Bonebrake’s Redemption: Richmond to Chickasaw Bayou with the 69th Indiana

    Civil War literature is rife with stories about regiments and individuals who showed the “white feather” in one engagement only to redeem themselves later; one remembers the regiments of the 1862 Harper’s Ferry garrison such as the 32nd Ohio and 126th New York  who were lampooned as cowards yet acquitted themselves with distinction at places like Champion’s Hill and Gettysburg the following year. Today’s blog post focuses on the redemption of a single individual, Indiana officer George Henry Bonebrake of the 69th Indiana Volunteer Infantry.

          Bonebrake, born in June 1838 near Eaton in Preble County, Ohio, attended Otterbein University and graduated just as the Civil War began. Determined to make his fortune, he traveled west to Union City, Indiana and took over as the editor of the local newspaper the Union City Eagle. Less than a year later, he pulled up stakes and moved to Winchester, Indiana where he entered into the study of law with Thomas M. Browne, but also took up his pen again as the editor of the Republican-leaning Randolph Journal.  

In July 1862, President Lincoln issued a call for 300,000 three-year volunteers to reinforce the Union army in its efforts to suppress the rebellion. In response to Lincoln’s call, efforts were made across the North to meet the call and Indiana responded promptly. On Saturday July 26, 1862, William A. Bickle, newly commissioned colonel of the 69th Indiana Volunteers, made a speech at a war rally in Winchester seeking recruits for his new regiment, and Bonebrake attended the rally. The event excited the local citizenry such that efforts promptly were made to recruit a company for Bickle’s regiment, with Thomas Browne and George Bonebrake heading up the effort.

Within a few weeks, the company was full and Bonebrake was elected captain of Co. C of the 69th Indiana. He thus resigned as editor of the Randolph Journal. “Our country called me to drop the pen and grasp the sword,” he remarked. “I have heeded that call and ere this number reaches you perhaps will be off to the battlefield. With these remarks, I make my bow and retire, hoping to see you when this wicked rebellion is crushed, and every traitor hung.” The 69th Indiana continued to organize for a few more days but was soon off to the seat of war in Kentucky.

          Imagine the surprise of the Randolph Journal readers a month later when it was reported that in the 69th Indiana’s first engagement at Richmond, Kentucky “Captain George H. Bonebrake of Co. C acted the coward, deserting his company and running off. We regret exceedingly to give publicity to the above and hope that something may yet turn up to diminish the sweeping charge made by the officer in command.,” the Journal reported.

The 69th Indiana, along with several other newly raised regiments from Indiana and Ohio, arrived at Richmond, Kentucky to join the command of General William Nelson. The intention was to spend the next few weeks training and hardening the men for service in the field, but General Edmund Kirby Smith’s invasion of the state in late August upset that timetable and the greenhorns of the 69th Indiana soon found themselves in combat. It proved a disastrous affair- the Hoosiers fought hard but not well, untrained as they were, and suffered devastating losses: 28 killed, 148 wounded, 2 missing, and 581 men taken prisoner for a total of 759, nearly the entire regiment. Lieutenant Colonel Harman Korff led the regiment at Richmond, and in his report to Governor Oliver P. Morton called out Bonebrake for cowardice as reported above.

It was a crushing blow to the ambitious young officer, but Bonebrake insisted that the charge was untrue, made up by “others who designed to injure me.” The captain complained that Korff made this public charge without first calling upon Bonebrake to explain himself and demanded an investigation to clear his name. “I will produce the evidence of my entire company that I stood by them and with them in that deadly struggle, exposed for a lone time after every other company had received orders to retreat. The record of killed and wounded in my company attest this fact, only 18 out of 80 having come out with me. I only ask a suspension of judgment in the case until the facts are presented and then let the curse of infamy rests where it belongs and let him who has acted the coward, either upon horseback or upon foot, see to it that his record is right and his actions above suspicion.”

Captain Bonebrake continued in command of Co. C, this whole charge of cowardice either dropped or forgotten in the rush of events. The 69th Indiana, paroled on the field and back in camp at Camp Wayne in Richmond, Indiana, struggled to maintain their organization. The root cause appears to be dissatisfaction with the regimental leadership. “There seems to be some dissatisfaction among those paroled in regard to being held in camp and our patriotic colonel has considerable difficulty with reorganizing,” one soldier wrote. “When the privates lose confidence in their officers, it is sure to cause difficulty.”

Few things will shape up a regiment more quickly than a sharp fight, and at the end of November, the 69th Indiana was duly exchanged and sent South to take part in the operations against Vicksburg with William T. Sherman’s army. The 69th Indiana was assigned to a brigade of three regiments commanded by Colonel Lionel Sheldon of the 42nd Ohio. On December 20th, the regiment sailed down the Mississippi to take part in one of the opening thrusts of that campaign as Sherman’s force tried to storm Vicksburg through Chickasaw Bayou. It was here that Captain Bonebrake put the ghosts of Richmond behind him permanently.

One soldier, writing under the pen name “Quilp” reported to the Richmond Weekly Palladium that “Captain Bonebrake who was accused of running at Richmond, Kentucky has redeemed himself most nobly, taking the most exposed positions and fighting like a hero.” When the brigade was directed to lay a pontoon bridge across Chickasaw Bayou, Bonebrake and his company were sent forward as skirmishers and “remained there five hours, fighting the enemy all the time and entirely redeeming himself. The Rebels allowed us to get the pontoons about half-way across and then opened a terrible fire of shot, shell, and musketry, killing a great many of the pontoniers and driving the balance off. They then proceeded to shell the woods where we lay, and you may bet the shells flew around us thick.”

While under the cloud of suspicion, Captain Bonebrake didn’t write letters for publication to his old newspaper back home in Winchester. But his regular missives started up in late December and he gave this remarkable account of the Chickasaw Bayou campaign in this letter below published in the January 16, 1863 edition of the Randolph Journal.

 

Captain (later Major) George Henry Bonebrake of the 69th Indiana Volunteer Infantry

Milliken’s Landing, Louisiana

Near Vicksburg, Mississippi, January 3, 1863

Dear Journal,

          We started from Memphis on the 20th of December, our regiment getting aboard the Samuel Gaty, an old rickety steamer long since condemned; but she served us a noble purpose for, as we were going down the river, the Rebels would always select the nicest boats to fire into. They seemed to reverence old age and would have as soon shot their grandmother as the Samuel Gaty. This fleet was one of the most imposing ever witnessed, consisting of nearly 100 vessels, all loaded to their guards with human freight and their implements of warfare. The men were enthusiastic in the hope that the stubborn fortress of Vicksburg must now fall, and the Mississippi be open again to free navigation. The sight was grand above expression. An amusing incident happened just as the fleet was moving out. One fellow with lusty lungs sang out “Attention universe! By Kingdoms, right wheel!”

          We reached the Yazoo River on December 26th and steamed up that stream about six miles when we ran ashore and landed and were immediately drawn up in line of battle, the enemy having anticipated our place of landing and being prepared to meet us. Our pickets, however, drove them back and the 69th Indiana returned to the boat and slept quietly until early in the morning when we were again called out and marched across the country about 2-1/2 miles. Here the front of our division, commanded by General George Morgan, began a hot fire which continued until darkness put an end to the fight, the Rebels having fallen back considerably.

In the morning, the fight commenced again at daylight. It was Sunday and a more beautiful morning the sun never lighted and warmed. The front of our division was again engaged, and the tide of battle seemed to ebb and flow, and uncertainty veiled the fortunes of the day. About 10 o’clock, a bayonet charge was ordered and the 54th Indiana, with several others, went in with a yell, driving everything before them. Across the bayou they charged like devils, chasing the Rebels more than a quarter of a mile. Both sides suffered severely, but the field was ours. The 69th Indiana went in under a perfect shower of shells and balls. When we were in the hottest of the fire, the 114th Ohio came running pell-mell right over us. A more scared set of cowards you never saw. The 69th fixed bayonets and threatened to shoot every one of them. This stopped them and one captain, seeing the position in which he was placing himself, drew his revolver and started back crying, “Boys, follow me!” They did follow him, forming again in good order. The next day these same men fought like devils.

Chickasaw bluffs and the bayou


Our regiment took a position in the woods lately occupied by the Rebels. Pools of blood might be seen at different places where brave men had fallen but fighting in a very bad cause. We had now reached their fortifications from which they poured shell and canister as thick as hail. Our batteries were also hard at work. An extensive description of their fortifications is impossible save to say that there is a range of hills called Chickasaw Bluffs extending from the Yazoo River to the Mississippi, a distance of six miles. These hills are all fortified from bottom to top in the manner of steps. Upon each along nearly the whole range are earthworks and embrasures for cannon. In front of these are rifle pits in which thousands of soldiers can secrete themselves and fire upon an approaching enemy in perfect safety. In front of this whole range of hills is the Chickasaw Bayou, impassable except upon bridges, rendering it almost impossible for a force to pass. The place is perfectly fortified both by nature and art.

Our army was composed of four divisions: General A.J. Smith and Morgan Smith were on the right; General Steele on the left, and General Morgan in the center. On Monday, all these divisions were to move on the works. Colonel John DeCourcey was the only commander who crossed the bayou. He had command of the 54th Indiana, 22nd Kentucky, 16th Ohio, and 42nd Ohio regiments. These regiments charged boldly up the hill and drove the enemy out of their first line of entrenchments. But the skillful engineering of the Rebels had so arranged it that their rifle pits and breastworks all opened toward their batteries; when our men were once fairly in them, the enemy opened with grape and canister mowing the men down like weeds. It was impossible for them to stand longer. The retreat was ordered and effected, but with the loss of 300 men killed on the field. Many were wounded and made prisoners. Our dead and wounded lay on the field two days, the Rebels stripping them of every article of clothing.

Our men sent over a flag of truce and were permitted to bury the dead. While the flag of truce was out, the pickets of the two armies came together and talked very familiarly. They long for a compromise and place great hopes in the Democratic victory in the North. They gave us later news from the North than we possessed ourselves. During the charge above spoken of, the 69th was under a heavy fire. My company was deployed as skirmishers and well did they hold their position from morning until night, not a single man flinching from the chalk line. Neither shells nor grape, nor Minie balls could make them give an inch.

Passing over many interesting events, we will come to New Years. We got up early in the morning to the tune of whizzing shells. It had rained all night and we were as wet as cats. After thinking of all the old and young folks at home, and wishing them a happy New Year, we went at our old business of shooting Rebels. There wasn’t much done this day, but it was the general understanding that in the morning a general attack would be made. We lay down at night firmly expecting this to be the program; but judge our surprise when we were waked up about 10 o’clock and ordered to evacuate the place. This was done so secretly that the Rebel pickets never dreamed of anything unusual. Our regiment was the last to leave the woods, two companies being detailed to cut trees across the road.

We fell back to the boats, steamed down the Yazoo and up the Mississippi some 16 miles from Vicksburg. We are now lying here. What is to be done, I know not neither do I care; but when it is done will let you know.

G.H. Bonebrake

Capt., Co. C, 69th Indiana Volunteers

 

Bonebrake's home at 2619 Figueroa St. in Los Angeles in 1893. Bonebrake's move west in the late 1870s coincided with a boom of economic growth in southern California; his business and banking connections led the former Union officer to being one of the wealthiest men in Los Angeles. He died in this home of Bright's disease on October 30, 1898 at age 60. (Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library)

          Captain Bonebrake and the 69th Indiana would continue to serve with the 13th Army Corps in the western theater, taking part in the subsequent operations against Vicksburg, the Red River, and eventually Mobile. Captain Bonebrake ended the war as Major and mustered out of service in 1865. Returning home to Winchester, Indiana, he entered into the banking business and married Emma Locke. While Bonebrake’s business interests flourished In Indiana, his wife’s health collapsed which promoted them to move to southern California in the late 1870s.

Unfortunately, the move didn’t prevent Emma’s death in 1880 but George’s timing and business acumen led to enormous wealth. He arrived just as southern California started to boom and profited accordingly. As president of the National Bank of Los Angeles among many other enterprises, George built a remarkable Queen Anne mansion on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles (later used in Buster Keaton’s 1921 silent film The Haunted Mansion, see here) and won awards for his horses and ponies through the 1890s. Bonebrake was an active member of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Stanton Post No. 55 of the Grand Army of the Republic, and numerous other civic organizations. He died in his home October 30, 1898 of Bright’s disease at age 60, and is buried under a modest stone at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles.

         

Sources:

Obituary of George Henry Bonebrake from Randolph County Genealogical Society website

Find-A-Grave entry from George Henry Bonebrake (1838-1898)

“Last Saturday in Winchester,” Randolph Journal (Indiana), August 1, 1862, pg. 2

“To Arms! To Arms!” Randolph Journal (Indiana), August 1, 1862, pg. 2

“To Our Patrons,” Randolph Journal (Indiana), August 15, 1862, pg. 2

“Captain George H. Bonebrake,” Randolph Journal (Indiana), September 12, 1862, pg. 2

“The 69th Regiment,” Richmond Weekly Palladium (Indiana), October 3, 1862, pg. 3

Letters from Captain George H. Bonebrake, Co. C, 69th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Randolph Journal (Indiana), September 19, 1862, pg. 2, also January 16, 1863, pg. 2

Letter from “Subrosa,” Co. D, 69th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Randolph Journal (Indiana), October 3, 1862, pg. 2

Letter from “Quilp,” 69th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Richmond Weekly Palladium (Indiana), January 23, 1863, pg. 2

Letter from unknown soldier of 69th Indiana, Richmond Weekly Palladium (Indiana), January 23, 1863, pg. 2

 


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