My Dear Nelly: The Selected Civil War Letters of General Orlando M. Poe to His Wife Eleanor edited by Paul Taylor. Kent State University Press, 2020. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1606354070. $55.00.
Good collections of Civil War letters offer insight into the worlds of soldiers and civilians by revealing both connections to the larger conflict and the rhythms of ordinary life during wartime. They shed light on military operations as well as the struggles of families and communities. The letters of General Orlando Poe do all these things to one degree or another; among the vast numbers of such published collections, they are quite above average. Ironically, however, they say relatively little about Poe’s engineering operations.
Born in Ohio in 1832, Orlando Poe graduated from West Point in the class of 1856 and served as a topographical engineer for the Great Lakes Survey. Poe married Eleanor Carroll Brent shortly after the Civil War began. Editor Paul Taylor—who had previously published a biography of the general—has done a good job of selecting and editing the letters Poe wrote to his beloved “Nelly.” Eleanor’s letters were evidently destroyed, but she fortunately ignored Orlando’s advice to consign his missives to the flames.
Like many northern West Point graduates and regular army officers, Poe deplored secession, was a strong Unionist and, to the extent he expressed any political views, hewed to a conservative line. In the spring of 1861, he relished the prospect of serving as a staff officer with George B. McClellan and viewed the war as a great professional opportunity. “There is something extremely exciting about all this,” he wrote enthusiastically. “One feels as though he were really amongst men and likely to take a part in manly deeds” (23). Caught up in the military romance of the age, at one point, he even longed to receive a few “honorable” (albeit not serious) wounds (175). His letters exuded ambition and, notably, a burning desire for advancement along with numerous complaints when promotions did not come quickly enough. By the same token, he at times rendered strong judgments against generals who seemed to block his path and against politicians generally.
Poe relished praise and seemed especially taken by his supposed ability to attract young women. Like the Confederate general William Dorsey Pender, Poe bragged to his wife about all the female attention he received. At the same time, the letters reveal Poe’s high opinion of his own abilities. While serving under General Ambrose Burnside during the Confederate siege of Knoxville, Tennessee, Poe told Nelly that “our success thus far is attributed to me” and might even be worth a second star. He then added with no apparent fear of hyperbole: “My praises are in every man’s mouth” (176, 178). With equal confidence, Poe sought to guide his young wife in various matters. When she proposed staying in a Detroit hotel with their newborn son, he worried about her reputation but never thought she should visit him in camp. Poe warned Nelly to say nothing about politics, apparently fearing that any public statements of her evidently conservative views might hurt prospects for promotion. Like many couples during the war, the Poes had their share of family problems. As their young son grew older, Poe worried that his wife was not enough of a disciplinarian. Both Orlando and Eleanor often had trouble dealing with their own mothers.
Poe admired the more conservative generals such as McClellan and William T. Sherman, and throughout the war favored a conciliatory approach to the enemy. Impressed by the determination and sacrifices of Tennessee Unionists, he worried about discipline in the ranks and condemned depredations against civilians. Especially during the Atlanta and Carolinas campaigns, pillaging and thievery by Union forces disgusted him; he could not understand men whose ideas about the “proper way to subdue the rebellion are exemplified in the maltreatment of innocent women & children.” ( 227). During the presidential election campaign of 1864, Poe observed that he was fighting for his country, not for Abraham Lincoln or the Republican Party.
In several respects, Poe embodied the stern values of the professional soldier. Beginning with service in western Virginia early in the war, he evinced a growing ambition for field command, but this was not to be; he was convinced that prejudice against him up through the chain of command and in the War Department stood in his way. In the aftermath of the Battle of Fredericksburg, Poe admitted suffering from “severe mental strain” (111), and his morale had plummeted. When the United States Senate failed to confirm his appointment as a brigadier general, Poe was reduced to a captain of engineers. But service during the East Tennessee campaign of 1863 proved his worth; Sherman made Poe his chief engineer for the Atlanta campaign. His letters during this period speak powerfully of both determination and hard work. By the time Sherman’s army reached Savannah, Orlando was proudly telling Eleanor of his three brevet promotions and explaining how he could not yet come home because he was performing invaluable service.
Students of the Civil War will welcome this well edited collection of letters (selected from substantial collection of Poe manuscripts at the Library of Congress), and researchers will find them useful on a variety of subjects. The correspondence published here reveals a man of both ability and no little ego, but one who struggled for distinction in the field and for control over affairs at home.
George C. Rable is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Alabama and the author of many books on the Civil War era.