Remembering Old Abe: 8th Wisconsin on the Civil War Battlefield

Wisconsin Memorial, Shiloh National Battlefield, Shiloh, Tenn.

With the 150-year anniversary of the start of the U.S. Civil War on April 12, 2011, National Parks, historians, and citizens across the country are gearing up to reflect on the four years that divided our great country. During that time, over 620,000 lives were lost in nearly 5,000 skirmishes, battles, and sieges. Soldiers from Wisconsin, including the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, were instrumental in the overall tactical success of Union troops and Lee’s final surrender to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. 

Remembered for their mascot as much as their bravery, the 8th Wisconsin proudly marched into battle with “Old Abe,” a bald eagle tethered to a perch in the shape of a shield and painted with stars and stripes. Originally from Eau Claire, the 8th Wisconsin is also remembered as The Eagle Regiment. Named in honor of Abraham Lincoln, Old Abe was first captured by Chief Sky of the Chippewa Indians of the Flambeau Lake tribe. Traded and eventually purchased for $2.50, soldier James McGinnis became the first eagle barrier in our nation’s history. 

Considered a favorable omen by the troops, Old Abe was ultimately revered by the Union and respected by Rebels, even those using the nickname “Yankee Buzzard.” Carried into battle with The Eagle Regiment for over three years, the North never lost a battle presided by Old Abe. Entertaining the troops as much as boosting morale, Old Abe was famous for his antics and, some say, military tactics. 

An account of Old Abe in Wisconsin: War of the Rebellion; a History of all Regiments and Batteries (WM. DeLoss Love, Church and Goodman, Chicago, 1866) is as follows: “He generally rode on the banners of the regiment in all its marches, and manifested a singular sagacity. In time of battle he kept his perch on a place of colors, and showed the highest interest and excitement; often jumping up and down, spreading his wings and pinions, and uttering his wild eagle screams. When the regiment would lie down, or otherwise screen themselves from the fire of the enemy, then he would come down from his perch, and insist on being also concealed.” 

In her memoir, “Old Abe” American Eagle, author Lorraine Sherwood recalled, “Old Abe lead a charmed life, for in the fiercest fights, although always a conspicuous target, he and his bearers’ dodged death. Together they came through thirty-six battles and many skirmishes, but not without making some miraculous escapes. One of the narrowest was when the Confederates tried to charge up a hill overlooking the town of Corinth, [Mississippi] held by our forces. In the regimental advance were the Eagles, with Old Abe. Word had gone out that he was the prize. ‘I would rather capture or kill that Eagle than take a whole brigade,’ General Price had been heard to declare.” 

Recollections of Old Abe continued to dot pages of history books, newspapers, and oral history beyond the Civil War to the end of Old Abe’s life. After the Civil War, Old Abe came to live in the Madison capital building, upon which “he” was discovered to be a “she” (some called her Old Abby). Making public appearances to raise funds, visit dignitaries, and honor veterans, Old Abe tragically died from smoke inhalation in a fire near her quarters in the capital building. Displayed in a glass case until 1904, a second fire ultimately destroyed her remains. 

Today a replica of Old Abe presides over the Wisconsin State Assembly Chamber in the capital building. Old Abe is the insignia of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division as well as the inspiration behind the trademark of the Case Corporation agricultural equipment manufacturer from 1865-1969. 

References: 

“Old Abe” American Eagle, Lorraine Sherwood, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1946

Wisconsin: War of the Rebellion; a History of all Regiments and Batteries , M. DeLoss Love, Church and Goodman, Chicago, 1866

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