Saturday, September 9, 2017

Old Abe the Eagle

The show of historical quilts now on display at the East Tennessee Historical Society
in Knoxville features Lillie Harvey's Knoxville Crazy Quilt with its image
of "Old Abe...dead & gone....Died in 1881."

It is an odd quilt, which seems to be an advertising medium.
"Old Abe is dead & gone---not so Dodd & Armistead's Drug Store &
they cut the prices right."

It would seem that Ms. Harvey is exploiting a patriotic image for financial gain. But who am I to judge?

Co-curator Merikay Waldvogel called my attention to this image of Old Abe several years ago.
What did it mean?

In the age of the internet, it's easy to find out. But ten years ago she had to work hard to discover that Old Abe was the mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the Union Army, nicknamed the "Eagle Regiment." The eagle was of course named for the President.

Old Abe and some of the Eagle Regiment
at Vicksburg in 1863

Once you realize that Old Abe is a captive bald eagle you start understanding the many references in the last half of the 19th century.  Photos were sold to benefit the Sanitary Commission towards the end of the war so many CDV illustrations survive.

Towards the end of the Civil War cards sold for
 15 cents to benefit the Sanitary Commission.
(Today I'd ask what percentage actually went to the Commission.)

The bird looks barely a fledgling in
this early cased photo. There is some question as
to Abe's gender---adult female bald eagles also have white heads.

Having had captive birds for a short time, I know that
the shield-shaped platform served several purposes.
I do not believe one can house break an eagle.

The eagle is often shown perched on the shield, an image not
often seen earlier than the Civil War.

A youthful Abe

Old Abe was an icon of pop culture in late Victorian America; a high point was his/her presence at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia
(or perhaps a low point if you are a captive bird.)

Stereocard sold at the Centennial Exhibition in 1876

Abe either was wounded twice or "didn't receive a scratch."
The stories vary in nearly every aspect.

Crystal bowl with Abe in the lid.

Old Abe provided much inspiration to artists, commercial and amateur. In 1888 Mary Webb took a "prize at the centennial exhibition at Columbus [Ohio] on 'Old Abe,' the war-eagle, a magnificent piece of silk embroidery."

Is that Old Abe with Miss Liberty?

The Rail Splitter antique shop
has this watercolor for sale. The script includes the following:
"On the twenty sixth day of March 1881, the old soldier eagle with a few of his old friends around him died in the arms of his keeper, George Gillies. This picture was done by mother Beth Wands who saw the old soldier bird many times when he was alive, has visited the place Eagle Point, where he was taken from the nest. "
 George Sutherland with a replica of Old Abe, about 1900.
This Wisconsin veteran provided patriotic entertainment
at reunions.

It's hard to know if a photo is Abe, his/her stuffed carcas
or a "replica."

The War Eagle must have had a great influence on patriotic imagery....

...Shaping iconography into other wars. I'd guess this embroidered
picture from about 1900 is an Asian export, 
perhaps framing an American soldier from
the Spanish-American War.

I have never seen another quilt with a captioned portrait of  Old Abe.

Quilt in the collection of the Clarke County Museum, 
Eureka, California

Although this flag quilt made as a gift for General Grant in 1864, which I showed in last week's post,
features the bird on a shield image.

The Burdick-Childs pictorial quilt in the collection of the Shelburne
Museum has a block with a familiar bird in the air.

You just have to know Old Abe to recognize the old bird.

For more information about Stories in Stitches: Quilts from the East Tennessee Historical Society Collection in Knoxville click here:

Co-curator Merikay Waldvogel will entertain you with a presentation on Lillie Harvey's Knoxville Crazy Quilt at the bottom of the page.

Read more about Old Abe him/herself in this book:
Old Abe the War Eagle: A True Story of the Civil War And Reconstruction by Richard Zeitlin.

UPDATE: See the comments for more.

And Merikay sent a note with another Old Abe possibility On the USS Constitution Quilt, a pictorial quilt with the ship in the center. See a picture in Robert Hughes's American Quilts: The Democratic Art, page 133 in the second edition.

Looking at the first edition, I see a possible Old Abe in Catherine Cox Williams's 1873 pictorial quilt in the Shelburne Collection.


Suzanne A said...

What a delightful and informative post!

Mary Says Sew! said...

War Eagle is also the name of a Dakota leader who worked in the fur trade and negotiated treaties with the United States in the first half of the 19th Century. He and several of his family members are buried in War Eagle Park in Sioux City, Iowa. A memorial statue is there, too.

Unknown said...

Very interesting story. I was not aware of any Civil War units with mascots. As a transplant to Florida and living near Alabama, I wonder if the "War Eagle" saying from Auburn University has any connection to this original War Eagle. Polly Blank

Cindy Brick said...

Barbara, so you didn't grow up on a farm?? You didn't know Old Abe's connection with the J.I. Case Implement Company? My uncle owned a Case dealership in Sparta, dad was not only a farmer, but ran the dealership's service repair department for decades. Every year for quite some time, Uncle would sponsor a Saturday pancake breakfast for all the farmers to see the newest models. My mom would cook, and we kids would be harnessed into clearing tables and setting out maple syrup. And in the background, back in the shadows, would be standing a huge model of an eagle perched on a globe. Old Abe.
The eagle stopped being used in the late Sixties, but until then was an integral part of the Case brand. See more here:

Case's founder originally did it to drum up patriotism about the Case brand, I would guess. And the eagle kept his connection to Wisconsin. (Case's headquarters were in Racine; my dad used to go there regularly for training.)
Old standing models of Old Abe still go for big bucks. Although the Case company no longer exists (it was absorbed into CNH Global in the Nineties - see ), I still have fond memories of the logo -- and Old Abe.

Jean said...

Living in northwestern Wisconsin, Old Abe was well known. One of the high schools in Eau Claire, Wisconsin is known as the Old Abe's. There are displays in the area museum about the eagle. Thanks for sharing this story and quilt.

Barbara Brackman said...

Thanks for all the comments you Wisconsin farm girls you. (And Suzanne).