This Day in Jewish History |

1897: Decorated U.S. Civil War Soldier for the Union Dies

David Urbansky was one of only six Jewish Union soldiers to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for acts of valor in the American Civil War.

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Members of the Union Army artillery fire on Confederate Army units during the reenactment of the Battle of Gettsyburg, Sunday, July 7, 2002, in Gettysburg, Pa. More than 3,200 Civil War enthusiasts toCredit: AP

On January 22, 1897, David Urbansky, a German-Jewish immigrant to the United States who won the Congressional Medal of Honor fighting for the Union in the Civil War, died, at the age of 53 or 54. Urbansky (also spelled Orbansky) was not even a U.S. citizen of the country when he enlisted in the 58th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, but this did not prevent him from serving for more than three years, and distinguishing himself at the battles of Shiloh and Vicksburg.

David Urbansky was born in 1843 in Lautenberg, in West Prussia, today part of Poland, and emigrated to the United States with his family at the age of 15. His stated profession was cabinetmaker. After living in New York for several years, Urbansky moved to Columbus, Ohio.

On October 28, 1861, six months after the war began, Urbansky enlisted in the 58th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, a regiment that was under the command of Capt. Valentine Bausenwein. (Most of Urbansky’s Company B was German-speaking).

Urbansky’s record shows that he saw action in at least 15 battles. These included Fort Donelson (Tennessee, February 1862) and the Battle of Shiloh, fought in April 1862 in the southwestern corner of Tennessee, with Union forces commanded by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

A year later, during the Siege of Vicksburg (May 18 to July 4, 1863), the 58th Ohio participated in the one of the earliest attacks on this, the last remaining Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. When his superior officer was badly wounded, and stranded in no-man’s land, Urbansky, who was all of 5 feet 3 inches tall, came to his aid and, braving heavy fire, carried him back to safety. The officer survived.

After the war, Urbansky, whose commander Capt. Charles Keller, praised him as “a man of honor and bravery,” became one of 18 Ohio soldiers to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military honor, awarded for personal acts of valor in action against an enemy force, and one of only six Jewish Union soldiers to receive the recognition. Today, Urbansky’s medal is in the collection of the National Jewish Archives, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Urbansky was discharged from the army with the rank of corporal, in January 1865, shortly before the war’s end. He then applied for, and quickly was granted, American citizenship. A short time later, he married Rachel Henry, from Schenectady, New York. They made their home, and raised their 12 children, in Piqua, a small city north of Dayton, Ohio, where David owned a successful clothing store.

After a long illness, Urbansky died, and was buried in the Cedar Hill Jewish cemetery. After his death, Rachel and her children moved to Cincinnati and shortened the family name to Urban. She died in 1914, and after her burial in the Walnut Hills cemetery, David’s remains were reinterred by her side.

In December 2000, a ceremony was held honoring Urbansky’s memory, when a new marker noting that he was a Medal of Honor recipient was installed by his grave. According to a report in the Dayton Jewish Observer, an 11-man squad from the 6th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Reenactment Group, attired in Civil War military uniforms, fired their rifles in a salute and played taps.

Miriam Urban, the youngest of David and Rachel’s children, born in 1888, was a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati. An article about her on a website published by the university’s library, notes that she was the only female professor in the history department during the 1920s and ‘30s, and that she was not promoted to full professor until 1944 — 24 years after joining the faculty — a delay that the article attributes to her being a woman.

According to the site, “Liblog,” Urban was remembered by students with a combination of affection and amusement for dressing in “shapeless tweed with white blouses, along with multiple glasses strung with black ribbons around her neck.” It also notes that “her hair was usually in ‘disarray,’” but stresses that she “was a delight to her students, even though she was known to kick a dozing student in the shins or thump someone on the head with a pencil. She would signal the end of the class period by snapping her girdle.”