The eagle perched atop The Shaft was a depiction of Old Abe—“the most famous eagle that ever wore feathers,” according to the Wisconsin Electronic Reader. Old Abe was a real bird—a female bald eagle—and the Civil War mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the “Eagle Regiment.” She is also depicted on the insignia of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division.
Old Abe was captured in 1861 by Native Americans, who traded her to a local Wisconsin farmer for a bushel of corn. The 8th Regiment purchased the eagle for $2.50, named her after President Lincoln, and built a special perch upon which its members carried her into battle.
Old Abe appeared in many battles of the Civil War and was legendary for screaming and spreading her wings at the Confederate troops. Numerous attempts were made to capture her, but none succeeded, although she lost feathers on several occasions when her handlers were shot out from beneath her.
After the war, Old Abe lived in a special room in the basement of the Wisconsin State Capitol. For many years, the famous bird was in great demand for public appearances, especially for dedications of war memorials. In 1881, a fire broke out near her room, and Old Abe died of smoke inhalation several weeks later. The bird was preserved and placed in a glass display case in the Capitol as a final tribute.
A full account of Old Abe’s capture, enlistment and exploits during and after the war appeared in Frank Abial Flower’s Old Abe the Eighth Wisconsin War Eagle. The following excerpt from that 1885 account describes Abe’s appearance at the memorial dedication in Peoria:
“The next public appearance of our plumaged warrior was at Peoria, Ill., on October 11, 1866, whither he went with Capt. A. G. Weissert and Capt. A. R. McDonald, state armorer, to dedicate a soldiers' monument.
“Forty thousand people, a large portion of them veteran soldiers, were present, and greeted Abe with shouts and huzzas. The great speeches were by Gen. John A. Logan, the Black Eagle of Illinois, Col. Robert G. Ingersoll and Gen. Benjamin F. Butler. Abe was perched near them on the grand stand, where he cheered with the crowd and in every way added spirit to the occasion.”
The Wisconsin 8th Infantry Eagle Regiment with Old Abe at Vicksburg in July 1863
When The Shaft was dismantled in 1962, the stone likeness of “Old Abe” which topped the monument fell apart from environmental deterioration when it was lowered to the ground. Old Abe has been absent from Peoria ever since… until August of 2018.
The Peoria Riverfront Museum, using a digital file provided by The Shaft Restoration Committee, used its 3D printer to create a physical copy of Old Abe for display inside the museum. The same digital file will be used to recreate a full-sized replacement of Old Abe for the restored 1866 monument.
The replacement will be produced by the Bybee Stone Company of Ellettsville, Indiana (their motto: "Builders of American History"), the successors of the original company from 1866 that produced The Shaft 152 years ago—using stone from the same quarry! The restored monument will be located at Springdale Cemetery, the proposed site for its original location back in 1866. PS
Visit restoretheshaft.org to learn more about The Shaft Restoration project—and read Norm Kelly’s article, “A Chronicle of the 1866 Shaft,” in the September 2018 issue of iBi for more information on The Shaft and this project.