The Civil War profoundly affected everyone who fought in it. In one way or another, it shaped who they became. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. later pronounced: "In our youth, our hearts were touched by fire."
There was perhaps no better example of a youth touched by war's fire than a Richmonder who went on to international acclaim as a sculptor. Born in 1844, one of 14 Jewish children, Moses Jacob Ezekiel came from humble origins. He received a basic education but left school to work in a local store. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the Civil War, Ezekiel decided to finish his learning by attending college.
He chose the Virginia Military Institute because of its willingness to accept him despite his weak academic preparation and, as he later stated, because of his own desire to defend his native state. A member of the Class of 1866, he was the first Jew to attend VMI.
Ezekiel's cadetship was typical, yet atypical. Being Jewish, he received special attention from tormentors in the upper classes, but he later stated that he resisted their attempts at physical abuse. What distinguishes the experience of Ezekiel and his fellow cadets was an event unique in the annals of American colleges and universities.
In May 1864, a Union army under Franz Sigel moved southward through the Shenandoah Valley intending to capture Lynchburg, a vital Confederate transportation hub.
Rebel commander John C. Breckinridge assembled a makeshift army to stop Sigel. Needing every musket he could gather, Breckinridge reluctantly asked VMI Superintendent Francis H. Smith to have the cadet corps join him to serve as a reserve.
The 256 cadets, including Ezekiel, practically raced 81 miles to join Breckinridge near the town of New Market just as Sigel's army approached on May 15. The ensuing battle ebbed and flowed, but when Breckinridge's line wavered and a breach opened, the Confederate commander did something he had dreaded. "Put the boys in," he ordered, "and may God forgive me."
In a remarkable display of discipline and courage, the VMI lads formed up in perfect order and surged forward, Ezekiel among them. Union artillery and musket fire tore into their ranks, but the cadets kept advancing. A few minutes later when the smoke had cleared, the boys had captured a Union cannon, along with a number of blue-clad soldiers, helping turn the battle into a Confederate victory.
Ezekiel emerged from the ordeal unscathed, but the cost was heavy — 10 cadets dead or mortally wounded and 47 wounded. Among them was his roommate, Thomas Garland Jefferson, who died two days later in Ezekiel's arms. He never forgot that frightful experience. For the remainder of the war, Ezekiel served with other cadets training Confederate recruits and draftees in Richmond, and in the trenches of Petersburg.
In 1866, he finished his degree at VMI. He went on to become one of the school's most distinguished graduates in a field rarely associated with his alma mater. As a cadet, he had displayed unusual artistic talent. According to some accounts, Robert E. Lee, president of neighboring Washington College after the war, urged Ezekiel to pursue those skills.
Heeding Lee's advice, Ezekiel moved to Cincinnati and then Berlin to study sculpture at the Royal Academy of Art. Once established as an artist, he moved to Rome and opened a studio. During his career, he produced more than 200 works and won numerous prizes and honors, including a knighthood from King Victor Emanuel of Italy.
Sir Moses never forgot his native Virginia and his alma mater. When he died in 1917 during World War I, his body was temporarily entombed in Rome. Four years later, it was interred in the Confederate Memorial section of Arlington National Cemetery. Despite his fame as an artist, his gravestone reads: "Moses J. Ezekiel, Sergeant of Company C, Battalion of Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute."
Before his death, Ezekiel donated one of his most significant works, "Virginia Mourning Her Dead," to VMI. Often referred to as the "New Market Monument," six of the 10 cadets killed in battle lie near its base, including his roommate.
Eleven other statues of his can be found on the grounds of the Norfolk Botanical Garden. Exposed for years to the elements, these statues, portraying famous artists and sculptors, have been designated as one of 10 of Virginia's Most Endangered Artifacts by a program sponsored by the Virginia Collections Initiative and the Virginia Association of Museums.
How fitting it would be to restore these statues to their original glory during the Civil War sesquicentennial. Virginia's most famous artist and Civil War veteran deserves no less.
Charles F. Bryan Jr. is president and CEO emeritus of the Virginia Historical Society. Contact him at email@example.com.