Grandpa Mike

For those of you who are unfamiliar with our website and version 1.0 of our blog, we’re starting out by taking a brief look at each of the Blonger brothers. In that spirit, let’s continue with great-great-grandpa Mike Belonger.

Mike and his daughter Clara
Mike and his daughter Clara

Born in 1841, Mike was the only brother of six that never adopted the Blonger spelling. He was also the only brother with living descendants – no surprise given he had nine daughters and a son, though his son was childless. Mike’s daughter Mary begat our grandfather, Orville Braley, whose daughter Charlotte June is our mother.

Mike’s primary claim to fame seems to be his talent with a fiddle. According to family lore, the famed Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, who toured the Wisconsin backwoods on several occasions, is said to have noted that “Mike Belonger has the world beat when it comes to playing reels, jigs, and clogs, on a fiddle.” Kudos to Mike for being an early proponent of World Beat music.

What’s more, Mike also had a fan in future president Ulysses S. Grant, who is said to have thought him “the best dance-fiddler on earth.” While this may seem to be a stretch, it’s more plausible than it sounds. Prior to the Civil War, Grant – already considered a hero of the Mexican-American War – was having a tough time in civilian life, and eventually went to work in his father’s leather goods store in Galena, Illinois, just a stone’s throw from the Belonger homestead in southern Wisconsin.

Mike’s fiddle
The back of Mike's fiddle

With the outbreak of war, Mike was one of the first to enlist, joining Company I of the 3rd Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry on May 8, 1861. After training on a hilltop perched above the family homestead, Mike soon found himself bound for Maryland.

The 3rd Wisconsin had a distinguished record, and we assume Mike played his part. The 3rd began its service by arresting the Maryland Legislature in September of 1861.

But here the record becomes a bit more mysterious.

In March of 1862 the 3rd made its way into the Shenandoah Valley to confront Stonewall Jackson, but the Federal plan went awry and Mike was among those routed in the First Battle of Winchester. This is from Mike’s service pension file:

“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. For this disease he was taken to Columbia College hospital in September or October, 1862, where he remained until about the first of January, 1863. He was removed from said Hospital to Convalescent Camp at Alexandria, Va., from which he was discharged.”

The dates here, fuzzy at best, are critical. Was Mike relieved of duty after Winchester? Did he later fight with his company at Cedar Mountain, or Second Bull Run? More to the point, did he make it to the infamous cornfield at Antietam? Of 335 men in 3rd Wisconsin Infantry, over half (173) were wounded and 27 were killed at Sharpsburg.

Mike’s record only muddies the waters.

Mar. 10, 1886, Surgeon’s certificate recommending a total pension: “That he first noticed a severe pain in his heart at battle of Antietam, Vir. 1862. He was sent to hospital where he remained over 6 weeks.”

Okay. Grandpa Mike did his bit, and fought side by side with his Shullsburg buddies at one of the most horrific skirmishes in the history of American warfare. Other medical entries don’t contradict this conclusion.

Sept., 1862, Surgeon’s certificate recommending a pension: “Claims he incurred disease of the heart from exposure, hunger & hard marching in summer & fall of ’62 near Winchester, Va. He once marched 35 miles in 5 hours & again marched 3 days without a mouthful of food. Was disabled & sent to a hospital at Washington for 2 or 3 weeks & discharged on account of disability.”

Oct. 1862, Company Muster Roll: “absent sick in hospital since Sept. 20/62 place unknown”

But not so fast. Later records seem to disagree.

Dec. 1862, Company Muster Roll: “absent sick in hospital place unknown since Sept. 15 1862”

That’s two days before Antietam.

Dec., 1886, Affidavit of Michael Belonger protesting reduction in pension: “I received my breast trouble during Banks’ retreat from Winchester. I was sent from Culpepper to the hospital at Washington with the same trouble in my breast. It was Columbia College hospital, from there I was sent to Convalescent hospital near Alexandria, and was discharged as I believe for my breast trouble.”

That would be back in May, even before Cedar Mountain.

June 20, 1888, Surgeon’s certificate recommending a total pension: “In 1862 at Williamsburg, Virg., got disease of heart, later was sent to Columbia College hospital, there about 6 weeks. On his request to be sent Regiment he was sent away [sic]. Did not find Reg and was sent to Convalescent Camp in Md. and was discharged 10 days after.”

This is even stranger. Williamsburg should probably be Winchester. And what is meant by “later sent to Columbia…” Before Antietam? After? It’s also curious to hear that he both requested to return to duty, and that he was unsuccessful in doing so.

Mar. 23, 1890, Surgeon’s certificate recommending a 10/18 pension: “Contracted heart disease near Winchester, Va., on Gen. Banks retreat – did not go to hospital then but did in September November following and remained there until discharged for disability in January 1863.”

Jan. 28, 1891, Surgeon’s certificate recommending a 12/18 pension: “Contracted heart disease summer of 62 in Va. near Winchester not in hospital at that time afterward in Columbia College hospital – for six weeks – then went into Convalescent Camp and discharged on account of disability.”

These entries suggest that Mike was not immediately relieved of duty after Winchester. Currently I’m inclined to believe that Mike fought on after Winchester, even as his condition worsened over the summer of 1862. Perhaps the stress of battle at Antietam finally sent him over the edge.

Then again, from time to time I change my mind and find myself dubious that he ever fought again after Bank’s retreat across the Potomac.

Or maybe Mike just had a bad case of diarrhea.

Dec., 1893, Surgeon’s certificate making no recommendation: “Had diarrhoea in Va. in 1862, September went to Col. College Hospt., Wash. D.C., & has left me with chronic constipation.”

In any case, Mike returned home to Shullsburg, where he married and raised a family, and remained there rest of his life. We have heard his doctor prescribed two bottles of wine a day to ease his pain, and Mike complied.

Mike died in 1924, not long after Lou, leaving Joe the last of the Blonger brothers.