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Old Abe and the Army of the American Eagle

SPECIAL GUEST: Old Abe attended Chicago’s Great North Western Sanitary Fair, where he likely greeted many of the soldiers in his army of boys and girls. Carte de visite  by E.R. Curtiss of Madison, Wis. Mike Rubino Collection.
SPECIAL GUEST: Old Abe attended Chicago’s Great North Western Sanitary Fair, where he likely greeted many of the soldiers in his army of boys and girls. Carte de visite by E.R. Curtiss of Madison, Wis. Mike Rubino Collection.

During the waning months of the Civil War, a new force rose in Chicago in support of the Union cause. By some estimates, the powerful Army of the American Eagle numbered as many as 12,000 patriots.

They were all children, and their fearless leader was Old Abe.

The brainchild behind the Army, Alfred Lorraine Sewell, co-owned a successful printing company in Chicago. He developed the idea for this unique fund-raising campaign to support The Great North Western Sanitary Fair in his home city.

The fair owed its origins to another powerful force, the United States Sanitary Commission, modeled on a British organization formed during the recent Crimean War. Founded by civilians to provide care and support to Union troops, the federal government recognized it in June 1861. The Commission relied solely on the patriotism and generosity of the Northern populace to come forth with the funds to carry out this immense task. A variety of fundraising efforts were put into place, including a series of elaborate bazaars and fairs to raise the millions of dollars required to meet their ambitious goals.

One of the last events, Chicago’s Great North Western Sanitary Fair, was held from May 30 to June 24, 1865. Sewell’s Army of the American Eagle served as a novel part of the larger fundraising effort. His plan enlisted children to sell cartes de visite of the celebrated mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry, the American Bald Eagle known as “Old Abe.” Sewell called him the “Soldier Bird.” Sewell’s initial goal was to sell 20,000 images and raise $2,000 for the Sanitary Commission before the Fair began.

Main building of Chicago’s Sanitary Fair. Library of Congress.
Main building of Chicago’s Sanitary Fair. Library of Congress.

Sewell’s printing company picked up the tab for initial expenses, and pledged to turn over every cent of the profit to the Sanitary Commission. An elaborate booklet on the history of the eagle was also put into the works for the fair.

Sewell had to move quickly as the campaign started just a few months before the fair opened. The speed at which he needed to produce such a large volume of images caused him to abandon the original concept of selling photographic cartes of Old Abe. Instead, he settled on printed color lithographs of the famed eagle in the carte de visite format, or “Album Pictures,” in Sewell’s vernacular. His decision reflected confidence in the children’s desire to help the North’s wounded warriors, which may have included their own fathers and brothers.

THE FIRST ISSUE (20,000) included two versions: The first, left, with original information printed on back, and the second with expanded information.

THE FIRST ISSUE (20,000) included two versions: The first, left, with original information printed on back, and the second with expanded information.
THE SECOND ISSUE (40,000) is also known as the “New Picture of the Eagle.”

THE SECOND ISSUE (40,000) is also known as the “New Picture of the Eagle.”

Sewell set a retail price of an individual card at 15 cents, with a bulk discount of 10 for one dollar or 100 for nine dollars. Payments were made in cash at the time of order.

Perhaps the most unique part of the plan was its incentive program: Youngsters earned promotions in the Army depending on how many cards they purchased:

1: Private10: Corporal.20: Sergeant.40: Second Lieutenant60: First Lieutenant.100: Captain.300: Major.500: Lieutenant Colonel.1,000: Colonel.2,000: Brigadier General.4,000: Major General (added later).

As an additional incentive, each child who earned the rank of corporal or higher received a “handsomely printed Officer’s Commission” in the Army of the American Eagle with their name and rank to display. If a child desired to achieve a higher rank from his or her original position, subsequent purchases were tallied and promotions granted. Those who achieved the rank of colonel and above received a free copy of the booklet about Old Abe’s history.

COMMISSIONS FOR KIDS: Program participants earned formal commissions depending upon the number of Old Abe cartes purchased.

COMMISSIONS FOR KIDS: Program participants earned formal commissions depending upon the number of Old Abe cartes purchased.

The certificate and images were sent postpaid in envelopes labeled “Official Business, Headquarters / Army of the American Eagle / Chicago, Ill.” A study of surviving envelopes reveals that many passed through the mail without postage. The local post office may have believed them government mail, due to the wording of the return address.

Response to the first news releases and distributed fliers was extremely encouraging. The initial run of cards—20,000—sold out and a second version of 40,000 titled “The New Picture of the Eagle” continued the campaign. By the time the fair opened, Sewell had already collected and turned over $10,000 in cash to the Commission, far exceeding his original goals. A promotional piece captured Sewell’s enthusiasm. “I hereby appoint every boy and girl who shall read this a recruiting officer. Now to work, every one of you!” He added, “I want a General and from two to six Colonels in each State, with as many regiments thoroughly fitted out with all the minor officers. There may be other work yet for the Army of the American Eagle to do and it will be an honor to belong to it. We will fight the battle at home, while the boys in blue are in the field, and show that we are worthy of them.”

Hand Bill advertising the Army of the American Eagle.

Hand Bill advertising the Army of the American Eagle.

On opening day, the Army of the American Eagle had a large booth erected in the west wing of the fair hall to accommodate a special guest. The State of Wisconsin, by proclamation of Gov. James T. Lewis, loaned Old Abe the War Eagle, now recently retired due to the mustering out of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry. Accompanied by his handler, the veteran eagle remained for the duration of the Fair. Additional pictures and copies of the booklet History of ‘Old Abe’ the Live War Eagle of the Eighth Regiment Wisconsin Volunteers by Rev. Joseph O. Berrett were sold at the booth.

The campaign exceeded Sewell’s expectations. He raised a total of $16,308.93 (the equivalent of $258,804.96 today) for the fair, contributed by more than 12,000 participating children. While the sum was one-tenth of the entire Fair profits, it was the largest amount raised by any one department at the event. No exact number of images sold has been forthcoming, but some historians and collectors estimate more than 60,000 may have been printed or distributed in that short period of time.

By Josh Leisenring
By Josh Leisenring

One Sewell idea did not work quite as planned. He had decided early on to award Medals of Honor to the boy and girl who sold the most pictures before the fair opened, to be presented by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman. But as sales continued to pour in prior to and during the fair, and with Sherman unavailable, Sewell adapted to the situation on the ground. On June 9, 1865, he presented 37 Medals to deserving children at the fourth annual meeting of the Sanitary Commission in Dearborn Park, Ill. The decorations included three gold Medals with the rank of Colonel, 14 silver with the rank of lieutenant colonel and 20 bronze medals with the rank of major. The majority of the medals, 25, were awarded to young girls, including one recipient of African descent.

Sewell leveraged the success of his campaign to sell subscriptions to his new children’s magazine, The Little Corporal, in July 1865. Children received premiums for their efforts, including engravings of the martyred President Abraham Lincoln. Its run ended in April 1875 when the Scribner’s company, publishers of the rival St. Nicholas children’s magazine, bought out Sewell.

An illustration of Old Abe similar in style to that in the second issue of the carte graced the cover of Sewell’s The Little Corporal, “an original magazine for boys and girls and for older people who have young hearts.”

An illustration of Old Abe similar in style to that in the second issue of the carte graced the cover of Sewell’s The Little Corporal, “an original magazine for boys and girls and for older people who have young hearts.”

By this time, Sewell had fallen on hard times. The Great Chicago Fire cost him his printing plant and, with it, all the wealth he had earned. According to one source, “He did not lose his courage however and went to work to recuperate his vanished fortune.” He eventually settled in Niles, Mich., where he died in 1913 at age 81. His remains rest in Chicago.

Many collectors today dismiss Sewell’s card of Old Abe as a filler carte, or a less desirable image used to fill out empty slots in an album. They do not realize the important part it played in history. The first version of the eagle has two different wordings on the reverse. The first printing indicates only that they are for the benefit of the Fair. The second added that they were being sold before May 30th and mentioned the history booklet. This wording is also found on the “New” picture of the eagle. William D. Baker, a well-known Chicago engraver, did the engravings of both styles of the eagle.

All versions are readily found through dealers and auction sites at reasonable prices. Other items, such as the commission, Medals of Honor and the history booklet are more difficult to locate and bring a higher premium.  

References: Chicago Tribune, April 22, May 31, June 10, 1865; Voice of the Fair, Chicago, Ill., May 4, May 30, 1865; Kantor, Sanitary Fairs A Philatelic and Historical Study of Civil War Benevolences; The Little Corporal, December 1866, Sewell, The Veteran Eagle; And What the Children Did; Boston Globe, April 5, 1875, The Journal-Republican, Wilmington, Ohio, Oct. 22, 1913.

Richard Leisenring, Jr., an avid collector of Civil War memorabilia since 1967, has worked in the historical consulting / museum field for 44 years, 17 as curator of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, N.Y.

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