In the early spring of 1861, a young leader of the Lac du Flambeau band of Ojibwe Indians spotted an eagle's nest high in a tree. Ahgamahwegezhig — Chief Big Sky, as he was known to white settlers — decided to capture and tame an eaglet.
The eagle he caught that spring became one of the most famous birds in the United States: Old Abe, the war eagle.
Old Abe became the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, which fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the western theater during the Civil War, including Vicksburg.
Named to honor Abraham Lincoln, Old Abe was carried into battle on a specially made wooden perch held in a harness similar to ones used for flag carrying.
Troops from other regiments eagerly visited Old Abe in camp, and he boosted morale throughout the Union ranks.
Consequently, one Confederate general declared, "I would rather get that eagle than capture a whole brigade or a dozen battle flags."
Fantastic stories circulated of Old Abe flying fiercely overhead during battles, dropping rocks on the top of Confederate soldiers or stealing their hats. The eagle's handlers dismissed such stories. But they said he did screech and flap his wings as they marched into battle, unfazed by the roar of gunfire.
After the war, Old Abe was a national hero, living in the Wisconsin State Capitol building, making nationwide tours to raise money for Union veterans, and helping to celebrate the nation's 100th birthday.
He died in 1881, a month after fumes from a fire in the Capitol sickened the 20-year-old bird.
Like most Wisconsinites of my generation, I learned something about Old Abe in school. I reconnected with his story last month when Judy and I were visiting Wisconsin and took a hike on the Old Abe State Trail near Chippewa Falls.
We passed Old Abe Lake on our travels and saw the eagle's image on a sign welcoming visitors to Jim Falls, just north of Chippewa Falls.
Ahgamahwegezhig captured Old Abe near the Flambeau River about 100 miles north of Chippewa Falls. As an old man in 1914, he described the capture to a local newspaper:
"I tried several times to climb to the aerie," he said. "The work was hard and the parent birds fought stubbornly."
He was unable to reach the nest, so Ahgamahwegezhig used an axe to chop down the tree, even though other members of his band laughed at him and his father "was not pleased."
When the tree came down, the adult eagles flew at Ahgamahwegezhig "trying to beat me off with their sharp talons." But he drove them away and found two eaglets. One had been killed when the tree collapsed, but the other survived.
The young man took the eaglet to his camp, where women and children fed it "bits of meats and scraps from the camp kettle."
Later, Ahgamahwegezhig took the eagle by canoe down river to Jim Falls. A month after capturing him, he traded the eagle to farmer Daniel McCann for a bushel of corn.
McCann kept the eagle until August, when he sold him to a newly formed militia company called the "Eau Claire Badgers," which soon renamed itself the "Eau Claire Eagles."
The unit moved to Madison, Wisconsin, for training and became Company C of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. While in Madison, the eagle was christened Old Abe.
The eagle was involved in 37 battles and skirmishes, from Nashville to Vicksburg.
By 1864, Sgt. Maj. George Driggs of the 8th Wisconsin reported that Old Abe had grown "from a little, unfledged gosling to a full feathered magnificent bird."
Driggs also said Abe had discovered how to release himself from his tether "by using his claws and beak to sunder the tie which bound him to so narrow and contracted a sphere."
That occasionally delayed troop movements: "Once when the regiment was in line, ready to march at the signal, they were detained a whole hour by his escape, (Old Abe) making several wide circuits over the gaping crowd and alighting in a distant tree-top."
Despite his occasional escapes, Old Abe did not stray far from his unit. While camped for two months in Clear Creek, Mississippi, Old Abe had "the time of his life," said David McLain, one of five soldiers who served as eagle bearer during Old Abe's Army service.
"He was given complete liberty" to roam the camp, McLain said. "He would go all through the brigade but would come home to Company C in the evening and fly onto his perch."
Feeding the bird was sometimes difficult, since he was "very particular about what he ate," McLain reported. "We fed him principally fresh beef when we could get it. Sometimes some of the boys would catch a rabbit or squirrel," which they fed live to Old Abe. He also liked chickens and ducks, and "was very fond of minnows."
McLain carried Old Abe when the 8th Infantry went into battle near Corinth, Mississippi, in September, 1862, a bloody fight in which Company C lost half of its men.
The Rebels charged twice but were pushed back each time. "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," McLain said. "I was right after him, caught him, tied the cord and set him on his perch again."
There was no heroic flight over the battlefield, as some newspapers reported.
However, during the fight, Old Abe was shot through one wing and McLain's shirt and pants received bullet holes. "In both cases, happily, no blood was drawn," he added.
Old Abe was mustered out of the Army in late summer, 1864, along with most of his comrades in the 8th Wisconsin. That September, 70 veterans of his regiment marched to the state Capitol and officially presented Old Abe to the governor.
During the 17 years he lived at the Capitol, Old Abe was visited by many schoolchildren and adults, and he achieved something like rock-star status when he went on the road.
After his death, Old Abe's body was displayed in the Capitol until 1904, when another fire destroyed the display. Only a few of Old Abe's feathers remained.
Those feathers proved important in 2016, when the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and researchers from the University of Wisconsin sought to answer an old question: Was Old Abe male or female?
DNA tests of his feathers showed he was definitely male.
In addition to the numerous place names in Wisconsin that honor the eagle, Old Abe's likeness has been the shoulder-patch insignia of the Army's 101st Airborne Division since 1921.
Sources: "The Story of Old Abe," by David McLain, The Wisconsin Magazine of History, June, 1925; "Two Years Campaigning in the Southwest," by Sgt. Maj. George Driggs; "The Story of 'Old Abe,' famous Wisconsin war eagle on 101st Airborne patch," by Capt. James A. Page, November, 2012, www.army.mil; historic newspaper articles available through the Wisconsin Historical Society, www.wisconsinhistory.org; "Famed bald eagle mascot 'Old Abe' confirmed as male," Wisconsin Veterans Museum, July 2016.
Bob Silbernagel's email is email@example.com.