The year was the spring of 1861. A band of Chippewa were paddling down the river making their annual trek for supplies. Toward evening, they set up camp. They heard an eagle's cry and noticed a nest in a tall pine tree. Curiosity made one young man, Ahgamahwegezhig (Chief Sky), climb the tree. The eagle flew at him and was shot. Inside the nest, he found two baby eagles.
Chief Sky brought the two eagles down. The next day they continued on their way to the trading posts. Along the way, one of the eagles was traded to Dan McCann for corn. The McCann family raised the eaglet as a pet and it learned to dance while the father played the fiddle.
A regiment from Eau Claire, Wisconsin was heading toward Madison to muster for the Civil War and passed the McCann homestead. McCann sold the eagle to the regiment as a mascot and they changed their nickname from the Badgers to the Eagles. Captain John E. Perkins named the eagle “Old Abe” in honor of President Lincoln. When they arrived in Madison, they became part of the 8th Regiment of Wisconsin.
The 8th Regiment was sent south and Old Abe accompanied them, carried on a perch in the same way the flag was carried using a belt and socket that held the end of the staff. Old Abe stood three feet above the heads of the troops, plainly visible to all.
The 8th Regiment saw plenty of action, becoming known as the Live Eagle Regiment. Old Abe was present during 37 skirmishes, including the second battle of Corinth, Mississippi. By this time, Old Abe was so renowned as the Union mascot that Confederate General Sterling Price once ordered, “Get that confounded eagle.” It is believed more shots were fired into the air that day then at the enemy troops.
After the war, Old Abe retired to the Wisconsin State Capitol building, where he had his own room known as “the Eagle Department.” He received millions of visitors and he toured the country appearing in parades or as a guest of honor at political conventions.
On March 26, 1881 a fire broke out near his room in the Capitol. When a veteran, who had served with Old Abe, rushed in to help, he saw the eagle jumping about on his perch, shrieking loudly. When the attendant got the eagle to safety, Abe collapsed and died, some say from smoke inhalation, others from the excitement of believing he was back on the smoky battlefield.
Old Abe was preserved and mounted. He stayed on display in the rotunda of the Capitol building in Madison for the next 20 years until a fire in 1904 destroyed the building and his remains.
Today, about all that remains of Old Abe is a feather that 12-year-old Ida Karne picked up while visiting the Capitol Building back in 1868.
Old Abe's memory, however, lives on in many ways:
- His image is used on the shoulder patch of the 101st Airborne Division.
- A statue of Old Abe is perched over the Wisconsin State Assembly Chamber.
- Eau Claire High School's nickname is the "Old Abes."
- J.I. Case agricultural equipment manufacturing company adopted Old Abe as part of their trademark until they retired him in 1969.
- His image sits atop the Wisconsin Memorial at Vicksburg National Military Park.