Old Abe, the Famous Bald Eagle

Feb 18, 2019

Old Abe
Credit State Historical Society of Wisconsin Visual Archives / Wikimedia Commons

Few Wisconsin natives rise to national fame and gain recognition for over a hundred years.

The Masked Biologist shares the story of one such resident, a bald eagle, in this week’s Wildlife Matters.

Writing is rewarding for me for a lot of reasons, including continually expanding my own knowledge base. Recently, one of my articles was about wolverines, and I read that the remains of a taxidermy mount of a supposed Wisconsin origin wolverine were destroyed in one of the fires in the Wisconsin Capitol building. I was intrigued, so I decided to do a little more research. During that time, I learned that when the taxidermy mounts were lost, another victim was Old Abe, the stuffed civil war eagle.

This was new information for me. I was surprised to learn we ever had a civil war eagle. In fact, Old Abe eventually became the symbol of the 101st Airborne, probably the most readily recognized animal mascot of any in the US military. Apparently in 1861, Chief Big Sky (member of the Flambeau band of the Chippewa tribe) cut down a tree containing an eagle nest containing two eaglets along the North fork of the Flambeau River in northern Price County. Only one eaglet survived, and was traded to a farmer for corn. When Wisconsin became fully involved in the Civil War, the farmer had already decided the bird was too big to keep and, after trying to sell it to a couple of passing military regiments headed to Camp Randall, finally succeeded in selling it to the Eau Claire Badgers militia company. They renamed themselves the Eau Claire Eagles and named their new mascot Old Abe, after President Lincoln, and took him with them to Camp Randall to train. The local militia group was re-designated the 8th regiment when they entered into Federal service, and naturally were nicknamed the Eagle Regiment.

Old Abe was the center of attention on and off the battlefield. His perch was made to resemble a shield, much like that in the Great Seal of the President of the United States. He witnessed as many as 37 battles, skirmishes, and assaults in his tenure with the 8th regiment, the most recognizable of which might be a failed advance in the battle of Vicksburg in 1863. Leaders of Confederate forces were heard to say they should very much like to capture Old Abe, but none ever succeeded in doing so. In fact, Old Abe returned to Wisconsin with his regiment in 1864 where the veterans then chose to gift him to the citizens of Wisconsin. Having retired from the military at the age of three, Old Abe was put to work promoting fundraising causes to help civil war veterans and other charitable causes for the next 15 years. He was a celebrity of national fame before long; he lived in his own two room residence in the Eagle Department in the basement of the state capitol, and was host to thousands of visitors. As a celebrity, he also traveled the nation with his handler putting in appearances at special events including the nation’s official Centennial celebration in 1876 and a live appearance with General Ulysses S. Grant in Milwaukee in 1880.

Sadly, a fire broke out in the Capitol in 1881, and Old Abe suffered ill effects from smoke inhalation and died at the age of twenty. The decision was made to preserve Old Abe’s remains through taxidermy, and he remained in the capitol rotunda for another twenty plus years. Tragically, the capitol burned again in 1904, and Old Abe’s remains were destroyed.

Today, if you visit the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, you can see a replica of Old Abe, along with all sorts of historical information and displays including uniforms similar to what the 8th Regiment soldiers wore. If you see the 101st Airborne Division’s screaming eagle patch today, Old Abe’s likeness is permanently memorialized there. You can find a large statue of his likeness at the Old Abe Veteran’s memorial in Park Falls, Wisconsin.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the masked biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.