Sir Moses Jacob Ezekiel: The Jew Who Sculpted Confederate Monuments

Michael Feldberg
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Author’s Note: The ultimately fatal “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia began on Friday night, August 11, 2017 at the Rotunda, the iconic building at the heart of the University of Virginia campus. The ralliers were there to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park named for him in downtown Charlottesville. The protesters gathered under a statue of the university’s founder, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s outsized figure stands on an inverted Liberty Bell at the Rotunda’s entrance. Milling at Jefferson’s feet, the protesters shouted neo-Nazi and white supremacist slogans like “Blood and Soil!” “White Lives Matter!” and, in a pointed reference to removing Lee’s monument, “You/Jews will not replace us.” Most likely, not one of them knew that a Jew sculpted that Jefferson image (left). That Jew was Moses Jacob Ezekiel—the very same Jew who sculpted the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Confederate Memorial is one of the tallest and most elaborate structures in Arlington National Cemetery. Erected in 1914, nearly a half-century after the war Civil War ended, the monument was designed and executed by Moses Jacob Ezekiel, an expatriate, gay, American Jewish southerner. The Confederate Memorial is one of several monuments Ezekiel executed glorifying the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. The full corpus of Ezekiel’s work reflects his identity as an artist, a southerner, and a Jew.

Born in 1844, Moses Ezekiel was one of fourteen children of Jacob and Catherine de Castro Ezekiel. Jacob, of Ashkenazic descent, was a successful cotton merchant in Richmond, VA. Catherine descended from Sephardic Jews. The couple raised Moses and his siblings as observant Jews, ardent Richmonders, proud Virginians, and Southern—rather than American—patriots.
When South Carolina troops fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union. Moses immediately enrolled in Virginia Military Institute (VMI), in Lexington. He was the first Jew to attend the school. As Northern troops invaded Virginia in May 1864, Ezekiel and 256 of his fellow cadets marched 85 miles to oppose their advance. On May 15, the undermanned Rebels defeated the Union forces in the Battle of New Market. In the fighting, forty-seven of Ezekiel’s schoolmates were wounded. Ten died immediately or later from their injuries. Cadet Thomas Garland Jefferson, a great grandson of the president, expired in Ezekiel’s arms.

Right: Accepted into the Class of 1866, on September 17, 1862 Ezekiel became the first Jewish cadet of that VMI. 

Despite the setback at New Market, Union troops continued to advance on Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. In March 1865, Ezekiel and his classmates rushed to defend the city, but they were too late. It fell on April 3rd. Six days later, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

The Myth of the “Lost Cause”
With hostilities ended, the emotionally devastated Ezekiel returned to VMI for his senior year. While there, he met his hero, Robert E. Lee, then-president of Washington College (today’s Washington and Lee University). Lee asked the young man about his plans. As Ezekiel later recalled, he told Lee he had reluctantly abandoned his artistic vocation for medicine. Lee responded, “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.”

Left: Ezekiel as a VMI graduate, in the uniform of the Confederate Army, c. 1864-5.

Only a matter of months after Appomattox, then, Lee and other Southerners began recasting the Civil War narrative into the Myth of the Lost Cause. In this version, the Confederacy’s treasonous attempt to preserve slavery through rebellion became a noble but tragically doomed defense of its chivalric way of life. The South was portrayed as the true defender of basic American principles: states’ rights, free trade, private property, personal honor, and agrarian virtue. Southern slave owners went from being exploiters to paternal caretakers of humans they characterized as dependent and childlike. The typical Johnny Reb was neither a slave owner nor a cotton planter, but simply a regional patriot. The South may have lost because the North had more men and materiel, but the Southern cause was purer and morally superior. Moses Ezekiel embraced the Lost Cause ideology wholeheartedly.

An Expatriate Artist
Seeking to improve their prospects after the war, Ezekiel’s parents moved to Cincinnati. Moses joined them in 1867. That year, he fathered a child with Isabella Johnson, the family’s mulatto housemaid. Their daughter, Alice Johnson, never took her father’s surname, but she stayed in contact with him. She attended Howard University, became a school teacher, and married Daniel Hale Williams, a pioneering black surgeon who established Chicago’s first racially integrated hospital.

In 1869, Ezekiel journeyed to Berlin to study at the Royal Academy of Art. While there he visited Rome and fell in love with the Eternal City. Ezekiel established his atelier in the cavernous ruins of the Baths of Diocletian, an ancient Roman edifice.

Ezekiel found both personal and artistic freedom in Rome. He dressed like a dandy (right) and spent extravagantly on entertaining friends, clients, and potential clients. He also began a forty-five year homosexual relationship with German artist Fedor Encke, that neither acknowledged publicly. By the late 1870s, his studio had become the rendezvous of “kings, queens, nobles, scholars, fellow-artists, poets, musicians, politicians, and old friends” who would “admire his great works, receive his charming hospitality and listen to the wonderful musicales he organized.” His guests included composer Franz Liszt, Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Cardinal von Hohenlohe, Pope Leo XIII’s confidante.

During his long career in Europe, Ezekiel found true success. King Umberto I of Italy decorated him for his sculpture of Christopher Columbus, executed for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Kaiser awarded Ezekiel a cross for merit and another for art. In 1910, King Victor Emmanuel III bestowed the titles “Chevalier” and “Officer of the Crown of Italy.” After that, Ezekiel referred to himself as “Sir Moses Jacob Ezekiel,” although the title “Chevalier” did not equal knighthood.

A Jewish Artist
His status as an expatriate notwithstanding, Ezekiel retained a client base in the United States. His first important American commission came in 1873 from the International Order of B’nai B’rith, the first American Jewish men’s fraternal organization. The nation would celebrate its 1876 centennial with a three-month extravaganza in Philadelphia’s Fairmont Park. The Centennial organizers invited B’nai B’rith to represent the Jewish community; the organization, in turn, recruited Ezekiel to sculpt a figure representing religious freedom.The result was Religious Liberty (below, left), the figure of a woman wearing a thirteen-starred crown, one for each of the nation’s original colonies. She holds a copy of the Constitution in her left hand; her right shelters a kneeling boy holding a lantern. At her feet, an eagle clutches a serpent. According to Ezekiel, the Constitution symbolizes the “laws of equality and humanity.” The boy is the “genius of Faith raising the burning torch of religion.” And the serpent is tyranny crushed by the eagle of “the country of Washington.”

Although Ezekiel finished Religious Liberty months behind schedule, he nonetheless insisted on exhibiting it in his Roman studio for some weeks before shipping it to Philadelphia. The sculpture was finally installed in Fairmount Park on Thanksgiving Day, three months after the centennial concluded. In 1984, B’nai B’rith relocated the statue to Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History. When the museum moved to Independence Mall in 2010, it placed Religious Liberty at its entrance.

Jewish themes became a hallmark of Ezekiel’s sculptures. Between 1876 and 1891, he produced sculptures inspired by the Hebrew Bible and Jewish themes: Eve Hearing the Voice, Faith, Judith, and Jessica (a character in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice). Ezekiel intended his two renderings of Jesus Christ—Ecce Homo, and Christ in the Tomb — to portray Jesus with Semitic features, modeling Christ’s face after that of his own father.

Nonetheless, Ezekiel refused to be defined simply as a “Jewish artist.” He wrote,
[T]he tendency of the Israelites to stamp everything they undertake with such an emphasis [on Jewish identity] is not sympathetic to my tastes. Artists belong to no country and to no sect—their individual opinions are matters of conscience and belong to their households and not to the public.… I would prefer as an artist to gain first a name and reputation upon an equal footing with all others in art circles. It is a matter of absolute indifference to the world whether a good artist is a Jew or a Gentile and in my career I do not want to be stamped with the title of ‘Jewish sculptor.’

A Southern Artist
If he resisted being known only as a Jewish sculptor, Ezekiel embraced being a Southern one. Virginia Military Institute commissioned him to create a memorial to the cadets who died at the Battle of New Market. Erected in 1903, Ezekiel’s Virginia Mourning Her Dead (right) graces an on-campus cemetery holding the remains of six of the ten VMI cadets killed in the fight. Ezekiel declined payment, asking only that VMI bear the costs of casting and shipping it from Germany. Ezekiel carved the name of each member of his class on the plinth. Since 1910, VMI has conducted an annual New Market Day Ceremony. Its peak moment occurs when an officer calls the name of each cadet who lost his life that day. In response, a current cadet from the same company answers, “Died on the Field of Honor, Sir.” When the list ends, an honor guard fires a three-volley salute. A bugler plays Taps. Finally, the entire Corps passes silently before the memorial.

Other Ezekiel works that celebrate the Confederacy include a sculpture of Stonewall Jackson, commissioned in 1910 by the West Virginia chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, that stands at the West Virginia State Capitol. A replica also graces the grounds of VMI. Ezekiel sculpted The Lookout, the figure of an ordinary Johnny Reb that guards the entrance to the Confederate Cemetery on Johnson’s Island in Sandusky, Ohio (left), that holds the remains of 207 Confederates who died in the island’s prisoner of war camp.
Ezekiel long hoped Richmond would invite him to sculpt a memorial to Robert E. Lee. When the city announced a competition for such a statue in 1876, Ezekiel submitted a clay model for consideration. So confident was he of winning, he even sculpted a small bust of Lee and permitted the city to reproduce and sell it to fund the project. He was not pleased when a French sculptor, Antonin Mercie, won the commission.

In 1888, Uriah P. Levy of New York the first Jewish commodore in the United States Navy, commissioned Ezekiel to execute a bust of Thomas Jefferson that stands today in the United States Capitol. Like many Jews of his era, Levy venerated Jefferson for drafting Virginia’s 1777, Statute of Religious Freedom. Jefferson’s tolerant religious views sustained Levy though six courts martial he endured for refusing to accept religious insults from his fellow officers. When Jefferson’s beloved home Monticello came up for sale in 1834, Levy purchased it and expended a small fortune seeking out its original furnishings and restoring its grounds.

Levy was not the only Jew to hire Ezekiel to sculpt Jefferson. In 1901, Isaac and Bernard Bernheim, successful Jewish liquor distillers in Louisville, KY, retained Ezekiel to create a Jefferson statue to stand in front of the city’s courthouse (detail, right). Nine years later, the Regents of the University of Virginia invited Ezekiel to cast a slightly smaller replica for placement in front of the Rotunda. Ironically, that statue served as the starting point for the infamous neo-Nazi, white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August, 2017.

The Confederate Memorial in Arlington
Established in 1864 on the grounds of Robert E. Lee’s captured plantation, Arlington National Cemetery sits just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. Most of those then interred were Union soldiers and freed slaves, but the remains of fallen Confederates also rested there, albeit in unmarked graves. The Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of former Union soldiers and sailors, insisted that the Confederate graves receive no recognition. Over the years, the families of some of Confederate dead retrieved their remains and reburied them on Southern soil, but as late as the 1890s at least a hundred Confederate fallen remained at Arlington in unmarked plots.

At the 1898 Atlanta Peace Jubilee celebrating victory over Spain, President William McKinley (left), a Union veteran, announced a plan offered “in the spirit of Fraternity” and as “a tribute to American valor,” that the federal government should maintain the graves of Confederate dead, including at Arlington. McKinley hoped that honoring the Confederate fallen might induce Southern senators to approve the treaty ending the Spanish American War, which many had opposed. Soon afterward, Congress designated a separate section of Arlington for reburying the Confederate dead scattered across the grounds. The bill also funded relocating Confederate remains from the grounds of the Washington, DC Soldiers’ Home, a former Civil War hospital. In all, more than 400 former Confederates would find permanent repose in Arlington.

Moses Ezekiel’s Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, controversial today for its inclusion of several depictions of African American confederate soldiers.

Unlike the other graves at Arlington, which are laid out in straight rows, the Confederate section is formed in concentric circles. The gravestones face inward, their backs turned on the Union graves. Each gravestone has a pointed top, while all others are rounded. Legend has it that the pointed tops were intended to prevent former Union soldiers from squatting on them. In truth, the designers intended simply to distinguish the Confederate graves from others in the cemetery, particularly from those of African-American Union troops.
The Confederate Section’s original design drawings have an empty circle at the center with the word “Memorial.” Four years after the reburial of Arlington’s Confederate dead was completed in 1902, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), received permission to erect the monument suggested by the original plans. The UDC commissioned Ezekiel to create it. In exchange for the UDC paying to fabricate, ship, and install the sculpture Ezekiel waived his fee in exchange for (nearly) independent artistic control. He began work on the memorial in 1910.

As he did with Religious Liberty, Ezekiel created a tall female figure, “The South,” to stand atop the sculpture. She stares longingly toward her homeland, a placement that maximizes the daily sunlight falling on her face. A crown of olive leaves, symbolizing peace, adorns her head. Her left hand extends a laurel wreath of victory—perhaps to the South, despite the war’s actual outcome. Her right hand holds a pruning hook resting on a plowshare, invoking the Hebrew prophet’s call for nations to beat their weapons into fruitful implements.

Thirty-two life-sized figures surround the plinth (detail, below). Some are mythical, like the Greek goddess of war Minerva. Ezekiel also included realistic but stereotypical Southern figures such as “a faithful Negro body-servant following his young master” (left, below) and a “weeping black mammy” who holds a white infant as its father, a Confederate soldier departing for war, kisses it farewell (right, below).

On June 4, 1914, the anniversary of Jefferson Davis’ birth, President Woodrow Wilson, a native Virginian, dedicated the Confederate Memorial. He used the event to declare the symbolic end to the Civil War:

“My privilege is this, ladies and gentlemen: To declare this chapter in the history of the United States closed and ended. I bid you turn with me with your faces to the future, quickened by the memories of the past, but with nothing to do with the contests of the past, knowing, as we have shed our blood upon opposite sides, we now face and admire one another.”

Of course, the “one another” Wilson referred to were his fellow white Americans. He made no reference to the African-Americans who lay in the cemetery. Wilson then laid a wreath at the base of the Confederate Memorial. Each Memorial Day thereafter, his successors ordered a wreath placed at the site, along with one at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Harry Truman declined to place a wreath at the Confederate Memorial, but his successors from Eisenhower to Reagan resumed the practice. George H.W. Bush thought better of it. Bill Clinton resumed the Memorial Day wreath laying during his incumbency. The second president Bush followed his father’s example. With characteristic diplomacy, Barack Obama authorized three wreaths: one at the Tomb of the Unknowns, one at the Confederate Memorial, and a third at the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC, which had been erected in 1997 honoring the more than 200,000 black soldiers and sailors who fought for the Union.

Ezekiel died in Rome in 1917. His agreement with the UDC included burial at the foot of the Confederate Memorial, one of four graves in the innermost circle. Submarine warfare during World War I prevented the transport of Ezekiel’s remains to Arlington, but in 1921 his coffin returned to his native Virginia. As a Jew, an artist, a father, homosexual, and a European nobleman (at least in his own mind), the bronze plaque on his gravestone at Arlington indicates which identity he valued above all others:
Moses J. Ezekiel
Sergeant of Company C
Battalion of Cadets
of the Virginia Military Academy

By Michael Feldberg, PhD, Contributing Writer

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