Book Review Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer

Joshism

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Apr 30, 2012
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Jupiter, FL
Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer
by Paul Taylor
Kent State Press (2009)
294/354

Orlando Metcalfe Poe graduated 6th in the West Point Class of 1856. He initially sought a commission in the Artillery, but quickly changed his mind and took one in the Corps of Topographic Engineers instead. Until the Civil War, he served on survey duty in the Great Lakes under Capt. George G. Meade. This portion of the book takes up a mere 30 pages and there's rather limited information about Poe's West Point experiences, other than his efforts to secure admission in the first place.

The Civil War not only brought Poe to prominence, but is also the main reason we know a great deal about him. Married shortly before the war, he wrote frequently and extensively to his young wife and these letters (along with related material) are a large collection at the Library of Congress. Poe served as George McClellan's Chief Engineer in Ohio and West Virginia, and went with him to the Army of the Potomac. However, rather than remain on staff, he accepted a commission as a Colonel of Volunteers and commanded the 2nd Michigan. A tough but fair disciplinarian, Poe was initially despised by much of the rowdy regiment but eventually became a beloved commander. They saw some combat at Williamsburg (earning Kearney's praise), but then by a quirk of fate Poe was effectively missed all the action. He was on sick leave during the Seven Days. He returned in time for the Second Manassas, but the regiment was on Pope's right flank and saw little action, then marched to the relief of Stevens at Chantilly only to arrive after darkness and rain ended the fighting. He was in the Washington defenses for the Antietam Campaign. At Fredericksburg, the 2nd Michigan crossed with Franklin on the Union left flank but was not engaged.

A serious, disciplined, and detail-oriented man (as you might expect of an engineer), Poe was also ambitious and eager for his general's star. He made numerous amateur attempts to secure patronage from Michigan politicians. He failed to be confirmed as a Brigadier General for political reasons. He seems to have been somewhat apolitical, leaning conservative, and was apparently tarred by his association with McClellan. (Taylor makes what to me seems an choice to describe McClellan and Poe as both having "Whiggish" politics.)

Poe went west in 1863, serving as Chief Engineer for the XXIII Corps then for the Army of the Ohio. In these roles he established Camp Nelson to supply the Knoxville Campaign then designed and supervised construction of the Union defenses at Knoxville. He did an outstanding job and this brought him to Sherman's attention. He served as Sherman's Chief Engineer from 1864 through the end of the war and the two men became lifelong friends. Poe not only oversaw numerous bridging projects during these campaigns (including direct command of an engineer battalion), he designed earthworks and produced maps for Sherman. He also handled much of the destruction on Sherman's behalf, including giving detailed instructions to work parties for demolition of selected structures in Atlanta, apparently without complaint. Although he wrote a number of times about how he detested the Union mistreatment of Southern civilians, he detested secession and apparently saw no problems with most of Sherman's official, organized destruction.

Some relevant quotes:

"It sometimes make me blush that my duty brings me in contact with some of the thieves and pillagers of this army, whose ideas do not rise above a hen roost and whose notions of the proper way to subdue the Rebellion are exemplified in the maltreatment of innocent women and children. Thank God this class of ruffians are largely in the minority." (pg 160; cited letter dated June 4, 1864)

"It is perfectly pitiable to witness the distress of the people through here, and I pray God it may never be my duty to see the like again. A great many of our soldiers are acting very badly; robbing and plundering. . . . my attempts to stop this thing are but a small and feeble effort, when we regard the great number of those who either wink at it, or openly encourage it." (pgs 181-182; cited letters dated Aug 30, 1864 & Sep 7, 1864)

Given Poe's personality, what he does and does not bemoan in letters to his wife, and his closeness with Sherman it seems to me Poe detested not Sherman's mode of warfare (other than the shelling of Atlanta, which he thought was wasteful and cruel) but the Bummers. Pillage, plunder, harassment, and abuse that stemmed as much from insufficient discipline as any political motives.

On his time in Savannah: "This city is more completely subjugated than any I have ever seen before." (200)

On the burning of Columbia: Columbia residents had given whiskey to arriving Union soldiers and the "possibly well meant hospitality recoiled up on their own heads." "Many of our own men, being stupidly drunk in houses were burned to death. It was simply impossible for the officers to control the soldiers - their drunken condition destroying all discipline." (210-211)

The book indicates that the burning of Columbia was a combination of wind-driven burning cotton (lighted by Confederates) combined with drunken carelessness and some arson, by drunks and/or freed Union POWs. Not anything organized.

The Civil War years taken up 2/3 of the book, with Poe ending as a Brevet Brigadier General but only the permanent rank of Captain of Engineers. A chapter covers Poe's postwar lighthouse work, first as Engineer Secretary of the Lighthouse Board (1865-1870 and temporarily in 1873) and District Engineer for the Great Lakes (1870-1873). Poe only left the latter position to join Sherman's staff, and spent a decade as an at-large member of the Lighthouse Board. Two interesting revelations: the Lighthouse Board's first choice for postwar Engineer Secretary was W. F. "Baldy" Smith, but the Army declined to give him the assignment, and Poe requested the position. Poe is known for his "Poe Towers" on Great Lakes. Poe clearly enjoyed his lighthouse work and left an impact, but it's a somewhat shallow treatment of the subject. I suspect this is a combination of a lack of personal material (Poe was able to live at home with his wife in Washington or Detroit, thus nothing like his Civil War letters) combined with the size of the book. It's certainly a vast improvement on how the subject was covered in William Franklin's biography that I read earlier this year, but I'll definitely have a lot more research to do on the subject for my USLHS blog post about Poe's lighthouse work.

The last two chapters cover Poe's time serving on Sherman's staff, including several trips out west, and the final decade of Poe's life handling engineering projects on the Great Lakes. He not only designed what would posthumously be know as the Poe Lock at Sault Ste. Marie but also created the first formal plans for creating a deep-water channel connecting all the major ports on the Great Lakes.

Poe's life ended rather tragically. He lost 3 of his 4 children (all adults) in six years then died essentially the same way Charles Ferguson Smith died in 1862: scraping his leg getting off a boat, resulting in a fatal infection. Poe died less than a year before the completion of the lock he had designed, which at the time was the largest in the Western Hemisphere. In the 20th century it had to be replaced by an even larger lock which retained the name and apparently still holds the title of largest lock (unless work on the Panama Canal in the last decade has surpassed it).

In terms of fun reading, this book is a solid "meh." Poe's story is interesting, but the writing isn't. Despite less than 300 pages of main text, the book still feels like it could have been cut down closer to 250. It doesn't feel as focused as it could be - there are places that feel a little padded, a little too tangential, or with a little too much time trying to fit Poe into the big picture. I think the book was probably hurt by the source material being a bit weak in places too.

Mild recommendation to the average Civil War buff, with a stronger recommendation if you're particularly interested in engineering and/or Sherman.
 

Joshism

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It sounds like the man is much more interesting than the book was able to reveal.

I think it does a good job of making Poe a more three-dimensional person. For example, he writes to his wife on several occasions during the war about how terribly he misses her and how exhausted he is. He wants to resign his commission on a number of occasions to go home and be with his wife and their infant children, but duty compells him to stay.

I think overall this book suffered fron the same problem the William Franklin biography and probably a lot of similar biographies would suffer from. These men wrote a lot of passionate, revealing letters to their wives during the war about their experiences and opinions. But the rest of their lives, when they were bachelors or simply able to be at peacetime postings where they could live with their spouse, these letters simply don't exist. Journal keeping by such men seems rare.

Engineering can be a tough subject to write about for a number of reasons. Engineers seem to rarely explain their reasoning on paper, are working with math that most people wouldn't understand, and can seem strangely dismissive of their work. When Poe was on Sherman's postwar staff, managing engineering projects around the country, there's a comment about how no one on earth would care about the details of those projects except those directly involved. (I forgot to mark the page so I'm paraphrasing. I think it was a quote, or at least the author's summary of something Poe said/wrote.)
 

Lubliner

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I think it does a good job of making Poe a more three-dimensional person. For example, he writes to his wife on several occasions during the war about how terribly he misses her and how exhausted he is. He wants to resign his commission on a number of occasions to go home and be with his wife and their infant children, but duty compells him to stay.

I think overall this book suffered fron the same problem the William Franklin biography and probably a lot of similar biographies would suffer from. These men wrote a lot of passionate, revealing letters to their wives during the war about their experiences and opinions. But the rest of their lives, when they were bachelors or simply able to be at peacetime postings where they could live with their spouse, these letters simply don't exist. Journal keeping by such men seems rare.

Engineering can be a tough subject to write about for a number of reasons. Engineers seem to rarely explain their reasoning on paper, are working with math that most people wouldn't understand, and can seem strangely dismissive of their work. When Poe was on Sherman's postwar staff, managing engineering projects around the country, there's a comment about how no one on earth would care about the details of those projects except those directly involved. (I forgot to mark the page so I'm paraphrasing. I think it was a quote, or at least the author's summary of something Poe said/wrote.)
Do you know by the book, if he had any solicitous experiences with Beauregard or Lee. I am talking before and after the war.
Lubliner.
 

Joshism

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Location
Jupiter, FL
Do you know by the book, if he had any solicitous experiences with Beauregard or Lee. I am talking before and after the war.
Lubliner.

I don't think Poe ever met Beauregard, and he only met Lee in the capacity of cadet to Lee's superintendent (Lee's three years running West Point were Poe's first three years there). Beauregard was in the Corps of Engineers while Poe was in the Topographical Engineers, which prewar were separate departments within the Army.

Poe seems to have seen Meade as a friend and mentor. He also seems to have been friends with Baldy Smith (another engineer/general whose biography I need to read).

During the war he butted heads with Israel Richardson in the Army of the Potomac.
 

Joshism

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Apr 30, 2012
Location
Jupiter, FL
The author of this book has also edited compilation of Poe's letters into book form: My Dear Nelly: The Selected Civil War Letters of General Orlando M. Poe to His Wife Eleanor
 

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