Settling The Controversy Around Civil War Icon Old Abe

By Erika Janik | August 10, 2016


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One of the most well-known figures in Civil War Wisconsin wasn’t a person at all, but a bald eagle named Old Abe. Despite the name and the bird’s fame, though, the eagle’s gender has been in question for more than a century. That is until the Wisconsin Veterans Museum decided to settle the question once and for all. 

Old Abe was the bald eagle mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. Named after President Lincoln, Old Abe was present at more than thirty battles and became a celebrity after the war, appearing in parades and rallies until the bird’s death in 1881.

Animal mascots weren’t unusual for soldiers. Animals helped raise morale and provided a distraction from the horrors of war. 

Widely assumed to be male, Old Abe’s story took a turn in 1889 when suffragette Lillie Devereux Blake asserted that Old Abe had laid eggs. The famous war eagle, said Blake, was actually female. True, it’s only a bird but her claim enraged veterans and launched a heated debate about the icon that continued for decades.

“In their minds, her attacks on this symbol of masculinity and patriotism and victory over the rebellious south was a great affront,” explains Michael Telzrow, director of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. “This was a big deal.”

So in early 2016, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum decided to see if they could settle the debate. Working with members of the UW-Madison Molecular Archeology Group, they collected samples from four of Old Abe’s feathers. The scientists weren’t sure the tests would yield any conclusive results with such old feathers but the three-month process yielded conclusive results: Old Abe is, indeed, male.


Erika Janik

Erika Janik

Erika Janik is the co-creator and former executive director of Wisconsin Life. She is the author of six books, including Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction, Apple: A Global History, and  Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine. She’s currently the executive...

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