“Old Abe” the Eagle

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022-2023, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the September 2022 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

As mentioned in my last history brief, this edition was to continue to whet the appetite for new Roundtable president Lily Korte’s upcoming annual field trip from September 22-24 to cover General Phil Sheridan’s 1864 campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, with the completion of my recap of Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign. However, since tonight’s speaker is focused on the Valley, Lily thought it best for our group to have a different history brief topic tonight lest they feel overwhelmed with too much “Valley Campaigns”! To wit, what do “Old Abe,” the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and the modern-day 101st U.S. Airborne Division have in common? Many of you probably already know, but for the remainder and as a recap for others, you will now find out!

In 1861 in the state of Wisconsin, the leader of the Flambeau sect of the Chippewa Tribe of American Indians, whose name was Chief Sky (Chippewa name: Ahgamahwegezhig), cut down a tree with an American eagle nest that contained two baby eaglets. Only one of the eaglets survived. The chief, seeing an opportunity, traded the eaglet to a local farmer for a bushel of sweet corn.

The farmer’s name was Daniel McCann, and he kept the eaglet for some time as a pet in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. However, McCann found that the eaglet grew quickly and soon was too large for a cask where he had been keeping the bird. Further, the eagle, as it happens with the species, had too much of an appetite for McCann to abide.

The Civil War had started, and many troops were passing through to a muster point in Camp Randall located in Madison, Wisconsin. McCann sold the bird to a passing officer named Captain John E. Perkins. The captain headed a company of militia whose nickname was the “Eau Claire Badgers.” But now they had in their midst a potential eagle mascot. With inarguably a more patriotic species than a badger, the company renamed themselves the “Eau Claire Eagles.” Thereafter, the militia company became known as Company C of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The regiment quickly nicknamed itself the “Eagle Regiment” and later named its new eagle mascot “Old Abe” in honor of Union President Abraham Lincoln.

The 8th Wisconsin with Old Abe

The regiment spent the Civil War in the Western Theater and fought during many of the prominent battles with their mascot Old Abe atop his perch. Old Abe screeched at the Confederates at about 40 battlefields including Island Number 10 and the key Mississippi battles of Corinth, Champion Hill, and Vicksburg. The bird soon became a sore spot with Confederate troops, and at Corinth Confederate General Sterling Price was quoted as saying, “That bird must be captured or killed at all hazards. I would rather get that eagle than capture a whole brigade or a dozen battle flags.” Probably the most dangerous fight for Old Abe was during the siege of Vicksburg assaulting the rebel fortifications at Stockade Redan during General Ulysses Grant’s siege. The rebels over time came up with their own moniker for the bird. The butternuts nicknamed him “the Yankee Buzzard”!

A drawing of Old Abe on his perch
Old Abe in Madison, Wisconsin

In late 1864, the 8th Wisconsin’s enlistments began to expire, and the troops mustered out. By now Old Abe had arguably become the most famous mascot of the war for his patriotism, spread wing salute, and battle cry. In September of that year, about 80 of the former 8th Wisconsin members escorted Old Abe to the state capital and gave the eagle to Governor James Lewis, saluting the bird for his four years of military service. However, while Old Abe survived the 8th Wisconsin’s tenure in the Civil War, the same was not true for John Perkins, the Company C captain who purchased Old Abe for the regiment. According to the cumulative casualty list for the 8th Wisconsin, Perkins was mortally wounded and died in Mississippi on May 11, 1862.

Old Abe in 1876

The completion of Old Abe’s time in combat did not bring an end to Old Abe’s career. To raise funds for local veteran charities, the American Sanitary Commission sought to support Civil War veterans through sales of photographs of Old Abe, in many instances by school children. Also, Old Abe traveled the country in support of veteran reunions, national holidays, and veteran relief fundraisers. In 1876, Old Abe toured the country during the American Centennial Exposition.

Thereafter, Old Abe lived in the U.S. Capitol building. In 1881, a fire in a paint storage area caused fumes that weakened the eagle. Old Abe subsequently died from this smoke inhalation. This famous eagle was preserved and exhibited in the Capitol building’s Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall until destroyed by a fire in the early 1900s.

101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles”

In 1921, Old Abe’s image was taken as the logo of the unit now known in the military as the 101st Airborne Division Air Assault. The unit in modern times had its screaming eagle patch affixed to its soldiers’ arms. In World War II, when the famous 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles” descended on the Nazis in Normandy peninsula as part of D-Day, defended Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and in many other engagements then and since, a small part of Abe Lincoln, the 8th Wisconsin’s Old Abe, and the struggle that was the American Civil War were there in spirit!

For those interested in learning more on this fascinating mascot, I suggest as a starting point the 8th Wisconsin’s unit history found on the State of Wisconsin Historical Society website.

Related links:
8th Wisconsin Infantry History
Old Abe
8th Wisconsin Infantry Casualty List (John Perkins is listed near the bottom of the page.)