Old Abe, the Civil War Eagle
Compiled by Hope Rutledge
A remarkable bald eagle followed the Eighth Wisconsin Regiment into battle serving as mascot for three years.
Where did the eagle come from?
Chief Sky, one of five sons of Thunder of Bees, Chief of the Flambeau band of Chippewa Indians, was the captor. At first, Chief Thunder of Bees was hesitant to share the account of the eagle's capture, fearing arrest. After a long counsel, the Chief agreed to bring his sons to Chippewa Falls, WI where it was arranged to have an interpreter accompany them to Eau Claire, WI, arriving on February 19, 1861.
Chief Sky's (A-ge-mah-ge-we-zhig) account of Old Abe's capture:
During sugar making time, an eagle's nest was discovered in a pine tree near the north fork of the Flambeau River, about 125 miles from Eau Claire. Chief Sky and another Indian chopped down the tree, despite the effort of the parent eagles to protect their young. When the tree fell, one of the two eaglets was injured and died. The nest was preserved, containing the surviving eaglet. A few weeks later, the eaglet was sold to Daniel McCann, from Eagle Point, for a bushel of corn.
In Chippewa Falls, McCann tried to sell the eaglet to a company in the process of recruiting, but failed.
In August of 1861, McCann brought the bird to Eau Claire.
When the eagle was around two months old, McCann offered to sell him to the 8th WI Infantry. A collection was started, but a civilian, Mr. Mills*, purchased the eagle for $5.00* and gave him to the company.
When the eagle was sworn into service, he was adorned with a breast rosette (rose shaped ornament) and a red, white and blue ribbon around his neck. On September 6, 1861, the company marched out of Eau Claire, with the eagle perched under the new banner.
It was common for soldiers to take pets along to war; there was a wild cat, a bear, badger, 2 game cocks, pelican, squirrel, raccoon, dog, and others. The most popular pet was the "Wisconsin Eagle." He was a majestic specimen, with a six and a half foot wingspan and large round, clear, intelligent eyes.
The next day, the company arrived in La Crosse, WI where crowds lined up to see the Chippewa Valley soldiers with a live eagle. A large sum offered to purchase the eagle was declined, with Captain Perkins stating, "The eagle belongs to the company, and no money can buy him."
On Sept. 9, 1861, the company arrived in Madison. While marching into Camp Randall, the eagle held an end of a floating flag in his beak, and then spread his wings. The eagle drew a lot of attention; thousands of visitors came to see him. It was in Madison, that Captain Perkins named the eagle, "Old Abe," in honor of Abraham Lincoln. The Eighth WI was designated the "Eagle Regiment." Quartermaster Francis L. Billings had a new perch built, with a heart shaped shield, inscribed with stars and stripes; with "8th Reg. W. V." painted along the base. There was a grooved cross-piece for a roost, with three arrows pointing outward on each end, representing the great seal. The bearer carried the perch on his left side; Abe's leg was tethered with a hemp rope sixteen to twenty feet long, but was shortened to about three feet while marching or engaging.
While in Madison, a dog joined the regiment. Abe and the dog, Frank, tolerated one another because Frank provided rabbits and other small mammals for Abe to eat. Unfortunately for Frank, one day he ventured a bit too close to Abe's meal, bringing an end of their relationship.
The Farmington, MS battle was Abe's first. On May 9, 1863, during the battle, the soldiers were ordered to lay low. Instantly, Abe wanted to join them, but Jim McGinnis, the bearer, wouldn't allow it. Finally, Abe was permitted to join the others; he flattening himself on the ground with his wings spread wide, but once the regiment stood, Abe flew back to his perch and remained until the battle ended.
Abe's first bearer, James McGinnis, became ill, so Thomas J. Hill from Eau Claire took over. Hill was clawed in the face and neck when he startled Abe while becoming entangled in bush.
Abe never forgot his tormenters. A sergeant, who had handled him roughly months earlier, was attacked and driven off as soon as Abe saw him again.
David McLane from Menomonie, WI took over as bearer in August 18, 1862. In September, he carried the eagle safely through three hours of battle. The dead were lying everywhere at end of the Luka victory.
While the Luka battle was being won, James McGinnis died in Jackson, TN. As Abe's first bearer, he carried the eagle into the battles of Fredericktown, New Madrid and Farmington.
At the Corinth battle, rebel General Price, who was aware of the famous eagle, ordered his men to capture him; though if impossible, they should kill him. The General would rather have captured Old Abe than a whole brigade.
During a lull, as soldiers were preparing to fire, the eagle was within sight of the rebel soldiers. As they closed in under cover of artillery smoke, Old Abe watched their movement. Suddenly, both sides burst into action. During the conflict, the eagle leaped off his perch, breaking the cord. He circled the smoky area as the enemy closed in and bullets flew. Suddenly, he wavered, but soon rallied rising higher in the sky, all the while screaming at his assailants. Upon seeing his bearer, he descended like a shot and flew into his arms. The eagle was taken from the field and later examined, where he was found to have been hit by a rebel bullet near the flesh at the base of his primary wing feathers.
After the Corinth battle, the soldiers cropped Old Abe's tail and a wing, so he could no longer fly above the battle. Upset with the eagle's treatment, McLane resigned as bearer on November 1, 1862. Edward Homaston of Eau Claire took over his duties. Ed grew up amid Vermont mountains, and had watched eagles during his youth. Soon, Ed and Abe's relationship grew into a close bond.
Old Abe was a faithful and enthusiastic member of his regiment. With flapping wings, his startling trill could be heard during battle.
During the march to Grand Junction, Abe went without food for several days. The soldiers had very little to divide, so Edward Homaston went out into the night and captured two confederate chickens. As winter drew on, the eagle went without meat. An attempt to purchase chickens from a wealthy farmer was unsuccessful. Subsequently, Captain Wolf took the Abe with him to see the farmer, and threatened to release the eagle among the chickens. As a result, the farmer was prompted to compromise with a Guinea-hen.
On March 11, 1863, the 8th WI went to Memphis, TN. After a short stay, they marched to Helena. During the journey, Abe's leg was badly bruised when hurricane winds caused Abe to become entangled in his cord and was blown off his perch into a tree.
One day, while the regiment was on picket duty, Abe got drunk. A soldier left a saucer of peach brandy unattended just long enough for Abe, who always watched for food, to jump down and devour the liquor. Subsequently, Abe became intoxicated; he tried to vomit, and then forcefully flapped his wings on the ground, and rolled over.
Edward Homaston resigned as eagle bearer in September of 1863; John Buckhardt of Eau Claire replaced him. They first marched together during the victory at Brownsville.
In February of 1864, the regiment arrived in Canton, Mississippi, but was soon ordered back to Vicksburg to guard it from being re-taken.
Red River was still blockaded by the rebels. "The Eagles" were entitled to a furlough, but chose to stay and fight.
During the march to Alexandria, other companies in the regiment wanted Old Abe to lead their company, but in the end Company C was declared Abe's rightful owner.
On June 19, 1864, the Eagle Regiment headed back to WI for a furlough; upon reaching Madison, they were given a grand welcome. Citizens assembled, flags were flown, bells tolled, and the national salute fired. Drawing much of the attention was the dignified, undisturbed eagle, proudly perched alongside the tattered colors. Though some of Abe's feathers had been shattered, a rebel bullet never pierced his skin.
Company C arrived in Eau Claire on June 26, 1864, where they were greeted with festivity. After much attention, Abe was taken to Chippewa Falls.
On July 4, 1864, the Union celebrated Independence Day. In Chippewa Falls, Old Abe on his perch was followed by the colors and his companions, as marching bands played.
Back to the front:
Around August first, during the train ride to the front, the conductor demanded full fare for the eagle, but Abe's handler, John Buckhardt, refused to pay. When follow soldiers and other passengers became aware of the situation, they sympathized with Buckhardt, and soon the conductor was persuaded to move on. In the end, passengers donated enough for Abe's meat and a first-class ride to Cairo.
Fledged juvenile bald eagles have dark brown feathers, with white feathers distributed throughout as well as brown eyes. As juvenile bald eagles mature, their head and tail feathers gradually turn white; simultaneously their eyes and beak gradually turn yellow. Complete transformation to maturity is achieved sometime in the fifth year. Subsequently, Abe having reached three and a half years of age; his head and tail had begun to turn white, making him appear statelier.
John Buckhardt carried Old Abe into his last battle in the Great Rebellion at Hurricane Creek, MS. The war bird's shrieks could be heard clearly and distinct above the victorious shouts. Abe seemed to have protected his bearers and dodged the bullets of rebel sharp shooters who had failed to kill them.
Upon reaching Chicago on September 21, 1864, John Buckhardt resigned and John F. Hill became Abe's bearer.
Old Abe retires from war:
In Madison, WI on September 26, 1864 Old Abe was formally presented to the governor by Captain Victor A Volf of Company C; his fighting days were over, yet his fame would live on.
Several articles were published; Harper's Weekly wrote:
"When the battle raged most fiercely, and the enthusiasm of the soldiers was at its highest, then it was that Old Abe seemed to be in his own element. He flapped his wings in the midst of the furious storm, and with his head erect, faced the flying bullets and the crashing shells with no sign of fear. Old Abe triumphs with the triumph of the flag, and seems in some measure conscious of his relationship with the emblem of a victorious Republic."
Old Abe was taken to the Chicago Fair on May 30, 1865. Many offers to buy Old Abe were rejected. Being a ward of the state, the well groomed, distinguished, brave bird was greatly honored. The sale of his photographs and feathers benefited sick and disabled soldiers as well as other causes. He drew so much attention that Leonard Volk, a sculpture, made a full-size clay model of him. Unfortunately, the model was destroyed in the 1871 Chicago fire.
Old Abe was honored and participated in many events over the following years.
Old Abe's remaining years:
Old Able spent the last fifteen years of his life in the basement of the Madison, WI Capital building. On pleasant days, he perched in the large park surrounding the capital.
Old Abe died on March 26, 1881 of smoke inhalation during a fire. His mounted remains were destroyed on February 26, 1904 when the Capital building burned down.
Old Abe's attendants in Peace: John McFarland, Angus R. McDonald, John G. Stock, E. G. Linderman, William J. Jones, Geo. W. Baker, I. E. Troan, John F. Hill, Peter B. Field, and Mark Smith
* Conflicting accounts in the two reference sources.
"Old Abe" Civil War Eagle Memorial and Old Abe Memorial wayside marker.
The Memorial is located beside the end of the bridge which crosses the Chippewa River in Jim Falls, WI.
Directions to the wayside and walking trail from the Old Abe Civil War Eagle Memorial: Cross the bridge on Cty Tk Y, and then turn right onto Hwy 178. About a half mile up the road, there's a "Historical Marker" sign on the right. Turn right just beyond the sign, and then you'll see the Old Abe memorial sign down in the wayside incline.
Just beyond the memorial wayside sign, there's a scenic hiking trail leading through the woods to the dam. During May, white trilliums blanket the forest floor; followed by wild geraniums, ferns, and other perennials. Birders will be treated to hearing and seeing several species. And for those who just enjoy nature walks, it's a perfect place to go. Don't forget your camera!
In addition, there is an osprey nest on a platform beside the bridge, opposite the Old Abe Civil War Eagle Memorial.
Old Abe, the Eighth Wisconsin war eagle : a full account of his capture and enlistment, exploits in war and honorable as well as useful career in peace by Frank Abial Flower
The soldier bird. Old Abe: the live war eagle of Wisconsin, that served a three years' campaign in the great rebellion by Joseph O Barrett
Authentic Old Abe Photos