Statues of Stonewall: The Virginia Military Institute

Second in a series

From his perch high atop a granite pedestal at the head of the Virginia Military Institute’s parade grounds in Lexington, Virginia, Stonewall Jackson watches the sunset every day.

The statue was sculpted in 1869 by a VMI graduate, Moses Ezekiel, who fought as a member of the cadet corps at the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864. After graduation, at the encouragement of Robert E. Lee, Ezekiel went on to study art in Rome, where he eventually earned fame as a world-renowned sculptor. His sculpture of Stonewall represents a somewhat idealized vision of the war hero as he might’ve appeared in battle, standing erect, as ever, like a stone wall. Jackson’s feet are together, the wind blows his frock coat open slightly at the waist, the sword in his left hand points to the ground. He holds binoculars in his right hand. His head is topped by a wide-brimmed hat of the sort he never wore in real life. A lit cannonball lies beside his left foot, perturbing the soldier not in the least.

“The artist took some license in how he conveys this heroic image of Jackson staring across the battleground,” Colonel Keith Gibson, director of VMI’s museum, once explained to me. “Ezekiel placed a fused, flaming cannonball at Jackson’s feet, symbolic of Jackson’s years as an artillery officer, which was his primary area of military command and instruction before the Civil War. The statue is not a documentary or historical portrayal of Jackson on the battlefield at Chancellorsville. It’s heroic imagery.”

The placement of the statue on the parade ground in 1912 didn’t happen just because the area offered a convenient, wide-open space. “That’s where Jackson did his best teaching,” Gibson says. “He was a somewhat awkward professor in the classroom, but when he got out on the parade ground and instructed the cadets in artillery drill, that’s where he was comfortable, that’s where he was really most knowledgeable because he had personal experience from the Mexican War.”

The statue was just one way the campus chose to honor Stonewall. “The years between 1890 and 1915 were a major era of Stonewall Jackson commemoration in many places,” Gibson says. “A building, Jackson Memorial Hall, is built here during that time period. The barracks is expanded and a new arch is built, and it seemed reasonable to name it after Stonewall Jackson—Jackson’s Arch, as it’s known today.”

Going to and from their living quarters, cadets can read, in big bronze letters on the arch, one of Jackson’s favorite maxims:

“You may be whatever you resolve to be.”

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