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posted: 7/7/2014 5:30 AM

Civil War vet returns to Lake County in spirit

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  • Pvt. William Bonner Jr.

      Pvt. William Bonner Jr.
    Courtesy of John Bonner

  • The gravestone for Civil War soldier William Bonner Jr. at Millburn Cemetery in Lake County. A ceremony will be held July 13 welcoming home Bonner, who was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863.

      The gravestone for Civil War soldier William Bonner Jr. at Millburn Cemetery in Lake County. A ceremony will be held July 13 welcoming home Bonner, who was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863.
    Courtesy of Bonner family

  • A photo by Mark Widhalm of the 96th Illinois Volunteer regimental drum.

      A photo by Mark Widhalm of the 96th Illinois Volunteer regimental drum.
    Courtesy of Lake County Discovery Museum

  • The gravestone for Civil War soldier William Bonner Jr. at Millburn Cemetery in Lake County. A ceremony will be held July 13 welcoming home Bonner, who was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863.

      The gravestone for Civil War soldier William Bonner Jr. at Millburn Cemetery in Lake County. A ceremony will be held July 13 welcoming home Bonner, who was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863.
    Courtesy of Bonner family

  • John Bonner at the battle of Chickamauga site, where his great, great uncle, Pvt. William Bonner Jr., was killed in action.

      John Bonner at the battle of Chickamauga site, where his great, great uncle, Pvt. William Bonner Jr., was killed in action.
    Courtesy of Bonner family

 
 

As he stood on the battlefield in northern Georgia late last summer, Lindenhurst-area native John Bonner felt the pull of a long-lost relative and formed a plan.

Chickamauga, a Cherokee word meaning "river of death," was where his great, great uncle, Pvt. William Bonner Jr., was shot in the stomach during one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The soldier was left against a tree and never heard from again.

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"We walked in exactly as they would have at 4 o'clock on the 20th of September (1863). We were there on the anniversary day and I decided," said John Bonner.

That decision led to the installation of a marker for Pvt. Bonner and an upcoming dedication in the family's section at Millburn Cemetery, more than 150 years after his death.

For all that time, a space had been left empty for the eventual return of William Bonner Jr., a single, 21-year-old farmer, whose body was never recovered. At one point, a notation of his death was made in the marble on the back of a family monument, but there is almost nothing left to see, John Bonner said.

Working from his home in Fort Dodge, Iowa, about a seven-hour drive from Millburn, Bonner coordinated the actions that led to a marker being installed a few weeks ago and scheduled a proper ceremonial dedication.

The ceremony, set for 10 a.m. Sunday, July 13, will feature speakers, including a Civil War re-enactor depicting President Abraham Lincoln, a period hymn, laying of the wreath and an honor guard salute.

One speaker will be Katherine Hamilton-Smith, director of cultural resources for the Lake County Forest Preserve District. She will provide background on the 96th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Company C, for which William Bonner Jr., fought.

"I think what they're doing is interesting. This man was never found, never identified. They're bringing him emotionally to Lake County, which is cool," she said.

"I was so drawn to the idea. I felt it was kind of chilling," she added. "This person is coming home."

That Sunday also is the finale of the district's annual Civil War Days event at the Lakewood Forest Preserve in Wauconda. Information about the William Bonner dedication, which is open to the public, has been linked to the event page and other historical sites.

The Bonner family emigrated from Scotland and were among Lake County's early settlers. In 1842, William Bonner Jr. bought 80 acres west of Route 45 near what is now Sand Lake Road. He eventually built two farmhouses and adjoining buildings that still stand and are operated by the forest preserve district as the Bonner Heritage Farm.

In July 1862, when Lincoln asked for 300,000 men to serve in the Union Army, the Canadian born William Bonner Jr. enlisted, and mustered with the 96th regiment organized in Rockford.

Throughout the war, about 2,000 men from Lake County -- about 10 percent of the population -- enlisted. Four companies, or about 410 men, joined the 96th Illinois, according to Diana Dretske, a historian and collections coordinator at the Lake County Discovery Museum. She said 842 Civil War veterans are buried in Lake County.

The Illinois 96th made its way from Cincinnati to Kentucky, Tennessee and other points, but did not encounter its "baptism of blood" until Sept. 19 and 20 at Chickamauga. There, half of its number were lost, according to information in the dedication program.

A portion of the federal army, including the Illinois 96th, held against repeated attacks at Horseshoe Ridge and allowed Union troops to withdraw when night fell.

It was at that ridge, Sept. 20, where William Bonner Jr. "was shot through the body, and left upon the field, doubtless dying within a few hours," according to information provided by John Bonner.

"In that day and age if you're shot through the stomach, bleeding and bacteria would do you in," he said. "There's nothing you can do, and you know it, so you leave him,"

When the battle was over, according to Bonner, losses on both sides including those killed, wounded, captured or missing totaled 34,624. After Gettysburg, that was the second-highest in the war.

"It was one of the biggest battles of the Civil War," he said.

Bonner remembers his grandfather having 15 or 20 letters from the soldier and others in the company, but they have been lost over time.

Friends clung to hope William Bonner Jr. would be heard from again but it was not to be. In April 1864, Capt. James Pollock of the 96th Illinois reported William Bonner Jr. was not a deserter but was missing in action. The location of his remains is unknown.

John Bonner said there wasn't much discussion in the family about his great, great uncle. He has been digging on his own for 20 years.

The once strong Bonner family presence in Lake County has thinned and its members dispersed, which is another reason to memorialize an ancestor, added Bonner, 68. He also grew up in one of the old family farmhouses and has been a Civil War re-enactor for about 20 years,

"I said, 'We have to do this thing. It's not going to happen after me.'"

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