Old Abe the War Eagle: Post-War


 Autographed carte-de-visite of Old Abe
Autographed carte-de-visite of Old Abe. The eagle autographed these by using his beak to make a triangular hole in the face of the card. (Old Abe Collection)
In September 1864, the state of Wisconsin took possession of Old Abe and reclassified him as a “War Relic.” A newly created “Eagle Department” in the Capitol building included a caretaker, two room “apartment,” and custom bathtub for Old Abe.1

Old Abe became a nationally-known celebrity with individuals and organizations from around the state and country requesting his presence at their events. The majority of these events were either reunions of Civil War veterans or fundraisers for various charities, though he did attend larger events like the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876. Some of the charities Old Abe "supported" included the Soldiers' Home Fair, Soldier's Orphan's Home, Harvey Hospital, and the Ladies Aid Society of Chippewa Falls. He also made many appearances at events for Wisconsin Republican candidates, who held control of the state political scene following the Civil War. As happened during the Civil War, offers to purchase Old Abe continued after the war. While at the Northwest Sanitary Fair in Illinois in 1865, a wealthy individual offered $10,000 and P. T. Barnum, the famous circus showman, offered $20,000.

In March 1866, a roommate joined Old Abe in "The Eagle Department." The Forty-Ninth Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, during its seven months of service in the war, acquired a golden eagle named Timothy, whose name was later changed to Phil Sheridan, and finally to Andy Johnson. He joined Old Abe in the Capitol, though he was not tame and did not attend any public appearances. In fact, the two eagles became bitter rivals and fought on numerous occasions, with Andy Johnson wounding Old Abe at least once. Late in 1873, Old Abe attacked Andy Johnson, catching him off-guard, and sinking his talons deep into the neck of his rival. Andy Johnson died the following spring, due in part to the wounds Old Abe inflicted. Ironically, Andy Johnson was taxidermied and later occupied a place alongside Old Abe in G.A.R. Memorial Hall.

A small fire broke out in the basement of the Capitol in February 1881 and, after Old Abe raised an alarm, the fire was put out quickly. However, the eagle inhaled a large amount of thick black smoke, which had an immediate negative impact on his health. About a month later, on March 20, 1881, Old Abe began refusing food. He visibly lost strength and continued to decline in spite of the care and attention of numerous doctors. On March 25, he began experiencing spasms and the next day, March 26 1881, Old Abe died in the arms of his final caretaker, George Gilles.

Following his death, veterans from all over Wisconsin volunteered to serve as pallbearers at Old Abe’s funeral. A debate also arose over the ultimate disposition of his remains. Many championed Union Rest at Madison’s Forest Hill Cemetery as the appropriate location for burial. Even after Governor William E. Smith decided on taxidermy to allow future generations to see the legendary bird, debate continued over where the mounted eagle should be displayed. Smith ultimately chose the Capitol building and placed Old Abe’s remains on display in a glass case located in the rotunda on September 17, 1881. Interestingly, many visitors commented that the rendering lacked a life-like appearance.

 Portrait of Angus McDonald
Portrait of Angus McDonald.
(Angus McDonald Collection, WVM Mss 9)
Just four years later, Old Abe was moved from the rotunda to the G.A.R. Memorial Hall, also located in the Capitol. In 1900, his remains were transferred to the new State Historical Society of Wisconsin building on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. However, pressure from veterans convinced Governor Robert M. Lafollette to return Old Abe to the Capitol building in 1903. During a visit that same year, President Theodore Roosevelt stopped at the Hall to view Old Abe’s remains and expressed his pleasure at being able to view the eagle he had studied in school as a child. Tragically, less than one year after this last move, Old Abe’s remains and glass case were destroyed in a 1904 fire that also razed the entire Capitol building.2
Below are the names of the men who cared for Old Abe in the “Eagle Department” of the Capitol following the war, with military unit of service if applicable.3

 

1. John McFarland

2. Angus R. McDonald

3. John G. Stock

4. E.G. Linderman

5. William J. Jones

6. George W. Baker

7. I.E. Troan

8. John F. Hill

9. Peter B. Field

10. Mark Smith

11. George Gilles

State Armorer

State Armorer, Eleventh Wisconsin Infantry

State Armorer, Fourth Wisconsin Cavalry

State Armorer, Fifth Wisconsin Infantry

Sixteenth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry

Nineteenth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry

Civilian

Eighth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry

Civilian

Seventh Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry

Second Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry

The Wisconsin Veterans Museum is an educational activity of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs.