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Louisiana Zouaves, 1861

A bewildering variety of uniforms appeared on the backs of soldiers reporting for duty in 1861. Unprepared for the tremendous influx, the Union Quartermaster Department could not clothe all volunteers. The newly created Confederate government was even more helpless.

Individual states came to the rescue. As companies were raised for service within their boundaries, state governments procured and issued handsome uniforms that dazzled the belles of Washington and Richmond when the war was young.

Standardization did not then exist. Northern troops wore clothes displaying a wide variety of color and cut. Men from Wisconsin often came in cadet gray. Certain Vermonters wore gray trimmed in emerald green. New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania favored blue.

Southern soldiers made much the same appearance. Gray, blue, and brown uniforms came from Georgia and the Carolinas. The Kentucky Rifles reached the scene in fringed buckskin.

Many units turned to the colorful European armies for inspiration. There was a rash of Zouaves in North and South, wearing uniforms patterned after the famed French Algerian units. The Zouave craze started before the war as Elmer Ellsworth raised a militia unit in Chicago during 1860, dressed it in the French manner, and sent it touring the country to give fancy drill exhibitions.

Ellsworth's Zouaves became famous and their baggy trousers, red sashes, and distinctive headgear were known far and wide. When war broke out, Ellsworth became a colonel and brought his men into service as the 11th New York Volunteers, or Fire Zouaves. Additional Zouave units soon blossomed above and below the Mason-Dixon line. Many were content to copy Ellsworth's uniforms. A few learned the complicated Zouave drills, as well.

Other organizations became equally picturesque. Highlanders appeared in plaid "trews," leaving their kilts at home. The Garibaldi Guard dressed in imitation of the Italian Bersaglieri. There were Chasseurs, Blenker's Germans, and an outfit christened Les Enfants Perdu. The Brooklyn Phalanx, Sixth Pennsylvania Lancers, and Zagonyi Rifles of the North were to challenge, on the field of battle, such Southern units as the Louisiana Tigers, Tennessee Sharpshooters, Black Horse Cavalry, and the Hampton Legion.

High-spirited companies in glamorous clothes gladdened the public eye and appeared regularly in the illustrated papers. They were in the minority. Many fighting men arrived in their own clothes, to be outfitted when uniforms were available. If this was impossible, they would fight in everyday dress.

By 1863, the Union had a standardized blue uniform. Issued to each infantry soldier, were a cap, blouse, overcoat, dress coat, trousers, shirts, drawers, socks, and shoes. Equipment included a shelter half (two of these buttoned together would make a pup tent for two men), woolen blanket, rubber blanket, knapsack, haversack for food and canteen. Cavalrymen and artillerymen received somewhat similar issue, but were given boots instead of shoes.

The Confederacy attempted somewhat the same procedure but severe shortages hampered their quartermasters. Clothes and equipment were passed out when received; when this was exhausted, soldiers made do on their own. Confederate gray cloth was soon used up and homespun material, dyed a butternut brown, took its place. Rebel soldiers, who had been "Johnnies" and "graybacks" to the Yankees, became "butternuts" late in the war.

Hot weather and heavy marching taught troops to eliminate equipment in a hurry. Dress coats and overcoats disappeared. Knapsacks were often discarded and possessions carried in blanket rolls that could be slung over the shoulder. Sometimes the haversack was thrown away and the knapsack retained, or the canteen disposed of in favor of a tin cup. Cooking and eating utensils of the simplest kind accompanied each man.

Veteran Union troops, pared his equipment to a minimum, the battered coffeepot probably the most valuable of what remained. Confederate veterans traveled even lighter. A hat, shirt, trousers, and shoes made up their clothing; a knife and a tin cup their cooking gear; a blanket or two their shelter.

Under the stress of travel and combat, the white belts of the 7th New York and the trim blouses of the Hampton Legion went into oblivion. In the field, troops lacked distinction. Because this could cause confusion, corps badges came into being among Northern troops, reputedly at the instigation of Major General Philip Kearny.

In March, 1863, General Joseph Hooker ordered the badges to be worn by members of the Army of the Potomac, and the custom soon spread. Each corps had a patch of distinctive shape, and differences in color indicated divisions within the corps. The blazes were worn on the cap.

Pets accompanied every army. Dogs were common; raccoons, turtles, and owls more exotic. Perhaps the best-known pet was "Old Abe," the bald eagle who, on his special perch, went into battle with the 8th Wisconsin. Everywhere they marched, the Eighth Regiment of the Wisconsin Volunteers carried Old Abe with them. The bird would often soar above the regiment, jabberilag raucously, as if urging the men into action. It's not every eagle that marches off to war. And gets wounded twice in battle, is decorated for bravery, and becomes a national hero. But then Old Abe wasn't just any kind of eagle ...

State Historical Society of Wisconsin

The eaglet was just a fledgling, barely able to fly, nesting in an emerald pine tree in northwest Wisconsin one mild spring morning in 1861. From his perch atop Flambeau Hill, he could look out over the rolling farm country. An occasional rifle shot he heard was from a hunter, not Civil War gunfire.

Walking through the woods that morning came Chief Sky, an Indian of the Lac du Flambeau band of Chippewa. Even a chief seldom took a chance raiding an eagle's nest. But since there was just one fledgling and no full-grown birds in sight, he climbed the tree. The eaglet nipped his finger, but the chief managed to slip a small sack over the bird's head. Taking his prize, he climbed down from the tree, ran to his canoe, and paddled swiftly off up the Chippewa river. Two days later, Chief Sky came to a farm owned by Daniel McCann, hoping to sell him the eaglet. The farmer was out working in his field, but his wife thought she'd like to keep the bird as a pet. She traded the chief a bag of corn and took the eaglet.

When Mr. McCann came home and saw the eaglet, he said the bird would have to go. It would be too much trouble to keep. The next day, he took the bird to the town of Eau Claire and showed him to some young Wisconsin recruits on their way to Camp Randall at Madison. One of them, a young man named Johnny Hill, took a special liking to the bird. Mr. McCann decided that he wanted to be rid of the eaglet more than he wanted to make a lot of money, especially off of recruits going to war.

The sale was made and the eaglet now found himself going off to war. Johnny christened him Old Abe, after President Abraham Lincoln, and they took the eaglet in as a full-fledged recruit in the Union Army. A few days later, they marched into Camp Randall with Old Abe. They were a little afraid they might get their mascot killed and themselves courtmartialed for bringing a wild eagle into the army.

But the commander, knowing the importance of morale to a unit, thought an eagle for a mascot was a fine idea. A perch was made for Old Abe in the form of a shield on which the stars and stripes were painted along with the inscription, "Eighth Regiment, Wisconsin Volunteers."

The metal perch was mounted on a five-foot pole. A bearer, by setting the staff in a belt-socket, held up Old Abe at a station assigned him at the center of the line of march, behind the Union flag. A short time later, the commander nicknamed the regiment "The Eagles," and Old Abe was formally sworn into the United States Army and bedecked in red, white, and blue ribbons.

His fame already had begun to spread, and a businessman in St. Louis offered to buy Old Abe for $500, but he wasn't for sale. Old Abe went with the Wisconsin Eagles on their mission to war. After he overcame his initial surprise at the sound of enemy gunfire, he would scream fiercely, especially when the company advanced. He would jabber raucously and often soar overhead as if scouting, then return to his perch and call noisily, as if urging the men to action.

Everywhere it marched the regiment became famous, not only because of its mascot, but because of its bravery. Old Abe was always there, in the thick of 36 battles and skirmishes, a symbol of courage to Johnny Hill and every other soldier. One Confederate general remarked that he would rather capture "that sky buzzard" than a whole brigade of soldiers. Old Abe suffered two minor battle wounds, at Corinth and Vicksburg, Mississippi, before the war ended.

When the Wisconsin Eagles returned to Madison, the soldiers marched through the streets carrying Old Abe bobbing on his perch, hale and hearty as ever. Crowds cheered him as a real hero, and he flapped his wings as a sign of recognition. With the war over, Old Abe was presented to the State of Wisconsin and given a room in the basement of the Capitol, where a soldier comrade became his private caretaker. Johnny Hill, who also had survived the war, visited him often.

Thousands of people from all over the country came to see the famous war eagle that had survived so many battles and spurred so many soldiers on to victory. His moulted feathers sold for $5 apiece, and the famous circus owner P. T. Barnum offered $20,000 to feature him as a circus performer. But other work was in store for Old Abe. By special act of the Wisconsin legislature in 1876, and with the governor's approval, Old Abe was exhibited at the United States Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. His chaperone was none other than his old army buddy, Johnny Hill.

Returning from Philadelphia, Old Abe went on tours of the country. He helped raise thousands of dollars for war relief charity and became a national hero all over again. Old Abe was almost twenty years old when he died. A granite statue of the valiant eagle stands over the arched entrance to Old Camp Randall in Madison. When you are in the Midwest on vacation, you can stop in and pay your respects to Old Abe. And next time you see a little brass eagle mounted atop a flag pole in a parade, remember Old Abe, the real live eagle that went to war.

- Walter Oleskey

John S. Blay. Uniforms. The Civil War: A pictorial profile. Bonanza Books, New York, 1958.

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