Much of the information for the below comes from a story of the same title written by Marguerite Cottingham Dodge in 1930.
James Walden Lawton was born in 1860 in Wisconsin, a son of Isaac and Jane Lawton, formerly of Cattaraugus County in New York State. In 1883 he married Sarah Elizabeth born in 1864, daughter of Karl and Christina Saubert. Sarah had an older half-sister named Kathryn Saubert, born in 1842, who married Joshua Groves born in 1840. Josh Groves was one of the handlers of "Old Abe."
During the winter that began in 1860 the Flambeau Band of Chippewa Indians had excellent trapping results, and in the spring of '61 were on their way to sell their bounty to the white buyers. One evening while camped at the confluence of the Jump and Chippewa Rivers, an eagle's nest was spotted in the top of a tall tree. Ski, the son of Chief Thunder Eyes, shot the grown eagle from atop a nearby tree. He then commanded a young warrior to bring down the eaglets from the nesting tree. The Band continued on their way and camped next at Jim Falls, where lived a crippled white settler named McCan. The Flambeaus, after a long winter, were short on rations, and so were persuaded to turn over one of the eaglets for a sack of corn.
Later in the year McCan, hearing of Abraham Lincoln's call for volunteers, brought the partially grown eaglet to Eau Claire, a small saw mill town, where Company C of the Eighth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment was forming. The men paid McCan's $2.80 hotel bill and thus the eagle became the Regiment mascot. Captain John Perkins named him Old Abe, and turned him over to James McGinnis the first Eagle-bearer in American history. He marched to the left of the flag bearer at the head of what came to be known as the Eagle Regiment.
While marching across Wisconsin, while stopped in LaCrosse, Captain Perkins was offered $200 for the eagle, but flatly turned it down with the statement the eagle couldn't be bought for any amount of money. From LaCrosse, Company C went on to Fort Randall where they passed the gate between rows of spectators. Here Old Abe caught a corner of the flag in his beak, and held on until they reached Colonel Murphy's headquarters.
On October 12, 1861 the Regiment under Colonel Murphy left Camp Randall. They arrived in Chicago and marched through the city with Old Abe beside the Stars and Stripes. Much enthusiasm was generated as Governor Randall led the marching troops. On October 14th the Regiment arrived in St Louis, where Old Abe broke his tether, flew over the crowd and soared to a rooftop. He was recaptured and returned to his Regiment, with an offer of $500 for him, but once more was told the bird was not for sale at any price.
On October 21, 1861 Old Abe saw his first battle. This was at Fredericksburg, Missouri. He was chained to the courthouse roof during the battle. All during the shouting, shooting, and shrieks of the wounded, Abe, wild with excitement, leapt, gnawed, and screeched, not calming until the battle was over.
When full grown he weighed 10 ½ pounds and had a wingspan of about 6 ½ feet. Carrying the eagle was no easy task, and McGinnis lasted but through one battle, as did most others of his bearers. It was said at the time that Old Abe changed bearers more often than did the soldiers their socks.
It was May 9th 1862, at Farmington, Mississippi; when a single brigade of Union men met General Beauregard with 2,500 Confederate soldiers. The Eagle Regiment, along side the Illinois 26th were sent to take the woods. Up rose the foe, but the two regiments held for a half-hour under intense fire. Anxious for the safety of Old Abe, Captain Perkins ordered Abe and his keeper to remain well to the rear. As the Confederate troops passed on, the Union men were ordered to lie down behind a knoll. The keeper laid the perch on the ground and crouched low with the rest of the men. Old Abe seemed to sense the danger, and crept to his keeper's side, remaining there until the bugle called for advance. He then flew to his upright perch and remained there until the battle ended. Captain Perkins was mortally wounded in that battle, and was succeeded by Lieutenant Victor Wolf, but Old Abe merely watched it all.
The men went into quarters at Clear Creek, where Old Abe was allowed to run at large, catching bugs in water puddles, fishing in the creek, running after thrown balls, and tearing up the soldiers clothes. A soldier on kitchen detail killed some chickens and left them out for a few minutes. Old Abe saw his opportunity, seized one, and flew to a treetop. The cook was furious, but could do nothing while Old Abe leisurely ate his meal. Abe loved the water and swam with the men in the creek. While doing that on one occasion a young Negro boy splashed water at him. Abe chased the lad from the camp, and forever after disliked colored people. He disliked dogs. If one appeared, there was an immediate cataclysm of yelps, barks, and flying fur.
On October 3, 1862 Rosecrans readied his troops to meet Confederate troops under General Price. Price, having heard of the mighty eagle, gave his orders to capture it with the words; "I'd rather capture that eagle than the whole brigade." They failed to do either. During the conflict Old Abe once more gave a mighty leap, broke his tether, and soared aloft above the battle. A hail of bullets buzzed around him, but he continued to survey the scene from high above. He ultimately spied his own Regimental Flag and settled near it. He had been slightly wounded, but fully recovered.
On the seventh of May of 1863, General Grant inspected the regiment. When he passed by, he tipped his hat to Old Abe, which caused the men to cheer wildly. The eagle responded with a shrill scream of his own and a quick flapping of his wings, which brought extreme delight to the General.
About two weeks later the Eagle Regiment was on the right of an attacking force at Vicksburg, Mississippi, under the command of General Sherman. Gunboats opened the fray with a tremendous bombardment. Old Abe led the troops into battle. He was struck twice, once in the chest, and again in the left wing. An artillery round tore the flag to shreds beside him, and killed a dozen men. Old Abe and his handler were knocked to the ground where the handler remained dazed and motionless. Old Abe uttered a tremendous scream; beat his wings so powerfully he dragged the handler forward several yards just as a second round hit the very spot where they had been.
On July 4, 1863, Abe rode proudly into Vicksburg where Grant and Pemberton were settling the terms of surrender. The seriously depleted Union forces were badly in need of replacements so Old Abe, and Company C, were sent north on a recruiting mission. The remnants of Company C were a ragged group with scars on their uniforms as well as their faces. Battle flags were tattered and worn, but crowds cheered the majestic eagle everywhere. At Eau Claire, Old Abe was guest of honor at what was probably the only banquet for a bird, ever.
Again he went south, into his last battle. Company C was ordered to Hurricane Creek, Louisiana. Flanked by cavalry to either side, the Eagle Regiment marched down the middle. Both sides heard his screeches of defiance over the roar of cannon, and other sounds of battle. On September 16, 1864 the ragged remaining 26 members of Company C were ordered home for good.
They stopped in Madison and presented Governor Lewis for the State of Wisconsin, the most famous bird in Americanhistory. Quarters were provided for him in the Capitol basement. L. W. Volk, a sculptor, made his likeness in marble. Many noted artists painted his picture, and some hang on the walls of the State Capitol building. He was often shown at fairs and reunions over the next seventeen years that he resided there. P. T. Barnum offered $20,000 for him, which was, of course, refused. Records show Old Abe being in actual battle for 80 days not counting numerous small skirmishes.
In February 1881 a fire broke out in his room. He gave the alarm with several shrill screams, and was releasedto a corridor. Apparently though the smoke gassed him, as he died a month later, among a group of sorrowing soldiers who stood by him at the end. After thoughts of giving him a military funeral, it was decided to use the talents of a taxidermist instead. He remained a historical figure in the Capitol museum for a further 23 years. On February 27, 1904 the Capitol burned along with Old Abe's remains. So passed maybe the most famous bird in history, the eagle that led an army to victory.