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Orlando M. Poe

Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer

Paul Taylor with a foreword by Phil Shiman

Publication Year: 2009

Recipient of the Library of Michigan's 2010 Notable Books award

The first biography of Sherman’s chief engineer and the man whose post–Civil War engineering work changed Great Lakes navigation forever

Orlando M. Poe chronicles the life of one of the most influential yet underrated and overlooked soldiers during the Civil War. After joining the Union Army in 1861, Poe commanded the 2nd Michigan Infantry in the Peninsula Campaign and led brigades at Second Bull Run and Fredericksburg. He was then sent west and became one of the Union heroes in the defense of Knoxville. Poe served under several of the war’s greatest generals, including George McClellan and William T. Sherman, who appointed him chief engineer to oversee the burning of Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea. Though technically only a captain in the regular army at the war’s end, Poe was one of Sherman’s most valued subordinates, and he was ultimately appointed brevet brigadier general for his bravery and service.

After the war, Poe supervised the design and construction of numerous Great Lakes lighthouses, all of which are still in service. He rejoined Sherman’s staff in 1873 as engineer aide-de-camp and continued his role as trusted advisor until the general’s retirement in 1884. Poe then returned to his adopted home in Detroit where he began planning his ultimate post–Civil War engineering achievement: the design and construction of what would become the largest shipping lock in the world at Sault St. Marie, Michigan.

Mining an extensive collection of Poe’s unpublished personal papers that span his entire civil and military career, and illustrating the narrative with many previously unpublished photographs, Paul Taylor brings to life for the first time the story of one of the nineteenth century’s most overlooked war heroes.

Published by: The Kent State University Press

Series: Civil War in the North Series


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xii

Once in a while, a new book comes along that is both original and a real contribution to our understanding of the Civil War. Paul Taylor’s biography of Orlando Poe is such a book. A West Point graduate, Poe had a long and varied career as a topographical engineer before the war, a staff engineer and a combat commander during the conflict, and, later, an officer...

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pp. xiii-xv

Most books probably begin as the seed of an idea within an author’s mind, but by the time the finished work sees the light of day, it is inevitable that numerous other people have contributed to the final product. This book is certainly no exception. Individuals from all over the country, ranging from professional scholars to amateur genealogists, offered...

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pp. xvii-xix

Atlanta was a city in ruin. The symbolic capital of the Deep South and last bastion of real Confederate resistance in Georgia lay in smoldering silence as Capt. Orlando Metcalfe Poe stood on a hilltop and gazed back at his handiwork. Months of grueling campaigns and sieges had ended two and a half months earlier when Gen. John Bell Hood’s Confederate...

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1. “There Is a Bright Prospect before Me”: A Young Man’s Dreams

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pp. 1-5

What little is known of Orlando Metcalfe Poe’s childhood indicates that, by all measures, it was routinely modest and proletarian. There were no vestiges of aristocracy or a wealthy landowning family to dictate that his fortune and path would be determined early in life. His family was seemingly no better or worse off than any of their neighbors. ...

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2. “I Have Been Called a Damned Abolitionist”: Educated at West Point

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pp. 6-18

Despite the controversy surrounding it, by the early 1850s West Point was considered by many to be the preeminent institution of higher learning in the United States. By then, the academy had been in official existence for fifty years, though its favorable status had been slow in coming. President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation in 1802 that founded the United States Military Academy with the understanding that class...

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3. “Energy and Tenacity of Purpose”: Surveying the Great Lakes

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pp. 19-30

With a newly minted engineer’s degree in hand, young Poe was eager to begin some type of engineering duty for the military. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States Army was divided into three distinct arms: a scientific corps, a general staff, and the line. The scientific corps consisted of three smaller groupings: the engineers, the topographical...

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4. “It All Seems Like a Dream to Me”: 1861—Western Virginia and Washington, D.C.

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pp. 31-57

Poe could clearly see where Southern votes to secede would take the country long before any number of Northern politicians. Following Mississippi’s secession vote in early January, he wrote to Governor William Dennison of Ohio offering to resign his federal commission and to volunteer his services to his native state if need be, making Poe the first regular army officer from Ohio to offer his services to the governor. “Indulgence...

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5. “Do You See How Handsomely Kearny Speaks of Poe at Williamsburg?”: 1862—Virginia

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pp. 58-99

The innuendo swirling through the 2d Michigan’s camp regarding the rumored rift between Poe and Richardson finally revealed itself in the dawn of the New Year: the 2d Michigan Infantry was going to be transferred into a heavy artillery unit. Camp rumors were always a daily fact of life, but to everyone’s amazement, this story turned out to be true and...

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6. “A Matter of Much Gratification to a Proud and Sensitive Man”: 1863—Kentucky and Tennessee

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pp. 100-139

Having amply recovered from the exhaustion that had beset him following the battle at Fredericksburg, Poe set out on his return trip to Washington, D.C., on February 9, with a stop on personal business in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, along the way. The entire Ninth Corps, now commanded by Gen. William “Baldy” Smith, had been ordered to Fortress...

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7. “God Help Us If We Fail!”: 1864—The Atlanta Campaign

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pp. 140-183

After enjoying a well-deserved leave and the warmth of family and friends back in Ohio, Poe returned to the field on January 23. His formal leave had actually ended at his request on January 6, and for the next two weeks he wrote his lengthy report on the just concluded Knoxville campaign at the behest of Ambrose Burnside. Once back, he learned that his duties under Burnside were over, as the situation in eastern...

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8. “A Sort of Wild Goose Chase”: 1864—The March to the Sea

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pp. 184-202

By almost mutual consent, both sides paused to catch their collective breath following Hood’s withdrawal from Atlanta. With Union forces now occupying the city, new strategies and tactics were called for. Though pleased with taking Atlanta, Sherman had no intention of occupying a major enemy city, which would present a host of logistical issues...

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9. “Hot Work Is Sure to Follow Soon”: 1865—The Carolinas

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pp. 203-220

With Georgia subdued and humbled, all eyes turned northward. Sherman now planned to march north from Savannah through the Carolinas and into Virginia where he could then join up with Grant. There the final deathblow would be delivered to Lee’s army and end the war. An additional bonus would be gleaned from such a strategy. If Sherman...

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10. A Position “That I Can Honorably Take”: The Lighthouse Years

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pp. 221-242

Following the grand review, the magnificent armies were disbanded, prompting an exodus of thousands of volunteer veterans to their respective hometowns and villages. Even some of the officers on Sherman’s staff had served under a volunteer status, and now with hostilities over, all had scattered to the four corners. For these men, the war’s conclusion brought an end to steady employment and its attendant...

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11. “A Man of Marked Ability”: With Sherman Again

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pp. 243-268

After the Civil War ended, William Sherman returned to his beloved home in St. Louis where he resumed command of the Division of the Mississippi. Disdaining easterners in general, and politicians and journalists in particular, Sherman found the rugged temperament of that western town far more suited to his tastes. President Andrew Johnson offered...

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12. “The Wildest Expectations of One Year Seem Absolutely Tame . . . the Next”: At “the Soo”

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pp. 269-289

With Sherman contentedly retired, Poe’s official role as engineer aide-de-camp came to an end. He and his family happily moved back to Detroit where Brevet Brigadier General Poe was ready and eager to assume his new role as superintendent of iron and harbor works and whose territory stretched from Lake Erie all the way westward to Lake Superior. Shipping tonnage on the Great Lakes was growing at a steady...

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pp. 290-294

Orlando Metcalfe Poe surely died a grief-stricken man after suffering the devastating loss of three children in his final six years. In several obituaries, this information was picked up on and sadly noted. The National Tribune, a Civil War veterans’ newspaper, calmly eulogized on that point: “The grief suffered by their father doubtless also hurried the...


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pp. 295-324


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pp. 325-339


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pp. 340-354

E-ISBN-13: 9781612775470
E-ISBN-10: 1612775470
Print-ISBN-13: 9781606350409

Page Count: 360
Illustrations: (To view these images, please refer to print version)
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Civil War in the North Series
Series Editor Byline: Lesley J. Gordon See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 759158911
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Orlando M. Poe

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Subject Headings

  • Engineers -- United States -- Biography.
  • United States. Army -- Officers -- Biography.
  • Poe, O. M. (Orlando Metcalfe), 1832-1895.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Biography
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