At the end of the Civil War, Wisconsin welcomed home nearly 80,000 veterans, many of whom held fond memories of Old Abe, the live War Eagle who had served as a mascot for the Eighth Volunteer Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. These veterans were a sizable portion of Wisconsin’s voting population and played a crucial role in electing Governor Lucius Fairchild in 1866. Fairchild himself was a veteran who had lost an arm at Gettysburg, and, like other Republican politicians of the time, frequently evoked images of Northern sacrifice and Southern disloyalty to garner veteran support.
One of Fairchild’s most effective efforts to secure the veteran vote was his role in organizing the Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR. One of many fraternal veterans’ organizations, by 1880 the GAR was a leading force in mobilizing veterans nationwide to support the Republican Party. The GAR was especially successful in Wisconsin: From 1860 to 1933, Republicans controlled the statehouse for all but two elections.
Old Abe the War Eagle, arguably one of Wisconsin’s most famous Civil War veterans, was instrumental in the GAR’s success. Abe toured around the country after the war, entertaining veterans and evoking pride in the nation, and, importantly, the Republican Party. Old Abe became a living expression of late-nineteenth century attempts to exploit the horrors of the Civil War for political gain.
Though the GAR used Old Abe to cultivate support for the Republican Party, the GAR was not solely a political organization. Guided by a mission of “Fraternity, Charity, Loyalty,” the group also supported charities, lobbied for veterans’ interests (including pensions), promoted patriotism, and provided a place of brotherhood and belonging for veterans.
Because the Grand Army of the Republic played such an important role in the lives of Wisconsin veterans, many mourned the loss of its museum in the Wisconsin Capitol during the fire of 1904. Countless GAR artifacts, along with other Civil War relics, burned. When Wisconsin’s current Capitol was rebuilt, however, one particular relic of the GAR’s legacy was restored. A replica of the original taxidermic Old Abe lost in the fire sits perched at the front of the Wisconsin Assembly chamber. Placed there when the Republican Party of the early 20th century was at its most influential, Old Abe likely served as a reminder of the Civil War and of Republican allegiance. Though the Civil War is long past, Old Abe still watches over Wisconsin’s legislators.
Object story created March 2017
- McCrory, Thomas J. Grand Army of the Republic: Department of Wisconsin. Black Earth, WI: Trails Books, 2005.
- Zeitlin, Richard H. Old Abe the War Eagle: A True Story of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1986.