- Historic Sites
“old Abe” The Battle Eagle
The (mostly) true legend of a Wisconsin outfit’s mascot who dodged shells, whined about the chow, and became an honored veteran, living a life of ease at state expense
October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
Legends began to form about this unusual mascot, and they are embalmed in a sprightly book called The Eagle Regiment , which an anonymous regimental historian produced in 1890, when memories had perhaps grown slightly hazy. It was asserted that in St. Louis, despite the people who jeered, the regiment received, and firmly rejected, an offer of $500 for Old Abe. It was also said that the regiment had another mascot, a small dog named Frank, who became such a pal of the eagle that it would catch rabbits and squirrels for the bird to eat, the friendship turning, at last, to bitter enmity when Old Abe, on short rations, tried to eat Frank himself. It was related, doubtless with much truth, that in camp Old Abe was something of a nuisance. He had long since grown so well adjusted to military life that his tether had been discarded, and he got into everything, tipping over pails of water, snatching any rations that were left around, and now and then, just for fun, tearing up clothing that had been washed and hung out to dry. Foragers who came in with poultry requisitioned from secessionist chicken coops never dared leave the loot unguarded. Old Abe would get it, every time.
Abe made a friend out of the soldier who carried him. He got his drinking water by tipping his head back and letting the soldier pour water down his throat from a canteen. On occasion he would shake hands (as it was called) with this man, taking the soldier’s finger in his beak and chuckling hoarsely as he pretended to bite it. The bearer insisted that Abe had an elephant’s memory; if anyone teased him he would remember it and would attack his tormentor the next time they met, even if it was weeks later. No soldier not a member of the 8th Wisconsin, it was said, could come near him.
By the regulations Old Abe was not supposed to be taken into battle, and when action began he was left in camp. There were times, however, when he got under fire, and the men told tall stories about this. In an engagement at Farmington, Mississippi, it was said, Old Abe’s perch was lugged up to the firing line. Bullets were coming in pretty thick, and the soldiers were ordered to be down—whereat Abe got off his perch and crouched low on the grass, flapping back up to the crossbar as soon as the men stood up to advance. It was also said that he went all through the hot battle of Corinth, Mississippi, in the fall of 1862, screaming and flapping his wings when the men cheered. It was in this battle that he left his position, soaring up over the battle and coming down at last on the extreme left of the regiment, where his bearer recovered him.
The stories about this eagle’s conduct under fire may have gained something in the postwar years, but they were devoutly believed by the veterans. It was insisted that in action Old Abe, wreathed in smoke, would peer up and down the line, as if trying to see how things were going. Sharp musket fire seemed to depress him, but the heavy thump-bump of artillery fire stimulated him; he would stand erect, screaming and flapping his wings. Now and then, when things were especially hot, he would give a series of five or six especially shrill screams, ending in a startling trill which (as the veracious regimental historian declared) “was perfectly inspiring to the soldiers.”
He had a sort of vocabulary, which got full play when there was no fighting going on. When surprised by anything, he would give a wild whistle. When he knew he was about to eat he would chuckle gleefully; when he recognized an old friend he would give vent to a delicate little coo, almost like a dove. When rations were short he would utter a complaining whine. His bearer was officially detailed to forage liberally for him on the surrounding countryside; all in all, Old Abe seems to have fared pretty well.
During the Vicksburg campaign, the 8th Wisconsin was formed on parade one day for inspection by Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Old Abe was on his perch, and when the men cheered their generals he flapped and screamed, and both generals doffed their hats to him in response.
Old Abe reached his full manhood, or eaglehood, apparently just about the time his army career came to an end. In the summer of 1864 the 8th Wisconsin “veteranized”—that is, a majority of the men signed up for another three-year hitch, those who refused to re-enlist being known as “non-veterans.” That fall the non-veterans were sent back home, their time having expired, and they took Old Abe with them; at which point the feathers on his head and neck turned white, so that the men called him their “baldheaded veteran.”
At Madison, Wisconsin, Old Abe was formally presented to the governor of the state. He was officially given quarters in a basement room of the state capitol, and in good weather he had the run of Capitol Park.
Now began his career as distinguished veteran. He was lugged off to the Republican convention in 1868 which nominated Grant for the Presidency, and no old soldiers’ reunion in Wisconsin was complete without him. He went to the huge national encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, at Chicago, in 1875, and the next year the state legislature voted funds to send him to the Philadelphia Exposition. Meanwhile, he lived in state in his basement room. Whenever a former eagle-bearer from the old regiment came in (there had been six of them, altogether) Old Abe (on the word of the regimental historian) would recognize him, rubbing his head against the man’s cheek and gurgling and clucking with pleasure.