On this day in 1864, an eagle by the name of “Old Abe” is given to the people of Wisconsin. He would later become the inspiration for the Screaming Eagle on the 101st Airborne Division’s insignia.
Yes! The “Screaming Eagle” was a real bird.
No one knows precisely where Old Abe was born, but we do know that he was captured when he was just an eaglet. Chief Sky of the Flambeau band of Chippewa Indians sold the captured eaglet to a local family.
Needless to say, an eaglet didn’t last long as a family pet. Fortunately, local companies of militia were traveling through the area, preparing for the Civil War. One of these companies agreed to buy the eagle for $2.50. Then it continued on to army training in Madison, Wisconsin.
Those men eventually became Company C of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Informally? They were the “Eagle Regiment.”
The men had named their eagle for Abraham Lincoln. As they marched to war, they took Old Abe everywhere—even into battle.
“The eagle was carried the same way that the flag was,” Eagle Bearer David McLain later described. “The bearer wore a belt with a socket attached to receive the end of the staff . . . . the bearer could raise [the] eagle about three feet above his head, which made him quite conspicuous.”
“Eagle Bearer” wasn’t an official position in the U.S. Army, of course, but the position was one of honor in the Eagle Regiment.
Old Abe raised morale, as so many war animals have done. Many of the men surely remembered his antics at Clear Creek after the capture of Corinth. “[Old Abe] was given complete liberty,” McLain said. “He would go all through the Brigade but would come home to Co. ‘C’ in the evening . . . .”
The eagle never went far, despite his freedom. He frolicked in Clear Creek, entertaining the soldiers. He would chase bullets that soldiers rolled on the ground for him. He learned to shake hands.
He also raided provisions, of course. Once he even got into some wine and got drunk.
Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that Old Abe lost much of his freedom after Clear Creek. “The reason for this abatement of his liberty,” one officer explained, “is not so much fear of losing him, as to prevent his pilfering. . . .”
Old Abe’s most memorable battle came on October 3, 1862. Reportedly, the Confederates wanted “that bird”—and they wanted him more than “a whole brigade or a dozen battle flags.” They came close: A bullet cut the cord that bound the eagle to his perch. Some say that Old Abe took the opportunity to soar above the armies, but McLain disputes the claim: “He was quite excited always in battle and he’d spread his wings and scream but never flew over the lines of either army.”
Moreover, he probably couldn’t soar at that particular moment in time. He’d been shot through one wing.
Old Abe served throughout the war. “All the brigade adore him,” one private would write. McLain agreed: “I have frequently seen Generals Grant, Sherman, [and others], when they were passing our regiment, raise their hats as they passed Old Abe, which always brought a cheer from the regiment and the Eagle would spread his wings . . . and he did look magnificent at such times.”
Old Abe’s war service came to an end on September 26, 1864, but he continued to travel for soldier relief benefits and other veteran causes. His home was an aviary in the Wisconsin state capitol until his passing in 1881.
Naturally, his spirit lives on in the 101st Airborne Division.
Capt. James A. Page, The Story of “Old Abe,” famous Wisconsin War Eagle on 101st Airborne Division patch (U.S. Army website; Nov. 14, 2012)
Connie Goldsmith, Animals Go to War: From Dogs to Dolphins (2018)
First Hand Account of Civil War Eagle: Old Abe’s Behavior in Battle Uncovered (Daily Telegram: Eau Claire, WI) (Oct 11, 1968)
Richard Zeitlin, Old Abe the War Eagle: A True Story of the Civil War And Reconstruction (1986)
Ronald Paul Larson, Wisconsin and the Civil War (2017)