The boy who became the sculptor stood guard over the dead general’s casket. We don’t know if he ever saw him alive, though it is possible their paths may have crossed on a spring day in Richmond when the Civil War was just starting. However, the stories of Stonewall Jackson and all that he represented to the post-war Southern mind came to life decades later under the skillful hands Moses Ezekiel, a former Virginia Military Institute (VMI) cadet who had stood by as Corporal of the Guard at “Stonewall” Jackson’s final funeral in Lexington. Yesterday—December 7, 2020—that statue was removed from the parade field at VMI and begins its journey from the still-active military school to the quieter fields and museum setting at New Market battlefield in the shadow of Massanutten Mountain.
Most reading this blog post are familiar with Thomas J. Jackson, the Confederate general who baffled Union generals in the Shenandoah Valley, underperformed in the Seven Days, and helped to soar the Confederacy to battlefield victories until wounded on a dark road near Chancellorsville and “crossed the river” a week later. Most probably have strong opinions about Jackson as a man and as a general which will be reflected in their contemplations of yesterday’s reports and photos from Lexington. But perhaps in this moment of change, it would be helpful to consider a little about the artist and the history of the sculpture. Their sagas are not as well-known, but may be helpful to consider.
Moses Ezekiel, born on October 28, 1844 in a large Jewish family, grew up in Richmond and worked in his grandfather’s store as a bookkeeper. Fascinated by art, young Moses showed remarkable talent, and at age 13 created his first sculpture, a bust of clay, depicting his father. By 1861, the teen wanted to be a soldier, and finally, in 1862 with his family’s permission and a state cadetship (scholarship), he matriculated at Virginia Military Institute and was the first cadet of Jewish faith accepted at the school. At VMI, Ezekiel would have heard stories about “Old Tom Fool”, the professor-now-turned general, but he did not sit under Jackson’s tutelage nor fight under his command; standing guard during the general’s funeral and burial seems to have been the closest Ezekiel got to Jackson.[i]
Ezekiel helped write another chapter of Shenandoah Valley Civil War history, though, on May 15, 1864, when he and the rest of the Corps of Cadets fought at the Battle of New Market. Initially present as reserves, the corps came under fire on Shirley’s Hill and then later filled a gap in the Confederate lines near the Bushong Farm. With a sudden charge across an open muddy field, the cadets immortalized themselves by helping to win the day’s battle for the Confederate side. It came at a cost, though; Ezekiel’s roommate, Thomas Garland Jefferson, was mortally wounded, and Ezekiel was by his side when he died hours later.
Following the Battle of New Market and the burning of VMI the following month, the Corps of Cadets moved to Richmond. As the war came to an end, they helped defend the last lines around the Confederate capital. Union troops entering Richmond captured Ezekiel in his cadet uniform and put him in prison, offering to let him go if he would take the oath of allegiance. He refused, arguing he had down nothing wrong and whatever he had done he would certainly do again if given the opportunity. Eventually, Ezekiel’s father secured his release.[ii]
When VMI reopened, Ezekiel returned and finished his course of study. There, his artistic talent caught the attention Robert E. Lee, the new president of Washington College. Lee told Ezekiel: “I hope you will be an artist, as it seems to me you are cut out for one… But, whatever you do, try to prove to the world that if we did not succeed in our struggle, we are worthy of success, and do earn a reputation in whatever profession you undertake.”[iii] Lee’s words seem to have an effect on the young artist. After graduating, Ezekiel studied anatomy at the Medical College of Virginia and then moved to Cincinnati. His sculpting started to attract attention in local art galleries, and Ezekiel desired to pursue his study of art in Europe.
Ezekiel studied and worked in studios across Europe, eventually setting up his own in Rome. Scholars have grouped his art into three subject categories: religious, Confederacy, and heroic portraits. And sometimes the categories overlapped. His art was celebrated across the continents. U.S. Presidents and kings of Europe offered praise for his works which were commissioned on both sides of the Atlantic. [iv]
The Civil War had scarred and shaped Ezekiel’s life, and taking inspiration from Lee’s words, he crafted bronze figures to represent ideals, historical characters, and selective memory of Old South. Ezekiel considered himself devoted to the South, and experienced disappointment that more memorial committees did not approach him as the early phases of monument placements occurred. One note to a former VMI classmate in 1909 included: “I am happy, however, to say that I am now modeling a statue of Stonewall Jackson for Charleston, W. Va., in reality after forty years the only commission I ever received from the South.”[v]
That statue, completed in 1910, had been commissioned at the request of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to stand in front of the West Virginia state capitol building. (Jackson had been born in the part of Virginia that became West Virginia.) Ezekiel spent time on the details of this depiction of Jackson, down to the intricacy on the sword, gloves, and field glasses, trying to make visually accurate art to fit the legend and the piece of memory he was creating.
The statue was so admired that Ezekiel’s alma mater requested him to create a second version that would be placed at VMI. The sculpted image of Jackson stands, ready and alert. Ezekiel took inspiration from Jackson’s quote during on May 2, 1863, just prior to launch of his famed flank attack at Chancellorsville: “The Institute will be heard from today.” The version for VMI was placed and dedicated in 1912, with Mary Anna Jackson, the general’s widow, a welcomed guest of honor.
The statue is a remarkable piece of art, a tribute to the life of “Stonewall” and also a visible piece of memory with many meanings attached to it at the time and through the later decades. Jackson’s sculpted figure stands stiffly straight, head upright, eyes on the horizon. His right hand balances his field glasses as though he has just pulled them away from his face while his left hand seems to tighten its grip of his sword. Wind flutters the front of the general’s bronze jacket, perhaps hinting at the action ordered by the legendary “Stonewall” who stayed still at Manassas until the moment he believed right for attack. The hat which Ezekiel chose to create on his heroic figure is unique since Jackson, by most accounts and surviving artifacts wore the kepi style of military headgear. Ezekiel went to great effort to make details of the sculpture accurate, even borrowing uniform items from Mrs. Jackson, making the choice of hat over kepi seem a little odd. (There is primary source evidence that Jed Hotchkiss procured a hat for Jackson during the war, but the style is not specified in the letter.) Another interesting detail is the cannonball resting at Jackson’s feet. Perhaps a nod to his days as an artillery instructor at VMI? Studying the statue gives the sense of a moment of time captured. The instant between decision and verbal command. An immovable character in the moment before action.
Memory —the inspiration for many pieces of art—lay at the heart of Moses Ezekiel’s renderings in bronze, marble, and other forms. As the statue moves toward a new location near the Virginia Museum of the Civil War at New Market Battlefield and into a new chapter of its existence, the bronze figure still looks ahead and over the heads of viewers, unaffected by its effects on us.
In the official press release, the VMI Interim Superintendent Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins addressed the location change:
“It is an understatement to say the relocation of the statue has evoked strong opinions on both sides of the issue. The history of VMI over the past 181 years is well documented. Stonewall Jackson’s ties to Lexington and the Institute as an instructor are part of that history. As a general during the American Civil War who prosecuted many successful engagements in the Shenandoah Valley, his story will continue to be told at this new location.
“VMI does not define itself by this statue and that is why this move is appropriate. We are defined by our unique system of education and the quality and character of the graduates the Institute produces. Our graduates embody the values of honor, respect, civility, self-discipline, and professionalism. This is how we will continue to be defined.”[vi]
Memory and how places or people define themselves are layered into the decisions and responses surrounding this statue’s long history. Ezekiel defined Jackson—crafting him in heroic bronze to be a symbol and represent a story. The relocation from parade field to preserved historical battlefield and educational museum perhaps offers a new opportunity to define Jackson. It is a unique opportunity to have a piece of art created by a soldier of a soldier at a Shenandoah Valley battlefield. True, Jackson did not fight at New Market, but his memory and his influence seems to have deeply touched the life of a cadet who did go into battle there. That former cadet’s hands crafted an image that has been a powerful symbol with different meanings for observers. How will that meaning be defined and interpreted in the new location? The story of this transition is still unfolding.
[i] Stan Cohen and Keith Gibson, Moses Ezekiel: Civil War Soldier, Renowned Sculptor. (Missoula: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 2007), 11.
[ii] Ibid., 13-14.
[iii] Ibid., 14.
[iv] Ibid., 20.
[v] Ibid., 25.
[vi] VMI Press Release, December 7, 2020: https://www.vmi.edu/news/headlines/2020-2021/vmi-begins-to-relocate-the-stonewall-jackson-statue.php