“old Abe” The Battle Eagle

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Of all the American eagles ever born in the north woods, the one that came closest to becoming the authentic and accepted National Bird was undoubtedly a fowl named Old Abe. Old Abe was an opinionated and rather self-satisfied creature who seemed quite aware that he was the only eagle in the country to be recognized as a regular veteran of the American Civil War, in which he served as a member of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry.

Old Abe put in a full three-year hitch. He was under fire on several occasions—acquitting himself nobly, by all accounts—and when his time expired and he retired he lived the life of Riley, becoming a professional Old Soldier, supported at state expense and enjoying a career of public appearances, banquets, and practically everything except autograph parties. He attended any number of veterans reunions and county fairs, went to at least one national political convention, and was a featured attraction at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. When he died, full of years and honors, his posthumous fate was like that of no other veteran. He was stuffed and mounted and was maintained for years as a patriotic exhibit.

This eagle was born in the spring of 1861 in a ramshackle nest at the top of a tall pine along the upper reaches of the Flambeau River, in northern Wisconsin. He was still a fledgling when a Chippewa Indian named Chief Sky, spotting the nest from the ground, cut the tree down to see if he could capture an eagle. What Chief Sky got was this one immature bird, untamed, irritable, and full of bitter protests; and a few weeks later, going to the town of Eagle River for supplies, Chief Sky sold the bird to one Daniel McCann for a bushel of corn.

McCann had no especial use for a young eagle, but he figured this was a bargain. A little while after this he went to Chippewa Falls, where a couple of volunteer military units were being organixed. He tried to sell the bird to a company which was recruiting for the ist Wisconsin Artillery, failed, but at last got $2.50 from a local merchant who thought an eagle would be a wonderful mascot for some infantry outfit and who in due course presented the bird, now almost fully grown, to a company known as the “Eau Claire Kadgers,” which was about to become Company C in the 8th Wisconsin. The soldiers immediately christened their pet “Old Abe,” and swore him in by putting a red, white, and blue ribbon about his neck, with a rosette for his bosom.

Old Abe made a hit from the start. A member of the company named James McGinnis was appointed his carrier and caretaker. McGinnis made a perch—a Tshaped affair five feet tall, with small U.S. Hags at each end of the crossbar. Old Abe liked this and permitted himself to be carried about on drills and parades. When the Badgers took oft for the troop concentration center at Camp Randall they took him along, and were gratified by the number of cheers he got. When they went through La Crosse, UId Abe attracted so much attention that somebody offered the company $250 for him. The offer was spurned, and when the Kadgers marched into Camp Randall they knew they had made no mistake: they entered with the band playing “Yankee Doodle,” and other recruits swarmed around to sec, and Old Abe, doubtless inspired by their cheers, flapped his wings, screamed, and grabbed one of the little Hags in his beak, holding it all the way across the camp. This was a good omen, and fine publicity as well; the 8th Wisconsin, when it got organized, was known as the Eagle Regiment, and a fancy new perch was built, with a little Stars and Stripes shield under the crossbar, and clusters of golden arrows at each end of the perch in place of the flags.

McGinnis and his successors found that carrying Abe was no joke, because he was pretty heavy, but by now his adoption was official. One man was formally detailed to the job, with no other assignment. When the regiment was formed in line, for parade, the eagle was always on display just to the left of the color-bearer, in the center of the regiment. The bearer wore a heavy belt with a socket for the lower end of the staff. A leather ring was put around one of Abe’s legs, with a twenty-foot cord running from the ring to the stall itself; on parade the surplus cord was wound about the perch so that Abe would stay put.

When the regiment went through Chicago on its way to the war, Old Abe excited the spectators just as he had done at Camp Randall. In St. Louis, however, his reception was less happy. This was late in 186a, and St. Louis contained a mixed population, partly Unionist and partly Confederate in its sympathies. The 8th Wisconsin at this time wore gray uniforms—in those early days of the war many Northern regiments were attired in what was already being recognized as Confederate gray, since uniforms then were provided by the state authorities, who were not always up-to-date on army regulations—and in St. Louis the secessionists cheered and the Unionists jeered, which was not at all the way to greet a good Union regiment. People even threw things at the soldiers, someone on the sidewalk called Abe a buzzard, and in the excitement he broke his cord and flew up to a chimney top, from which it took the Wisconsin boys a good half hour to recover him. It was argued that Abe had understood and resented the “buzzard” insult.