“The Veteran Eagle,” by Maria S. Cummins (from Our Young Folks, October 1866; pp. 616-622)
A friend of mind, lately returned from the West, spent nearly the whole of his first visit to us in telling about the Wisconsin Eagle. Among all the novelties of his journey, nothing had apparently interested im so much as this bird; and if you young folks are half as much pleased as I was with the story, and the thoughts to which it gave rise, it will have been quite worth while for me to record them for your benefit.
You will see that I call the hero of my story a Veteran Eagle; but you must not on that account imagine him an old, decrepit bird, with drooping wings, subdued spirits, and an eye dimmed by age; for, on the contrary, he is still active, keen-sighted, and young,—as much the king of birds as ever. In fact, he is no more and no less a veteran than all our brave young officers and privates, who, though mere boys, have won the title of veterans by the experience they have had, and the service they have done in camps and on battle-fields; for you must know that the Wisconsin Eagle is a soldier, has served three years, been in fifteen battles, and done good service to his
country. But in telling you his story I must begin at the beginning, and omit no circumstance of his origin, birthplace, enlistment in the army, rank, equipment, &c. And this I am the better able to do, because, since I have been writing this account, a lady who learned my purpose has sent me a pamphlet containing a veritable history of this bird, which was circulated at the Chicago Fair,—an authority by which I shall verify or correct my facts, and from which I shall perhaps occasionally quote.*
He belonged to the Bald-Head, or more correctly the White-Headed family, a species who in some respects are all young veterans, inasmuch as, at three or four years old, their head-feathers, which were originally brown, have become snowy white, giving them a dignified and venerable appearance. Their other name of Bald-Head is derived from a spot between the beak and eyes, which is almost wholly destitute of feathers, so that the Bald Eagle, which is the emblem of America, assumes in his youth the honors which belong to a bald head and a hoary crown, although one would think he might afford to wait longer for them, as the eagle is a very long-lived bird, instances having been known of his living to be a hundred years old.
And so with the country of which the Bald-Head is the representative. Although America is a young nation, she has had so much experience, and has progressed so much faster than the nations of the Old World, that, if she could see herself in the mirror of history, she would appear with a fresh, ruddy face, and a strong frame, but a little wrinkled and bald about the temples, and with hair which care and anxiety have turned prematurely gray. But long life to her, and a high place among the nations! and if she too has become a veteran in her youth, may it be with her as with our eagle,—only the courage, strength, and wisdom which she has acquired on her many hard-fought fields that entitle her to the name.
But I must not fly away from my bird and his story. They are a fish-eating family by nature, these Bald-Heads, so it is not strange that many of their race should have taken up their abode in the neighborhood of our great lakes, where fish are abundant, and that our eaglet should have first seen the light somewhere in the region of Lake Superior. Here, when quite young, he was taken from the nest in Chippeway County, by a Chippeway Indian, in the month of July, 1861, and was sold to a farmer near by for a bushel of corn. This new owner says, that during the few weeks he kept the eagle he grew very fast and saucy, and that, whilst watching his belligerent freaks among his other domestic animals, the idea one day “struck him like a brick” that his eagle should go to the war. Acting on this idea, he took him to Eau Claire, and offered him for sale to Company C of the Eighth Wisconsin Volunteers.
This new companion in arms was not accepted without due consideration. His merits were well weighed. His eyes, claws, muscles, voice, all underwent examination; but the debate ended in his favor, and the new recruit, having thus passed muster, was finally purchased by a citizen of Eau Clair,
* “History of Old Abe, the Live War Eagle,” by Joseph C. Barret.
and presented to the company, who received him with acclamations, and installed him in his place.
This place was one of no little honor, being next in rank to that of the regimental flag. Indeed, during the three years that followed,—that is, to the end of the war,—it came to take precedence of the flag itself; for the eagle is our national emblem; and, with all honor to the tri-colored flag, the regiment soon came to look upon their eagle as a more perfect representative yet of everything for which they were fighting. So the royal bird became in some sense their leader; and I think it not improbable that “Rally round the Eagle, boys!” was one of their battle-cries.
Wherever Company C went, they were sure to be cheered and welcomed with peculiar enthusiasm. By the time they arrived at Madison, on their way to active service, the novel character of their presiding genius had excited universal interest, and already they and their eagle enjoyed a notoriety for which, thus far, the brave fellows were indebted to the eagle, rather than the eagle to them. That he was in full sympathy with his comrades and the cause in which they were engaged was evident form the beginning. When Company C, or the Eau Claire Badgers, as they were then called, marched into Camp Randall, where the Seventh and part of the Eighth Wisconsin regiments were already assembled, they and their eagle were received with an outburst of cheers; and the men, running to the entrance of the camp, defiled right and left while they passed in, the musicians playing Yankee Doodle. The eagle, who had hitherto looked on with majestic gravity, at this moment seemed inspired with the common enthusiasm, and, seizing in his beak one of the little flags attached to his perch, he spread and flapped his wings, and continued these demonstrations until borne to the Colonel’s quarters. It was a singular fact that he was always, during his continuance in the service, similarly affected by any cheering on the part of his own regiment, but quite indifferent to it when proceeding from other troops in his vicinity.
It was no wonder that the soldiers were proud of their eagle, and believed in him as a bird of good omen. The Eau Clair Badgers henceforward voted themselves the Eau Clair Eagles, and Eighth Wisconsin was soon known everywhere as the Eagle Regiment.
While at Madison, the eagle was honored by thousands of visitors of high and low degree. One of the officers had by this time bestowed on him the name of Old Abe,—a name dear to the country, and which well becomes the gallant veteran. He had also been sworn into the United States service,—a ceremony which consisted in putting around his neck ribbons of red, white, and blue, and decorating his breast with a rosette of the same colors. Being now a national bird, he was furnished at State expense with a new perch, consisting of a shaft about five feet long, surmounted by a shield in the form of a heart, on which the stars and stripes were painted, and above it a cross-piece on which the eagle sat. This perch, which was used throughout the war, and is worn and battered by service, is still preserved by the State as an army relic.
An eagle-bearer was regularly appointed, whose duty it was to superin-
tend and care for the bird, and carry him at the head of the company. This duty devolved on several of the boys in succession, and was one always eagerly sought and claimed. Company C was also the regimental color-company; and when the regiment formed in line the eagle was always ont he left of the color-bearer. He shared all the battles of the regiment, and was exposed to all their perils; and yet not only did he escape all injury, but not a color-bearer or eagle-bearer of the regiment—though both conspicuous marks—was ever shot down. Once or twice Old Abe was grazed by a bullet, or had a few tail-feathers shot away; but not a drop of his blood was ever shed in any engagement, and the soldiers were almost justified in the belief that he had a charmed life.
He was not foolhardy, however. I have it on official authority, that “at the battle of Farmington, May 9th, 1862, the men, being exposed to a galling fire, were ordered to lie down. The instant they did so, it was impossible to keep him on his perch. He insisted on being protected as well as they, and, when liberated, flattened himself on the ground, and there remained until the men arose, when with outspread wings he resumed his place of peril, and held it to the close of the contest.”
His courage, moreover, was as undoubted as his intelligence, and he was every inch a soldier. The colonel of the regiment testifies that “upon parade, after he had been a year in the service, he always gave heed to ‘Attention!’ With his head obliquely to the front, his right eye directly turned upon the parade-commander, he would listen and obey orders, noting time accurately. After parade had been dismissed and the ranks were being closed by the sergeants, he would lay aside his soldierly manner, flap his wings, and make himself generally at home.”
When the regiment was forming for battle, he and the colors were first upon the line. At such times he always seemed anxious and uneasy, and only assumed composure when they faced and were ready to march to the combat. But it was amid the smoke of battle that he was to be seen in his true glory. Then, with his pinions spread, he would jump up and down on his perch, and as the artillery volleyed forth its thunder he would mingle his voice with it in wild and fearful screams.*
Of course his enthusiasm inspired the whole brigade, who believed that he sounded the trump of victory, and who vowed that he should never be captured by the enemy. The bird who proved such an inspiration to the soldiers would naturally be greatly exposed to Rebel sharpshooters. At the battle of Corinth, the Rebel General Price, having discovered him, ordered
[*] Those of you who are familiar with Roman history will remember that the Emperors of Rome always had the figure of an eagle in silver or gilt borne aloft before their armies, and that their success in conquering neighboring nations was so great that victory was always said to follow wherever the Roman eagles led the way. But I think nothing could have been so emblematic of our war, and of the hopes that hung upon the contest, as a live eagle carried aloft as a regimental banner, and always reminding our soldiers that the hopes, the freedom, and the very life of this and future generations hung upon our success. The sight of the old flag waving above the fight gave strength and courage to our boys on many a gallant field; but their blood must have caught new fire, and their lips echoed the shout afresh, when they saw the living type of American liberty flapping his wings with zeal, and heard his shrill battle-cry triumphing above the fight.
his men to be sure and take him, if they could not kill him; adding, that he would rather get that bird than the entire brigade.
It would be too long a story were I to undertake to tell you all the journeyings, perils, battles, and sieges to which our eagle accompanied, or rather led, the Eighth Wisconsin. “Where,” says Mr. Barret, in his history of our bird, “did the Eagles not go in the Mississippi Valley?” They endured the dangers and toils of the Red River expedition; they stormed at Vicksburg; New Madrid and Island No. 10 were inscribed on their banners; nearly half their original number had found soldier’s graves; but it was their boast that their eagle never lost a battle. It is their glory now, that by heroism such as theirs the country itself is saved.
You may well believe, that, when at last their perils were over and their work well done, the Wisconsin Eagles had a triumphant welcome home. There was a public reception in Madison, and another in Eau Clair; there were bell-ringings, speeches, and salutes. Finally, the eagle, deservedly the chief object of notice to the crowd, was publicly presented to the Governor, and accepted on behalf of the State.
Thus the pet and pride of the regiment was transferred to civil authority, with an assurance from the Governor that he should be well and carefully provided for, and as safely kept as possible, as long as he lived.
He is supported now at public expense, in a resident appropriated to him, near the State Armory. Like any other honored veteran, he is always brought out and paraded on occasion of every public military exercise or review, and is sure to excite attention and enthusiasm. I am told that, even in his quiet home at Madison, this brave bird is much excited by the report of fire-arms, flapping his wings, shrieking, and otherwise manifesting his familiarity with their use.
When in the service, and subjected to the necessities of camp life, he had a soldierly indifference with regard to his diet, and, like many another chivalrous youth of good birth and breeding, was satisfied with the poorest fare. For some time he lived very contentedly upon rats, until finally he was bitten by one of these vermin, after which he would never accept any of the species as an article of food. Since returning to private life, he shows more aristocratic preferences, and, I am sorry to say, is a dainty fellow. Perhaps he thinks himself deserving of some compensation for his hardships, or is keeping up a perpetual thanksgiving for the country’s deliverance. At all events, his taste for delicate food is unmistakable, and, a grateful country being disposed to pamper him, he is fed chiefly upon live chickens.
I trust the majority of our soldiers do not claim similar compensation, and that the present scarcity of poultry is not owing to this cause. I would rather believe that our boys have had a wholesome discipline in hardships, and are more than satisfied with plain living and home fare, be it ever so homely; but we are an extravagant people by nature and habit, and I am afraid have all a lurking desire for chicken and tidbits, when they are to be had.
However the case may be in the matter of diet, I was, while listening to
the story of this bird, constantly detecting a similarity between his traits of character and those of the nation of which he is a worthy representative and type. For instance, Old Abe knows his keeper, and is gratefully attached to him, but is reserved towards strangers, sometimes even showing fight when they presume to take liberties with him, or trifle with his dignity. Thus, when he is disturbed from any cause, this keeper may stroke his ruffled feathers and soothe him by the process, but woe to any foreign or unfriendly hand that ventures to interfere. So I need hardly remind even the youngest among you how, in our time of war and difficulty, the American nation refused to be stroked into good-nature or submission by the rough hand of John Bull, or the dainty one of his French neighbor, that plausible Johnny Crapaud, but how peaceably the people bent their neck to the mild paternal hand of our good President Lincoln, the keeper and ruler whom we had tried and knew we could trust.
It is a fine trait of this Wisconsin Eagle, true bird of America, that he knows and loves every soldier who has fought in the great cause. I am told that he always flaps his wings at sight of a federal uniform, and claims the wearer for a friend; and long may it be before America forgets any of the loyal sons who have done her such good service, or fails to recognize their claims to her gratitude!
Nor did our eagle serve the county in the camp and the field alone. He has been an aid to the sick and the wounded, and as the men, women, and children of the nation exerted themselves heart and hand to furnish and provide for our hospitals, and keep the Sanitary Commission in funds, so this benevolent bird had hardly returned from the duties of his last campaign before he might be found engaged in earning money for the great Chicago Fair, adding no less than twenty thousand dollars to the profits of this charitable enterprise. This sum was realized partly by exhibiting himself to the crowd of visitors who were eager to make his acquaintance, and partly by the extensive sale of his photograph. The latter object was mainly accomplished through a sort of military organization,—boys and girls all over the land being invited to act as agents for obtaining purchasers, and printed commissions as officers in the Army of the American Eagle being served to all who had obtained a certain number of subscribers for the picture,—their military rank being proportioned to their success as salesmen. I have by me now a paper which commissions a boy of my neighborhood as a first lieutenant, and I dare say there are among the readers of the Young Folks officers of various grades to whom Old Abe and his portrait are no strangers.
Mr. Barnum of New York, who has an eye, you know, for natural curiosities and celebrities of every kind, has been very anxious to obtain possession of this eagle for the American Museum, and offered for his purchase as large a sum of money as had been raised through his means at the Chicago Fair; but you may well believe the Wisconsin people proudly refused his offer. As if they would part with such a trophy, or as if a price could be set on the Bird of Liberty! Why, even the stray feathers that he chances to shed are treasured up and prized; and my friend, who told us most of this story, is as proud
of his good fortune in possessing one quill and a few little brush feathers, as you or I should be of a bit of the wood of the good ship Cumberland, or a few hairs of the black horse that carried Sheridan on his famous ride.
In case you should like to know something of the personal appearance of Old Abe, I must not omit to tell you that he is a huge fellow, measuring six feet and a half from tip to tip of his spread wings, and his weight is ten and a half pounds. As I have mentioned before, he has a beautiful fringe of white feathers on his head and neck; his tail also is white, spotted with black; but the rest of his plumage is a fine chocolate, with a golden tinge. His legs are bright yellow, his talons black and hooked, and his eye—O, but you must see an eagle’s eye to know its piercing power! And perhaps you may have a chance, for there is a whisper in the air, hinting that at no distant day our feathered hero will make the tour of the New England States. In that case, we may all have an opportunity to pay our respects to him; and if my introduction of this national bird to your acquaintance has given him a title to your regard, I think you will all be as ready as I am to take off your hats to the veteran,—perhaps even to swing them in the air, and unite in giving three cheers for the Wisconsin Eagle.