Old Abe’s History Thread

Welcome to this week’s History Thread! I wanted to do something more lighthearted this week (well, a little more lighthearted, it’s still war-adjacent) so I discovered that tomorrow is the birthday of Old Abe, the United States Army’s most famous mascot.

Old Abe was a bald eagle, born on May 27, 1861 somewhere in Wisconsin. He was captured as an eaglet by Ahgamahwegezhig (or “Chief Sky”) of the Chippewa nation, who sold him to an Eau Clare businessman named Daniel McCann, who in turn sold him for $2.50 to a company of volunteers, the “Eau Claire Badgers,” preparing to join the Union Army. The Badgers became part of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry, and the eaglet became Old Abe, carried with the regiment while tied to a standard with a cord. A soldier was assigned as Eagle Bearer, not only carrying Abe into battle but caring for him in camp.

Understandably, Old Abe did not appreciate his captivity; for several months, he managed to escape periodically, only to be recaptured. But he was well-cared for by the men, and soon took to his role as their mascot. At the regiment’s first engagement at Farmington, Mississippi on May 9, 1862 Old Abe rallied his regiment after their colonel fell in battle; he spread his wings and screamed. No doubt terrified by the battle, the bird’s cries nonetheless provided a rallying point for the Badgers, allowing them to reform and withdraw safely from the battlefield.

Afterwards, Abe served the regiment as faithfully as any human. At Second Corinth that October, a volley of Confederate bullets wounded David McLain, then Abe’s bearer, and cut the eagle’s cord. Abe attempted to escape, but was shot through the wing; he flew about fifty yards until he was out of danger, screaming the whole time. Newspaper correspondents exaggerated Abe’s exploits, claiming that he soared over the battlefield screaming encouragement to his regiment.

Abe accompanied the regiment south in the campaign against Vicksburg. Confederate officers, dubbing him the “Yankee Buzzard,” actually issued orders to kill the bird; nonetheless, Abe survived not only Vicksburg but the Red River Campaign and the Siege of Mobile. Union officers took notice of the creature: according to McLain, “Generals Grant, Sherman, McPherson, Rosecrans, Blair, Logan, and others, when they were passing our regiment, raise their hats as they passed Old Abe, which always brought a cheer from the regiment and then the eagle would spread his wings.”

Old Abe returned home to a comfortable life in Madison as a “war relic,” being housed and fed at the “Eagle Department” in the State Capitol. He had a full-time attendant and an apartment which included a private bathtub! The eagle traveled across the country to raise funds for veterans’ causes and other charities, until his death from smoke inhalation in 1881. Although his original remains were destroyed in a fire in 1904, a replica of Abe remains at the State Legislature to this day, a tribute to a most unlikely war hero.