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The Jewish Sculptor of the Confederacy

The debate over Moses Jacob Ezekiel’s legacy comes to a head with the removal of his monumental sculpture of Stonewall Jackson from the grounds of the Virginia Military Institute

by
Samantha Baskind
January 21, 2021
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Wikipedia; courtesy the author
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Wikipedia; courtesy the author
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Wikipedia; courtesy the author
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Wikipedia; courtesy the author

Over the past few months, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) has been in the news, spurred by a Washington Post exposé of widespread racism at the institute and prompting Virginia’s governor to order an independent investigation of the allegations. In the short term, campus officials agreed to something of a Band-Aid to address the charges of bigotry leveled at the school—the removal of a large statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson from the center of campus. Therein lies an intriguing tale of the monument’s history and making, and of the greatest Jewish artist of the Confederacy.

During VMI commencement exercises in June 1912, an 8-foot-tall, half-ton bronze statue of Stonewall Jackson was unveiled on the parade ground to great fanfare. A large crowd gathered, including Civil War veterans, Southern patriots, and VMI alumni, some of whom had fought alongside Jackson. It was a grand celebration of the general’s achievements—his strategical and tactical prowess on the battlefield, his service during the Mexican-American War and Civil War, and his teaching accomplishments as professor of physics and artillery tactics at the institute. Speeches lauded Jackson as the school’s “greatest hero.” The presiding reverend prayed “that the Corps of that day and for all time be influenced by the character and strength and truth of the man being honored.” Not touted at the unveiling were the facts that Jackson was an enslaver of six human beings and a supporter of a treasonous cause.

As Jackson’s widow and other family members stood proudly by, the general’s 22-month-old granddaughter ceremoniously pulled off the bunting as the sculpture was officially dedicated. The larger-than-life-size statue portrays Jackson in his Confederate uniform, jacket dramatically blown by the wind as if on the battlefield at Chancellorsville, where he was accidentally mortally wounded by his own men. Chin upturned and gazing determinedly into the distance, Jackson holds field glasses in his right hand and grips a sword in his left. His prominent sword belt buckle, emblazoned “C.S.A.,” marks the weapon as one in defense of the Confederate States of America. The nearly 10-foot-high inscribed pedestal on which the general stands reads:

Stonewall Jackson
The Virginia Military Institute will be heard from today
General Jackson at Chancellorsville
May 3, 1863

Barely mentioned in the controversy over the sculpture was the name of its creator, the artist Moses Jacob Ezekiel—a gifted artist whose connection to the work was deeply personal and visceral. Ezekiel was the first Jewish cadet to attend VMI and a Confederate veteran who fought as a teenager in the brutal Battle of New Market—the only time in U.S. history that a student body was deployed in pitched battle under their own command as a unit. The night before Jackson’s funeral, Ezekiel served as corporal of the guard, sitting up with the Confederate commander’s remains in the general’s old VMI classroom.

The Richmond-born Ezekiel spent most of the next 40 years serving his artistic muse while living as an expatriate in Italy, where he consorted with celebrities, royalty, and political dignitaries. He held court with Queen Margherita of Italy and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and welcomed American patriots into his studio in the Baths of Diocletian, including Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt. A eulogy by President Warren Harding, read at Ezekiel’s funeral in Arlington Cemetery, lauded him as “a great Virginian, a great artist, a great American, and a great citizen of world fame.”

Counted among Ezekiel’s less controversial sculptures is Religious Liberty, in front of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. The towering 24-foot, 13-ton marble was commissioned by the Jewish fraternal organization Independent Order of B’nai B’rith to be presented to the United States at the upcoming Centennial International Exhibition, the world’s fair in Philadelphia celebrating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He occasionally worked in other media as well. Ezekiel designed the first seal for the Jewish Publication Society of America, the foremost nonprofit, nondenominational American press to focus on Jewish books, founded in 1888, and still producing books.

Ezekiel executed three likenesses of Thomas Jefferson, a fellow Virginian and author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, for which the Jewish artist was particularly grateful. A commission from two Jewish philanthropist brothers resulted in a 10-foot-tall bronze statue of Jefferson standing atop a replica of the Liberty Bell, which was placed in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse in Louisville (1901). A second version, in front of Jefferson’s iconic Rotunda at the University of Virginia, was dedicated nine years later. Ezekiel’s marble bust of Jefferson for the Senate’s Vice-Presidential Bust Collection (1888) sits conspicuously above the speaker’s chair in the United States Senate Chamber on the gallery level, where it is visible to the wider American public at all televised Senate hearings.

A loyal American citizen, Ezekiel’s ties to the Old South and the battles in which he fought as a youth nonetheless remained an essential part of his personal and artistic consciousness. On the third anniversary of Jackson’s death, Ezekiel wrote to his cousin from VMI, where he had resumed his studies after the war: “Lexington has put on her mourning garb today, the school rooms are deserted, the stores are closed. ... The Southern people need no flaring epitaphs inscribed on mammoth mausoleums to bid them remember and cherish the names and deeds of their fallen heroes.” Yet the sculptor would devote the last two decades of his life to exactly that work.

Stonewall Jackson is only one of several Confederate monuments that Ezekiel created in Rome and that were shipped by steamer across the Atlantic. Ezekiel also sculpted what is surely America’s most visible national monument to the Confederacy, at Arlington National Cemetery. Unveiled in 1914 and measuring 32 feet tall, the classically styled and highly allegorical bronze rests 400 yards away from the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.

Eager to have a sculpture of Jackson on the campus of his beloved alma mater, Ezekiel offered to waive his working fee and pay for some of the materials. Several dozen letters that Ezekiel sent across the ocean chronicle his suggestions for Jackson’s placement on campus; instructed dimensions for the foundation, pedestal, and plinth; shipping timetables and customs fees; and the nature of the inscription for the pedestal.

Ezekiel’s lifelong concern for historical accuracy was amplified by the importance he placed on the task of properly memorializing Jackson. He wrote to a fellow sculptor, Edward Valentine, requesting a copy of the life mask used to sculpt his own Stonewall Jackson monument, marking the Jackson family burial plot in Lexington, less than a mile from VMI. Valentine, a rival for Confederate commissions and jealous of Ezekiel, did not send the life mask. Ezekiel persisted, writing to an administrator at the Confederate Museum in Richmond for a copy of the mask, the loan of two Confederate buttons, a belt buckle, and a sword strap. Eventually, Ezekiel got his hands on some key objects to help him model what he hoped would be an authentic, well-received statue worthy of its subject. And worthy, he also hoped, of the artist, a proud Jewish son of the South.

Moses Jacob Ezekiel was an unrepentant rebel who otherwise lived a very cosmopolitan life in Europe as a friend of the elite, a feted sculptor, and a practicing Jew.

VMI’s Stonewall Jackson statue is, in fact, a replica of Ezekiel’s original Jackson on the grounds of the West Virginia Capitol building in Charleston (1909), the general’s hometown. That commission came from the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Ezekiel wrote to friends and family that he was overjoyed to make the work. At the Charleston unveiling of Jackson, exactly 75 current VMI cadets were detailed by the governor to attend the festivities—and Ezekiel made the last of many visits to the land of his birth for the Jackson dedication in Charleston.

The idea of removing Charleston’s even more public and prominent monument to the Confederate general, erected solely to promote Jackson’s commitment to the Lost Cause rather than in concert with his other military and teaching accomplishments, has also gained traction. Yet despite widespread support for the monument’s removal, a Capitol Building Commission meeting in December did not end with a decision on the monument’s fate.

Reverence for the historical figure of Jackson remains prevalent at VMI, America’s first state-sponsored military college. Cadets enter the barracks through the Jackson Arch, a different building bears the general’s name, and two oil portraits of Jackson were featured on campus until a few months ago. The VMI Museum displays the bullet-ridden raincoat Jackson was wearing when wounded at Chancellorsville as well as the hide of “Little Sorrel,” the general’s horse. An annual medal bestowed on the two most academically distinguished graduates is called the Jackson-Hope medal; a full-length representation of Jackson appears at center of the gold medallion. A monument near the parade ground reproduces that medal along with the names of over a century of recipients. Near the school, the only home Jackson ever owned is operated by VMI as a historic house museum. Until 10 years ago, cadets were required to salute Ezekiel’s Stonewall Jackson whenever they walked by him.

I visited VMI in March 2019 to conduct research for my current book project about Moses Jacob Ezekiel. When I wasn’t in the school’s archive reading Ezekiel’s cadet file, his 600-page memoir, and an impressive number of letters he wrote to superintendents and various officials about Stonewall Jackson and his other works on campus, I wandered the gorgeous parade ground, admired the artistry of Stonewall Jackson, and was impressed by the discipline of the cadets. I was invited to eat in the mess hall and there I spoke with a few cadets about why they chose to study at a military institute. One cadet told me about her desire to serve her country, another hoped for a leadership career, in the military or not, and a third honestly admitted that he needed the structure.

I left VMI intrigued by the materials I discovered and deeply conflicted about Ezekiel’s Confederate affiliations. He signed letters “yours faithfully in the cause” and “I am yours in the cause.” Throughout his life Ezekiel remained an unapologetic Confederate veteran, hanging the rebel flag in his studio in Rome for four decades and asserting in his memoir that he “had never fought for slavery, but for states’ rights and for free trade.” He saw it as a great honor to sculpt Confederate monuments.

Ezekiel did not view his Confederate service as a stain in his lifetime. He was an unrepentant rebel who otherwise lived a very cosmopolitan life in Europe as a friend of the elite, a feted sculptor, and a practicing Jew. I was forced to reconcile the complicated man—who was also generous to a fault, leaving him in poverty at different times in his life—with the sculptor and the legacy of art he left behind.

Yet the idea that a great artist, even a Jewish one, could also retain noxious political affiliations and fantasies from his youth should hardly come as surprise. The idea that artists are supposed to be moral and political exemplars is in fact quite strange, outside of the context of totalitarian ideologies. Edgar Degas was an anti-Semite and Paul Gauguin had sexual relations with young girls. Over the centuries, innumerable artists have objectified women and had affairs outside marriage—with members of the opposite sex and the same sex, back when such relationships were considered to be sinful. Yet we still teach and study their work.

While Ezekiel’s Confederate ties and monuments are only one aspect of his multidimensional life as an artist, they are tremendously relevant today as the country grapples with what to do with Confederate monuments. It seems fitting that VMI’s Stonewall Jackson was relocated to New Market Battlefield State Historical Park—the site of the battle where Ezekiel fought with his young comrades. Keith E. Gibson, a VMI graduate and executive director of the VMI Museum System, explains the logic thus: “Placing the Jackson statue at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, New Market Battlefield State Historical Park, puts Jackson in the geographic center of the theater which brought his international acclaim, his famed 1862 Valley Campaign. We aren’t discarding Jackson’s lessons and legacy. We are placing him in a new location to put him in a position to help viewers understand the legacy of his military standing.” There, the commemorative sculpture that Ezekiel so passionately yet misguidedly crafted can be contextualized, studied, and even enjoyed, perhaps, as a work of art.

Samantha Baskind is Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University and the author of six books, most recently The Warsaw Ghetto in American Art and Culture. She is currently writing a book about Moses Jacob Ezekiel.