William A. Bowles

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William A. Bowles (1799 – March 28, 1873) was a physician who held the rank of Major General in the OSL (Order of Sons of Liberty) in Indiana in the early 1860s. The OSL was either an offshoot of, or front group for, the KGC (Knights of the Golden Circle). The KGC (itself a continuation and/or restructuring of other groups which were founded about 1834) was an anti-Union paramilitary secret society, which began operating about 1854 and continued to operate (under various names and front groups) for several years after the U. S. Civil War.[1][2] In 1857 Bowles was one of the co-founders of the town of French Lick, Indiana located in Orange County, Indiana. In the mid-1830s he began a mineral springs resort at French Lick which exists to this day. William's parents were Isaac Bowles (April 1, 1777 – 1847) and Mary Bagford (May 13, 1777 – April 12, 1842).[3]

Pre-Civil War[edit]

Bowles was the first person to operate a lodge at the mineral springs at French Lick. He did so after the mineral springs in the area proved to be not saline enough for the purpose of state-sponsored salt mining.[4] Sometime between 1829–1833 William's brother, Thomas Carrington Bowles (Jan. 24, 1806 – Aug. 16, 1840), moved to the area and bought the salt springs and accompanying land from the Indiana state government  – almost 1,500 acres in total.[5] However, shortly thereafter, Thomas sold the land to his brother William and moved to Washington County, Indiana. In 1840 William began to sell the mineral spring water, dubbing it "Pluto Water," and by 1844 he had built a wooden hotel (80–100 feet long and 3 stories high) to accommodate those visiting the mineral springs.[6]

During the Mexican-American War, as a result of federal legislation such as the Wilmot Proviso, governor of Indiana James Whitcomb appointed Bowles a colonel in the Second Indiana Regiment. On February 22, 1847, during the Battle of Buena Vista, the Indiana militia fared poorly, with Bowles being the one to call retreat. A court martial trial which was held concerning this incident declared that the soldiers who retreated were not guilty of cowardice.[7] Jefferson Davis defended Bowles during the proceedings, resulting in a lifelong friendship between the two men.[5]

In the 1850s Bowles organized the Knights of the Golden Circle to counteract the Underground Railroad activity within the region. He helped to found the town of French Lick in 1857.

The Civil War (1861-1865) and Ex parte Milligan (1866)[edit]

Bowles was made a Major General of one of the four military districts established by OSL (Order of Sons of Liberty) leader Harrison H. Dodd. It appears that the OSL, an anti-Union paramilitary secret society, was actually simply a front group for the KGC (Knights of the Golden Circle), and that the highly touted military/paramilitary capabilities of the OSL existed "more in Dodd's mind" than in reality.[8]

In June 1863, Confederate spy Thomas Hines visited Bowles, inquiring if Bowles could offer any support for John Hunt Morgan's upcoming raid into Indiana. Bowles told Hines he could raise a force of 10,000, but before the deal was finalized, Hines was told a Union force was approaching, causing him to flee. As a result, there would be no support for Morgan's Raid by Bowles, which, in turn, allowed Indiana governor Oliver P. Morton to treat harshly anyone in Indiana who was publicly sympathetic to the Confederacy.[9]

In 1864 Bowles was arrested, being listed as a co-conspirator of Dodd's. He was held at a cell at the Federal Building for several weeks before he was arraigned.[10] Bowles was eventually convicted of treason by a military commission, but on May 31, 1865, two days before he was due to be hanged, President Andrew Johnson commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.[11] The conviction of Bowles and the other coconspirators went through the federal courts, and eventually reached the United States Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase issued writs of habeas corpus, freeing all of them, on April 3, 1866. On December 17, 1866, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that since the civil courts were still functioning in Indiana at the time Bowles and the rest were convicted by the military commission, the convicted men had been robbed of some of their constitutional rights and had to be set free. This U. S. Supreme Court holding is known as Ex parte Milligan, or, in full, Ex parte Lambdin P. Milligan, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 2 (1866); 18 L. Ed. 281., and the precedent which it set has never been reversed or set aside.[12]

Bowles was married three times, his first two marriages ending in divorce. He died of natural causes in his home at French Lick, in the presence of his third wife, whom he had just recently married in early 1873. His body rested for a number of years in a stone vault in sight of his home, but for some reason his remains were subsequently removed to Ames Chapel Cemetery in Paoli, Indiana (about five miles away), where they were interred in an unmarked grave.[13]

In 1897 the wooden hotel built by Bowles burned down, and it was replaced by the existing structure known today as the French Lick Resort Casino.[6]


  1. ^ See https://archive.org/stream/authenticexposit00perr#page/n7/mode/2up - An Authentic Exposition of the "K. G. C." "Knights of the Golden Circle"; or, A History of Secession from 1834 to 1861 (Indianapolis, Indiana: Charles O. Perrine, Publisher, 1861)
  2. ^ See https://archive.org/stream/sonsofliberty00stidrich#page/n7/mode/2up - Treason History of the Order of Sons of Liberty, Formerly Circle of Honor, Succeeded by Knights of the Golden Circle, Afterward Order of American Knights. The Most Gigantic Treasonable Conspiracy the World has Ever Known. 1864. (Chicago: Published by the Author - Copyright 1903 ) - Edited by Felix Grundy Stidger (Aug. 5, 1836 - May 12, 1908)
  3. ^ See http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=n&GRid=18743227
  4. ^ Wissing p.78
  5. ^ a b See http://www.ingenweb.org/inorange/histfl.htm - "History of French Lick" (reprinted from the Springs Valley Herald, issue of Sept. 19, 1957)
  6. ^ a b "French Lick". Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Retrieved 2009-04-26. [dead link]
  7. ^ Esarey pp.443-449
  8. ^ Klement p.109
  9. ^ Horan pp.25-27
  10. ^ Klement p.174
  11. ^ Klement p.227
  12. ^ Bodenhamer pp.444,445
  13. ^ See http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=n&GRid=85171906
  • Bodenhamer, David (1994). The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-31222-1. 
  • Esaray, Logan (1915). A History of Indiana. W.K. Stewart co. 
  • Horan, James D. (1954). Confederate Agent: A Discovery in History. Crown Publishers. 
  • Klement, Frank L. (1984). Dark Lanterns: Secret Political Societies, Conspiracies and Treason Trials in the Civil War. LSU Press. ISBN 0-8071-1567-3. 
  • Wissing, Douglas (2001). Scenic Driving Indiana. Globe Pequot. ISBN 1-56044-906-3.