Friday, February 17, 2012

Moses Ezekial’s Gifts to the South - by Nancy Hitt and Maynard Poythress

The name Moses Ezekial is familiar to some Southerners, perhaps from viewing the Confederate Soldier’s memorial monument at Arlington he created (and is buried at the base of). However, far too few really know the story of this extraordinary artist’s life and his gifts to the South; something these few words will attempt to rectify.

Moses Jacob Ezekiel was born in Richmond, Virginia, on October 28, 1844. He was the sixth of fourteen children born to Jacob and Catherine de Castro Ezekiel.

In May of 1864 he was a 19-year-old cadet at the Virginia Military Institute, no doubt wearing the dove gray uniform with the white crossed bandoliers with pride.

Taking ourselves to mid-May in the year of ’64, crops have pushed themselves up well through the crust of the plowed fields in the Valley of Virginia. Union general Grant clearly knows that this valley is the breadbasket of Virginia and the Army of Northern Virginia. If he can destroy those young crops the Confederacy will suffer a hammer blow of starvation. Grant has sent General Franz Sigel with 10,000 fresh, well fed and heavily armed solders in blue to strike the blow of “total warfare”.

General Sigel points his army to the little hamlet of New Market, Virginia, a doorway to the valley. Waiting in opposition is Kentuckian Confederate General John C. Breckinridge who has 4,500 war-weary but still defiant men - all likely knowing the two-to-one odds they face. That is nothing new to them. As for their general, after a day of personal agonizing he sends word to VMI to ask for their cadets to march the 81 miles north and serve as a reserve behind his lines. The 257 schoolboys, including Company C Sgt. Ezekial, march the route in 3 days.

The battle is joined on May 15 following a night of heavy rain on the open and largely undistinguished plain. True to form, Breckinridge forces the offensive. By mid-day his losses gap 350 feet in the center of his lines. Advised by aides to send the VMI boys in, the General replies with vigor: “I will not do it.” The aides then plead “general, you have no choice.” With an obviously heavy heart, Breckinridge says “put the boys in and may God forgive me for the order.”

The boys move vigorously under their cadet leader across the rain soaked plain. VMI history today knows this movement as the “Field of Shoes” for the shoes left mud-sucked behind as the young men slogged forward. The cadets not only fill the gap but unexpectedly surge forward into Sigel’s center forcing a retreat that allows Confederate General Imboden to flank Sigel’s force on their left. Enfilading Confederate fire rolls up Sigel’s left and the rout is on. For the time being the valley is secured. Eleven of Ezekial’s schoolmates are killed or mortally wounded.

Since then, each year this day of sacrifice is commemorated with a full military service at the Virginia Military Institute. The roll call for each of the 11 youngster casualties is loudly answered by the adjutant: “died on the field of honor, sir!”


Fast-forwarding to the end of the War, and of his dutiful services there, young Moses Ezekiel returned to his studies to find VMI only partially restored from the work of federal arsonists. Moses was able to finish his studies in the unburned Richmond Almshouse and graduated in 1866.

Following his graduation Moses continued his education by studying anatomy at the Medical College of Virginia and later studied art in Cincinnati. In 1869 Moses Ezekiel traveled to Germany to study at the Royal Academy of Art. He was admitted to the Society of Artists in Berlin. Moses became the first foreigner to win the coveted Prize of Rome, his entry a bust of President George Washington, but that was just the start. In that day and time it was not uncommon for American artists of note to continue their studies and pursue their artistic careers in Europe. Rich patrons and financial rewards on the continent allowed these artists a marketplace, and Ezekial spent the remainder of his life in Europe.

In 1874 Ezekiel moved to Rome, no doubt because by now he was at leisure with with various patrons and aristocracy, and even the composer Liszt with whom he studied music. He was allowed to set up his Roman studio in the famous Baths of Diocletian. This site quickly became a meeting center of world renowned artists and the chief attraction for important American visitors.

At a later date, the City of Rome decided they wanted the Baths site back and Ezekiel was then given the tower of Belisario on the Pincian Hill overlooking the Borghese gardens. Under Ezekiel’s aegis, this site quickly became as famous as the studio he had vacated.

Moses Ezekiel’s fame and gracious hospitality seemingly never diminished. He was constantly honored for his continuing works of genius, with commissions for new works never far. Moses Ezekiel remained a socially prominent man in Rome until his death in 1917. He received a full page obituary column on page one of the New York Times, a journal respected in that day even if not so honored now.

Ezekiel was entombed in the crypt of the de Bosis family of Rome (Adolfo de Bosis being a noted Italian poet married to an American, Lilian Vernon). Moses Ezekiel and the de Bosis family were close associates and fast friends. It is no coincidence that Ezekiel himself designed the crypt for the de Bosis family, one of more than 200 pieces produced in his lifetime. The only existing account of his funeral is an essay named “Moses Jacob Ezekiel” by Rabbi David Philipson in 1922. It contains a transcription of a letter from Lilian de Bosis to Moses’ sister Hannah Workum in Cincinnati. There was every indication that the vault of the de Bosis family was only to be a place of temporary entombment as Ezekiel’s final instructions were that he was to be buried in the Southern Soldier’s Cemetery (at Arlington, VA) with simple Masonic rites.

Following “the Great War”, Ezekiel’s final entombment in 1921 was as he wished: at the base of the huge Confederate Monument at Arlington Cemetery which he himself had designed and sculpted.

A biographer states that Ezekiel’s work is to be found all over the world, “except it’s often in places one would not expect it to be.” For example, one major work is a huge monument titled “The Outlook” which honors the Confederate dead at the site of the infamous federal war prison of Johnson’s Island, not exactly a tourist Mecca of almost any period. At least the martyred veterans have Ezekiel’s virtually immovable memorial of their presence; our politically correct government will not allow their own flag to fly above these sleeping men today.

Important to our Confederate interests are his numerous works in that genre: busts of Lee and Jackson, another huge monolith at VMI titled “Virginia Mourning Her Dead” (the eleven VMI students) and many others.

Kentucky is also blessed with Moses’ work; prominent among them the huge bronze of Thomas Jefferson in front of the Jefferson County courthouse. Ezekiel designed Thomas Jefferson standing upon the liberty bell holding a copy of the Declaration of Independence, surrounded by four symbolic winged female figures. It was completed in 1901. Ezekiel also was  the architect for the Confederate Memorial Gateway at the Hickman Cemetery. In addition He executed a monument to President Lincoln in front of the public library in Louisville.

Moses Ezekial was a true gentleman and son of the South, whose sacrifice, service and immense talents should never be forgotten.

Thanks to the following for their contributions, research and encouragement in putting this all together: Peter Rossi, Susan Whitman, Leland Bell, Susan Fiorentino, Bill Hayes, Edna Macon.

From “Moses Jacob Ezekiel” by Rabbi David Philipson, published by the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 28, 1922. It contains the transcription of a letter from Ezekiel’s good friend Lilian de Bosis (Mrs. Adolfo de Bosis) to his sister Hannah E. Workum in Cincinnati, in which she describes his last days.  The letter is dated April 4, 1917.  

“‘…It was then decided to place him temporarily in the vault which he had himself built for the Family of Adolfo de Bosis in the city cemetery of San Lorenzo at Varnis.  There our little son Manlio and Adolfo’s brother Arturo, whom he had so dearly loved and cherished, awaited him…I am confident that not having left any instructions as to religious rites, simply stating he wished to be buried in the Southern Soldiers’ Cemetery, with the Masonic rites, we succeeded in interpreting the true spirit of his religious feeling essentially Jewish, yet appreciative of the beauty and helpfulness in all other religions…We simply felt that here his friends should gather round him and express each in their own way, their love and devotion. So a young rabbi from the Roman synagogue recited the ritual prayers on the day of his death; Catholic friends prayed by his side in their own way; Mr. Nathan representing the Free Masons and his Jewish friends, Mr. Lowrie his numerous Protestant friends.  We wanted the rabbi to accompany the hearse to the cemetery, but that it seemed he could not do.’”