During the Civil War, soldiers serving in the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment adopted a bald eagle as their mascot.
Old Abe, as he was known, sat upon a perch and accompanied his men into battle. While he saw some close calls — and even lost a few feathers — he never shed any blood.
The bird was so well-known during the war that Confederate General Sterling Price placed a bounty on Old Abe to try to motivate his soldiers to capture him, dead or alive.
However, the famous eagle survived the war, attending many commemorations, reunions and celebrations until 1881, when he died of smoke inhalation as a result of a fire in the Wisconsin State Capitol.
Old Abe is one of many cherished mascots featured in the Wisconsin Veterans Museum’s “Marching Across the State” traveling exhibit, “Fur, Feathers and Fidelity: Military Mascots.”
The display highlights animal mascots — lions, monkeys, dogs, roosters and more — dating back to the Civil War and their important service in the military as a source of pride and morale booster for troops. The exhibit aims to shine a light on the human side of military service and engage animal lovers of all ages.
“I do think our fascination with animals is why this display is so popular,” said Gregory Krueger, Curator of Exhibits at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. “That, and soldiers welcome little pieces of home when they are away on deployment … so I think they seek out animal companionship if they have a pet at home or had one as a child.”
Along with providing a sense of home, military mascots provide stress relief, a distraction and sometimes, a reminder that compassion still exists in the world. While many mascots tagged along from home, others were adopted after being left homeless by war.
In its fourth year, “Fur, Feathers and Fidelity” has proven to be very popular with those who view it, according to Krueger. It has traversed the state, with its primary hosts being libraries and historical societies.
“The museum was interested in developing displays like this to travel around the state and reach areas that we typically do not reach with traditional, walk-in visits,” he said. “For this display, we wanted to offer something light-hearted and suitable for any audience. Wisconsin has an interesting history of adopting animals within their military units.”
All images within the display were taken from the Wisconsin Veterans Museum’s collection. Funding for the display was provided by the museum and the Wisconsin Humanities Council.
In an indoor, pop-up banner format suitable for most venues, the display will continue to travel throughout the state through July 2019 and currently is available to local organizations after Nov. 30. For more information, visit www.wisvetsmuseum.com/exhibition/military-mascots-and-military-life-beyond-combat.
“Fur, Feathers and Fidelity” is one of many traveling exhibits offered through the Wisconsin Veterans Museum — an educational activity of the state Department of Veterans Affairs — that help bring the photographs, artwork, stories and sacrifices of Wisconsin veterans to life.
The exhibit program includes a variety of offerings suitable for diverse venues. There is no cost, except for the shipping of the exhibit. For details, visit www.wisvetsmuseum.com/exhibits/traveling-exhibits.