That 'war eagle' had quite a record

     EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was written by David McLain of Dunn County, who cared for the Civil War eagle Old Abe while his unit participated in many southern battles.
     It was related by McLain himself when speaking before a meeting of the Dunn County Old Settlers Association in the late 1800's. McLain was the grandfather of Dunn County Judge William Bundy who had typed this account from the original manuscript once in the possession of his mother.
     That original account, written by McLain and read by him for the Old Settler's Society meeting, is missing, but this is the "Birds-eye account" of Old Abe and perhaps sets the record straight on the bird's behavior and activities in the war years.

Old Abe

     "The War Eagle of Co. C," 8th Wisconsin Volunteers, was captured by a young Indian on the headwaters of the Flambeau River in Chippewa County in the spring of 1861.
     "I saw the young Indian that captured him the summer of 1861 while up in the pinery building a dam for log driving, and had quite a talk with him.
       "He said there were two eagles in the nest, but one got hurt so that it died later on.
     "He said the nest was about as large as a bushel basket.
     "The Indian's name was Chief Sky, in the English language.

"About the latter part of August, 1861, the Indian came down in his canoe to Chippewa Falls, bringing furs and other stuff to sell and amongst the rest, the young eagle.

     "When he got as far as Jim Falls, Daniel McCann, a citizen of the place, offered him a bushel of corn for the eagle, which was accepted, and the eagle changed owners.
     "A few days afterwards, Mr. McCann brought him down to Eau Claire where Co. C of the 8th Wis. Was organizing for the war of the Rebellion, and offered to sell him for $2.50.
     "Well, we got together - I was a member of the company, having enlisted on the 26th of August, a few days before - and we chipped in 10 cents apiece and bought him.

"After we had got him, we made up our minds to take him as far as Madison, if some of the company would volunteer to take care of him, when a young man of the company, James Maginnis (McInnis) by name, said that he would do it, which was accepted.

     "Eau Claire made a very handsome perch for the eagle and on the 3rd of September, 1861, we steamed down the Chippewa on the steamer "Stella Whipple." We arrived at Madison on the 6th and were mustered into the United States service that afternoon, for three years.
     "The eagle was carried the same way the flag was.
     "The bearer wore a belt with a socket attached to receive the end of the staff which was about five feet long.
     "Holding the staff firmly in hand, the bearer could raise the eagle about three feet above his head, which made him quite conspicuous.
     "Then he had a leather ring around one leg with a strong cord about 20 feet long.

Depart for Missouri

     When marching or engaged with the enemy, the cord was wound up on the shield, giving the eagle about three feet of slack.

"On the morning of the 12th of October, 1861, we left Madison for St. Louis, Mo., where we arrived on the 14th.

     "In marching up through he City of Benton Barracks, in some manner the eagle got loose from his cord and flew up over the tops of those high buildings out of sight.
     "We thought we had lost him, but in a short time a policeman came to us with him.
     "He said when he got over the buildings, he lit on the next street, so we were all happy again.
     "We only stayed in St. Louis one night when we were ordered to Pilot Knob, from there to Frederickson, Mo., where we had our first engagement with the Confederate General Jeff Thompson.
     "We gave him a good whipping that kept him quiet for some time.
     "About the middle of January 1862 the 8th and its eagle were ordered to Cairo, Ill., where we stayed until the first of March, when we were ordered south to take part in the siege and capture of Island No. 10 and New Madrid, Mo., which surrendered on the 8th of April, 1862, with 7,000 prisoners and a large amount of heavy guns and stores.
     "On the 9th of May we had a hard battle at Farmington, Miss., where our eagle showed his grit by spreading his wings and screaming through the smoke and roar of battle.
     "He was borne safely through by James Maginnis.
     "After the rebels evacuated Corinth, which they did on the night of the 29th of May, 1862, we marched in and took possession on the morning of the 30th.

Eagle gets name of "Old Abe"

Old Abe perched on his standard while serving with the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment following the Battle of Vicksburg, Miss., in July, 1863. The eagle was kept in Madison and his remains were preserved at the Capitol until destroyed by fire. (Courtesy Chippewa Valley Museum).

     "On the same day that we took possession of Corinth, the Eagle's bearer, James Maginnis, was taken sick and sent to the hospital, where he died on the 19th of September, 1862.

"Thomas J. Hill was detailed bearer May 30th, 1862, and served until Aug. 18th, 1862, when the writer of this article (David McLain) was detailed bearer and served until the 20th of December, 1862

     "We called the Eagle "Old Abe" at that time.
     "On the 18th of August, 1862, Tom Hill, being appointed to a position in the wagon train, the writer of this article, (David McLain) was appointed Eagle Bearer.
     "On the 22nd day of Aug., 1862, we started on a campaign through Alabama, marched as far as Courtland, stayed there a few days, then marched to Inka, Miss., where we had a hard skirmish with rebel Cav. That was on Sept. 13th, 1862.
     "Another skirmish at same place Sept. 16th and a very severe battle on the 29th, when we routed the enemy

"Our next move was to Corinth, as it was reported that the rebels under Generals Price and Van Dorn were organizing a force of about 2,500 men at Holly Springs to retake Corinth.

     "Now as there have been more exaggerated stories told about the Eagle's behavior in that battle, I am going to give you the straight facts.
     "Of course all of the officers and men in Generals Price and Van Dorn's army knew that there was a Wisconsin Regiment opposed to them that carried a live Eagle and they had cautioned their men the morning of the 3rd of October 1862 to take that Eagle dead or alive.
     "The Eagle was carried beside the flag and made quite a conspicuous mark.
     "About 3 p.m. we reached the battlefield. The troops in front of us were running out of ammunition and were slowly falling back for want of cartridges.
     "General D. S. Stanley, commanding our division, ordered us to lay down and let the enemy get up closer.

"When we got up, our eagle and flag were in plain sight of the enemy and then they gave the rebel yell and came for the eagle and flag, but about 3,000muskets fired into them in volley by Stanley's division, made them hesitate; but they rallied and came on again, bound to take that eagle."

     "Our boys were ready for them and were reinforced by the 2nd Iowa Battery, who commenced firing canister into them.
     "They (rebels) fell back, badly broken up, with their appetite all gone for young eagles; in fact they did not want any Wisconsin eagles. When they made the first charge, a bullet cut the cord that held the eagle to his perch when he flew off about 50 feet from the flag and I think about 10 feet high. I was right after him, caught him, tied the cord and set him on his perch again.

Old Abe flies over line

     "About the time the cord was shot, he (Old Abe) was shot through one wing, cutting out three quill feathers, but not drawing blood.
     "At the same time the bearer (McLain) was shot through the left shoulder of his blouse and right leg of his pants. In both cases happily no blood was drawn. This only goes to show how dangerous a place the eagle bearer had.
     "This time that cord was cut and he flew about 50 feet down the line, must have been what caused the newspapers to come out the next week with great headlines telling about the eagle of the 8th Wisconsin getting away after a rebel bullet cut his cord and soaring, over the lines of both armies, and back to his perch, which is not so.
     "He was quite excited always in battle and he'd spread his wings and scream but never flew over the lines of either army.

"The battle of Corinth was one of the largest fought battles of the war for the number engaged. It was finished on the 4th of October, 1862. We were not engaged the 2nd day, but the rebels went back the 2nd day with a badly demoralized army.

     "Our next campaign was down through Central Miss to try to get in rear of Vicksburg, Miss., to capture that position which proved to be a failure. Then we fell back to La Grange, Tenn., where I resigned my position as Eagle Bearer about the 28th day of Dec. 1862.
     "While I was his bearer I taught him to drink water out of a canteen which saved him a great deal of suffering on long hot marches in a dry country.
     "By this time Old Abe was getting quite heavy. I think about 12 or 14 pounds and on hot days very troublesome. When he would get tired on his perch he would want to fly to the ground to rest, but we got along with him pretty well.

Eagle at Vicksburg attack

     "In the spring of 1863 as we went to take part in the Vicksburg campaign, Old Abe was carried by Ed Homeston.

"Eighth Wisconsin and the eagle took part in all the fighting to get in position in rear of Vicksburg and in the assault on the fortifications on the 22nd day of May, and in the siege and capture of said place July 4th, 1863.

     "Sometime in Sept. 1863 Ed Homeston resigned his position as Eagle bearer and John Burkhardt of Eau Claire took his place and carried him until their three years were up and the nonveterans were discharged.
     "Burkhardt carried the eagle through the Red River (La.) campaign and Hurricane Creek was the last skirmish Old Abe was engaged in. He had served his three years faithfully and well.
     "The regiment marched down to the landing of Memphis, Tenn., where we bid the Eagle and the boys that had not re-enlisted goodbye. They were taking a steamer going up the river to home and friend. We that had re-enlisted were taking a steamer down the river to start on a new campaign - but such is war.

"When the non-veterans in Sept. 1864 arrived in Madison, they marched to the Capitol with their eagle and Capt. Victor Wolff of Co. C. of the Eagle Company.

     "In conclusion I will tell you the duties of the eagle bearers. They had no guard or fatigue duty to do, but they had full charge of the eagle, and had to see that he was fed properly which was quite a task on a march.
     "He would not eat grain of any kind.
     "Sometimes we could get a chicken or a duck for him. He was quite fond of minnows, quite often we could get some in the creeks and then he would have a feast. He was very particular about what he ate. He would not touch meat of any kind that was the least tainted. We always did the best we could to get rations for the eagle, as we were very proud of him.

"I have frequently seen Generals Grant, Sherman McPherson, Rosecranz, Blair. Logan 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 then the Eagle would spread his wings as he always did when the regiment cheered and he did look magnificent at such times.

     "Now my friends and neighbors of the Old Settlers Society of Dunn County, I have given you a correct history of Old Abe, the Wisconsin War Eagle, as I saw it after being with him three years and I was in every march, battle and skirmish the company was in during the time, and carried him through some of our hardest battles. Corinth, for instance, was one of them, where we lost 50 percent of our company.
     "The eagle died March 21st, 1881, at the Capitol, Madison, Wis.
     "I hope I have not tired you out."

--David McLain

Extracted from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.

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