Many Civil War units had mascots, but perhaps the most famous of these was Old Abe the War Eagle, the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry. Old Abe was a bald eagle that not only accompanied his regiment on marches and in camp, he went into battle as well.
In 1861, a Native American named Ah-Ga-Mah-We-Ge-Zhig of the Ojibwe, or Chippewa, Tribe in northern Wisconsin captured a young eagle and traded him to a farm couple named Daniel and Margaret McCann. The McCanns kept the eagle as a pet for a time, but as it grew larger and more spirited, it became more difficult to keep in captivity. In late summer 1861, the McCanns sold the bird to a militia company from nearby Eau Claire for use as a mascot. The militia company traveled to Camp Randall in Madison, and was mustered into the newly formed 8th Wisconsin Infantry. The men named the eagle “Old Abe” after President Abraham Lincoln.
Old Abe garnered some attention from the press immediately upon arrival at Camp Randall. As a band struck up a rendition of “Yankee Doodle”, Old Abe excitedly grabbed a corner of a flag in his beak and flapped his wings. The event was duly noted in the newspapers.
The men tethered Old Abe to a special shield shaped perch. He was carried on the march along with the regimental flags by the color guard. Old Abe was also carried into battle, and the 8th Wisconsin saw plenty of action including the capture of Island Number 10 near Joplin, Missouri, in 1862; the Battle of Corinth, Mississippi in 1862; the Vicksburg Campaign in 1862 and 1863; and the Red River Campaign in Louisiana in 1864.
Despite seeing a lot of action (and being shot at by Confederate soldiers eager to kill the “Yankee Crow”), Old Abe came out of every fight relatively unscathed.
When the 8th Wisconsin was in camp, Old Abe liked to raid food supplies, attack clothes hung out to dry, and was even known to drink alcohol that had been left unattended. As time went on, he also became famous, and had lots of visitors both civilian and military.
In the late summer of 1864, the three year enlistments of the regiment’s original members expired. Some men reenlisted, but others did not and it was decided that Old Abe had done his duty and he was sent home to Madison.
Old Abe’s celebrity status continued after the war. He was in great demand at veterans reunions, political events, and fundraisers for charities. He also appeared at the nation’s Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.
When he wasn’t on the road, Old Abe had a room in the basement of the State Capitol building in Madison, with a caretaker–usually a veteran–to see to his needs. In February 1881, a fire broke out in the basement of the Capitol building. Before it was put out, Old Abe inhaled lots of smoke. Despite a great deal of care, Old Abe never recovered, and on March 26th, he died. Old Abes’s remains were stuffed and put on display at the Capitol. In 1904, a huge fire broke out in the Capitol building, destroying most of the structure and Old Abe’s remains.
Old Abe may be gone, but his memory lives on. A replica eagle in honor of Old Abe is displayed in the Wisconsin State Assembly Chamber, and a bronze statue of the bird tops off the Wisconsin Memorial at Vicksburg National Military Park. Old Abe is also the inspiration for the eagle on the shoulder patches of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
- Old Abe the War Eagle Online Exhibit, Wisconsin Veterans Museum
- The Military History of Wisconsin in the Civil War by E.B. Quiner, Chicago: Clarke and Co. Publishers, 1866.
- Vicksburg Campaign (Great Campaigns) by David Martin. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, Inc. 1994.
- Wisconsin In The Civil War: The Home Front And The Battle Front, 1861-1865 by Frank Clement. Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1997.