'Get that confounded eagle!' had been their general's orders.
The bird they were trying to hit was one of the most amazing mascots ever carried by American servicemen - Old Abe, a giant bald eagle. Fearless of whistling bullets and roaring cannonades, he amazed, amused and inspired the men who fought alongside him in no less than 20 battles and 30 skirmishes.
Old Abe's dazzling military history began when a man named Daniel McCann walked up to a company of volunteers in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. On his arm he carried a young eagle he'd bought from an Indian. How would the soldiers like to buy it, as sort of a patriotic symbol? The boys thought it was a good idea, and 10 of them chipped in a quarter apiece. Promptly dubbing the bird Old Abe, and themselves the Eau Claire Eagles, they swore in the new recruit by draping his neck with a red, white and blue ribbon, which he seemed to like, and rigging up a perch on which he could be carried beside the flag. The bird was highly ornamental, and as the regiment marched through Chicago, he attracted a lot of attention, especially after one irreverent spectator allowed as how it was a buzzard and the Eagles fell out of line to convince him otherwise.
When the first battle was shaping up for 8th Wisconsin, near Frederick's-town, Missouri, Old Abe was tethered on the roof of the courthouse, a good half mile from the fighting. That was when his company found out that Old Abe was a bird of battle. Instead of cowering in fear, the eagle was wild with what looked like joy at the rattle of musketry and the boom of cannon. He leaped up and down madly, uttering blood curdling cries.
In the next skirmish, Old Abe was again left well behind the lines, but before his Company had gone far, they heard a shrill scream, and the big eagle came swooping down, his heavy tether line dragging. He had sawed it through with his sharp beak.
Old Abe really got his baptism of fire a little later at Farmington, Mississippi, when Union soldiers were hurled against Confederates led by Beauregard. The Eagles hung onto a patch of woods in the face of heavy fire. 'Get that bird to the rear!' the captain ordered. His bearer started out reluctantly.
Rifle fire increased, and the men were ordered to get down. Old Abe cocked his head, looking at the men lying flat. After studying them a moment, he hopped down and crouched beside his bearer, who ordered him back up. Old Abe, however, just hugged closer to the earth. Only when the firing slackened and the men got up did he return to his perch.
Abe got so he understood the meanings of the bugle calls, and leaped to act on their message. Once when the bugler blew the call to advance, only to have it suddenly countermanded, Old Abe went into a frenzy. He chewed thorough his tether, flew ahead, and then came back screaming, as if berating the men for disobeying the forward command.
Old Abe's fame spread, Generals Grant and Sheridan stopped by the Eagles just to see him and several other regiments made offers to buy him. In his own company there was fierce competition for the honor of being his bearer-a privilege often gambled for as high stakes in a dice game. Carrying him in battle was considered to have practical value, for not one of his bearers was killed while carrying the eagle. One who had gone through six battles with him was killed the day after he turned over the job to another. Once a shot winged Old Abe, who so startled that he leaped from his perch with force enough to drag his bearer forward. In the next moments, a cannon ball ploughed the earth in the exact spot where he had been standing.
On the Confederate side, there was also a lot of talk about Old Abe, who had been noticed by thousands of troops in action. As a boost to Union morale, vowed Gen. Sterling Price, 'that bird is worth half a regiment'. It was Price who gave orders that an effort should be made to capture, or bring down Old Abe. In the battle of Corinth, the Confederates got their chance. In this bloody encounter, dozens of Union regiments made repeated assaults on strong Confederates positions. Old Abe barely escaped death when flying shrapnel cut off some of his feathers. Minutes afterwards, a minnie ball cut his tether cord and Old Abe soared from his perch. Soldiers almost forgot their fighting at the sight of the great bird whelling above the smoke of battle. Many a Confederate, mindful of Price's orders, tried to hit him, but Old Abe flew right on, over the Confederate lines, as if inspecting them, completely ignoring the hail of shot around him. Then he swung back toward the Union troops. Below him in the wild confusion were at least 50 companies, yet Old Abe came plummeting straight down to land among his own Eau Claire Eagles.
Of all his exploits, Union and Confederate soldiers alike were most impressed by the happening at Henderson's Hill, after the Vicksburg campaign. As Union forces tensely waited outside a Confederate stronghold they had surrounded, they knew that their venture was desperate one. Let the garrison inside get out word to the large forces of Gen. Richard Taylor, not far away, and he could come up during the night, catching the Union troops between two fires. Heavy guards were posted, with sentries every few yards in the tangle of swamps.
Suddenly OLE Abe, who had seemed to be sleeping, leaped to attention, and began to raise an outcry.
'Hears something he doesn't like,' announced his bearer, who had observed the bird's reactions to the uniforms of captured Confederates he'd seen. 'Bet there's a Johnny Re in the camp.'
A search turned up a Confederate courier who had almost succeeded in working his way through the lines. As a result, no word reached Taylor, and in the morning the hopeless Confederate garrison surrendered. After that the boastful Eagles called Old Abe 'the bird who captured a fort.'
Old Abe kept right on fighting until his company was mustered out. After the war, when he was installed in a special 'Old Abe Room' in the Capitol at Madison, Wisconsin, his fame increased. Newspaper readers were kept informed of such antics as Abe's reaction to another eagle given a perch beside him. Old Abe promptly killed the newcomer. Given a rooster to eat, Old Abe instead made friends with it. Although plat. Barnum's $10,000 offer for Old Abe was turned down, he was still seen by millions of Americans. In the five-mile long Soldiers and Sailors Convention parade in Pittsburg, Old Abe rode along in a carriage drawn by four white horses, squawking delightedly at the cheers. As a guest of honor at political conventions he had occasion to nip at both Generals Grant and Sherman. His fellow soldiers joked that Old Abe never had cottoned much to generals.
Old Abe was still going strong 15 years after the war was over. Then one morning fire broke out in the Capitol. From the eagle's room came a wild cry. As an attendant, a veteran who had served with him, dashed through the choking fumes, he could see his charge jumping up and down on his perch, shrieking fiercely. Old Abe hadn't forgotten the smoke of the battlefields. He thought he was back fighting! The veteran hastily carried him out to the fresh air but the bird had gone limp in his arms. Doctors said the excitement had been too much for him.
It was a mourning member of the 8th Wisconsin's who provide the epitaph for the fighting eagle.
'Maybe it wasn't the real battle, but Old Abe thought it was, He died happy.'"
This article was published in the Daily Corinthian 1962 Newspaper. It was reprinted, permission granted to Mr. Norman Carlisle, by True-The Man's Magazine, in the Daily Corinthian special addition. By-Paul S. Pardue