Fighting for VMI and the Confederacy forever changed Moses Ezekiel’s life, and his artwork celebrated and honored that experience.
June 4, 1914, was a typical hot, humid late-spring day in the nation’s capital, but it would have taken more than oppressive heat to stop thousands of aging Civil War veterans from making a pilgrimage to Arlington National Cemetery to witness at long last the unveiling of a monument honoring the Confederate dead buried there.
An impressive array of dignitaries accompanied the old warriors and their families to the cemetery that day, the 106th anniversary of the birth of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Besides President Woodrow Wilson and assorted congressmen, the cream of Washington society was represented, along with members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. A contingent of troops from nearby Fort Myer also paid tribute to their predecessors from that distant War Between the States.
At 3 p.m., as a thunderstorm threatened, the strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Dixie”signified the official start of the ceremony. When the monument finally was unveiled, The Washington Post reported, the band “was drowned by a cheer which rose from 4,000 throats.” Through it all, sitting in honor at the speaker’s stand, was the monument’s creator, internationally renowned sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel.
The 69-year-old Ezekiel, a native of Richmond, Va., was at the height of his international fame in 1914. From his Rome studio, where he had worked since the early 1870s, he had created scores of bronze and marble sculptures that graced public venues as well as private collections throughout the United States and Europe.
His latest opus was the first—and to date the only—Confederate monument at Arlington, an elaborate 32l⁄2-foothigh bronze masterpiece adorned with a circular frieze of 32 life-size Rebel soldiers heading off the war. At the top is a majestic female figure facing South, one hand extending a laurel wreath, the other holding a pruning hook.
Ezekiel was a prudent choice as the memorial’s sculptor. Although he had lived overseas most of his life, he remained a dyed-in-the-wool Southern patriot. As a teenager in 1861, he begged his family to allow him to enroll at Virginia Military Institute. He became the first Jewish student to attend the venerable military college in Lexington, Va.
Ezekiel’s VMI experience, which included the seminal Battle of New Market in May 1864, solidified his unabashed Confederate partisanship for the remainder of his life. In his 1912 memoir, he wrote that he was “thoroughly imbued with the idea that we were not fighting for the perpetuation of slavery, but for the principle of states’ rights and free trade.” Even after the war, Ezekiel never took an oath of allegiance to the Union.
The artist was born on October 28, 1844, the son of Jacob and Catherine de Castro Ezekiel. His grandparents, who ran a prosperous dry-goods store in Richmond, owned slaves. It was after the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861 that he first “entreated my grandparents to let me go to the Virginia Military Institute….I would follow a military career and use my art only as a secondary pleasure.” After passing the VMI entrance exam, Ezekiel arrived in Lexington on September 17, 1862—the first time in his life he had set foot outside the city of his birth.
The Battle of New Market, 18 months after Ezekiel’s arrival at VMI, would be the institute’s defining Civil War moment. It began in the early morning hours of May 11 with an order from VMI’s superintendent, General Francis H. Smith, to assist Maj. Gen. John Breckinridge in the Shenandoah Valley. “Any cadet that did not like going would be allowed to remain [behind],” Ezekiel later wrote, noting that no cadet opted out. The few who were delegated to stay behind to guard the institute, he said, “fell out of ranks dejected and with tears in their eyes.”
In early May, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had ordered Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel to move his 6,300 Union troops from Martinsburg to Staunton to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad line. The only force standing in Sigel’s way was a collection of about 1,500 men under Maj. Gen. John Imboden. Breckinridge quickly moved from southwest Virginia to join Imboden, who had asked Smith to use the cadets as a reserve force.
Around 7 a.m. 257 cadets, some as young as 15, marched out of Lexington toward Staunton, 36 miles away. It took two rainy days for the cadets to reach their destination. “When we arrived,” Ezekiel recalled, “the young ladies of the town met us on the road….We were feted and cheered.”
Breckinridge rendezvoused with Imboden and the cadets on the 13th, and the small army of about 4,100 marched another 20 miles and camped just outside Harrisonburg. On the 14th, the army marched to Mount Tabor, about seven miles from New Market. During the afternoon the Southerners engaged in small skirmishes and a brief artillery duel.
At 1 the next morning, yet another brutal rainy day, the cadets finally were called into battle. They dressed quickly and quietly, prayed briefly with Captain Frank Preston, a VMI professor, then marched toward New Market, reaching the town’s outskirts at dawn.
The battle began in earnest at 10. Around 2 p.m. Breckinridge ordered an assault on Sigel’s batteries on Bushong’s Hill. The Rebels came under withering artillery and small-arms fire. Then the VMI cadets were ordered into the fray. They marched steadfastly through a muddy open field, then up a small slope, reaching the Bushong House in good order. As they moved into the farm’s orchard, however, they were pounded by Yankee artillery.
Ezekiel was part of Company C’s color guard. Like many other cadets, he lost his shoes in the muddy field. “The minie balls were whistling around us,” he wrote. “Every now and then we heard the enemy’s cannon and saw the shells coming towards us…with that peculiar howling sound which became more intense as they neared us and finally struck the earth, exploded and sent fragments in all directions, carrying death and destruction.”
Despite the onslaught, the cadets pressed on, and when the artillery fire finally stopped, they broke into a run with fixed bayonets through another muddy wheatfield. Sigel quickly withdrew his batteries and ordered a general retreat.
With that, the battle was over: The cadets had helped carry the day. “The boys from the Military Institute were more agile and ardent” than the veteran Confederate troops in his command, Imboden later wrote. “They suffered severely” but “still kept their formation till the order was given to charge at ‘double-quick.’ The work was then soon done.” Imboden noted that a “wild yell went up when a cadet mounted a caisson and waved the Institute flag in triumph over it.”
Sigel’s force suffered 840 casualties; the outnumbered Confederates 540. Among the casualties: 10 VMI cadets who were killed in action or later died of wounds received on the battlefield, and 57 wounded cadets. The wounded technically included Ezekiel, who reported that he was “struck in the breast by a spent ball,” which he said “had slightly grazed my skin.”
After the fighting Ezekiel learned that his VMI roommate, 17-year-old Thomas Garland Jefferson (whose grandfather was a cousin of Thomas Jefferson), had been shot in the chest and lungs and lay severely wounded in a ramshackle house on the battlefield. Finding Jefferson alone at the house, Ezekiel gave him water and arranged to have him moved to more comfortable surroundings. For two days he did what he could to help, but he couldn’t save his dear friend.
The cadets left New Market on May 18 and arrived in Staunton three days later—greeted enthusiastically, Ezekiel recalled, by “a group of young ladies and hundreds of citizens.” The young men then were pressed into active-duty service in the Confederate Army and ordered to report to Richmond.
During their two-week stay in the Confederate capital, the cadets mounted a dress parade on Capitol Square, where Virginia Governor William “Extra Billy” Smith and Confederate President Jefferson Davis congratulated the troops. The Confederate House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution praising their “gallant conduct” at New Market.
On June 7, the cadets headed back to Lexington but were forced to flee on the 11th because of the imminent arrival of Union Maj. Gen. David Hunter, following his defeat of Brig. Gen. William Edmonson “Grumble” Jones’ Rebels at Piedmont on June 5. On the 12th Hunter’s men marched into Lexington and torched VMI.
Hunter’s next target was Lynchburg, another important Confederate transportation hub 45 miles to the southeast. Again there were precious few Confederate troops in the area, and the VMI boys were ordered to serve as a reserve force under a corps that Jubal Early was bringing in from Richmond. The cadets arrived at Lynchburg on June 16, joining two of Breckinridge’s infantry brigades and Imboden’s cavalrymen. Early’s first contingent arrived the next day.
After the fighting started, however, Hunter ordered a surprise withdrawal and retreated across the Allegheny Mountains into West Virginia. The cadets headed back to Lexington only to find the Institute in ruins. On October 1, after a long furlough, the VMI cadets assembled at Fort Lee in Richmond and did time in the trenches around the city. “We dug rifle pits, had tents to sleep under, and very often could see the enemy in the distance,” Ezekiel remembered.
The corps disbanded in April 1865, just before the evacuation of Richmond. Ezekiel, wearing his cadet uniform, tried to flee but was captured by Yankee soldiers, who told him he could go free if he pledged allegiance to the Union—a pledge he refused to take. Eventually released, Ezekiel spent the next few months with his family.
The following October academic work recommenced in Lexington, and Ezekiel joined his fellow cadets. Soon after arriving in Lexington, he was visited by Robert E. Lee, who had just taken over as president of Washington College in Lexington. Lee, Ezekiel noted in his memoirs, said: “I have often heard about your talent for painting and sculpture. Don’t you think you will follow art as a profession?” Ezekiel replied that he “had given up entirely” the idea of pursuing his art, but he later decided to take Lee’s advice to heart. After graduating from VMI with honors in 1866, Ezekiel studied anatomy at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond for a year, then moved to Cincinnati to train at two art schools.
In 1869 Ezekiel entered the Royal Academy of Art in Berlin. In 1873, at the age of 29, he became the first non-German to win the prestigious Michel-Beer Prix de Rome, which provided for two years of study in Rome. Ezekiel lived in the Eternal City for the rest of his life, creating statuary and sculpture at his elaborate studio housed in the baths of Emperor Diocletian. His studio became a mecca for artists.
In all, Ezekiel completed some 200 works. Perhaps the most famous are a marble group representing liberty—his first big commission—that was displayed at the 1876 U.S. Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia; a group of 11 7-foot marble statues of the world’s greatest painters and sculptors for the original Corcoran Gallery in Washington (the sculptures are now at the Norfolk Botanical Garden); a monumental bronze sculpture of Thomas Jefferson for the old Jefferson County Courthouse in Louisville (smaller replicas are at VMI and the Library of Virginia in Richmond, and a full-size version was presented to the University of Virginia); and a marble bust of Jefferson commissioned by the U.S. Senate that is displayed in the U.S. Capitol.
Ezekiel’s Civil War–inspired work includes the Confederate monument at Arlington and Virginia Mourning Her Dead, which was dedicated on June 23, 1903, at VMI. The monument is topped with a bronze statue of a female figure sitting on the remains of a breastwork, holding a reversed lance, her head bowed in mourning, her right foot resting on a broken cannon overgrown with ivy. Bronze plaques on the statue’s base list the names of every cadet who fought at New Market. Six of the 10 VMI cadets killed there are buried at the base.
Ezekiel’s other Civil War–related works include a bronze statue of Stonewall Jackson commissioned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Charleston, W.Va. (a bronze replica stands on the VMI parade grounds); the Confederate Memorial Gateway at the Hickman (Ky.) City Cemetery; and the Confederate Monument at the former Yankee POW camp on Johnson’s Island in Ohio.
Ezekiel received many honors during his lifetime, including a knighthood by Italian King Victor Emmanuel (he is often referred to as “Sir Moses”). He died in Italy on March 27, 1917, but his body was not returned to the United States until 1921 because of the chaos that ensued in Europe after World War I. He was interred at the foot of his Confederate memorial in Arlington on March 31, 1921, in the first burial ceremony held in the cemetery’s amphitheater.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.