Little Phil: the Unseen Heroism and Struggles of a Civil War Soldier

August 13, 2020
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Philip Friedberger, a German immigrant, served as a Private in Company I of the 16th Ohio Infantry. He left behind only the smallest footprint in the historical record, his death at age 38 attributed to suicide while on an out-of-town job-hunting expedition. He appeared on only one US census in 1870 (unfortunately, he had passed by the time the 1880 census was taken). We have no indication of when he immigrated to America. There is a “Philippe Friedberger” who arrived in New York City in September of 1859 from Baden on the ship “Mercury,” but this passenger’s age was recorded as 16, which does not quite line up with the birth date of June 11, 1841, engraved on the soldier’s tombstone. A clerical error? If this was him, it could explain why Friedberger does not appear on the 1860 census, as he would have had to travel almost 500 miles to where he enlisted two years later, in Wooster, OH.  But, more than 150 years later, we have no way to confirm this. His presence in the historical newspapers mark only a Sheriff’s Sale of his belongings and his membership in the local chapter of the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith; not even a mention of his marriage or death has been found. His military service records provide only an enlistment and a discharge date. But, the testimony provided in his widow’s pension claim paints a vividly different picture of the life of “Little Phil,” “the best soldier in Co. I” of the 16th Ohio.

"View of Cumberland Gap, from the south." Middleton, Strobridge & Co., Lithographers. Cincinnati, Ohio: Photographed and Published by A.S. Morse, Dec. 2, 1862. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War Veterans, ca. 1861-ca. 1910. Microfilm Publication and Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 561929: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

Philip Friedberger enlisted in the service on 11/01/1861 for three years in Wooster, “small for his age[,] not very muscular but in the best of health” according to his Sergeant, Samuel L. Montgomery. He was mustered out with his company 10/31/1864 at Camp Chase, in Columbus, OH, after fulfilling this service commitment. Because he was never captured or wounded, the muster rolls of the 16th Ohio provide additional no details of Friedberger’s time with the regiment. But, Sergeant Montgomery gave a moving account, writing to the Bureau of Pensions in 1898 on behalf of his widow, remembering Friedberger and his efforts very poignantly over 30 years after the fact:

“I cannot remember of his ever being off of duty. I was absent from the Co[mpany] about six months (being a prisoner of war)[,] aside from that I was with him the term of service. He was a boy of remarkable grit, whilst six footers were falling by the wayside, ‘Little Phil’ (as we called him) never left the ranks, his grit never forsook him, even [in] the last six months when I could see that hard service was telling on him & he really was not able for duty yet ‘Phil’ insisted on holding his place in the ranks. He had a bad cough becoming round shouldered & very much reduced in flesh. He was the best soldier in Co I. Do his widow justice & do it quick.

Very respectfully,

Samuel L. Montgomery

Late Sergt Co I 16 O.V.I”

Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War Veterans, ca. 1861-ca. 1910. Microfilm Publication and Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 561929: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

After the war, Friedberger settled down in the territory of his former foes, in Uniontown, Alabama. When he wed Ardele Unger on 10/23/1870, in a ceremony performed by a Rabbi Yaeger, he became the lone Union Veteran in a large family of Confederates. Ardele’s father, Daniel, served in the Alabama Home Guard, and her brother, Solomon, served in the 1st and 8th Alabama Infantries, as well as the 9th Mississippi Infantry.  Additionally, three of Ardele’s sisters were married to the Jewish Confederate veterans: Louis Holberg of the 11th Mississippi Infantry; Magnus H. Rochotsh of the 12th Alabama Infantry; and Sigfried Pake of the 4th Alabama Reserves.

Friedberger continued to struggle with his health; the deterioration from his time at war described by Sergeant Montgomery never improved. Neighbors who knew Friedberger from his arrival in Uniontown until his death provided testimony for Ardele’s pension application:

“When he first returned from the war, about 1864 or 1865, and down to his death, [Friedberger] continually had a hacking, serious cough, and his lungs seemed to be seriously affected, his chest was apparently sunken and he appeared all the while to be suffering from lung disease…. [T]hat in [their] best judgment and opinion during all said time, as compared to an able bodied man, said lung trouble rendered him totally disabled from the performance of manual labor requiring physical strength.”

"Sheriff's Sale." Original data: Alabama Beacon [Greensboro, AL], vol. 30, no. 33, 18 Jan. 1873, p. 2.

On the 1870 census, Friedberger was listed as a merchant. In 1873, he lost a lawsuit to another merchant house, M. Meyer & Co., and was forced to give up his stock and shop equipment for Sheriff’s Sale, “to-wit: Two Miles; one two-horse Wagon with body; one set two-horse Wagon Harness; and a stock of Merchandize [sic], Dry Goods and Groceries.”

Friedberger’s luck did not improve, and by 1879, he was seeking employment 20 miles from his home in Greensboro, AL. An acquaintance, Salomon M. Marx, recounted running into the veteran on the day he died, and how the unfortunate circumstances played out:

“Friedberger came here looking for employment[.] I met him on the street and shook hands with him during the day sometime, and that night about twelve or one o’clock he died.

When I met him on the street I noticed nothing in particular the matter with him.

About midday I saw him being led to the hotel. I heard he was sick and about dark I went over to the hotel to see him[.] I found Friedberger lying in bed breathing hard–I called him by name, he looked up at me and then dropped off to sleep. Then I remained with him until he died….

I understood that he had taken a dose of morphine or something of the same nature[,] whether with suicidal intent I do not know but that was the supposition. 

During the afternoon after it was discovered that he had taken morphine, or whatever it was, he was walked up and down the room and strapped in order to keep him awake. After I got there we did not walk him as he was too weak.

He was unconscious all the time I was there except when I called him[,] he looked up at me and opened his eyes but did not speak. He died that night about midnight.”

The question of whether Philip Friedberger died of an accidental overdose, or by suicide, was never definitively answered. The Bureau of Pensions made no conclusion, although Hale County, AL, did; listing the cause of death as “Suicide by posioning.” Either way, Friedberger is a classic example of an exemplary soldier coming home to settle into civilian life permanently disabled, and unable to find steady employment, with his life ending prematurely without any real notice or appreciation for his sacrifice.  We don’t know what his actual medical condition was, but Friedberger was struggling with constant lung problems, and there would have been few options for him but morphine to alleviate this suffering at that time. Friedberger never applied for a pension himself, which might have alleviated some of both his financial and physical burdens, and his widow did not apply until over a decade after his death. Dying in 1879, residing in the South during the Reconstruction Era, Friedberger may not have known a pension would even be available to him; the US Government did not start advertising their availability in the newspapers until much later, and the requirements to qualify for one were much stricter and harder to prove until Civil War veterans began reaching old age.

We come across these narratives a lot, while working on The Shapell Roster. While we wish we could give additional details about Friedberger’s death, and his life as a former Union soldier amidst Confederate veterans; other accounts of Jewish Union veterans living in the South during the Reconstruction era tell us that each Jewish veteran’s experiences were unique. Many of these stories will be showcased in the forthcoming book version of the Shapell Roster.  Rebuilding and piecing together these narratives is never easy, but when we do, we feel honor-bound to tell the stories; include them in the Roster; and help put these individuals back and more fully into the historical record.