GENERAL ORLANDO M. POE
Civil War General, Military Engineer, West Point Graduate, Great Lakes Engineering Legend, Commander of Infantry Volunteers, Sherman’s Right-Hand Man, Adopted Michigander…all of these descriptors and more rightly describe one of the most unsung Union Officers of the Civil War and unknown pillars of Great Lakes navigation.
Orlando Metcalfe Poe was born on 07 March 1832 in Navarre, Ohio, the son and oldest child of Charles Poe and Susannah Warner Poe. The Poe family was of Palatine German descent, and anglicized their name from Pfau after the American Revolution. Two of Poe’s ancestors daring acts were documented in Theodore Roosevelt’s book “The Winning of the West from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi, 1777-1783”.
Orlando Poe left Ohio and attended the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated 6th in his class in 1856. Upon graduation from West Point, Lieutenant Poe initially sought appointment to the Artillery, but instead chose appointment to the Corps of Topographical Engineers (which later merged with the Corps of Engineers), and was stationed in Detroit. With this assignment Poe was tasked with the survey of the upper Great Lakes serving under the leadership of Captain George G. Meade.
With the beginning of the Civil War, Lieutenant Poe was assigned to General George B. McClellan and was one of his principal staff as Chief Topographical Engineer working on preparations for defenses and fortifications (including the U.S. Capital), as well as mapping. In September of 1861, Orlando Poe was promoted to Colonel of Volunteers and took command of the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry. Colonel Poe led the 2nd Michigan Infantry during the Peninsula Campaign. Soon, Colonel Poe was given the responsibility of leading several brigades during Battles such as the Second Bull Run, Chantilly, and Fredericksburg.
Poe was appointed Brigadier General of Volunteers in November 1862 by President Lincoln, but his appointment was not confirmed by the Senate in the Spring of 1863 – most likely due to his association with General McClellan.
After resigning his post as Colonel in the Michigan Volunteers with the appointment to Brigadier General by President Lincoln, and the subsequent inaction by the Senate, Poe reverted back to his previous rank in the Regular Army as Lieutenant of Engineers. He quickly was promoted to Captain, and was assigned as the Chief Engineer to General Ambrose Burnside. Poe saw action at Blue Springs, and then in the defense of Knoxville, where Poe’s design of fortifications and defense work created a massive advantage against the numerically superior Confederates led by Longstreet. Captain Poe was breveted to Major after the defense of Knoxville for his excellent work.
Due to his known body of work and excellence, General Sherman selected Poe as his Chief Engineer (Military Division of the Mississippi). Poe’s tasks were a dichotomy in that he was constantly building such things as defenses, railroads, and water crossings with the Engineers assigned to him (mostly 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics) – while concurrently destroying anything that might be of use to the Confederate military such as railroads, factories, foundries, storage, etcetera. During this time, Sherman tasked Poe with carrying out the famous destruction of Atlanta. Poe took about the work assigned, and did it well. However, Poe did not care for the wanton destruction or harm done to Southern civilians that were innocent bystanders to the conflict. He was especially sickened by the “Bummers” that wreaked havoc where it was clearly unnecessary.
Poe was breveted again to Lieutenant Colonel upon the capture of Atlanta, continuing as Sherman’s Chief Engineer through the March to the Sea. He was again breveted to Colonel upon the capture of Savannah, and then breveted again to Brigadier General at the war’s end for his gallant and meritorious service throughout the war.
After the war’s conclusion, General Poe was assigned as the Lighthouse Board’s Engineer Secretary, and he was later promoted to the office of Chief Engineer of the Upper Great Lakes 11th Lighthouse District. This left him responsible for all lighthouse construction within the district. During this time, Poe designed eight lighthouses on the Upper Great Lakes (across Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron) including the Spectacle Reef Light, which was described as “the best specimen of monolithic stone masonry in the United States”, as well as “one of the greatest engineering feats on the Great Lakes” and Lake Superior’s Stannard Rock Light’s exposed crib being considered “one of the top ten engineering feats in the United States”. Poe’s lighthouse designs utilized a tall tapered tower with arched windows and corbels reminiscent of Italianate style architecture.
In 1873, General of the Army William T. Sherman came calling for Orlando Poe. This time, Sherman wanted Poe to serve on his staff as his Engineering Aide-de-Camp with the rank of Colonel, which Poe accepted despite having to return to Washington. Poe also remained on the Lighthouse Board during this tenure as Sherman’s Engineering Aide-de-Camp. Also during this time, Poe provided guidance on engineering and security for four transcontinental railroads.
After 10 more years as Sherman’s right-hand man, Poe went back to Michigan being assigned as the Superintending Engineer of improvement of rivers and harbors on Lake Superior and Lake Huron. During this assignment, Poe was in charge of the improvement of Hay Lake Channel, the St. Clair Flats Canal, the Lime Kiln Crossing in the Detroit River, the harbor at Cheboygan, Thunder Bay, the Saginaw River, the Ice Harbor of Refuge at Belle River, the Grosse Pointe Channel and the overall improvement of the shipping channels of the Great Lakes between Duluth, Chicago, and Buffalo – along with many other river and harbor works falling under his direction.
His greatest achievement under this assignment was his work on the St. Mary’s Falls Canal, which is better known as the Soo Locks. Poe designed a larger lock that would permit steel freighters with greater payloads to traverse between Lakes Superior and Huron, which was instrumental in the American steel industry. This lock would be the largest shipping lock in the world, and would be named the Poe Lock in his honor upon its opening in 1896. The Poe Lock was rebuilt and commissioned in 1968 and is still believed to be the largest shipping lock in the world. General Poe would be proud.
In September of 1895, Poe arrived in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to inspect the locks as there was a break in one of them. During his inspection, he slipped causing a significant injury to his leg. Poe returned back to Detroit where the injury incapacitated him from his duties, and further developed into erysipelas, which resulted in his death on 02 October 1895. His death has often thought to have been hastened from sorrow after the deaths of 3 of his 4 children from 1889 to 1895. General Orlando M. Poe had served his nation in the United States Army for over 40 years.
General Orlando Metcalfe Poe was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His modest headstone has the following scripture: “Mark the perfect man and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace.” (Psalm 37:37)
Orlando Poe the man, his accomplishments, and his history is woven into Michigan and the Great Lakes from the furthest outreaches of the Upper Peninsula to the city of Detroit. It is not a stretch that Poe spent considerable time throughout the state over many years, and most likely knew every bit of the state of Michigan better than anyone then or now. To cover many or all of the accomplishments of this great man, would be difficult to impossible to detail in their entirety herein. Essayons, General.
GENERAL POE'S WORK ON THE GREAT LAKES
The Original Poe Lock
St. Mary's Falls Canal (Soo Locks), MI
Poe Designed Lighthouses
Lakes Superior, Michigan, & Huron
Au Sable Lighthouse
Alger County, MI (Lake Superior)