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Engraving of Old Abe, mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry WHI Image ID 33811
Engraving of Old Abe, mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry WHI 33811

Old Abe, Wisconsin's Civil War Eagle

Old Abe, a tame bald eagle, was the mascot of the 8th Regiment of Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War and became a living symbol of the Union at war. He traveled with the 8th throughout the regiment's participation in campaigns in the Western Theater from 1861 to 1864. Carried on a perch atop a shield, Old Abe was never wounded in any of the 37 engagements he participated in. He became famous for spreading his wings and shrieking at appropriate moments and was glorified by the Northern media. The 8th donated him to the government of Wisconsin, and Old Abe spent his postwar years living at the state Capitol, attending political rallies and being displayed at charity fundraisers.

An Enduring Popular Symbol

Old Abe, the War Eagle, perched beside a cannon at the Capitol
Old Abe, the War Eagle, perched
beside a cannon at the Capitol
WHI 7536

These 75 images cover the gamut of Old Abe's life, his rise to fame and his enduring popularity. They include photographs, engravings, paintings, memorabilia, stereographs and a ferrotype. Many images are portraits of Old Abe depicted alongside patriotic symbols. A few images show Old Abe as an adolescent, before his head feathers turned white. Additionally, images of various Old Abe monuments, reproductions and cultural references highlight just how popular the Wisconsin war eagle was as a symbol of the Union even after his passing.

Media Sensation, Multiple Formats

Because of Old Abe's longstanding Northern popularity, the techniques used to produce these images span the development of image production techniques from the 1860s to the 1970s. Notably, H.H. Bennett produced a number of stereographs of Old Abe perched on a cannon. Rather than highlighting a particular artist or technique, however, this gallery brings together images relating to Old Abe and demonstrates an early example of a media sensation. The long-reaching cultural memory of Old Abe surfaces in multiple ways such as taxidermy reproductions, a company logo, a commemorative spoon and a basketball team.

More on Old Abe's Life and Legacy

Ah-ga-mah-we-zhig (Chief Sky) of the Lac du Flambeau Lake Superior Chippewas captured Old Abe when he was an eaglet in 1861. Chief Sky traded the eaglet to the McCanns of the Jim Falls area. The McCanns later sold the adolescent eagle to the Eau Claire company of the Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry who named him Old Abe. The Eau Claire company combined with others to form the 8th regiment, and Old Abe became famous as their mascot and a constant presence in battle, on the march and in camp. During his life with the regiment, Old Abe became known for pilfering from the camp, spreading his wings on command and dancing to music.

In 1863 the 8th Wisconsin presented Old Abe to the state, and the eagle spent the rest of his life captive at the Capitol building in Madison or on display for various political, social and cultural causes. Old Abe's living conditions while in the government's care declined over time and he suffered from exhaustion, exposure and malnutrition on a number of occasions.

In 1881 a small fire broke out in the basement of the Capitol, igniting stored paints and oils and filling Old Abe's quarters with smoke. The flames did not reach Old Abe's confines, but the smoke seemed to negatively affect his health. He sickened and died within a month.

After his death, the state had Old Abe's corpse preserved by taxidermy. He was displayed at the Wisconsin Historical Society until 1903 when he was moved to the G.A.R. Memorial Hall in the Capitol. A fire the next year in 1904 consumed his remains.

During his life and after his death, Old Abe has been the subject of numerous semi-fictionalized accounts and tributes.

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