Monday, December 11, 2000

Overdue honors for unknown hero

New tombstone proves someone cares

        They played taps one last time Sunday for David Urbansky.

        Under four towering oak trees by a hillside grave in Evanston's United Jewish Cemetery, a color guard stood at attention. Nearby, a seven-man firing party in Civil War-style uniforms gave him a 21-gun salute.

        Hero's honors for a hero.

        David Urbansky received the Medal of Honor in 1879. He saved lives during the Civil War as valiantly as he fought to give freedom to all Americans. He cared.

        Until Sunday, this known soldier rested in his grave as an unknown hero.

        Nothing on his original tombstone or grave markers indicated he received the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action. As an army private, he distinguished himself in the Civil War battles of Shiloh and Vicksburg.

        Until Sunday, this brave soldier was just a name carved in stone on a plot of ground in Cincinnati.

        Now, he has what he deserves. A hero's tombstone.

        On white granite, letters defined in gold paint proclaim that here lies:

        David Urbansky
        Medal of Honor

        The new tombstone and Sunday's graveside ceremony came to pass for the same reason David Urbansky got the Medal of Honor. Someone cared.

        The people responsible for the new grave stone worked without pay and sought no glory.

        To me, these uncommon efforts on behalf of a
long-dead soldier tell a simple truth. David Urbansky's selfless spirit lives on.

A soldier's tale
               We live in a selfish age. The me-generation rules the world. So, David Urbansky's story sounds rather foreign.

        He was born in Lautenburg, Prussia — now part of Poland — around 1843 and immigrated to America with his family when he was 15. Trained as a cabinetmaker, he settled near Columbus, Ohio.

        In 1861, six months after the Civil War broke out, he enlisted. He served until 1865, leaving the Army after

        attaining the rank of corporal.

        He fought in two of the war's bloodiest battles. At Shiloh in 1862, both sides suffered combined casualties of 23,700. At Vicksburg, he spent seven months helping to lay siege to that town on the Mississippi.

        During the Vicksburg campaign, then-Private Urbansky rushed onto a battlefield to pick up his wounded commander. In a hail of bullets and cannon fire, he raced back to the Union line. His action saved the officer's life and helped earn the young native of Prussia the Medal of Honor.

        Private Urbansky did all this without even being an American. He did not become a citizen until after the war.

        But he was still willing to fight for America's love of freedom.

        David Urbansky left for war as a teen-ager of 18. He returned an old man of 22. The war weakened his 5-foot, 3-inch frame. He could not speak above a whisper and suffered from chronic heart disease. He died in Piqua in 1897.

        Despite his ailments, he prospered selling clothes and raising a family. He left behind a wife and 12 children.

        After his death, the Urbanskys moved to Cincinnati. They transferred his remains to the cemetery in Evanston in 1914. His old headstone rests next to a monument engraved with the family's Americanized last name, “Urban.”

        There he lay, undisturbed and unheralded, until last July. That's when his grave was discovered by Raymond Albert, a retired tree farmer from Amanda, Ohio, and a member of the Medal of Honor Historical Society.

        Raymond Albert's hobby is finding long-lost graves of Medal of Honor recipients.

        “Always say, "recipients,' never "winners,'” Raymond told me. “The Medal of Honor is not a contest. You can't win it. Receiving it is an honor.”

        So is speaking with Raymond Albert. He does his Medal of Honor research without pay. And often without praise. He expects neither.

        “The people who received this medal didn't do it to make money,” Raymond said. “They did it for the country they love.

        “This is my way of saying thanks.”

        Over the last 15 years, he has tracked down the final resting places of Ohio soldiers gallant enough to earn the Medal of Honor. David Urbansky's grave was his 16th find.

        According to historical accounts, Private Urbansky was one of only six Jewish Civil War soldiers awarded the nation's highest military honor. He may be the only Jewish Civil War soldier from Ohio so decorated.

        Raymond Albert knows how infrequently the medal is awarded. “Over the years, 40 million Americans have served in the armed forces,” he said. “Only a little over 3,400 Medals of Honor have been awarded.”

        In the Civil War, 310,654 Ohioans served. By Raymond Albert's count, 89 Medal of Honor recipients from that war are buried in the state, with 10 - including David Urbansky - in Hamilton County.

        Some of those 89 recipients' medals are prized family possessions or are displayed in museums. Some have been lost.

The medal
               David Urbansky's Medal of Honor rests in a green folder in Hebrew Union College's American Jewish Archives. Four and one-half inches in length, a bronze star-shaped medal with five points hangs from a bronze eagle flying from a red, white and blue ribbon. The whole thing fits easily in the palm of your hand.

        The back of the medal bears this inscription, complete with the government's spelling of the private's last name:


        The Congress to Pvt. David Orbanski, Co. B. 58 Ohio Vols. for Gallantry at Shiloh and Vicksburg.

        Pin intact, the medal is suitable for attaching to the chest of a blue Union uniform.

To serve
               Dr. Todd Williams was dressed in Union blue Sunday at the cemetery. The Springdale dentist belonged to the ceremony's color guard and firing party, 10 members of the 6th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Re-enactment Group.

        He wore the uniform, he said, “of a lowly Union private.”

        David Urbansky once had a similar uniform and held the same rank. He wore both with pride.

        “We must remember this man,” the dentist said. “He helped preserve the Union. He received the Medal of Honor. He was a hero. He cannot be forgotten.”

        Once you learn about him, it's impossible to forget a man like David Urbansky.

        He cared.


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