It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate image for the Shoulder Sleeve Insignia (SSI) for an U.S. Army Airborne Division than an American bald eagle: It’s not only the national bird and a symbol of freedom and independence, but also a fearsome predator that can deliver a lethal attack with no warning. But in reality the design of the 101st Airborne Division’s SSI, or unit patch, was approved before the Army even had Airborne divisions, and its actual inspiration can be traced to over four decades before the Wright brothers achieved powered flight.

In 1861, a group of Wisconsin natives recruiting men to serve in the Union Army were offered the purchase of an eagle to serve as their mascot by a tavern owner named Daniel McCann, who himself had bought the eagle from an Indian named Chief Sky for a bushel of corn. Scraping together $2.50, the men took the bird with them to Madison, Wisconsin, where they were mustered into the Army as Company C, 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. They dubbed the eagle “Old Abe” in honor of President Lincoln, constructed a perch on which the eagle sat (he was attached to it by a cord), and carried their mascot with them into numerous battles until September 1864, when the enlistment period of the original members of the 8th Wisconsin expired. Old Abe was presented as a gift to the state of Wisconsin, which provided the mascot with a two-room living area in the state’s Capitol building, along with a custom bathtub and a caretaker. He died on 26 March 1881 as a result of smoke inhalation he suffered during a fire in the Capitol building’s basement about a month earlier.

So how did the 101st Airborne Division come to adopt “Old Abe” as the symbol? Originally constituted in the U.S. Army in 1918 as the 101st Division and organized in November of that year, the unit was demobilized on 11 December 1918. It was reconstituted in the Organized Reserves on 24 June 1921 as Headquarters Company, 101st Division at Milwaukee, Wisconsin—and to say that “Old Abe” was an icon in the state of Wisconsin is a gross understatement. The Shoulder Sleeve Insignia featuring his likeness was approved for the 101st Division on 23 May 1923, but nearly 20 years would elapse before the unit was redesignated the 101st Airborne Division, giving the unit’s nickname of “Screaming Eagles” a newfound significance. Despite several changes in designation—the Division became the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) on 5 August 1968 and was retitled the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) in 1974—“Old Abe” was a constant reminder of the Division’s heritage.

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