The War Eagle of Company C

By Stuart Wilke
Posted 7/3/24

Wisconsin’s most famous Civil War figure was not a soldier. He as an American Bald Eagle named “Old Abe.: He was a symbol of the United States and like his namesake, President Abraham …

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The War Eagle of Company C


Wisconsin’s most famous Civil War figure was not a soldier. He as an American Bald Eagle named “Old Abe." He was a symbol of the United States and like his namesake, President Abraham Lincoln, fought for the preservation of the Union.

Old Abe’s service began when he was captured near the south fork of the Flambeau River, now a part of the Chequamegon National Forest, in the spring of 1861 by Chief Sky of the Flambeau Band of Ojibwe Indians. Chief Sky spent hours cutting down a tree in order to capture a young eaglet in its nest. He kept the eagle for several months before bringing it with him by canoe with furs and other items to sell in Jim Falls. There, he traded Old Abe to Daniel McCann for a bushel of corn.

McCann’s eagle soon grew to become a large, voracious eater that was expensive to feed. Not long after purchasing the eagle, McCann brought him to Eau Claire where volunteers were being recruited to serve in the Eau Claire Badgers in the war against the secessionists. McCann offered the eagle to Seth Pierce, on of the Badger companies founders, for $2.50. Pierce accepted and the bird was in the army now.

Pierce named the eagle “Old Abe" after President Abraham Lincoln. Old Abe was made the company’s mascot, a decorative 10-foot perch in the shape of a shield was constructed for him and he was assigned a caretaker. Company C trained for several weeks in Madison, where Abe became a local celebrity and Company C became part of the Eighth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment assigned to the Army of the Mississippi.

The Eighth Wisconsin and Abe first saw combat in October at the Battle of Fredricktown. Both served credibly. His caretaker bore him in battle and Old Abe would scream and flap his wings in encouragement as the Eighth Wisconsin fought. Abe would see action in 36 more battles, including Corinth and Vicksburg. During his service, the eagle was recognized by the likes of General Grant and General Sherman, who would tip their hats to the bird when they encountered him. Old Abe would scream and flap his wings in response.

Old Abe is perhaps most famous for his service during the Siege of Corinth, Mississippi, in 1862. According to eagle bearer David McLain, “May 9 we had a hard battle at Farmington (near Corinth), Mississippi where our eagle showed his grit by spreading his wings and screaming through the smoke and roar of battle.” So inspirational was Old Abe to Wisconsin troops, that Confederate officers directed their men to shoot and kill him on sight.

In the aftermath of the siege, Old Abe enjoyed several months of relative freedom, entertaining and annoying his Eighth Wisconsin comrades. Having free rein of the camp, Abe occupied his time chasing large insects, stealing food, attacking laundry, playing catch with minie balls, and getting drunk from unattended liquor.

After completing his three-year enlistment, Old Abe returned to Wisconsin where he was designated a “War Relic” by the state and provided with a two bedroom “apartment” at the Capitol, complete with bathtub and caretaker.

During his post-war career, Old Abe made many appearances at charitable events and Grand Army of the Republic reunions. He was never an especially sociable bird (he actually killed another eagle roommate), but he loved his Eighth Wisconsin comrades. He is said to have recognized them at reunions with displays of affection.

Old Abe passed in 1881 and monuments to his courage can be found throughout Wisconsin.

Originally published in the May/June 2024 edition of On Wisconsin Outdoors. Reprinted with permission.