Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Orlando Metcalfe Poe

By John Fierst

[Post 1 in a series on Orlando Metcalfe Poe, from the Orlando Poe Collection at Clarke Historical Library. To read Post 2, see May 17, 2010]

Orlando Poe Orlando Poe (1832-1895) grew up ten miles outside of the town of Canton, Ohio, on a farm located on the Tuscarawas River. His German ancestors had immigrated to the United States a century earlier. As a boy Poe dreamed of becoming a soldier, a dream he later realized. Educated at West Point, where he graduated sixth in his class in 1856, he chose a career with the corps of topographical engineers, and in that capacity he served as one of the most effective Union officers in the Civil War. When war broke out he was assigned to the staff of George McClellan, an association that later worked to his political disadvantage. McClellan’s enemies in Congress looked unfavorably on officers, like Poe, whose loyalty McClellan commanded.  Poe’s importance to the Union cause was only slowly acknowledged during the war, and even today few recognize the name of Brevet Brigadier General Orlando M. Poe. His ingenious defenses in the Battle of Knoxville won both the battle and the attention of William T. Sherman who made Poe his chief engineer and trusted advisor. Sherman placed Poe in charge of the destruction of Atlanta after the capture of that city. After the war, in the 1870s, the army appointed Poe chief engineer of the Upper Lakes Lighthouse District. In 1886 Poe laid out plans for a new, expanded lock at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, but he died before the lock, named after him, was completed in 1896.
Paul Taylor’s recent book, Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer (Kent State University Press, 2009), from which the above information was taken, will go a long way toward bringing Poe, even if posthumously, the recognition he deserves. In researching this excellent biography Taylor made use of the Orlando M. Poe Collection at the Clarke Historical Library. The documents in this collection are, for the most part, Civil War documents: letters, reports, muster rolls, maps, military orders, letters of mourning, and “Itinerary of the Route” notebooks. The Clarke Library came into possession of its collection of Poe documents sometime in the 1970s. There is no record of acquisition.
What follows is a letter Poe sent Jefferson Davis prior to the Civil War. (Other Poe documents will be presented in later posts.) This letter concerns Poe’s first military appointment. Poe requested that he be assigned to the topographical engineers. Having graduated toward the top of his class at West Point, Poe could choose the branch of service to which he would be assigned. Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War at the time, granted Poe’s request.

Letter to Jefferson Davis from Orlando Poe


Poe Davis Letter frontPoe Davis letter back
Click images to enlarge

West Point, N.Y.
July 17th/[18]56
Hon. Jeff[erso]n Davis
     If not too late I would respectfully beg leave to make application to be attached to the Topog[raphica]l Engineers, instead of to the Art[iller]y, as I made appl[icatio]n for the Art[iller]y under the impression that there were a number of vacancies in that arm, which I have learned is not the case.[1]
I am Sir very respectfully
Your Ob[edien]t Servant

Orlando M. Poe

[Reverse side]
Change of Appl[icatio]n for prom[otio]n
Endorsed by Assistant Adj[utant] Gene[ral]
saying informing of fact of
attach[men]t to Corps Topograph[ical] Eng[inee]rs
Recd July 21st 1856

Respectfully returned for endorsement
Cadet Poe is informed that his name was laid before the Senate for confirmation as Brevet Second Lieutenant attached to [the] Corps of Topographical Engineers.
July 10, 1856                       By Order of
A[djutant] G[eneral’s] Office  Gausché
July 18/56                           Ass[istan]t Adj[utant] Gen[eral][2]

 [1] Poe wrote directly to Davis, the Secretary of War, instead of writing to the chief of the Topographical Bureau because he was afraid of being turned down. According to Taylor, “Going straight to the top with his appeal was in Poe’s best interest, for he was probably well aware that John James Albert, chief of the Topographical Bureau, rejected out of hand any applicant who made the topogs his second option,” see Taylor, Orlando M. Poe, 22.
[2] C. H. Gausché.  The editors have been unable to find further information about Assistant Adjutant General Gausché

Further Reading on Orlando M. Poe

Taylor, Paul. 2009. Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer. Kent: The Kent State University Press.