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Old Abe, the original Screaming Eagle

Old Abe and the color guard of the 8th Wisconsin at Vicksburg, July 1863 (Photo: U.S. Army)
Old Abe and the color guard of the 8th Wisconsin at Vicksburg, July 1863 (Photo: U.S. Army)

Eagles are noble birds and have always been popular in heraldry. Numerous historical and modern countries feature an eagle on their flags, and many armies from the Roman legions through Napoleon's Grande Armée to Nazi Germany's forces have marched under the banners or other effigies of eagles. Most of the time, however, heraldic animals depict the abstract concept of the beast, rather than an actual specimen that really lived. One notable exception is the eagle depicted on the unit patch of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, the famous Screaming Eagles, who have distinguished themselves time and time again in World War II, and which unit's Easy Company was the focal point of the classic HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which was first broadcast 20 years ago. Unlike most heraldic animals, this particular image refers to a real bald eagle named Old Abe, who rose to fame during the Civil War.
 
Old Abe's story began in the spring of 1861, when Native Americans from the Lac du Flambeau band of Ojibwe (also known as Chippewa) Indians set up camp near the South Fork of the Flambeau River, in the area where Chequamegon National Forest is today in Wisconsin. The leader of the group was Ahgamahwegezhig, also called Chief Sky and Old Jackson in his later days, the son of Ah-mous (either "The Little Bee" or "Thunder of Bees"), an influential tribal leader. The group were traders, carrying maple syrup, furs and moccasins and looking to exchange them for supplies with white settlers.

Chief Sky, who captured Old Abe as an eaglet (Photo: U.S. Army)
Chief Sky, who captured Old Abe as an eaglet (Photo: U.S. Army)

They've set up a hunting and fishing camp, and Ahgamahwegezhig noticed an eagle's nest in a nearby tree with two young eaglets in it. He tried to climb the tree to steal the chicks, but failed, so he set about chopping down the tree instead. He did so with half a day's work amid the jeers of his companions, then fought off the old eagles protecting their young. According to most surviving versions of the story, one of the eaglets died from the fall, but the other one was healthy and Ahgamahwegezhig took it with him.
 
Some time later, the trading expedition made a call at Daniel McCann's tavern near Jim Falls. McCann was an Irishman who married a half-Ojibwe woman, and who, along with his two brothers, played an important role in the early history of Wisconsin's lumber industry. The traders offered their maple syrup in exchange for corn, but the McCann household already had enough syrup and didn't want to buy any more. Chief Sky offered the eaglet next, and McCann agreed to pay a bushel of corn for it.

Daniel McCann (Photo: original owned by descendants of Daniel McCann)

The young bird was kept as a pet with a blue ribbon around its neck, and McCann's children went hunting for rabbits, partridges and mice to feed it every day. Daniel McCann liked to play the fiddle, and the eaglet seemed to enjoy the music. Whenever Bonaparte's March was played, he would walk around during the slow parts, then flutter his wings and hop around during the fast parts.
 
All this, of course, happened in the first spring and summer of the Civil War, and one John C. Perkins set about recruiting a volunteer company for the Union cause from Eau Claire and Chippewa Counties in August, 1861. When McCann heard of this, he decided to either sell or give away the eagle to the volunteers as a mascot. His motivation for this might have been twofold. On one hand, he was a patriot but couldn't join the company due to a crippling childhood leg injury. On the other hand, it's also been suggested that he was trying to get rid of the rapidly growing bird whose feeding was starting to become a problem.

Old Abe on an early, unpainted version of his shield-shaped perch. His head feathers have not turned white yet due to his young age. (Photo: U.S. Army)
Old Abe on an early, unpainted version of his shield-shaped perch. His head feathers have not turned white yet due to his young age. (Photo: U.S. Army)

Either way, he took the eagle to Eau Claire and offered him to the volunteers. They first laughed at the offer, but were quickly impressed when they saw how the bird danced to McCann's fiddling and agreed to pay $2.50 for it. The soldiers started chipping in, but they then confronted local tavern keeper S. M. Jeffers and asked him to support the cause. Jeffers demurred at first, but a bit of friendly heckling from the volunteers convinced him to pay the entire price with a Quarter Eagle, a $2.50 gold coin, so the soldiers didn't have to.
 
The bird thus passed into the possession of the Eau Claire Badgers, who quickly changed their name to the Eau Claire Eagles and named the bird Old Abe after President Lincoln. They made a shield-shaped wooden perch for Old Abe. The perch was seated at the top of a five-foot pole, the other end of which could be placed in a socket on the belt of the bird's carrier, allowing Old Abe to be carried about three feet above the men's heads. Old Abe had a leather ring around one leg, and was tethered to the perch with a 20'-long cord of rope that could be wound up to give about three feet of slack during a march or battle.

Old Abe with handler John F. Hill (Photo: theclio.com)
Old Abe with handler John F. Hill (Photo: theclio.com)
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The company was mustered into the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Old Abe made a tremendous impression on everyone: the company became the regimental color company with the name Eagle Company and the entire regiment became the Eagle Regiment. Old Abe was a celebrity wherever the regiment went during the war. Gunboat officers and crew regularly came ashore to see him. Generals such as Grant, Sherman, McPherson and other raised their hats whenever they walked past the regiment – this elicited a cheer from the men, and a spreading of the wings from Old Abe.
 
Old Abe was not always an easy mascot to keep. He refused to eat grain (natural for a bald eagle), so the men in the company were always on the lookout for small prey they could catch and give to their mascot. He was sometimes pampered with a whole chicken or a duck, and he was particularly fond of minnows. He also managed to cut through the cord keeping him on his perch at least a few times. One time, a local policeman caught him and brought him back to the company. On another occasion, the entire regiment got started on a march a full hour late, as they had to get Old Abe out of a treetop first. He also learned to drink from a canteen, which was a great boon during some of the long marches when no natural source of water could be found nearby.

Old Abe spreading his wings for a photo (Photo: State Historical Society of Wisconsin Visual Archives)
Old Abe spreading his wings for a photo (Photo: State Historical Society of Wisconsin Visual Archives)

Old Abe also accompanied the regiment to the battlefield. He would get visibly excited during battle, spreading his wings and screeching. He also became known to the Confederates, who called him "Yankee Buzzard", and many Southern officers exhorted their men to capture him dead or alive.
 
The latter sort of negative publicity almost cost Old Abe his life on October 3, 1862, the first day of the Second Battle of Corinth. Confederate shots came far too close for comfort, and one bullet cut through the cord holding the eagle on his perch. The story of what followed next exists in two versions. Contemporary newspapers reporting on the battle (and not above embellishing facts for a good story) claimed that Old Abe soared over the front lines back and forth. Some recountings went so far to claim that he eventually returned to his place with a Confederate hat in his beak, or that he picked up two stones and dropped them on Southern soldiers.

Artist's depiction of the Second Battle of Corinth (Image: Library of Congress)
Artist's depiction of the Second Battle of Corinth (Image: Library of Congress)

The accounts of actual Union soldiers who were there, including his own handler, paint a less patriotic but no less dramatic picture. Old Abe was shot through the wing as soon as he was airborne, the bullet cutting out three quill feathers but not drawing blood. Unable to fly properly, he landed some 50 feet away and was quickly recovered. His bearer was also shot at the same time, with one bullet going through the left shoulder of his blouse and another through the right leg of his pants; but just like his charge, he too avoided serious injury.
 
Old Abe accompanied the regiment through all of its battles: Island Number Ten, Corinth, the siege of Vicksburg, the Red River campaign and others. His military service came to an end in the summer of 1864, when the enlistments of the 8th Wisconsin have expired and the men were mustered out of federal service. Old Abe was presented to the governor of Wisconsin, James T. Lewis, who pledged that the state would take care of the famous bird for the rest of his life. Old Abe was classified as a "War Relic" and a special "Eagle Department" was set up to see to his needs. He was given a two-room apartment in the state Capitol building with a custom bathtub and a designated caretaker.

James Taylor Lewis, 9th Governor of Wisconsin (Image: Wikipedia, painter: William F. Cogswell)

Old Abe became a national celebrity in retirement, and made many appearances at various charity events, fundraisers, veterans' meetings and even the 1867 Centennial Exposition in Pennsylvania, the first official World's Fair held in the United States.
 
In February 1881, a fire broke out in the basement of the Capitol, in a room used to store paints and oils. Old Abe raised an alarm with his loud screeching, and the fire was put out before it could spread. However, Old Abe breathed in the toxic fumes of the burning paint, and they took a heavy toll on his health. He died on March 26, 1881, in the arms of George Gilles, his last caretaker.
 
Old Abe's remains were preserved and placed in a display case in the Capitol, except for a few years when they were held by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. In 1904, however, another fire struck the Capitol, this one razing it to the ground and destroying Old Abe's remains, except for a few feathers. A replica of his remains is now on display in the rebuilt Capitol, and another at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. A stone statue of him is also perched on top of the Camp Randall Arch, a memorial at the site of a Civil War era training camp.

The replica of Old Abe's remains in the Wisconsin State Assembly Chamber (Photo: public domain)
The replica of Old Abe's remains in the Wisconsin State Assembly Chamber (Photo: public domain)

Wisconsin's cherished eagle also became a heraldic animal, and was featured on the logo of the Case Corporation, a now-defunct manufacturer of agricultural machinery and construction equipment.

Old Abe on the logo of the Case Corporation (Photo: public domain)
Old Abe on the logo of the Case Corporation (Photo: public domain)

He is, however, much more famously displayed on the unit patch of the 101st Airborne Division, whose predecessor, the 101st Division, was headquartered in Wisconsin from 1921 onward as part of the Organized Reserves. The black shield on which Old Abe's head is displayed is also a reference to Wisconsin's military history: it's derived from the distinctive black hats of the Iron Brigade, another Civil War-era Wisconsin unit.

The Screaming Eagle insignia on Sergeant Denver “Bull” Randleman’s uniform in the Band of Brothers miniseries (Photo: HBO)
The Screaming Eagle insignia on Sergeant Denver “Bull” Randleman’s uniform in the Band of Brothers miniseries (Photo: HBO)

As a final note, here's a saucy tidbit for conspiracy theorists. While Old Abe is commonly referred to as "he", there's a long ongoing argument about the eagle's actual sex, and some people claim Old Abe was, in fact, a female. Some contemporary written sources refer to the bird as "she", and there are several unsubstantiated rumors of Old Abe laying eggs. Historians who believe Old Abe was a male point out that the feathers which survived the second Capitol fire were examined and found to be that of a male specimen. In reaction to this, the other camp points out the 1877 Journal of Proceedings of the Wisconsin Legislature. In this journal, a resolution mentions that Old Abe was not actually alone in the Capitol, as he (or she) shared his (or her) home with another bald eagle, "Old Andy," and that some rumors claimed that Old Abe died in 1876 with Old Andy taking his (or her) place in the public. If this is true, then the unquestionably male feathers might have been from Old Andy, and Old Abe possibly might have been a female. The Wisconsin Senate instructed the Committee on Military Affairs to make a post mortem examination of the deceased eagle to set the matter to rest, but the results of that examination (if it was ever conducted) have been lost, and the truth about Old Abe's real sex might never come to light.

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