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July 2008

7/29/2008

Mike & the 3rd Wisconsin

Earlier this month Scott and I, accompanied by our dad's brother Roy, finally made it to the battlefield at Antietam to see where we have long supposed g-g-grandad Mike succumbed to the heart condition that would cripple him for the rest of his days. Or was it Cedar Mountain? Or even earlier, at the Battle of Winchester?

Here's the only picture we have of Mike, with his daughter Clara:

Mike and Clara

Antietam, yet the bloodiest battle ever in history of these United States, is a tiny part of the Blonger story — if it figures at all. Curiously, we have heard the stories of Mike going off to war, but none concerning his service. For this, we must rely on the tale of his regiment, the 3rd Wisconsin Infantry, and military documents regarding his illness and discharge. From these we will deduce what we can.

Prologue

In May of 1860, Ulysses S. Grant took a job at his father's leather goods store in Galena, Illinois, alongside his brothers Orvil and Simpson. The Belonger family lived just a few miles away in the small mining town of Shullsburg, Wisconsin. Grant was later said by Belonger family and friends to have been an ardent admirer of young Mike's prowess with a fiddle — which still belongs to one of his descendants.

Fiddle

According to the Armstrong account:

Also, before the Civil War, in Galena, Illinois, Ulysses Simpson Grant, then engaged in farming, wood hauling and the leather business was heard to say that Mike Belonger was the best dance-fiddler on earth. H.B. Chamberlin, of Shullsburg, Wisconsin an ex-soldier musician, heard Ulysses Grant say those words many times.

It was a very musical family, from what we understand, but Michael seems to have been the standout, also drawing the attention of a touring European violinist known as "Ole Bull:"

After the war, the famous Ole Bull, then the world's champion violin soloist said: "Mike Belonger has the world beat when it comes to playing reels, jigs, and clogs, on a fiddle."
Fiddle back

In November of 1860, Galena Republicans celebrated Lincoln's election with a victory party in the Grant store. Grant helped his Republican brother Orvil serve oysters and liquor, but was for his part apparently as yet undecided about Lincoln, and ineligible to vote in any case, not having resided in Illinois the requisite length of time.

In December South Carolina seceded from the Union, joined by other states in the weeks to come in a new confederation. On February 9, 1861, Jefferson Davis was elected president of this new Confederacy, and in March Lincoln was inaugurated President of the United States.

On April 15, 1861, one day after the fall of Fort Sumter, Lincoln called for the formation of an army to restore the nation, and Wisconsin Governor Alexander W. Randall responded in just eight days with four full regiments, including the 3rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry.

On May 8 of 1861, Mike Belonger, at eighteen, enlisted at Shullsburg in the 3rd Wisconsin Badgers, Company I, also known as the Shullsburg Light Guard. He was undoubtedly accompanied by many of his childhood friends and acquaintances. Again, according to Mary Virginia Armstrong — recalling the words of Mike's brother Joe, spoken some thirty-five years prior — of their little sister Mary:

During Civil War days, little Mary Dominica Belonger (later well known in Lafayette County as Mrs. William Swinbank) lived with her father, Simon, and an older sister in a cabin located on what was then called The Branch, at the foot of the hill east of where Charlie Harty's big house stands today, on the southeast edge of Shullsburg, Wisconsin.
The hill above the Belonger cabin was used for a training ground, and Little Mary was the pet of all the soldiers.

Scott and I checked it out a few years ago. We may have found the place. It would be interesting to run a metal detector over the field in question...

Hilltop, Shullsburg, Wisconsin, 2003

Armstrong says:

Uncle Mike Belonger was one of the soldiers in training. When they marched away to entrain for the battle-front the fife and drum men played, "The Girl I Left Behind Me," all the way from Shullsburg, Wisconsin to Apple River, Illinois, without one rest.
Uncle Mike said years later, "I was never so tired of a tune in my life," and, no wonder, because it took the soldiers at least three hours to march the eleven or twelve miles to the Apple River depot.

In June of 1861, the new companies converged on Fond du Lac. Colonel Charles Hamilton was given command. Fellow West Pointer Lt. Col. Thomas H. Ruger was charged with training the new recruits. He was recalled by one of his men as a strict disciplinarian, "but he was a just man, humane; and in few regiments of the service were punishments less frequent."

According to the diary of William Goodhue, a young man of Company C who survived the war, the men of the regiment were weighed on the 17th of May, and the average weight per man was 157 pounds! "If solid men can fight we need not be afraid..."

In July, the men of the 3rd, nearly one thousand strong, boarded a train to destiny. Sergeant Julian W. Hinkley of Company E recalled:

"All were in the best of spirits. It seemed to us as though we were setting out on a grand pleasure excursion. No thought of death or disaster appeared to cross the mind of anyone."

Harpers Ferry

According to Goodhue, they were ten miles from Harpers Ferry on July 19th. On the 21st was the "Battle of Bulls Run, could hear the firing at Harpers Ferry." First Bull Run was the first major land battle of the war.

He described the place as a pretty town with two powder magazines atop the hill. It's still pretty, and quite authentically preserved, as we can attest.

Harpers Ferry

At the time it was also an industrial center, though you'd never know it today if not for the tour guides. More to the point, it was also the primary source of guns for the Union Army.

At Harpers Ferry, nestled at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, Goodhue saw the famous firehouse, with this inscription: "John Brown was kept here October 17, 1858." The place made him think of the recorder's office back in Wisconsin.

Firehouse

The station has in fact been moved four times since it was built, and today stands about a hundred feet from its original location.

On July 24th, the regiment's primitive muskets were replaced with "rifle minnie muskets." On the 29th, Goodhue saw a captured "Sessesh Captain". He appeared "very indifferent at his circumstances." On August 2, while recovering from diarrhea, he describes the surgeons as "no better than Brutes, with no feeling at all for any of us."

In October of 1861, the regiment first saw action at Bolivar Heights, a stone's throw from Harpers Ferry. Companies A, C and H together lost four men fighting off a force under Confederate Colonel Turner Ashby.

In early December the 3rd regiment was camped outside of Frederick. Col. Ruger was appointed Provost Marshal, and the men of the 3rd were charged with arresting the drunk and disorderly of their division in town, of which there are many. According to Goodhue, for spoiling their fun, men of the other regiments took to calling the Badgers "Backwoods Men."

Winchester

In November of 1861, Stonewall Jackson, commanding a variety of Confederate units, controlled the Shenandoah Valley, with his headquarters Northwest of Washington D.C. at Winchester, Virginia. The following February, Jackson found himself unable to defend the city with the approach of the Federals, including the 3rd Wisconsin, under General Nathaniel Banks.

Late in the month Banks brought his men south across the Potomac to protect the canal and railroad. Jackson's command was soon isolated, and on March 12 Banks occupied Winchester. The people of the town seemed friendly enough and welcomed the Union men without apparent malice. The Division was charged with driving Jackson from the Shenandoah Valley.

With Jackson's retreat to Mount Jackson, Banks believed, incorrectly, that Stonewall had left the valley proper. His task apparently complete, Banks began pulling troops back toward Washington, to reinforce General McClellan's men charged with guarding the Peninsula.

But Jackson had other plans. The rebels surging back in numbers far superior to the remaining Union forces, the 3rd Wisconsin found itself struggling back through Winchester and on across the Potomac.

Van Willard kept journals of his service with the 3rd Wisconsin. He served in Company G (the Neenah Guards) for most of the war. Though Mike served in Company I, Willard's journals undoubtedly closely reflect Mike's experience. Willard had this to say of the retreat from Winchester:

Thus we found ourselves to be surrounded, with an overwhelming force on all sides, leaving no other alternative but retreat or all be lost. Hence we fell back rapidly through the city [Winchester], the enemy close upon us, firing and yelling like very fiends, while from almost every window shots were fired by the inhabitants.

And later:

After this rest we pushed on towards Williamsport, still thirteen miles distant. It was a long march but was at last accomplished, and that night we lay down to rest upon the banks of the Potomac. The enemy did not press us closely from Martinsburg to the river, for it seems that the main body had taken the road to Harpers Ferry. We had been now two days with hardly a mouthful to eat and traveled a distance of over sixty miles, and some of us had fought in two pitched battles. It can hardly be wondered at that we were glad that Sabbath night when the sun went down and darkness came on to hide us from our cruel pursuers. Never was there a band of men more crippled than we.

Mike's Story:

Mike's Certificate of Disability for Discharge, issued January 19, 1863, submitted by Mike's doctor at a convalescent camp in Virginia. Mike is described as 21 years old, 5' 8" tall, fair complexion, brown hair, blue eyes, a farmer by trade. In the last sixty days, he is described as having been unfit for duty forty-one.

The physician, whose name I can't decipher (go figure), attests to the following:

I certify that I have carefully examined the said Michael Belonger of Captain Vandergriff Company, and find him incapable of performing the duties of a soldier because of Valvular disease of heart, contracted in the service.

On January 30, 1863, his Claim for Invalid Pension, submitted from Washington, D.C., claims of Mike that, "in the line of his duty, he received the following Disability:"

To wit: That while with his Regiment on or about the 20th Day of June A.D. 1862, on the retreat from Winchester Virginia, under General Banks, he contracted the disease by heat exposure, and over exertion, which rendered him unfit for further duty and from which he has never recovered and which wholly incapacitates him from earning his subsistence by manual labor.
That since leaving the service he has resided at Washington City D.C., and his occupation has been formerly a farmer but was [by] reason of his disability unfit for labor and he hereby appoints C. C. Cogswell, of Washington, D. C., his lawful attorney, and authorizes him to present and prosecute this claim, and to receive his Pension certificate when issued.

Okay, Mike fell ill on the retreat from Winchester, a maneuver since dubbed the "Great Skedaddle."

But there's more.

Battle of Cedar Mountain

Reformed after Winchester as part of John Pope's Army of Virginia, the 3rd soon found themselves at Culpeper Courthouse, soon to be fighting Jackson again. Thrown by Banks against Stonewall's superior forces at Cedar Mountain, a few miles from Culpeper, the 3rd was unsuccessful, but lauded for their fortitude. General George Gordon said of the 3rd at Cedar Mountain: "I know of no other regiment in Banks' entire corps [that] stood so unflinchingly before numbers and fire so overwhelming."

It is recalled that Jackson rode into the thick of battle at Cedar Mountain to rally his troops, brandishing a flag and his sword — still in its scabbard, stuck together with rust.

Mike's Story:

His request for an invalid pension, written in his own words (in the third person):

While in said service, and in the line of his duty as a soldier, at Culpepper Courthouse, Va., or near there, in August or September, 1862, the command in which he was, was cut off from communication with its base of supplies, and for want of food & nourishment he was for several days nearly starved, by reason of which he incurred disease of heart and rheumatic affection of the entire left side.

This suggests rather plainly, both by the time and place — August or September, Culpeper, Virginia — that he was afflicted about the time of the Battle of Cedar Mountain, or thereabouts, not the Great Skedaddle from the Shenandoah Valley weeks before. Hmmm.

Culpeper

More to this story...

-CJ


7/30/2008

Chicago Examiner

Got a nod from the Chicago Examiner today as the Democratic convention approaches:

-CJ


July 2008


 

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