“If the enemy ever reach this place (Tuscaloosa, Alabama), they would not leave at this University one brick standing upon the other.” Landon C. Garland, President, University of Alabama
For over 120 years, the history of the origin of Auburn University’s “War Eagle” battle cry has become a colorful and enigmatic series of stories that, although entertaining, appear to have no historical backing. There are no newspaper articles, records or firsthand accounts available that support the origin of the chant, however there are stories.
Story Number 1
The first story involves an old Confederate soldier and his pet eagle at the first Auburn game against Georgia during the 1892 football season. This version of the War Eagle story seems to be the most widely accepted among Auburn fans but this story, as well as all of the versions, has many holes within it and there isn’t way to prove its authenticity. A similar story claims the eagle was the pet of an Auburn professor. This version has the bird taking flight during that first game against Georgia, or some later game. The professor’s bird, according to the tales, was a fixture on the campus of Auburn; however, the name of the professor with the American Bald Eagle has been lost to history.
It should be noted here that Rufus Thomas “Dutch” Dorsey II, left halfback and freshman for the Auburn squad, has his place in history as the first man to score a touchdown in the state of Georgia. The touchdown occurred on February 20, 1892, during that first Auburn game against Georgia, the nativity of the oldest college football rivalry in the South.
Story Number 2
Another story regarding the War Eagle origin involves the 1914 Auburn football season and the game against the Carlisle Indians of the Pennsylvanian Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Allegedly, at that November 25th game, Auburn fans began to randomly chant “War Eagle” because Carlisle’s biggest defender was a man named “Bald Eagle.” How and why this story came to be is very curious but not as questionable as another origin story stemming from the same game. During the game against Carlisle, an Auburn player, All-Southern End, and later, famed professional baseball player, Legare Hairston, yelled “War Eagle” while making a touchdown. This was the only touchdown of the game, giving Auburn a win for the last game of the 1914 season, 7-0.
Story Number 3
While researching this story, StrangeHistory encountered another story of an Auburn cheerleader named Gus Graydon and the circumstances under which he coined the “War Eagle” battle cry the day before the November 22, 1913 game against Georgia, which Auburn won 21-7. Auburn went undefeated for the 1913 season, was scored on only twice, and won the first of five National Championships.
Strange History Analysis
All of the versions of the “War Eagle” origins are colorful, and have been recited in boardrooms, brothels, barbershops, and at backyard cookouts for over 100 years. However, it must be understood that these stories are unsupported by any available historical documentation. So what if the “War Eagle” battle cry is, in fact, a taunt on historical fact? Let’s look at a different set of events that StrangeHistory has uncovered.
Following the fall of Vicksburg, in 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee began to fan out throughout the South, taking over towns in northern Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. On April 4, 1865, Union General John T. Croxton, commander of the 4th Kentucky Infantry, aided by “elements of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteers,” marched into Tuscaloosa, Alabama with 1,500 troops to take possession of the South’s last major supply point. When Tuscaloosa fell, Union forces burned all but 7 buildings on the campus of th
e University of Alabama, which was a military academy in 1865.
The 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which mustered in Madison, Wisconsin on September 13, 1861, possessed an American bald eagle as its mascot. Her name was “Old Abe,” and her presence with the unit during the Battle of Vicksburg earned her the name “War Eagle.” By most accounts the bird was with the 8th Wisconsin from the unit’s inception until the unit was disbanded on September 5, 1865, in Demopolis, Alabama. During the Battle of Corinth, Mississippi, Confederate Major-General and former Missouri Governor, Sterling Price, noticed Old Abe and was credited with saying, “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.”
All but two of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteers 11 companies are listed as being at the Mobile Campaign in April of 1865, yet it is unclear which “elements of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteers” marched into Tuscaloosa, Alabama with General Croxton. But they were there!
Is it possible that nearly 30 years after the University of Alabama fell to the 8th Wisconsin, and their War Eagle, Old Abe, Auburn fans began to taunt Alabama fans and players by chanting “War Eagle” at the first meeting between the two teams? The matchup on February 22, 1893 is considered to be the first Iron Bowl fought by the bitter rivals, and very well may be the nativity of the “War Eagle” cry. StrangeHistory believes that the evidence from the events, although circumstantial, could conceivably support the theory. To solidify the case for the phrase, it should be noted that the school doing the taunting did not fall to the Union Army during the Civil War. In fact, Auburn, a Methodist school at the opening of the Civil War, closed its doors and became a training ground and hospital for elements of the Confederate army from Alabama. When the Union forces arrived at Auburn University in 1865, they found, by all available accounts, a closed up school and a hospital (“Old Main” building) filled with wounded Texan Confederates.
*StrangeHistory would like to clarify that this theory of the War Eagle origin has been built upon a small mountain of circumstantial evidence. Perhaps an American bald eagle, owned by a Confederate soldier, did fall out of the sky in 1892. Perhaps Legare Hairston randomly yelled “War Eagle” for no apparent reason in 1914. Maybe a cheerleader coined the phrase during Auburn’s first undefeated season. The possibilities are many. The historical documents to support them are few. America’s Strange History!