The Scenic and Historic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia
 

Who was Moses Ezekiel? (And why do we ask?)

Moses Ezekiel

 

Younger Americans in the mid 19th Century faced a future of political uncertainty. It was a particularly divisive moment in American history. Then the Civil War began. To this day, the dream of a more perfect American Union may be as elusive as ever. What does the future hold?

Moses Ezekiel was born into a Jewish family in 1844, and grew up in a working-class area of Richmond Virginia. He and his family undoubtedly would have experienced anti-Semitism during his youth. He also had dropped out of school to help out in the family business. Despite such challenges, he longed for a better life. At that time, the Virginia Military Institute offered people of modest means a path to higher education.

But by attending VMI, Ezekiel would by default be involved in the Confederate cause. He reportedly explained later that much of his decision to attend VMI was less about the issue of slavery than to help protect Virginia from Union invasion.

From VMI‘s beginnings, its training mission was to create “citizen-solders” who would develop good character and strong leadership skills, and then bring these qualities back home to civilian life. VMI was as much about citizen-solders as it was about training career military personnel, according to Lt. Col. Troy Marshall, Site Director at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, located on the New Market Battlefield in New Market, Va.

Ezekiel had actually aspired to become an artist. He may not have been a perfect fit as a soldier. His parade drill abilities could have been questioned, but his true talent as an artist was quickly recognized.

He was assigned to a corps of 295 cadets that, in May of 1864, had been given the order to march from Lexington, Va. north to New Market and stand beside some hardened Confederate regulars to defend what was then called “the Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” the Shenandoah Valley.

What resulted was a famous battlefield drama. Teenage cadets faced Union troops in actual combat and helped achieve a Confederate victory. The story quickly became legend.

VMI Cadets at New Market - Painting in the Virginia Museum of the Civil War

 

Following the battle, Ezekiel found himself among surviving cadets, searching for dead and wounded among the 57 VMI casualties. He was most intent on finding his best friend, Thomas Garland Jefferson, a nephew of the famous Virginian and former president, Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas G. Jefferson, one of 10 VMI Cadets killed during the Civil War Battle of New Market, Va.

 

Jefferson had been mortally wounded and was suffering badly in the home of a local family, which is where Ezekiel finally found him. For three days, Jefferson‘s cadet comrade stayed at his side, tending his wounds and providing comfort as he lay dying. Ezekiel was a Jew, but he gladly read from a Christian Bible the passages Jefferson had requested. Ezekiel then held Jefferson in his arms as he died.

After the War ended, Ezekiel finished his education at VMI. During his senior year, he met with Robert E. Lee, who had recognized Ezekiel‘s artistic talent and urged him to follow his dream of becoming an artist. Lee was also clear about how important it was to make one‘s life a success. The future of a newly-graduated VMI cadet had nothing to do with the outcome of the War.

Ezekiel headed to Europe and established an art studio in Rome. He eventually became famous throughout Europe as an artist and sculptor and was knighted by the king of Italy.

Moses Ezekiel art studio in Rome

 

He was a prolific sculptor. His style reflected then-fashionable classical themes. Other pieces recalled his Virginia roots. One of his memorable works is a statue that honors the cadets who died at New Market: Virginia Mourning Her Dead. It stands today at VMI.

Virginia Mourning Her Dead, sculpture at VMI by Moses Ezekiel

 

At the outbreak of World War I, Ezekiel was still living in Rome. He was too old to be a soldier. Instead, he joined the Red Cross as a war nurse. He went back out onto the battlefield and, unfortunately, got sick and it‘s where he died. His body would not be brought back to the U.S. until after the WWI Armistice was signed.

As he had stayed true to his mortally-wounded friend at New Market, Ezekiel had stayed true to the motto of “service above self” — to the end of his own life.

Moses Ezekiel never gave up on his dream of being an artist. Yet he knew that paying dues was part of achieving his goals. He did the best he could do to improve his life by attending a military school. He saw a way forward and was willing to make choices. His life was ultimately defined both by the creation of beautiful art and by serving others. Among those who honored him at his death were three American presidents.

So, what is behind the successful life of Moses Ezekiel?

“I think it‘s a dedication to your community, to your country, to your state,” says Marshall. And that doesn‘t necessarily have to be a military service. You can be a volunteer for the Red Cross, or a volunteer for the fire department. But basically if you just saw that being a good citizen … not just a citizen-soldier … but to be a good citizen that‘s held in high regard. And we see that in our Cadet Corps today.”

It‘s also an ideal that is honored and interpreted at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War. Marshall says that the story of the battle has become like a “game of telephone,” most recently dramatized in the 2015 film, “Field of Lost Shoes.”

Marshall notes that the New Market cadets had actually been a bit embarrassed about how their battle story seemed to take on a life of its own immediately after the War. The memory preserved at the museum may simply be that they “did their part.”

VMI Cadets on parade in 1866

 

“When [Maj. Gen. John C.] Breckenridge asked them, OK, the chips are down, you‘re 200 yards from 17 cannon. I need you to be men today. And it‘s unfortunate you‘re only 15 years old. Or you‘re untrained. And so, what they found out, is that they extended themselves far beyond what they thought they may be able to do.”

And that is what VMI cadets still do today, says Marshall. “It supersedes the fact that they actually used firearms here. But they accepted the duty. And that‘s what you see at VMI today,” he says. “You accept this duty to undergo a cadetship. And I can tell you, it‘s very difficult. And it‘s a calling.”

VMI Cadets

 

The Shenandoah Valley portion of Interstate 81 passes through preserved battlefield land at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War. Along with the museum and battlefield grounds, a restored, historic farmstead there is open for tours and offers an ongoing schedule of living history programs. The Battle of New Market is reenacted every year on its anniversary, May 15. It‘s the oldest continuous Civil War reenactment held in the United States.

Virginia Museum of the Civil War

 

The VMCW is also home to the Shenandoah Valley Tourist Information Center.

For this story, we referenced Moses Jacob Ezekiel: From Confederate Cadet to World-Famous Artist, by Albert C. Conner, Jewish-American History Foundation. We also thank the Virginia Military Institute for providing historic images as well as video content. All other story content by Hank Zimmerman. Copyright 2017 by Shenandoah Valley Productions LLC. All rights reserved. See the video related to this story.

Visit us on Facebook.