American Cruise Lines: Story of ‘Old Abe’ at Vicksburg National Military Park

With his intimidating screech, Old Abe would lead his Wisconsin regiment into battle during the Civil War. His scary screams could be heard across the battlefield.

Today, Old Abe is honored with his statue atop a 122-foot column in Vicksburg National Military Park. His figure rests on the Wisconsin State Memorial monument in the historic battleground.

Old Abe stands atop the Wisconsin State Memorial.

Look closely. Old Abe, of course, is the legendary American bald eagle. Abe’s buddy, Captain John E. Perkins, brought the eagle with him into 36 battles for Union troops during the Civil War. Old Abe was proudly carried into conflict tethered to a five-foot perch painted red, white and blue.

“The eagle was named in honor of President Abraham Lincoln and became the mascot of a Wisconsin regiment during the Civil War,” bus tour guide David Maggio says. “Old Abe is one of the lucky ones who survived the Civil War.”

On our American Symphony cruise from Memphis to New Orleans, Vicksburg National Military Park was one of the shore excursion options. As a former Marine, my brother Joe was interested in visiting the site for the first time and I wanted to learn more about Old Abe.

Although it is a terribly tragic place, I am glad the battleground was saved and turned into a national military park. Such prime property could easily have been bulldozed for high-rise apartments, office buildings or a shopping center. Instead, the nation needs to remember and honor those who fought and died here. And, hopefully, put aside weapons of war forever.

Old Abe is an American bald eagle honored atop a monument in Vicksburg National Military Park.

Vicksburg siege lasted 47 days

Vicksburg Military Park is huge with a 14-mile tour and more than 1,400 monuments and memorials. We toured on the American Cruise Lines cruise bus and our bus tour guide was excellent. The visitor center offers a 20-minute film as well as exhibits about the horrible siege that lasted from May 18 to July 4, 1863.

“For 47 days, both soldiers and citizens suffered,” David says, adding that Union cannon bombarded Vicksburg from the east while Union naval forces lobbed mortar shells from the west.

Caught in the crossfire, Vicksburg’s civilians sought the safety of caves dug into the sides of hills. Civilians brought necessities into the hot, damp, musty and humid caves. In one instance, a baby was born in a cave. His parents named him William Siege Green.

Vicksburg citizens had to take refuge in dug caves during the 47-day siege.

“Vicksburg was vital to victory. Both sides knew that,” David says. “Confederate President Jefferson Davis knew that and so did President Abraham Lincoln who said that Vicksburg was the key and that the war could never be brought to a close until that key was in the Union’s pocket.”

In the end, Confederates under the leadership of General John C. Pemberton, surrendered Vicksburg to Union Federals under the leadership of US Major General Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863.

Erecting monuments to fallen soldiers and sailors

Soon after Vicksburg National Military Park was established in 1899, the nation’s leading architects and sculptors were commissioned to honor the soldiers and sailors who had fought in the campaign. The park’s earliest state memorial – the Massachusetts Memorial – was dedicated in 1903 and over 95 percent of the monuments that followed were erected prior to 1917.

Missouri memorial is the only monument dedicated to both Union and Confederate troops.

Kentucky had a substantial number of men fighting on both the Union and Confederate sides. The state has two memorials representing Kentucky soldiers. Dedicated Oct. 20, 2001, the Kentucky State Memorial features life-size sculptures of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, both from Kentucky.

Looking as though they are standing for a face-to-face meeting, the two men are flanked by granite panels that list all troops, Union and Confederate, who fought at Vicksburg. In May 2010, a Kentucky Confederate Memorial was erected and is the newest state memorial. The monument holds a lengthy inscription detailing the involvement of Confederate Kentucky troops at Vicksburg.

Modeled after the Roman Pantheon, the Illinois State Memorial features 47 steps in the long stairway, one for each day of the Siege of Vicksburg. The memorial was being renovated when we visited.

Salvaging USS Cairo warship

Almost 100 years after it sank on Dec. 12, 1862, the gunboat USS Cairo was discovered under layers of silt, sand and mud in the Yazoo River. One of America’s first ironclad warships, the Cairo was the first vessel sunk by an electrically detonated torpedo (mine). Today, the artifacts of the Cairo salvaged from the 1960s excavation are part of the park.

The USS Cairo was discovered almost a century after it was sunk during the Civil War.

Like a time capsule, the Cairo preserved information on naval construction, naval stores, armament and the crew’s personal gear. “Unbelievably, none of the 175 crew members died when the Cairo sank,” David says.

The USS Cairo exhibit include the crew’s personal gear.

Near the Cairo is Vicksburg National Cemetery which holds the remains of 17,000 Union servicemen – more than any other national cemetery. National cemeteries were created in 1862 to provide proper and honorable burials for the men who died in service.

In the aftermath of Civil War battle, the dead were often buried hastily in makeshift graves. About 13,000 Union servicemen in the cemetery are unknown. Many Confederates who died in the siege are buried in nearby Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Old Abe finds home in Wisconsin State Capitol

In 1864, Old Abe received an honorable discharge and was presented to the State of Wisconsin. The famous war eagle was an honored resident of the Wisconsin State Capitol and frequently traveled nationwide in support of veteran reunions, patriotic gatherings and special exhibitions.

Old Abe’s home was a special aviary in the Capitol building. But in 1881, a fire broke out in a paint and solvent storage area near Old Abe’s aviary. Weakened by the fumes, the Wisconsin war eagle died a month later in the arms of his handler.

“Old Abe was then mounted and displayed in the Capitol until a second fire destroyed his remains in 1904,” David says.

In 1921, Old Abe was honored as the insignia of the 101st Airborne Division Air Assault. With their insignia of a bald eagle on a black shield, the 101st Airborne is nicknamed the “Screaming Eagles” as a salute to Old Abe.

As a bit of trivia, perhaps the most famous 101st Airborne Division alum is also one of the greatest guitarists ever. Enlisting when he was 19 years old, Jimi Hendrix served with the 101st for about a year before he was honorably discharged from the Army in 1962. The rest, of course, is history.

As for Old Abe, when the moon is full, legend says, the bald eagle often leaves his perch above the Vicksburg National Military Park monument. He soars over the battlefield to keep watch over his fallen comrades and the hallowed ground where so many perished.

The Vicksburg National Cemetery contains row after row of battlefield dead.

Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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7 Night – Lower Mississippi River Cruise from.. American Symphony (


Day 1 Memphis TN
Day 2 Day of River Cruising
Day 3 Vicksburg, MS
Day 4 Natchez, MS
Day 5 St. Francisville, LA
Day 6 Baton Rouge, LA
Day 7 Houmas House, LA
Day 8 New Orleans, LA

Mississippi River Cruises | American Cruise Lines



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