October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
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.
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.
His end came in 1881, when there was a minor fire in the capitol basement which produced great clouds of smoke. This bird who had breathed smoke on the battlefields got a little too much of it this time, and it suffocated him. He had had a twenty-year career, and there never was an American eagle like him … on the word of the 8th Wisconsin, veteran volunteers.