking & acting very contrary to what he possessed when in England. I feel proudly the difference between your principles & his & have my desire to Stand as I ought to do in your Estimation. Had I done my duty as faithfully to my God as I have to Edgar, then had Death, come when he will have no terrors for me, but I must end this with a devout wish that God may yet bless him & you & that success may crown all your endeavors & between you, your poor Sister Rosalie may not suffer. At least she is half your Sister & God forbid my dear Henry that we should visit upon the living the Errors & frailties of the dead. Beleive [Believe] me Dear Henry we take an affectionate interest in your destinies and our United Prayers will be that the God of Heaven will bless & protect you. Rely on him my Brave & excellent Boy who is willing & ready to save to the uttermost. May he keep you in Danger, preserve you always is the prayer of your Friend & Servant, John Allan.[6]

Apparently, Henry had written Edgar about Lafayette, and Edgar had not yet replied. Allan claimed to be responding to Henry because Edgar hadn’t, but that doesn’t explain why Allan should be so “afflicted” by this lapse in courtesy that he would confide in Henry, a boy whom he didn’t know, nor does it account for his fury. Allan did not explain the causes of his grievances against his foster son. From calling Edgar “miserable, sulky & ill-tempered,” he went on to accuse him of “possess[ing] not a Spark of affection for us not a particle of gratitude for all my care and kindness towards him.” That was a big jump, but it was even a bigger jump to then assert that Edgar was hard-hearted towards his sister, and that she would never be able to rely on him. Allan then impugned that Rosalie was not Henry’s and Edgar’s full sister; in other words, that she was illegitimate.

Did Allan truly believe that seventeen-year-old Henry, a stranger to him, would side with him against his own brother? Did Allan send this letter to Henry, and, if so, did Henry share this letter with Edgar when they met the following year? It is impossible for us to know, but it is also impossible to ignore the letter’s sanctimonious tone and sly insinuations. Its author sounds like a most unpleasant person. That Allan would choose to attack a boy who was entirely dependent on him and relatively powerless against him is further evidence of his nastiness.

What did Allan know about Edgar’s feelings for Rosalie? Although the Mackenzies and the Allans were related by marriage, the two families socialized infrequently, and during the Allans’ five-year sojourn in England, they had not been in close touch.

What circumstances provoked this letter, and what did Allan hope to accomplish by it? The writer of this letter was not a forthright and honest man. Like many others before and since, his appeals to God, faith, and duty were tinged with hypocrisy. There is a good deal of self-pity in his words, as well as a preening sententiousness in his allusion to Wolsey’s speech to Cromwell, from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII: “Had I but served my God with half the zeal/I served my king, he would not in mine age/Have left me naked to mine enemies,”[7] as if he were showing off his erudition to this descendant of actors.

What special knowledge could Allan have had about Rosalie’s parentage that allowed him to claim with such certainty that David Poe, Jr. was not her father? The Allans and Mackenzies had only come into contact with Elizabeth Arnold Poe after Rosalie was born, at the end of her life when she was dying, and it was Mrs. Allan who had reached out to Mrs. Poe, not Allan himself. In his letter, Allan may have been maliciously repeating gossip that carried a hidden agenda: by casting aspersions on Elizabeth Arnold Poe, he sought to deflect attention from his own infidelities that had resulted in illegitimate children from different women. In the conflict that characterized the Allans’ marriage, Edgar took Fanny’s side, infuriating Allan. The letter was written in retaliation. Allan’s intention was to upset Henry, not to reassure him, by instigating an attack against Edgar, against his mother, and by implication against the entire Poe family. If Allan did send the letter, he knew it was likely that Edgar would find out about it.

From that point on, the trouble between Allan and Edgar was irresolvable. As long as Fanny Allan was alive, modest attempts at rapprochement were made, but they were undermined. The battleground was money. The more money Allan had, the more miserly he became, growing pettier and pettier, refusing Edgar’s legitimate college expenses, despite his promise to furnish Edgar with a gentleman’s education. University of Virginia students were required to pay for “servants” i.e. enslaved people to clean their rooms and launder their clothes. Allan declined to furnish even this small sum, forcing Edgar’s hotel keeper, George Spotswood, to ask him for payment time and again. In this way, Allan was unlike his own guardian, William Galt, who had been so generous to him, and Edgar knew it and resented it. Allan was something of a charlatan, deceitful in his marriage. Perhaps he was not entirely honest in his business dealings either.

High-strung, finely wrought, with a penetrating intelligence, adept at creating puzzles and solving them, the inventor of the detective story and science fiction, Edgar ridiculed Allan when he didn’t hate him. Yet time and again, Edgar debased himself and came begging to Allan. Allan took a sadistic pleasure in refusing and ignoring him.

The shadow cast by Henry Poe over his younger brother’s life is not easily discernible, because he died at 24, and little of him has survived. Yet Henry’s influence on Edgar was profound and lasting, affecting Edgar’s life’s decisions and inspiring some of his greatest works. Edgar was equally crucial to Henry. Henry died of tuberculosis on August 1, 1831 in Baltimore, cared for in his last months by his brother, much as John Keats had cared his brother George.

Edgar and Henry met in the summer of 1825, the year after they corresponded about Lafayette, when Henry visited Edgar in Richmond at the Allans’ invitation. To the older brother, it was apparent that Edgar was living a privileged existence in Richmond compared to his own impoverished life with his grandmother, aunt, and cousins in Baltimore. While the Poe household subsisted on Henry’s widowed grandmother’s small government pension supplemented by his aunt’s piecework, Edgar was living in splendor in his guardian’s mansion and looking forward to attending the University of Virginia. Although they had not grown up together, the two brothers were alike in a number of ways. They shared melancholic, romantic dispositions, loved poetry, and idolized Byron. They resembled each other in looks, though Henry was taller and his forehead less broad. Edgar was more educated and accomplished, but Henry took the lead in having his poetry published first. It is known that Henry had joined the U.S. Merchant Marine at the time of his visit to Richmond, because Sarah Elmira Royster would recall in later years that Henry was dressed in a nautical uniform when he accompanied Edgar and Ebenezer Burling to call on her. [8]

When Henry and Edgar next met a year and a half later in Baltimore, the circumstances of Edgar’s life had changed dramatically: cast out by his foster father, unable to continue his university education, homeless, penniless, and on the run from creditors, Edgar was in desperate straits, living under an alias, Henri Le Rennet, the French version of Henry. He and Burling had shipped out of Richmond together, with plans to sail to England, but they parted at Norfolk. Burling returned to Richmond, but Edgar continued to Baltimore, where he visited the Poes and spent time with Henry.

Henry’s life was on the upswing. While Edgar attended the University of Virginia, Henry sailed with the Merchant Marine. When Edgar arrived in Baltimore at the end of March 1827, Henry had recently returned from a February voyage to South America aboard the U.S.S. Macedonian.[9] In September, he would publish an account of his travels to Montevideo during the Carnival as a “Letter to the Editor of Foreign Scenes and Customs” in the North American or Weekly Journal of Politics, Science, and Literature, a short-lived Baltimore-based ‘zine published by Samuel Sands as a weekly quarto (eight pages, three columns to a page) from May-November, 1827.[10]

In the pages of this ephemeral publication, the voices and personae of the two brothers merged, for they both published poetry and prose under Henry’s initials, W.H.P. It would have been unwise for Edgar to publish under his own name. It would be six more years before federal law banned debtor’s prisons.

From Baltimore, Edgar worked his way to Boston on a coal vessel, where he found employment for a short time on the docks as clerk for a merchant named P.P.F. DeGrand, and whom he also assisted by acting as market reporter for his newspaper, the Weekly Report.[11] While in Boston, Edgar had a chance encounter with Peter Pindar Pease, the Charlottesville apprentice with whom he had thrown dice for the book of Hogarth prints and lost. Pease had left Charlottesville in July 1826 and was working in Boston, loading and unloading cargo on the wharves. His account has come to us thirdhand, through his nephew and then his great-nephew:

While unloading a dray of hides one blustery spring afternoon in 1827, Pease recognized in a pale-faced, weary clerk in shabby gear but very neat emerging from a near mercantile house, the University of Virginia student whom Pease knew there as Edgar A. Poe. Pease was about to hail Poe when he suddenly turned and disappeared around the corner. After Pease had finished his task and was starting home he found, some ways down the street, Poe awaiting him. On being hailed by Pease, Poe pushed him into an alleyway and begged him not to utter his name aloud to anyone, because he had left home to seek his fortune and until he “hit it hard he wished to remain incognito.” Poe seemed very tired from loss of sleep and said he had failed to obtain work on any large journal, but finally became a market reporter on an obscure paper of which its debts soon ended its issue.[12]

When he encountered Pease, Edgar was using his alias to evade creditors, which explains why he was so upset to be recognized. While in Boston, he met a young printer, Calvin Frederick Stephen Thomas, and arranged for the anonymous publication—“by a Bostonian”—of his first poetry collection, Tamerlane, a small volume of forty pages, including the title poem, an ambitious poetic narrative that he would continue to rework, and shorter lyrics written over the previous five years. It is not known how many copies were printed, for even at the time it was an obscure, self-published work. It was not reviewed and scarcely promoted; notices appeared in two Boston papers in August 1827. In later years, Poe lost track of his first book. Today, the few existing copies of Tamerlane rank among the most valuable printed books in English.[13]

While some earlier biographers took as fact the fictions Poe propagated about his European adventures, R. H. Stoddard was among the first to suggest that they were based on Henry’s experiences. He claimed that he learned from the Poe brothers’ cousin, Neilson Poe, in 1873, that Henry “went to sea and got into some sailor’s scrape, out of which probably grew the story of his brother Edgar’s adventure in St. Petersburg.”[14] Another biographer, Eugene Didier, accepted Edgar’s stories as truthful, but believed they had happened to Henry:

Henry Poe determined to go to Greece and fight for the cause to which the death of Byron had attracted the attention of the world. Young Poe arrived in time to participate in the last battles of the war. On the 24th of September 1829, the Sultan acknowledged the independence of Greece…Poe accompanied the Russian troops to St. Petersburg, where he soon got into trouble and into prison. He was released by the interposition of the Hon. A. Middleton, the American minister, who had him sent to the port of Riga and placed on a vessel bound for Baltimore.[15]

However, search of the records of the American Legation and Consulate in St. Petersburg during the period in question yielded no reference to the alleged ministerial intervention. Although both Henry and Edgar dreamed of fighting for Greek independence like Byron and distinguishing themselves in foreign adventures, “the entire legend is a fair sample of those fabricated about the famous poet,” wrote John Ingram, “he was never in Russia, nor, in all probability was his brother.”[16]

Instead, Edgar did what many young men do when they have no money and few prospects: he joined the Army. On May 26, 1827, in Boston, the 18-year-old enlisted for five years as an artilleryman under the assumed name of “Edgar A. Perry.” Increasing his age by four years, he described himself as born in Boston in 1805 and at present employed in an office. His description was: gray eyes, brown hair, light complexion, height five feet six inches. He was assigned to Battery H of the First Regiment of Artillery, then stationed at Fort Independence in the Roads at Boston,[17] one of fifty-one artillery companies in four artillery regiments placed at thirty sites along the East Coast. The site of the oldest fort in British North America, the original structure was destroyed by the British when they evacuated during the Revolutionary War. Over the next decades it was rebuilt in stone and granite. In Edgar’s day, it was known as “the quietest garrison on U.S. coastline.”[18]

Although his mother, Elizabeth Arnold Poe, had enjoyed success in Boston during her brief career, Edgar would harbor a lifelong resentment against the city of his birth. He had not found the career opportunities there he had hoped for. The military was a natural choice. His grandfather David Poe’s service during the Revolutionary War was an inspiration, as was his brother Henry’s service in the Merchant Marine. He had drilled with Richmond’s Junior Morgan Riflemen and at the University of Virginia. Nevertheless, for him to have bound himself to serve as a common soldier for five long years for meager pay indicates the extent of his desperation.

Although Edgar was an enlisted man in the summer of 1827, he was still living in Boston and in proximity to his printer when Tamerlane was published. At the same time, Henry was publishing work in the North American in Baltimore. His poem, subtitled “In a pocketbook,” which appeared on August 11, referred to the keepsake left to him by his dying mother:

In a pocket book I lately found three locks of hair, from which originated the following lines:

My Father’s!—I will bless it yet—
For thou has given life to me:
Tho’ poor the boon—I’ll ne’er forget
The filial love I owe to thee:
My Mother’s, too!—then let me press
This gift of her I loved so well,–
For I have had thy last caress.
And heard thy long, thy last farewell.
My Rosa’s! pain doth dim my eye,
When gazing on this pledge of thine—
Thou wer’t a dream—a falsity—
Alas!—‘tis wrong to call thee mine!
A Father! He hath loved indeed!
A mother! She hath blessed her son,–
But Love is like the pois’ning weed,
That taints the air it lives upon.[19]

If “Rosa” refers to Rosalie Poe, as some have assumed, it seems that Henry believed John Allan’s insinuation that his sister was illegitimate. Rosalie’s parentage is one of the unsolved mysteries of Poe biography. She did not resemble her brothers in manner, intelligence, or appearance, and some have hypothesized that neither David nor Elizabeth Poe were her natural parents.[20] Whatever the truth about Rosalie Poe’s birth, it is quite possible that the “Rosa” of Henry’s poem was not his sister at all. When Elizabeth Poe died, Rosalie was only an infant, and it is likely that her hair was not yet long enough to clip for a keepsake in nineteenth-century fashion. And why would Elizabeth have collected a lock of hair from Rosalie and not from Edgar? The narrator in this poem sounds more like a spurned lover than an absent brother. Perhaps two of the locks of hair in Henry’s pocketbook were his mother’s and his father’s, left to him by his mother, and the third had a different provenance, given to him later by a former sweetheart, Rosa Durham, who had broken off with him,[21] and whose bitter memory was “like the pois’ning weed/That taints the air it lives upon.”

Henry’s poem, “To R.,” which was published in the North American the following month, is also addressed to a woman whose name begins with “R.” In the aftermath of broken vows, the speaker compares his past devotion to a form of slavery:

Nay—‘tis not so—it cannot be—
Those feelings ne’er will come again;
I gave my heart—my soul to thee,
And madly clasped the burning chain.

‘Tis sever’d now—and like the slave
When freed, will seers [sic] the bars he wore,
And feels he would prefer the grave
Than wear those galling fetters more…

It cannot be! For pride will now
Relieve the anguish of my heart—
Thy faithless pledge! Thy broken vow!
‘Tis fit—‘tis meet—that we should part.[22]

Henry published two short tales in the North American, both based on the doppelgänger theme, one the story of two spiritual brothers and the other about two actual brothers. “The Pirate” and “Recollections,” like Henry’s “Letter from Montevideo,” feature ships and the sea. In both stories, the characters’ passion for a woman ends in destruction. In “The Pirate,” a woman, again referred to as Rose and Rosalie, is murdered by her spurned lover, Edgar Leonard, on the day of her wedding to another. (Henry Poe’s full name was William Henry Leonard Poe.)  Although her murderer becomes a pirate and an outcast from society, he appears as savior to the narrator in his time of trouble, and, despite his sinister reputation, he heals the narrator from the mortal illness of yellow fever and gives him his wealth. The pirate sacrifices himself for his symbolic brother.

In Henry’s story, “Recollections,” the narrator has traveled to Spain in search of his brother, “whose absence from his friends for several years, on account of a slight misunderstanding, had induced me, at the request of a loved parent whose eyes had been recently closed in death, to visit this coast in search of him, to use my endeavors to persuade him to return to his home.”[23] The long-lost brother in “Recollections” resembles the pirate in the earlier story and shares his name: “I had learned that Leonard, my brother, had been seen in some part of Spain leading a wild and reckless life—indeed, it was believed that he had commanded a corsair or smuggler, on the coast.” A storm rolls in, and to the narrator’s astonishment, a ship is anchored in the raging sea. The narrator overhears crew members complaining about “their love-sick captain,” who would risk “as fine a vessel as ever floated, and as gallant a crew that ever manned a ship, for the sake of a woman.” Eventually the captain appears on the beach with a lady, but as they are rowed to their vessel, their boat is broken up in the waves.

The next day many of the bodies drifted on shore, among them that of a lady who had eloped from the convent the evening preceding. I looked for some time for her companion, and at last discovered him—but when I brushed the sand from his brow, what was my horror on discovering the countenance of my long-sought Brother![24]

In these stories, the love of a woman appears as a negative force, leading to death. The love between the two brothers is purer and greater, because it continues to exist selflessly beyond the grave. In both stories, the brothers are united by dedication and sacrifice.

In the pages of the North American, the initials W.H.P., were affixed to work by Edgar as well as Henry. In its surviving issues can be found versions of two poems by Edgar, “The Happiest Day” and “Dreams,” published after they had first been printed in Tamerlane. In November, the North American published a prose monologue by W.H.P. titled “A Fragment,” which presented the stream of consciousness of a man on the verge of suicide. More than the doomed romances of sea-faring corsairs in “The Pirate” and “Recollections,” the speaker of “A Fragment” resembles Edgar’s disturbed first-person narrators of “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart:” he is a man at the end of his tether.

Well! I have determined—lightly it may be—but when there is nothing to live for—nothing that the heart craves anxiously and devotedly, life is but a kind of prison house from which we would be freed.

I feel even at this moment an impatience to know what death is—and although I am writing the very last words that this hand will ever trace—yet even the outward show—the trifles of the world beguile me—

The ink is not good—I have stirred it—‘tis better now, and I have mended my pen—‘tis disagreeable, even if it is our very last letter, to write with a bad pen—a blot!—I must erase it—this when an hour will finish my existence!—an existence of wretchedness—one of weary, bitter disappointment….

Pshaw! This pen—surely my hand must have trembled when I made it—I have held it up to the light—Heavens! My hand does tremble—No! tis only the flickering of the Lamp.

It will—at least it may be asked, why I have done this they may say I was insane—the body which is earthed cannot feel their taunts, and the soul cares not.

I have a strange wish even at this time—it is that some maiden would plant flowers on my grave—which my mortality would add life to…

No more—the pistol—I have loaded it—the balls are new—quite bright—they will soon be in my heart—incomprehensive death—where art thou?

I have put the pistol to my bosom—it snapped.—I had forgotten to prime it—I must do it—

In the fact of doing so it went off and I awoke and found myself rolling on the floor, having fallen from my bed in the agitation of a most strange and singular injury.[25]

Thus do dream and reality merge. The claustrophobic setting and the contrast between the narrator’s fixation on his writing implements and his existential despair, the tragicomic climax, and the ludicrous ending read like vintage Poe. It seems likely that Edgar and not Henry was the author of “A Fragment.”

We lose track of the author W.H.P. after the demise of the North American. Samuel Sands had enticed his subscribers with six months of issues before payment was due; consequently, after six months, subscriptions were cancelled, and the paper folded. Whatever else Henry Poe may have published after 1827 has not survived. Nor do we have his correspondence.


Henry Poe had spent his childhood with his paternal grandparents and his aunt Maria, his father’s sister. When he died in October 1816, David Poe, Sr. left scarcely a legacy for his family, and Henry and his grandmother struggled to survive. Twenty-seven-year-old Maria married widower William Clemm, Jr., whose first wife was her first cousin Harriet. Maria and William Clemm had two surviving children, another Henry, born in 1818, and Virginia Eliza, born in 1822.

At the time of his Baltimore visit in 1824, Lafayette had been distressed to find General Poe’s widow destitute and ailing, and, at his urging, Congress granted Elizabeth Cairnes Poe an annuity of $240. Two years later, William Clemm died, similarly without providing for his widow or children from both of his marriages. Suffering from paralysis, Elizabeth Poe moved in with her widowed daughter. Maria took care of her mother, and in return Elizabeth’s modest pension supported the family. Around this time, Henry Poe joined the Merchant Marine. When Henry was in Baltimore, he lived with his grandmother, his aunt, and her children. Henry also benefited from the support of his godfather Henry Didier, who had been a law school classmate of his father, David Poe, Jr. Throughout Henry’s childhood, Didier had taken a fatherly interest in him. Not only did Didier help to educate his godson, but he also employed him as a clerk in his counting house, according to Didier’s son, Eugene Didier, whose statements in his Life and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (1877) were based on information from people who remembered Henry.[26]


The United States Army that Private “Edgar A. Perry” encountered when he enlisted was in many ways the antithesis of the University of Virginia. Rather than catering to the rich, spoiled sons of Southern planters and merchants, who repaid their privileges by terrorizing their professors, the Army enforced a strict discipline and swelled its ranks with working-class immigrants and laborers, who were looked down on by members of the Allans’ social class. These common soldiers were generally uneducated although seeking self-advancement, and the terms of their service included danger, hardship, poor food and clothing, exposure to illness, limited shelter and inadequate pay. Very few soldiers ever advanced into the officer corps. In his fascinating study of Poe’s military career, Private Perry and Mister Poe, Major William Hecker, a West Point graduate and Poe aficionado, whose life was cut tragically short when he was killed in Iraq in 2006, claimed that, “By immersing himself in this lower caste of societal castoffs and misfits, Poe staged his own personal revolution against his upbringing.”[27]

In Poe’s day, the main duties of an artilleryman were to service the coastal forts. Soldiers logged for firewood, built and maintained roads around the fortifications, maintained vegetable gardens to supplement their rations, and repaired the earth and stonework of the fortifications under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers. In addition to these duties, soldiers had to master the difficult work of firing their cannon.

A coastal gun required five soldiers to operate efficiently and used a series of eighteen commands to load and fire the gun. Successful execution of these duties required intricate cooperation and teamwork among the gun crew. Failure to perform these duties properly had potentially catastrophic consequences for the crew, ranging from premature detonation of the cannon to crushing a crew member from the cannon’s recoil. Officer leaders expected enlisted artillerymen to know and perform the duties of infantry foot soldiers in addition to gunnery duties. Foot drill, guard mounts, and small-arms marksmanship rounded out the list of activities that enlisted soldiers of Poe’s time faced daily. Most Americans considered persons employed in such dangerous and menial work beneath their notice.[28]

Due to a malaria outbreak, Private “Edgar A. Perry’s” battery was transferred from Boston to Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan Island, near Charleston, South Carolina on October 31, 1827. On the stormy voyage, one of the ships was lost in the Atlantic. Far from the fabled European countries where Poe later claimed to have traveled, his destination was a sandy, mosquito-ridden island fortress. He vividly evoked the setting fifteen years later in his story, “The Gold Bug:”

This Island is a very singular one. It consists of little else than the sea sand and is about three miles long. Its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile. It is separated from the mainland by a scarcely perceptible creek, oozing its way through a wilderness of reeds and slime, a favorite resort of the mash-hen. 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 fugitives from Charleston dust and ever, may be found, indeed, the bristly palmetto.[29


Thirty-four years after “Private Perry” was stationed on Sullivan’s Island, Confederate troops in control of Fort Moultrie and other fortifications ringing Charleston Harbor would fire on the Union troops at Fort Sumter in the center of Charleston Harbor, initiating the Civil War.

Edgar remained at Fort Moultrie a little over a year. He thrived in the Army. His commanding officer, Lieutenant Joshua Howard, recognized his talents and took him under his wing. He was appointed company clerk and assistant in the commissariat department, which involved writing letters for Howard, preparing payrolls and muster rolls, handling routine papers, and serving as messenger between his company and regimental headquarters. These assignments excused him from routine garrison duties and placed him in the company of his officers. For the first time in his life, Edgar benefited from fatherly mentors who recognized his abilities, elevated him to positions of trust, and concerned themselves with his future.

On May 1, 1828, Edgar was appointed “artificer,” a promotion that made him at least the eleventh ranking enlisted soldier, outranking nearly 400 regimental privates in the battery[30] and came with a doubling of pay, from five to ten dollars a month, as well as “one ration of whiskey or rum per day.”[31] This new position was one of great responsibility and further isolated him from the rank and file. According to the 1809 American Artillerist’s Companion, which was the foundation for training during Edgar’s time in the army, artifice “comprehends everything which enters into the composition of fireworks;” an artificer is someone “who makes fireworks, or works in the artillery laboratory, who prepares the fuses, bombs, grenades;” and a bomb is “a hollow globe of iron, which is filled with a certain quantity of powder, destined to burst into as many fragments as possible.”[32]

As an artificer, Poe occupied a technical realm. His daily business concerned the weights and measures of ores and chemicals. His value to his artillery battery became, in many ways, correspondingly technical…Poe spent the middle portion of his enlisted career not as a mere military mechanic but instead as one of the few expert craftsmen in the United States Army’s most technically challenging branches of its era…In order to deliver the bomb successfully to where it was “destined” to burst, the artificer calculated the projectile’s ballistic time of flight to the target to ascertain the correct fusing and charging of the round. Based on this mathematical result, the artificer pierced a hollow iron globe; mixed, measured, and filled the globe with explosive powder; and then tamped a fuse down into this volatile mixture. Carefully following these steps, the artificer readied the bomb for use. Miscalculation in any aspect of the bomb’s construction potentially had catastrophic consequences either for the artificer himself or the crew firing the round. Thus, the artificer served as more than a bomb maker; he was the army’s expert bomb artisan, carefully designing, preparing, and constructing interconnected systems of iron and chemicals with the ultimate goal of explosively destroying his creation.[33]

Edgar was responsible for inspecting, charging, and fusing artillery bombs, custom designing each round for a specific situation. Accidents from artillery bombs were frequent, and attention to craftsmanship and detail was crucial to the safety of the battery. The Companion contains warnings about “the bomb bursting immediately” and to “avoid splitting the fuse.”[34] Edgar excelled at this work.

Lieut. Howard introduced Edgar to Col. James House, the regiment’s second commander, who had known General David Poe and took a special interest in Howard’s young protegé after learning of his true identity. Col. House had adopted a military career after earlier attempts to live as an artist and perhaps felt an additional sympathy with Edgar for this reason. While at Fort Moultrie, Edgar also established a friendship with Col.  William Drayton of Charleston, to whom he would later dedicate Tales of the Grotesque and Arabaesque.[35] In December 1828, Edgar met Lieutenant Colonel William J. Worth (later the famous General Worth for whom Ft. Worth, Texas is named). After having distinguished himself in the War of 1812, Col. Wirth had served eight years as second in command at the United States Military Academy at West Point. When he returned to the regiment, it was as commander. He was the highest ranking and most impressive of the officers to take an interest in Edgar.

On January 1, 1829, Col. House promoted Edgar to Regimental Sergeant Major, the highest noncommissioned grade in the Army. He was only the sixth man to receive this title since the formation of the unit in 1821. The rank of sergeant major was originated by George Washington in 1775. According to William Duane’s 1812 Handbook of Infantry, used by the Army as its official regulation, a sergeant major “had charge of sergeants, corporals, privates, and musicians” and “should be a complete master of all exercises of the battalion from the first drill to the movements in line of battle.”[36]

In less than two years, Edgar had achieved what had taken other men decades to accomplish. Despite entering the Army using a false identity, Edgar developed productive relationships with his superiors based on trust, hard work, and honesty. Just before his promotion, his battery was transferred again. On December 11, 1828, Company H set sail on the U.S.S. Harriet, arriving four days later at Fortress Monroe at Old Point Comfort, Virginia, located at the Hampton Roads, one of the world’s largest natural harbors, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, eighty miles downriver from Richmond.

It was here in August 1619 that slavery entered the North American colonies, when the English privateer ship White Lion landed with a human cargo of over of “20 and odd” enslaved Africans captured from the Spanish slave ship San Juan Bautista after a fierce battle in the Bay of Campeche. The Spanish ship was headed for slave markets in the Caribbean when it was attacked by the British ship. In dire need of provisions before the voyage back to England, the crew of the White Lion brokered their human cargo in exchange for rations. This illegal transaction initiated 264 years of slavery in English North America.

At this strategically important site at the confluence of James, Nansemond and Elizabeth Rivers, the Old Point Comfort lighthouse was completed during the Jefferson administration. It was captured by the British during the War of 1812, and from here was launched the British assault on Washington, D.C. in 1814. While Poe was stationed at the fort, from December 1828 until March 1829, new fortifications were being planned and built, which beginning in 1831 would be supervised by a young lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers, Robert E. Lee.

Even before Poe arrived at Fortress Monroe, he was seeking release from his enlistment. Among his fellow recruits, he had distinguished himself because of his education, abilities, and breeding, rising from private to sergeant major in nineteen months, which was as far as he could go as an enlisted man. An unbridgeable gulf separated the class of officers from enlisted men. Lieutenant Joshua Howard, and Howard’s superiors, Col. House and Lieut. Col. Worth all took a fatherly interest in him and made him aware of a path of advancement through appointment as a cadet at the United States Military Academy. Particularly, Lieut. Col. Worth, having returned from duty at West Point, personally seemed to embody its military ideal.

The origins of the West Point Military Academy went back to the Revolutionary War. George Washington considered the site, on the commanding plateau on the west bank of the Hudson River, the most strategic position in the Thirteen Colonies. In order to eliminate the new nation’s need to import military expertise, Washington, along with John Knox, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams, sought to establish a national military academy devoted to the art and science of warfare at this site. In 1802, President Jefferson signed legislation creating the United States Military Academy, ensuring that it would be a democratic institution by guaranteeing students free tuition and a stipend. Beginning in 1817, under the leadership of Col. Sylvanus Thayer, the Military Academy instituted important educational reforms and acquired a reputation for academic excellence, particularly in the field of engineering.

Two years earlier, when Edgar was forced to leave the University of Virginia, his greatest regret was his interrupted education. If he were accepted into West Point Military Academy as a cadet, his tuition expenses would be paid for by the federal government. He would be able to complete his education, with the promise of a military career as an officer. He had already proved himself an able soldier. He had fulfilled his duties and found time for writing. He believed that a military career might be compatible with his literary ambitions. Despite his falling out with John Allan, he still considered Richmond his home and the Allans his parents. He expected that one day he would benefit financially from his connection to them, which, supplemented with an officer’s salary, would afford him a comfortable livelihood.

Given his estimation of Edgar’s character and abilities, Lieutenant Howard was willing to forgive this renegade from the privileged class for using a false name. He agreed to release Edgar from his service, provided he reconciled with his guardian and could pay a substitute to complete the remaining three years of his enlistment. In December 1828, Howard wrote John Allan on behalf of his protégé. Upon learning of Edgar’s true whereabouts, Allan was unmoved. His reply to Lieut. Howard was a refusal: “He had better remain as he is until the termination of his enlistment,” wrote Allan.

Disappointed, Edgar wrote Allan himself shortly before his company left for Fortress Monroe. His letter is a brave attempt to cast Allan’s intentions in a positive light, apologize for his failings, convey his ambitions, exude self-confidence, and justify his request:

Fort Moultrie, Charleston Harbor
Dec. 1, 1828

Dear Sir:

…Lieut. Howard insisted upon my writing you & that if a reconciliation could be effected, he would grant me my wish. This was advised in the goodness of his heart & with the view of serving me in a double sense—He has always been kind to me, and in many respects, reminds me forcibly of yourself.

The period of an Enlistment is five years—the prime of my life would be wasted—I shall be driven to more decided measures, if you refuse to assist me.

You need not fear for my future prosperity—I am altered from what you knew me, & am no longer a boy tossing about on the world without aim or consistency—I feel that within me which will make me fulfill your highest wishes & only beg you to suspend your judgement until you hear of me again.

You will perceive that I speak confidently—but when did ever Ambition exist or Talent prosper without prior conviction of success? I have thrown myself on the world like the Norman conqueror on the shores of Britain &, by my avowed assurance of victory, have destroyed the fleet which could alone cover my retreat—I must either conquer or die—succeed or be disgraced…

Write me once more if you do really forgive me. Let me know how my Ma preserves her health, and the concerns of the family since my departure.

Pecuniary assistance I do not desire—unless of your own free & unbiased choice—I can struggle with any difficulty. My dearest love to Ma—it is only when absent that we can tell the value of such a friend—I hope she will not let my wayward disposition wear away the love she used to have for me.

Yours respectfully & affectionately,

Edgar A. Poe[37]

Allan ignored Edgar’s request. Three weeks later, now back in Virginia and transferred to Fortress Monroe, Edgar wrote again, reiterating what he had already communicated.

Dec. 22, 1828

Dear Sir.

…I was hurt at your declining to answer my letter. Since arriving at Fort Moultrie, Lieut. Howard has given me an introduction to Col. James House of the First Artillery to whom I was before personally known only as a soldier of his regiment. He spoke kindly to me, told me that he was personally acquainted with my Grandfather Gen. Poe, with yourself & family, & reassured me of my immediate discharge upon your consent. It must have been a matter of regret to me, that when those who were strangers took such deep interest in my welfare, that you who called me your son should refuse me even the common civility of answering a letter. If it is your wish to forget that I have been your son, I am too proud to remind you of it again—I only beg you to remember that you yourself cherished the cause of my leaving your family—Ambition. If it has not taken the channel you wished it, it is not the less certain of its object. Richmond and the U. States were too narrow a sphere and the world shall be my theatre—

As I observed in the letter which you have not received—(you would have answered it if you had) you believe me degraded—but do not believe it—There is that within my heart which has no connection with degradation—I can walk among infection and be uncontaminated. There never was any period of my life when my bosom swelled with a deeper satisfaction, of myself & (except in the injury which I may have done to your feelings)—of my conduct—My father do not throw me aside as degraded. I will be an honour to your name.

My dearest love to Ma & all my friends—

If you determine to abandon me—here I take my farewell—Neglected—I will be doubly ambitious & the world shall hear of the son whom you have thought unworthy of your notice. But if you let the love you bear me outweigh the offence which I have given—then write me my father, quickly. My desire is for the present to be freed from the Army—Since I have been in it my character is one that will bear scrutiny & has merited the esteem of my officers—but I have accomplished my own ends–& I wish to be gone—Write to Lieut. Howard–& to Col. House, desiring my discharge–& above all to myself.

Lieut. Howard’s direction is Lieut. J. Howard, For. Monroe; Col. House. Jas. House—F. Monroe—my own the same—

I am Your affectionate son,

Edgar A. Poe[38]

Again, no response was forthcoming from Allan. Edgar continued to strategize. He wrote his sister Rosalie’s guardian, John Mackenzie, asking him if he would be willing to intervene with Allan on his behalf “to procure a cadet’s appointment at the Military Academy.” When he received no reply from Mackenzie either, Edgar made one more effort to contact Allan.

Fortress Monroe
Feb. 4, 1829

Dear Sir:

…You can have no idea of the immense advantages which my present station in the army would give me in the appointment of a cadet—it would be an unprecedented case in the American army, & having already passed through the practical part even of the portion of the Artillery arm, my cadetship would only be considered as a necessary form which I am positive I could run thro’ in 6 months…

Whatever fault you may find with me I have not been ungrateful for past services but you blame me for the part which I have taken without considering the powerful impulses which actuated me—You will remember how much I had to suffer upon my return from the University. I never meant to offer a shadow of excuse for the infamous conduct of myself & others at that place.

It was however at the commencement of that year that I got deeply entangled in difficulty which all my good after-conduct in the close of session (to which all there can testify) could not clear away. I had never been from home before for any length of time. I say again I have no excuse to offer for my conduct except the common one of youthfulness—but I repeat that I was unable if my life depended upon it to bear the consequences of that conduct in the taunts & abuse that followed it even from those who had been my warmest friends.

I shall wait with impatience for an answer to this letter for upon it depend a great many circumstances of my future life—the assurance of an honourable & highly successful course in my own country—or the prospect—no certainty of an exile forever to another.

Give my love to Ma—

I am Yours affectionately,

Edgar A. Poe[39]


The wide range of emotions displayed in these letters is indicative of the complexity of Edgar’s relationship with his foster father. Edgar’s need to prove himself and justify his existence suggests that affection was never given freely in the Allan home. Edgar’s efforts to ascribe positive qualities to his guardian, comparing him to his mentor, Lieut. Howard (“he reminds me forcibly of yourself”), to express his love and affection when none is forthcoming, and to excuse Allan’s cruel silence (“As I observed in the letter which you have not received—you would have answered it if you had”) are attempts to placate, flatter, and excuse Allan. Edgar’s bold claims that he was meant for greatness and his ambition was so great that “the world shall be my theatre” may be read less as grandiose boasting, but as justification that he deserves Allan’s consideration. To win Allan’s approval, he couldn’t just be good enough; he had to be the best. Other young men had gotten into far worse scrapes at the University of Virginia in those first years and been bailed out and forgiven by their families. Edgar’s upbringing and education led him to believe that he merited the same consideration, but Allan treated him differently. Although Allan had inherited his uncle’s great wealth that enabled him to hobnob with Richmond’s elite, he did not behave as a gentleman, particularly towards his young ward. When Edgar had fled the Allans’ home in great distress in March 1827 and had written to ask Allan to send his trunk of clothes and books, he had expected that, as a matter of courtesy, Allan would comply with his wish. But Allan had ignored his request, just as he ignored Edgar’s letters, and as he would ignore Edgar’s increasingly desperate pleas in the future.

Edgar’s assertion, “It must have been a matter of regret to me, that when those who were strangers took such deep interest in my welfare, that you who called me your son should refuse me even the common civility of answering a letter” reads like a cry from the heart. At the same time, “the imp of the perverse” couldn’t avoid statements to Allan that were certain to have angered and annoyed him. Suspicious of grandiosity, Allan disliked Byron as a man and a poet, and Edgar could have realized that he would disapprove of the Byronic claim, “I have thrown myself on the world like the Norman conqueror on the shores of Britain &, by my avowed assurance of victory, have destroyed the fleet which could alone cover my retreat—I must either conquer or die—succeed or be disgraced.”

Braided through Edgar’s flattery, apologies, and assurances are vague threats: “I shall be driven to more decided measures, if you refuse to assist me;” and “on your answer…depend a great many circumstances of my future life—the assurance of an honourable & highly successful course in my own country—or the prospect—no certainty of an exile forever to another.”

Edgar was proud, yet time and again, he would swallow his pride to appeal to Allan. Most of his efforts were of no avail. His letters make for painful reading, with the hindsight that his vaulted ambitions were unfulfilled in his lifetime, and much misery lay ahead of him.

When Edgar joined the Army, he turned his back on his upper-class upbringing. Yet once he was in the Army, he was taken up by his superiors, promoted to positions of authority, and entrusted with difficult, dangerous, and exacting work. He attracted mentors who valued him, and as a result, he gained in self-confidence. He was sincere when he wrote Allan, “I am no longer a boy tossing about on the world without aim or consistency.” Yet Allan’s hatred of Edgar, so evident in the letter he had written Edgar’s brother Henry nearly five years earlier, would not be appeased. Allan’s prolonged silence towards his ward becomes even more ominous with the knowledge that when Edgar was penning these appeals to Allan, he was ignorant that his foster mother was languishing in her final illness.

It was Fanny who had taken Edgar in as an orphaned child. Whatever parental love he had known had come from her. Although she had been powerless to make their home a happy one for him, she was devoted to him. Nevertheless, she was a weak, querulous, self-centered woman, as unable to protect Edgar from her husband as to prevent her husband’s infidelities. Although she was emotionally estranged from Allan, she lived completely under his control, cared for by her sister Nancy Valentine, who was complicit in the household arrangements. Dependent upon her brother-in-law’s support, Nancy would never have jeopardized her comfortable existence in Allan’s home. Her presence made his infidelities easier because she took care of Fanny for him. Nancy and Edgar were never close: he referred to her more frequently as “Miss Valentine” than “Aunt Nancy.” Nor did she intervene when Allan neglected to inform Edgar of Fanny’s illness.

Allan revenged himself on Edgar by not sending him word of Fanny’s condition until it was too late for Edgar to see her alive. To add insult on injury, Allan did not wait for Edgar’s arrival to bury Fanny. Edgar was at roll call at Fortress Monroe on the morning of February 28, 1829, when he was informed of Fanny’s condition and granted leave to travel to Richmond. Fanny died that day. Her obituary notice in the Richmond Whig on March 2 noted that her illness was “lingering and painful.” She was forty-four years old and had been married to John Allan for twenty-eight years.[40]

It was two days’ journey by boat up the James River from Old Point Comfort to Richmond. Edgar arrived on the evening of March 3, the day after Fanny was buried in Shockoe Cemetery. Denied the solace of attending her funeral, he was in a state of grief and shock. On seeing Edgar for the first time in two years, Allan relented enough to purchase mourning clothes for him. In those days, clothing represented a significant investment. The order read “three yards of black cloth at twelve dollars a yard, three pairs of black hose at four shillings per pair, one “London Hat” at ten dollars, a suit of Black Clothes, 3 pair Socks or Half Hose — McCreery will make them / — also a pr Suspenders / and Hat — & Knife / pair of Gloves.” [41] Although Fanny had some money of her own, and some biographers have said that she intended to leave Edgar a legacy, he did not receive any funds from her estate.

The next few days Edgar remained in Richmond. In the aftermath of Fanny’s death, Allan agreed to help Edgar obtain a discharge from the Army and an appointment to West Point. The existing fragment of the letter that Edgar wrote Allan after his return to Fortress Monroe on March 10 was reminiscent of the familial tone of his early letters from the University of Virginia. Instead of “Dear Sir,” the affectionate salutation read “Dear Pa.” Edgar described his plans to obtain the necessary recommendations and prepare for the West Point entrance exams and conveyed his happiness at their reconciliation: “If it were not for late occurrences, I should feel much happier than I have for a long time. I have had a fearful warning & have hardly ever known before what distress was.”[42] Edgar had lost his foster mother, but he believed that he and Allan had reconciled.

The letter that Col. House wrote on Edgar’s behalf at the end of the month to General E.P. Gaines, Commander of the Easter Department of the U.S. Army, is a mixture of fact and fiction, reflecting his imperfect understanding of Edgar’s situation and indicating that he had not been apprised of the whole truth:

Fortress Monroe, March 30, ‘29


I request your permission to discharge from the service Edgar A. Perry, at present the Sergeant Major of the It. Regt. Of Artillery on his procuring a substitute—

The said Perry is one of a family of orphans whose unfortunate parents were the victims of a conflagration of the Richmond theatre, in 1809. The subject of his letter was taken under the protection of a Mr. Allan, a gentleman of wealth & respectability, of that city, who, as I understand, adopted his Protegé as his son & heir—with the intention of giving him a liberal education, he had placed him at the University of Virginia form which, after considerable progress in his studies, in a moment of youthful indiscretion he absconded and was not heard from by his Patron for several years—in the mean time, he became reduced to the necessity of enlisting into the Service and accordingly entered as a soldier in my Regiment, at Fort Independence in 1827.—Since the arrival of his company at this place, he has made his situation known to his Patron at whose request, the young man has been permitted to visit him—the result is an entire reconciliation of the part of Mr. Allan, who re-enstates  him into his family & favor—and who in a letter I have received from him requests that his son may be discharged on procuring a substitute. An experienced soldier & approved Sergeant is ready to take the place of Perry so soon as his discharge can be obtained—The good of the Service, therefore cannot be materially injured by the exchange.[43]

General Gaines granted the request the following week, and on April 15, Edgar was officially discharged from the U.S. Army. Before he left, he succeeded in obtaining excellent credentials from his commanding officers. Lieut. Howard wrote, “He at once performed the duties of company clerk and assistant in the Subsistent Department, both of which duties were promptly and faithfully done. His habits are good and entirely free from drinking.” Captain Griswold described Edgar as “exemplary in his deportment, prompt and faithful in the discharge of his duties and…highly worthy of confidence.” The recommendation of the fortress commander, Lieut. Col. Worth, was glowing:

I have known and had an opportunity of observing the conduct of the above-mentioned Serg’t-Majr. Poe some three months, during which his deportment has been highly praiseworthy and deserving of confidence. His education is of a very high order and he appears to be free from bad habits, in fact the testimony of Lt. Howard and Adjt. Griswold is full to that point. Understanding he is, through his friend, as applicant for cadet’s warrant, I unhesitatingly recommend him as promising to acquit himself of the obligations of that station studiously and faithfully.[44]

In May, Edgar took these credentials to Washington to present them to the Secretary of War, Major John Eaton. Congressman James Preston, who represented Richmond in the House of Representatives and whose son had gone to school with Edgar, wrote to Eaton directly, and Judge John Barber, who had met Edgar as a child, did what he could to forward Edgar’s application. In contrast, John Allan’s letter of recommendation to Secretary Eaton was lukewarm:

He left me in consequence of some gambling at the University at Charlottesville because (I presume) I refused to sanction a rule that the shopkeepers and others had adopted there, making Debts of Honour all indiscretions. I have much pleasure in asserting that he stood his examination at the close of the year with great credit to himself. His history is short. He is the grandson of Quartermaster-General Poe, of Maryland, whose widow as I understand still received a pension for the services or disabilities of her husband. Frankly, Sir, do I declare that he is no relation to me whatever; that I have many in whom I have taken an active interest to promote theirs; with no other feeling than that, every man is my care, if he be in distress. For myself I ask nothing, but I do request your kindness to aid this youth of the promotion of his future prospects. And it will afford me great pleasure to reciprocate any kindness you can show him. Pardon my frankness, but I address a soldier.[45]

It seemed that Edgar was on his way to achieving the military career he had envisioned, but from the beginning, his plans went awry. He was under the impression that he would have to pay a substitute bounty of only $12. A commanding officer had the authority to muster in a recruit as a substitute for a retiring soldier, paying only the normal bounty of $12, but when Edgar’s discharge came through, Col. House and Lieut. Howard were both on furlough, and so this arrangement could not be carried out. Instead, Edgar contracted to pay the substitute, Samuel “Bully” Graves, $75. Allan had given Edgar $50 before left Richmond in March and promised him more. Edgar paid Graves $25 and gave him a note for $50. Allan dithered, but in May he sent Edgar a bank draft for $100, “agreeably pleased” that influential citizens such as Judge Barber and Rep. Preston had intervened on Edgar’s behalf and admonishing him to be “prudent and careful.”[46] Edgar delayed telling Allan the true cost of substitute bounty until July, which only made matters worse when he found out.

Edgar’s rapprochement with Allan, if indeed it ever existed, was short-lived. From his discharge from the Army in mid-April 1829 until he at last entered West Point in June 1830, his relationship with Allan continued to worsen. Allan seized upon Edgar’s petty dissimulations as proof of his bad character and as excuses to sever their connection. At first Edgar showed a willful blindness to Allan’s true attitude. Allan’s message was clear, but Edgar couldn’t accept it. The blow had long been coming, but for Edgar it was stunning.

Edgar’s reunion with his Poe relatives in Baltimore was mixed. There was no room for him in the house where his grandmother, his Aunt Maria and her children, and his brother Henry were living, and he was obliged to pay his own food and lodging. Despite his extreme economies, he had gotten into debt, and moreover had the misfortune to be robbed by his own cousin.

June 25, 1829

Dear Pa,

…I will explain the matter clearly—A cousin of my own (Edward Mosher) robbed me at Beltzhoover’s Hotel while I was asleep in the same room with him of all the money I had with me (about 46$) of which I recovered $10—by searching his pockets the ensuing night, when he acknowledged the theft—I have been endeavoring in vain to obtain the balance from him—and he says he has not got it & begs me not to expose him–& for his wife’s sake I will not. I have a letter from him referring to the subject, which I will show you on arriving in Richmond…

I am Yours affecty,

E A Poe[47]

Under the impression that he had to present his credentials personally to Secretary Eaton, Edgar walked all the way from Baltimore to Washington to save money only to find out that his trip was useless; there were too many applications ahead of him for him to be granted admission to West Point in September; his request would be deferred to the following June, when it would be certain to be granted. Back in Baltimore on July 26, he wrote to Allan:

Dear Pa,

I…am truly thankful for the money which you sent me, notwithstanding the taunt with which it was given that “men of genius ought not to apply to your aid”—It is too often their necessity to want that little timely assistance which would prevent such applications…

I saw Mr. Eaton…On leaving the office he called me back to endorse on my papers the name of my Post Office—I wrote Richmond. He said I should certainly hear from him and that he regretted my useless trip to Washington…I would have returned home immediately but for the words in your letter: “I am not particularly anxious to see you”—I know not how to interpret them.

I could not help thinking that they amounted to a prohibition to return—if I had any means of support until I could obtain the appointment, I would not trouble you again—I am conscious of having offended you formerly—greatly—but I thought that had been forgiven. At least you told me so….

I am Yours affectionately,

Edgar A.[48]

Did Edgar omit his surname from the signature, unlike his usual practice, to ally himself with Allan? It made no difference: Allan resorted to his former practice of ignoring Edgar. Frustrated and injured, Edgar wrote again, adopting a tone decidedly colder and at the same time contradicting his previous letter and telling Allan what he wanted to hear—that he had a chance of getting the appointment in September.

Aug. 4, 1829

Dear Sir,

…By your last letter I understood that it was not your wish that I should return home—I am anxious to do so—but if you think that I should not—I only wish to know what course I shall pursue—

If you are determined to do nothing more in my behalf—you will at least do me the common justice to tell me so—I am almost sure of getting the app in Sep. & certain of getting it in June. If I could manage until that time I would be no longer a trouble to you—

I think it no more than right that you should answer my letter—

Perhaps the time may come when you will find that I have not deserved ½ the misfortunes which have happened to me & that you suspected me unworthily.

I am Yours,

Edgar A. Poe[49]

Allan sent him a small sum of money, while upbraiding him for his handling of the army substitute. Expressing his gratitude, Edgar sought to justify his actions, and at the same time, he confided in his foster father the dire situation of his Baltimore family:

Aug. 10, 1829

Dear Pa,

I received yours this morning which relieved me from more trouble than you can well imagine—I was afraid that you were offended & although I knew that I had done nothing to deserve your anger, I was in a most uncomfortable situation—without one cent of money—in a strange place & so quickly engaged in difficulties after the serious misfortunes which I have just escaped—My grandmother is extremely poor & ill (paralytic). My aunt Maria if possible still worse & Henry given up to drink & unable to help himself, much less me…[50]

In his existing correspondence with Allan, this was Edgar’s first mention of his brother’s alcoholism. Their father, David Poe, Jr., had a problem with alcohol, and Edgar would develop one, too, but at that time in his life, he was not a drinker. In their letters of recommendation to West Point, all of Edgar’s superiors testified that he was free from drinking and bad habits.

Allan was predictably enraged when Edgar wasn’t admitted to West Point in September, and Edgar predictably responded with explanations and excuses. “I am sorry that your letters to me have still with them a tone of anger as if my former errors were not forgiven,” he confessed sadly, “if I knew how to regain your affection God knows I would do any thing I could.”[51] Their familiar pattern continued, and Edgar somehow managed to hang on in Baltimore until he was admitted to West Point on June 20, 1830.

To get there, Edgar left a secure position of great responsibility in the Army. For a year and a half, he expended great efforts to secure his admission. Inspired by his commanding officers, he had idealized the United States Military Academy. If the Athens of North America, the University of Virginia, had failed him, then perhaps he would find success in Sparta. His military mentors were leaders; they were impressive and intelligent men. He had imagined that he would find colleagues of their caliber at West Point, and he would take his place among them. But from the beginning, he was disillusioned and disappointed.



[1] Eliza Poe to Frances Allan, Feb. 8, 1813: Ellis and Allan correspondence in the Library of Congress, quoted in Hervey Allan and Thomas Olive Mabbott, “Poe’s Brother: The Poems of William Henry Leonard Poe,” 1926, p.19.

[2] Lafayette was 66 when he arrived in the U.S. for his grand tour and turned 68 the day before his departure.

[3] Edgar Allan Poe. Life, Character, and Dying Declarations of the Poet by his attending physician, John J. Moran, MD. William Boogher Publisher, 1885, available through

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas H. Ellis, Poe as a Playmate, a brief memorandum, quoted in James A. Harrison, New Glimpses of Poe.

[6] The letter is quoted in Hervey Allen and Thomas Ollive Mabbott, “Chapter 01,” Poe’s Brother: The Poems of William Henry Leonard Poe (1926), pp. 19-36

[7] Henry VIII, III, ii, [lines]

[8] Allen and Mabbott, “Chapter 01,” Poe’s Brother: The Poems of William Henry Leonard Poe (1926), pp. 19-36, introduction.

[9] According to Allen and Mabbott, p.23. The Macedonian was a frigate captured from the British in the War of 1812, commissioned as a merchant ship.

[10] “The Letter from Monte Video” by W.H. Poe is collected and reprinted in Ibid.

[11] Thomas Ollive Mabbott made a careful study of the available documents, which include poems inscribed by Poe in the albums of two young ladies in Baltimore, probably in March 1827, as well as an examination of the shipping schedules from

Thomas Ollive Mabbott, “Introduction,” from the facsimile edition of Tamerlane and Other Poems New York: The Facsimile Text Society, 1941, pp. v-lxvi

[12] “A Prohibitionist Shakes Dice with Poe.” T. Pease Stearns. The Outlook, Sept. 1, 1920.

Quoted in Phillips,

the Poe log,

[13] From being practically worthless in its own time, Tamerlane has come to be one of the most valuable collections of poetry ever printed, because of its rarity. The few that have survived are treasured items in collections such as the British Museum and Huntington Library.

[14] Text: Richard Henry Stoddard, review of Edgar Allan Poe (by G. E. Woodberry), Independent (New York), February 12, 1885, vol. XXXVII (whole number 1889), pp. 10-11

[15] Eugene Didier quoted in John H. Ingram, “Appendix B,” Edgar Allan Poe: Life, Letters, and Opinions (1880), pp. 253-255

[16] Ibid.

[17] Lauvrière, p.73. Also National Archives, Register of Enlistments, 37:153.

[18] Phillips, ch 3,

[19] Reprinted in Allen and Mabbott, “Chapter 02,” Poe’s Brother: The Poems of William Henry Leonard Poe (1926), pp. 37-41

[20] In The World of Edgar Allan Poe, author Undine writes:  Rosalie “was born long enough after the mysterious disappearance of her mother Eliza’s husband, David Poe, for questions to arise about the child’s paternity. It has even been claimed that David’s sister, Maria Poe Clemm, maintained that Rosalie was not the true child of either David or Eliza Poe. Intriguingly, when Rosalie was a child, a wealthy resident of Richmond, Virginia, Joseph Gallego, died and left a will bequeathing the then enormous sum of 2,000 dollars for Rosalie’s maintenance. She was the only charity bequest in his will to be so favored, leaving one to speculate whether the young orphan was more to him than just an object of sympathy.”

[21] Thomas Ollive Mabbott (and W. H. L. Poe), “Appendix V (Part I: Poems by William Henry Leonard Poe),” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. I: Poems (1969), pp. 515-520

Mabbott identifies the source who supplied the name of Henry Poe’s lost sweetheart as Amelia Poe in a letter to Ingram, Feb. 1911.

[22] Reprinted in Ibid.

[23] Reprinted in Ibid.

[24] Reprinted in Ibid.

[25] Reprinted in Ibid. Paul Collins, in Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living, Houghton Mifflin, 2014, also attributes “A Fragment” to Edgar instead of Henry, pp.20-21.

[26] Mabbott, Appendix Part I, Poems by William Henry Leonard Poe,

[27] William F. Hecker, Private Perry and Mister Poe. (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2005), p.xxix.

[28] Ibid.,

[29] Edgar Allan Poe, The Gold Bug, published Dollar Newspaper (Philadelphia, PA), vol. I, no. 23, June 28, 1843, pp. 1 and 4

[30] Michael Howard, Seeds of a Soldier: The True Story of Edgar Allan Poe: Sergeant Major,” Army Space Journal, Fall 2003,

[31] Undine, “Sergeant Major Edgar Allan Poe,” World of Poe

[32] Louis De Tousard, American Artillerist’s Companion, or Elements of Artillery, 2 vols. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), pp.310-313, quoted in Hecker, pp.xxxiv-xxxv.

[33] Hecker, pp. xxxiv-xxxv.

[34] De Tousard, quoted in Ibid., p.xxxix.

[35] Quinn, p.129.

[36] Howard,

[37] Letter EAP to JA, Dec. 1, 1828, in the Valentine papers,

[38] Letter EAP to JA, Dec. 22, 1828, in the Valentine papers,

[39] Letter EAP to JA, Feb. 4, 1829, in the Valentine papers,

[40] The Poe Log,

[41] Ibid.

[42] Letter EAP to JA, March 10, 1829, in the Valentine papers,

[43] From the National Archives, cited in Quinn, p.24.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Letter JA to EAP, May 18, 1829, in the Valentine papers,

[47] Letter EAP to JA, June 25, 1829, in the Valentine papers,

[48] Letter EAP to JA, July 26, 1829, in the Valentine papers,

[49] Letter EAP to JA, Aug. 4, 1829, in the Valentine papers,

[50] Letter EAP to JA, Aug. 10, 1829, in the Valentine papers,

[51] Letter EAP to JA, Oct. 30, 1829, in the Valentine papers,


About the writer:
“SOLDIER, SAILOR: Edgar Allan Poe and His Brother Henry” is the fourth of a series of essays about Edgar Allan Poe. Anne Whitehouse is also the author of seven poetry collections, most recently Outside from the Inside (Dos Madres Press, 2020), as well as a novel, Fall Love, and short stories, essays, and reviews. Ethelzine has jusr published Surrealist Muse, her long poem about Leonora Carrington, as a mini-chapbook.

Image: Doppelgänger No.1 by Sebastian Bieniek. Oil on canvas. No size specified. 2018. By free license.