The Real Old Abe
famous local bird celebrates 150th anniversary
The Chippewa Valley has enjoyed a modest assortment of famous locals, from bearded singers to great athletes to noted politicians. But if fame is measured by how many times one’s name and likeness are featured on local landmarks, and how much one’s legend has grown over the years, THE most famous resident from these parts is pretty clear. Tributes to this celebrity adorn all of the police cars and police uniforms in Eau Claire, a local high school, numerous historical markers and war memorials, business logos, the local museum, and even the state capitol in Madison.
If you are still thinking Kato Kaelin, allow us to clue you in. It’s Old Abe, the eagle who accompanied Chippewa Valley soldiers into the Civil War. Old Abe, named after Abraham Lincoln, became a mascot not just for the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, but in many ways, for much of the northern army. Legend has it that Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman would remove their hats when passing the eagle. After the war, he retired to the state capitol, where he lived for 17 years until he was caught in a fire and died shortly thereafter. He was taxidermied and displayed until the capitol burned down in 1904.
As 2011 is Old Abe’s 150th birthday, we would like to honor this hero by digging a little deeper into the legends. And just to make it fun, we’ve prepared three accounts of Old Abe. See if you can guess which one is accurate. Answer shown below!
A DYNAMO OF CIVIL WAR PR
Like so many famous animals, Old Abe was actually the creation of some brilliant marketing. When Wisconsin troops departed for the battlefields of the Civil War, they knew a little branding might earn enough notoriety to keep them off of the frontlines, so they sought the most patriotic image possible – a bald eagle. Old Abe, like Lassie and Flipper, was actually four different birds. They were all captured from around Western Wisconsin, each called into service when the previous eagle succumbed to the hardships of war life. The character of Old Abe was grander than any one animal, and the last “Old Abe,” captured near Rice Lake shortly before the war ended, enjoyed the fame earned by his predecessors. All four animals, however, live on through lore and tribute around Wisconsin.
AN ENDURING SYMBOL OF PRIDE AND FEMINISM
Old Abe was actually captured by Native Americans (Chief Sky of the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe, specifically) and traded to a farmer near Jim Falls for food. That farmer offered the bird to the Eau Claire Eagle Regiment as a mascot, and the bird’s temperament and personality quickly endeared it to the soldiers. Old Abe’s best kept secret, though, is that she was actually a female bird, a fact kept hidden by the soldiers. Old Abe’s masculine name and presentation allowed her to quickly became not only a symbol of northern pride, but also of southern ire. One Confederate general allegedly claimed he would rather capture Old Abe, referred to as the “Yankee Buzzard,” than an entire regiment of men, because her image and war cries on the battlefield were such an intimidating rally. Although not acknowledged for it at the time, not only was Old Abe Wisconsin’s most legendary war hero, she was our most famous female as well.
AN ENDURING MYTH
Old Abe certainly existed, but, like all good legends, he has benefited from a tremendous amount of exaggeration. The soldiers of Wisconsin brought a bird with them to the Civil War, but it was actually a Cooper’s Hawk, a personal pet of one of the soldiers. The bird escaped shortly after the Eau Claire regiment was deployed, but he continued on as a rallying symbol for the soldiers. Whenever hawks or eagles would circle battlefields, as carrion birds often did, Wisconsin soldiers would point out that “Old Abe has returned!” and use that cry to lead them into battle. Old Abe’s retirement has also benefited from tall tale treatment. A stuffed eagle made the trip to many veterans events and was presented as “Old Abe.” When the farce started to lose credibility, the story of the fire and the bird’s death was created as a fitting yet fictional end to a legendary bird.
ANSWER: Symbol of Pride & Feminism
Special thanks to Frank Smoot of the Chippewa Valley Museum for his research.