All unit patches in the Army are based on something. The 25th ID patch pays homage to their home state of Hawaii. The 3rd ID patch showcases the major battles they were a part of in WWI. The 1st ID went with a big, red one because lieutenants are creative. But it's the 101st Airborne who has them beat — all thanks to "Old Abe," who was one badass bird.
Old Abe was captured as a baby bald eaglet in 1861 by Ahgamahwegezhig (Chief Sky). He was sold for a bushel of corn to Daniel McCann, a rich aristocrat, to be kept as a family pet. It turns out, however, that keeping a bald eagle as a pet was more of an expensive headache than McCann originally thought.
I mean, what did he expect? He caged the literal personification of American freedom. Just saying. (Painting courtesy of the Wisconsin Veterans' Museum)
So, Abe was again sold for a whole $2.50 (paid in quarters, partly borrowed from friend) to Capt. John E. Perkins of a Wisconsin Militia, The Eau Claire Badgers. The Badgers then quickly became the Eau Claire Eagles — because of this bird. When his unit was activated and re-designated as the Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment to enter the American Civil War, Perkins decided to finally give the baby bird a name — "Old Abe."
Perkins brought Abe into every battle in which he and his unit fought. The 8th Wisconsin VIR fought across the Western Theater. It's said that wherever Perkins' unit went, Abe's battle cry was heard across the battlefield, thereby earning the title of "screaming eagle." As he flew overhead, the Union troops would be reinvigorated. At the Battle of Corinth, Mississippi, Confederate Gen. Sterling Price said,
That bird must be captured or killed at all hazards. I would rather get that eagle than capture a whole brigade or a dozen battle flags!
Abe saw 36 battles and was wounded twice but still kept intimidating Confederate troops with his cries.
Still more adorable than most combat veterans. (Image courtesy of the National Archive)
When the 8th Wisconsin was mustered back home in late 1864, Old Abe followed. He had become a celebrity to everyone in Wisconsin. People came from far and wide to see the war eagle. He made tours across the country and was used to raise funds for veterans' issues.
Old Abe passed due to complications caused by smoke inhalation in 1881. His remains were preserved and displayed at the Wisconsin Capital building until a fire destroyed the display in 1904. A few of Old Abe's feathers remain very carefully preserved at the Wisconsin Veteran's Museum in Madison.
His likeness would be used in 1921 by the newly formed 101st when they were still an Army Reserve unit. They were then activated to Regular Army in 1942. Maj. Gen. William C. Lee said, "[our division] has no history, but it has a rendezvous with destiny."
The 101st would prove his sentiment true time and time again with Old Abe on their shoulders.