The place: New Market, Virginia; the date: May 15, 1864.
Under the command of General John C. Breckinridge, 257 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and other Confederate troops charge across a rain-soaked, newly plowed field against General Franz Sigel’s Union forces. Many of the cadets lose their shoes in the muck, rendering that ground the “Field of Lost Shoes.” With a loss of 10 dead and 45 wounded, this battalion, most of them teenagers, sweep aside their enemies, capture some artillery pieces, and help win the day for the South.
Among the cadets is a descendent of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Garland Jefferson, who is mortally wounded in the chest during this assault. After the battle, his best friend and roommate, also in the battle, seeks him out, commandeers a wagon, transports him to a private residence, and spends the next two days caring for his dying comrade, often holding him in his arms and reading to him from the Bible.
Jefferson’s caretaker was Moses Ezekiel (1844–1917), the first Jewish cadet to gain admission to the institute. The son of a Richmond merchant, he was an ardent lover of Virginia who took such pride in his participation at the Battle of New Market that his grave in Arlington National Cemetery bears this simple inscription: “Moses J. Ezekiel, Sergeant of Company C, Battalion of Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute.”
It’s an unusual epitaph, given that Moses Ezekiel was one of the most famous American sculptors of his day.
Fame and Obscurity
After the war ended, Ezekiel returned to finish his degree at VMI. During that time, Robert E. Lee, the former Confederate general serving as president of VMI’s neighbor Washington College, befriended Ezekiel, recognized his talents, and encouraged him to pursue his art.
Ezekiel heeded that advice, studied anatomy for a brief time at the Medical College of Virginia, won an award that permitted him to continue his studies first in Germany and then in Rome, and never looked back, becoming a lifelong resident of Rome. By the end of his life, he had finished over 200 sculptures and won numerous awards, including the Michel Beer Prix de Rome and the Gold Medal of the Royal Society of Palermo. Italian King Victor Emmanuel bestowed on him various titles and a knighthood.
His studio in Rome became nearly as renowned as his sculptures, evoking such descriptions as this one by Samson Oppenheim, editor of The American Jewish Year Book:
“Perhaps the most characteristic of his creations was the celebrated studio. … Here in the vaulted thermae built in the days of Diocletian he had gathered together treasures from many lands and ages. Ancient marbles and alabasters, bronzes, costly metals and relics beautified with precious stones, medieval parchments and church ornaments, oriental ivories, velvets and silks hung on all sides, in alluring contrast to the latter-day furniture and the twentieth century grand piano, proclaiming the broad sympathies and the catholic tastes of this citizen of the world.”
Though he became the only renowned sculptor to fight in the Civil War and the first famous Jewish-American sculptor, Ezekiel’s reputation faded after his death. This demise in his status is commonly attributed to his traditional approach to art.
As Susan Eisenfeld writes in her online article “Moses Ezekiel: Hidden In Plain Sight, “In death, the art world ignored and forgot him because he never innovated; he emulated the classical style of the previous masters, focusing on the full human figure and historical and allegorical subjects, even when the time for that style had come and gone.”
Unknown but Not Forgotten
Moses Ezekiel may be unfamiliar to most of us—not even many Civil War buffs know of his artistic fame—but every day, thousands of people view his art.
Outside Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History is “Religious Liberty,” one of Ezekiel’s first commissioned works and the first American sculpture devoted to this topic. The woman representing liberty wears 13 stars in her crown, one for each of the original colonies, and holds a copy of the Constitution. Originally commissioned for the 1876 Centennial Exposition, “Religious Liberty” today stands near the Liberty Bell in the city’s Independence National Historic Park.
Many years later, the Charleston, West Virginia, United Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned Ezekiel to create a statue of Stonewall Jackson, who was born in that state when it was still part of Virginia. Today, the statue stands in front of the Capitol Building in Charleston. Here, we see a stalwart Jackson with his sword pointed at the ground in his left hand, binoculars clenched in his right, and with the buttoned tunic and riding boots reinforcing the nickname Jackson earned at the Battle of First Manassas: “Stonewall.”
Ezekiel’s statue of Thomas Jefferson, which may be found today in front of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda, shows the author of the Declaration of Independence standing atop a replica of the Liberty Bell. Adorning the bell are representative figures of Liberty, Justice, Equality, and the Brotherhood of Man. To honor Jefferson’s deep belief in religious liberty, Ezekiel has Equality holding a tablet titled “Religious Freedom” with the names of various deities—God, Jehovah, Brahma, Atma, Ra, Allah, Zeus.
For his beloved VMI, Ezekiel created two monuments: “Virginia Mourning Her Dead” and another statue of Stonewall Jackson, who taught at the institute for some years before the Civil War and whose name has long been associated with that college.
Dedicated in 1903, “Virginia Mourning Her Dead” honors the cadets who fell at New Market and contains the remains of six of them in a copper box in the monument’s base. The woeful figure bent in grief is the goddess Virtus, who appears on the Virginia state flag crushing tyranny along with the words “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” or “Thus always to tyrants.”
Though this statue remains on the institute’s grounds, the Jackson statue met a less kindly fate. In the wake of the destruction or removal of Confederate statues in the last few years, the authorities at VMI determined to dismantle the statue and place it on the New Market battlefield.
The Confederate Memorial
Ezekiel’s Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, which he called “New South,” has come under attack as well. In the wake of the 2017 riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, that centered on the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, 22 descendants of the Ezekiel family issued a statement demanding that the “New South” monument be removed from Arlington and put “in a museum that makes clear its oppressive history.” Incidentally, Ezekiel’s remains and those of three other Confederates lie buried at the base of this statue.
The Arlington Cemetery online site describes the statue in this way:
“The elaborately designed monument offers a nostalgic, mythologized vision of the Confederacy, including highly sanitized depictions of slavery. Standing on a 32-foot-tall pedestal, a bronze, classical female figure, crowned with olive leaves, represents the American South. She holds a laurel wreath, a plow stock and a pruning hook, with a Biblical inscription at her feet: ‘They have beat their swords into plough-shares and their spears into pruning hooks.’ The monument’s pedestal features 14 shields, engraved with the coats of arms of the 13 Confederate states plus the border state of Maryland (which neither seceded from the Union nor joined the Confederacy). Thirty-two life-sized figures depict mythical gods alongside Southern soldiers and civilians.”
The article then adds that the statue also depicts two slaves.
So far, the Confederate Memorial remains in place.
Where Are We Today?
Moses Ezekiel and his sculptures not only reveal his cultural biases and interests but also act as a mirror for us.
First, what does the criticism about his lack of “innovation” and his traditional approach to his work say about our world of art? If we examine his statuary with its precision, realism, and story line, should we necessarily regard his respect for the old masters as a sign of failure or a lack of creativity? Many people, including some critics, still prefer representational to abstract art, which means that they might more favorably judge his creations. And should his focus on “historical and allegorical subjects” condemn his art to the wastebasket, or does that shift from such subjects indicate our own culture’s movement away from the fundamentals of Western civilization?
Ezekiel’s art presents us with another problem today. For his entire life, he remained an ardent advocate for Virginia and the cause of the South. In his studio in Rome, he displayed a Confederate battle flag, and his family had owned some slaves. Moreover, he clearly intended for some of his sculptures to honor Virginia and the Confederacy.
But what are we to make of a man like Moses Ezekiel, who once said of slavery: “It was an evil we inherited and wanted to get rid of. … Our struggle was simply a constitutional one based upon … state’s rights and especially on free trade and no tariff.” Was he sincere—many Southerners at that time offered the same line of causation—or was he glossing over slavery as the reason for the war?
Whatever the case, Moses Ezekiel was blind to the ramifications of his beliefs and what the future might make of them. But I wonder: Are we equally as blind to our own present, too certain of our moral superiority over our ancestors to examine and consider the nuances of history and to identify as well the faults and failings of the age in which we live?