Friday, November 7, 2014

Birdlore: Old Abe the War Eagle

Since ages past, eagles have stood as symbols for armies, countries, and modern-day sports teams. 

The eagle’s fearlessness, courage, and strength has led to their image being adorned on the shields of Roman Soldiers, a double-headed eagle was woven onto the banners of Russian czars, and the backside of the country of Kyrgyzstan’s currency carries the image of an eagle hunting.

The most iconic eagle symbol is the Bald Eagle of the United States of America.  With its striking white head and tail, and distinctive yellow beak and feet, the Bald Eagle appears on coins, paper bills, flags, and stamps.  The Bald Eagle has also represented military groups. 
Old Abe perched atop a canon (photo: The wikipedia files)
Perhaps, the most famous bald eagle in U.S. history is Old Abe, the War Eagle. While there is some disagreement among historians as to the sex of the bird, most accounts refer to “Old Abe” as male.  He became the living mascot for a Union infantry company during the Civil War. 

Caught by a Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe cheif in 1861, he was traded to Daniel McCann, a tavern owner, for a bushel of corn.  He subsequently offered to sell the eagle to Company C of the Eighth Regiment of Wisconsin for $2.50.  Thus, Old Abe joined the enlisted soldiers for a three-year tour in the south and participated in 42 battles.  When the company marched, Abe sat on a perch, with a shield underneath, carried by a chosen bearer or caretaker at the front of the company.

Old Abe on his shield perch with the Eighth Regiment color guard. (Photo: The wikipedia files)
Early on in the company’s tour, a band played the song “Yankee Doodle” causing Abe to get excited, and grabbing a flag located near him in his beak, he waved it while flapping his wings (or so the story goes).  This incident was perhaps the start of Abe’s fame as newspapers raved about the incident as a good sign for the Union.

Old Abe drew the attention of visitors and locals everywhere they traveled, because people wanted to see the live eagle.  In time the company would be known as the “Eagle Regiment.”
A memorial commemorating the Battle of Vicksburg with a likeness of Old Abe at the top (photo: The wikipedia files)

In one of his  first major battles, Old Abe and his handler were ordered to the rear for protection.  When the company laid low to the ground from Confederate artillery fire, Old Abe joined them on the ground from his perch even though he was safely out of range.  His handler put Abe back on his perch, only to have him jump back down to flatten himself to the ground with his wings spread out.  After several attempts trying to keep the eagle on his perch, his handler joined him in taking cover on the ground.  Once the regiment rose from their cover, Old Abe then hopped back his on perch.

One contested story goes that the battle of Corinth, MS, Old Abe had his famed flight over the battlefield when a mini ball from a confederate musket severed the cord connecting the eagle to his perch.  He flew overhead the battle lines with his handler chasing after him.  Confederate soldiers attempted to shoot Old Abe down when he came into their line of sight.  Supposedly, one Confederate general issued a bounty to any soldier who could capture Old Abe, dead or alive.  To the general, Old Abe was worth more to the morale of Union soldiers than a whole brigade of soldiers.

Old Abe was never injured in any battles during his three-year tour, as the company was very careful in protecting their comrade.  His only losses were several wing and tail feathers from the mini ball at the battle of Corinth.  However, his handler, David McLain, maintained that even though he would get very excited in battle and spread his wings and scream, he never flew over the battle lines.

In quieter times, Old Abe was granted the occasional liberty of wandering the company’s camp.  Taking advantage of such liberty, the eagle was prone to causing mischief.  Old Abe was fascinated by the fire pails full of water around the camp and often tipped them over, driving soldiers crazy as they would then have to refill them.  The bird chased after flying insects flying past.   Supposedly Old Abe would play catch with soldiers as they rolled bullets across the ground, attacked clean laundry left out to dry and frequently raided food he found in tents and by campfires throughout the camp boundaries.
A lone sculpture of Old Abe rests at the top of the Camp Randall Memorial Arch for Civil War Veterans. (photo: The wikipedia files)
When the Eighth regiment returned to Wisconsin in 1864, the men chose not to reenlist Old Abe.  In selecting a permanent home for the eagle, the whole regiment unanimously voted to give Old Abe to the State of Wisconsin.  State officials declared Old Abe a “war relic” and created an “Eagle Department” in the capitol building, which included a two-room apartment complete with custom bathtub for the eagle and a full time caretaker.

Between the time of Old Abe’s enlistment and his death  in 1881, Abe was a resident at the Wisconsin Capitol Building and received thousands of visitors wanting to see the famous Wisconsin Eagle.  Old Abe attended conventions, functions, fairs, and celebrations during his retirement.  Frequently, he was present for charities raising money to help support hospitals caring for Civil War Veterans.
Old Abe and his last caretaker, George Gilles (photo: The wikipedia files)
Sadly in February, 1881, a small fire broke out in the basement of the capitol building, for which Old Abe raised an alarm.  The fire was quickly put out, but the eagle had inhaled a large amount of thick black smoke.  About a month later he began to decline.  On March 26, 1881, Old Abe died in the arms of his last caretake, George Gilles.

Old Abe became a legend and symbol of the Civil War, imbued with patriotism and bravery.   He is still remembered to this day in the state of Wisconsin with a mounted eagle representing Old Abe in state buildings.  A monument stands in Vicksburg, MS, where Abe saw action and at Camp Randall where the Eighth Regiment trained in Madison, WI.

The inspiration of Old Abe was one of the contributing factors in the drive to protect our nation’s symbol.  Today, the Bald Eagle population, once greatly endangered, now thrives and continues to grow to become a more common sight throughout the country.

For a more complete history of Old Abe and his part of the Civil War Click Here.

To learn more about the American Bald Eagle, visit the World Bird Sanctuary to see Bald Eagles on display and speak to one of our dedicated staff members about the Bald Eagle’s natural history and recovery from being endangered.

Submitted by Jessica Bunke World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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