The Proud History of Old Abe

With great fanfare, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers announced Friday that he was removing a portrait of a bald eagle in the Governor's Mansion and replacing it with "Wishes in the Wind," a hyper-realistic 2010 painting of children playing with bubbles.

"Looking into their eyes should remind us of the responsibility we all share to work together to ensure a bright future for all kids in Wisconsin," the Governor said, apparently unaware of the work the bald eagle he replaced did to ensure Wisconsin's future.

This isn't just any old bald eagle; it's Old Abe, quite possibly the most important bird in American history.

 

In 1861, 150 years before former Governor Scott Walker took down "Wishes in the Wind" and hung Old Abe's portrait in the executive residence as part of a redecoration to commemorate the Civil War's sesquicentennial, a Flambeau band Chippewa named Chief Sky tried to capture a pair of bald eagle fledglings in a forest near Park Falls, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, he tried to cut down the tree their nest sat in and only one of the birds survived.

Later that summer, Chief Sky traded the surviving eaglet to noted lumberman Daniel McCann for a bushel of corn. By August, the eagle was growing rapidly and McCann realized he couldn't take care of it, so he tried desperately to sell it.

The Civil War had just begun a few months earlier, and a company of soldiers from Eau Claire and Chippewa Counties who called themselves the "Eau Claire Badgers" happened to be passing through. McCann offered them his eagle for $2.50. Captain John S. Perkins took up a collection from his men, who jumped at the chance to have a new mascot. The captain also tried to collect from a local tavern-keeper named S.M. Jeffers, who declined. When the soldiers heard about this, they made fun of his cheapness and, laughing, Jeffers paid for the bird himself by pulling out--appropriately--a Quarter Eagle coin worth $2.50.

Captain Perkins named the bird "Old Abe" after his Commander-in-Chief, President Abraham Lincoln, and the Badgers renamed themselves the "Eau Claire Eagles" in honor of their new member. Old Abe traveled everywhere with them, marching into battle with a young soldier named James McGinnis on a special perch in the shape of a shield.

On October 20th, the Eagles--officially known as Company C of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment--fought in the Battle of Frederickstown in Missouri before marching to New Madrid for the highly successful Battle of Island Number Ten. By then, Old Abe was so famous that when the Eagles fought in the Battle of Corinth in May of 1862, Confederate General Sterling Price told his men, "That bird must be captured or killed at all hazards. I would rather get that eagle than capture a whole brigade or a dozen battle flags."

He didn't, but Captain Perkins was killed in the battle and shortly afterwards, McGinnis became sick and died. During the Second Battle of Corinth that October, 21 members of the Eau Claire Eagles died and 60 more were injured.

Still, they marched on with Old Abe leading them to Vicksburg a month later. During the months-long siege, Old Abe's fame (or rather infamy) spread. Confederate troops and civilians scornfully called him "that Yankee buzzard." Among Union troops, though, he was a source of pride and inspiration in the highly successful Battle of Vicksburg, which ended with a surrender on the Fourth of July.

Famed Union General William Tecumseh Sherman noted the bravery of the Eau Claire Eagles in a letter to Wisconsin Governor Edward Salomon, writing that "the Eighth Wisconsin has ever done its whole duty, in the camp, on the march and in battle. It has shared with us all the honors and success of our conquest of Mississippi and has displayed peculiar courage and gallantry."

Sherman was so impressed with the Eagles that he personally requested that they join the Red River Campaign of 1864. Although it ultimately failed, Old Abe and the Eagles returned to Wisconsin as national heroes. The bells of Madison were rung in celebration and crowds gathered at the State Capitol to cheer them on as they passed through. Back home in Eau Claire the next day, there were more celebrations and a feast to honor them.

After a few more months of active duty, the Eagles' original members enlistments ended on September 16th, 1864. Old Abe was out of the service, but not out of service. John J. Hill, a soldier who had been injured at the Battle of Corinth, led Abe on a march of 70 veterans to the Wisconsin Capitol, where he presented America's most famous eagle to Governor James T. Lewis.

His administration created an Eagle Department in the Capitol, where Abe lived in a two-room apartment with a custom bathtub for him. He lived out his life as a national celebrity, making appearances all over the the country, including at the at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and the Grand Army of the Republic Convention in 1880.

The following year, though, a fire at the Wisconsin Capitol caused Abe to suffer from smoke inhalation and his health began to fail very quickly, passing away in his caretaker's arms on March 26th, 1881.

Later that year, his stuffed remains were displayed in the Capitol Rotunda. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Capitol and paid his respects to the famous eagle he had learned about as a child. Unfortunately, in 1904 another fire at the Capitol destroyed Abe's remains. Today, he is memorialized in a statue at the top of the Camp Randall Arch and as the "Screaming Eagle" on the insignia of the Army's 101st Airborne Division.

That Division, which was stationed in Milwaukee after World War I, wanted to pay tribute to the brave Wisconsin men who had served their state and their country in the Civil War, and they could think of no better symbol of that bravery than Old Abe.

That symbol--of the 91,379 Wisconsin soldiers who served in the Civil War and 12,216 who made the ultimate sacrifice--hung in the Governor's Mansion as a reminder of their sacrifice...until last week, that is, when Governor Evers replaced the painting of Old Abe with "Wishes in the Wind"--a visual ode to social justice in modern-day Milwaukee.

Maybe Governor Evers is aware of the symbolism in the decision to replace a tribute to Wisconsin's greatest heroes with a visual representation of progressive white guilt, or maybe he just doesn't know the proud history of Old Abe and the men with whom he served.

Dan O'Donnell

Dan O'Donnell

Common Sense Central is edited by WISN's Dan O'Donnell. Dan provides unique conservative commentary and analysis of stories that the mainstream media often overlooks. Read more

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