Wednesday, May 14, 2014

New Market Cadets and Moses Ezekial

Lexington, VA   Visited July 2006
Rendering of the turning of the gun by the VMI cadets
Reader's note:  In doing posts on the Civil War I will include both Union and Confederate figures.  I would appeal that these posts be read as human interest stories, not as commentary on that difficult period in American history and the slavery that required such a tragic war to be fought for its eradication.

It was a relatively small and inconsequential affair as Civil War battles go.  But the Battle of New Market contains one of the most compelling stories of the war.  It is a story of unexpected soldiers displaying outstanding heroism in the line of battle.  And one from among them emerging from the fight into a remarkable career in art that also honored his comrades left behind on the field of war.  This post honors the VMI Cadets and Moses Ezekiel on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of New Market. 

As the Civil War moved into the spring of 1864, it seemed to Abraham Lincoln that Union victory was within reach.  But in order to secure that ultimate victory the Confederate stronghold in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia needed to be addressed.  So Commanding General Ulysses Grant sent an army of about 6,600 under General Franz Sigel into the valley in western Virginia to neutralize its use as a supply center and escape route for the main Confederate force under Robert E. Lee around Richmond.  Confederate General John Breckenridge mustered a defense force of about 4,000 from various militias from around the region. 

John Breckenridge in Mort Kunstler's "Thunder in the Valley"

Included in this ad hoc army was a battalion of 247 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, VA.  These officer cadets ranged in age from 17 to 25 years of age and were virtually untried in battle.  They were requested largely as supply train guards and were led by a young lieutenant colonel from VMI named Scott Ship.  The cadets met up with the regular army as it marched up the valley to confront the Union invaders coming from the north.  The two armies collided in the little hamlet of New Market, on the bluffs above the Shenandoah River just north of Harrisonburg (the battlefield can be seen along the west side of I-80 today). 

Daniel Troiani's "Put the Boys In"
On a rain-soaked field at Bushong Farm the two armies clashed.  Union troops pushed back an initial Confederate charge and it seemed like a rout was on.  Needing sudden reinforcements Breckenridge pressed the cadets into the decimated line with the words, "put the boys in".  A new charge was ordered and the Confederates attacked again.  Crossing over the muddy field many of the VMI cadets lost their shoes in the mud (leading the expanse to be later christened ‘The Field of Lost Shoes’).  But the force reached the Union artillery and was able to turn the guns.   

Looking from the actual cannon turned by the Cadets toward the Valley of Lost Shoes

One of the guns was manned by the VMI cadets and was instrumental in tearing holes in the Union line.  Eventually the line collapsed and the Union troops fell into wholesale retreat – a resounding victory for the Confederates.  It was one of their last clear victories of the war. 

The VMI Cadets played a heroic and essential role in the victory at New Market.  Their commander, Lt Colonel Shipp was wounded in the charge.  Forty-five cadets were wounded, ten died either on the field or from battle wounds in the following days.  Six of the cadets were ultimately buried with honors on the VMI campus.  The four others are buried elsewhere but are commemorated with their comrades at VMI.  

The burial site is commemorated with a statue dedicated to the fallen soldiers – ‘Virginia Mourning for Her Dead”.  Each year on the anniversary of the battle the VMI Corps of Cadets assembles in formation at the monument.  As each name of the fallen is read the corps responds, “Died on the Field of Honor, Sir." 

Me, my nephew Craig and Dad at "Virginia Mourning Her Dead"

The VMI New Market Cadets

Dad, Craig and me at Colonel Shipp's grave at Lexington Cemetery

The Story of Moses Ezekiel
Arlington VA
 Cadet Moses Ezekiel

One of the New Market Ten, freshman Thomas Garland Jefferson, was taken off the battlefield to a nearby home.  For three days this descendent of Thomas Jefferson suffered from his mortal wounds.  Sitting with him for the duration was fellow cadet and New Market soldier Moses Ezekiel, who was also wounded in the battle.  Ezekiel, the lone Jewish cadet at the Confederate military school,  nursed the wounds of his friend and read the Bible over him at his request until he succumbed to his injuries.  But this story goes beyond an expression of heroism, friendship and mercy.

Sculptor Moses Ezekiel
After the war, and upon graduation, Moses Ezekiel faced an uncertain future.  Pursuing a military career was not an option for a Confederate military school graduate.  But he had a dream to be an artist – also a seemingly untenable option.  Seeking wisdom, he asked the new president of neighboring Washington College for advice.  The president, Robert E. Lee, offered counsel that would change the young man’s life.  Pursue the dream of art.  So Moses entered formal studies, eventually specializing in sculpture.  His studies led him to Europe in 1869, where he began to establish himself as a sculptor of historic and heroic scenes.  He eventually settled in Rome, and ultimately produced over 200 works over a forty plus year career.  He received numerous awards of merit and several knighthoods as he distinguished himself as one of Europe’s most respected artists.    

Among the foremost of Moses Ezekiel’s works are the Thomas Jefferson statue at the University of Virginia and “Religious Liberty”, which now stands in front of the American Jewish History Museum in Philadelphia.  His most personal work can be found standing over his fallen comrades at VMI – “Virginia Mourning for Her Dead”.  But perhaps his most well-known work was unveiled in 1914.  It is the bronze sculpture that adorns the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. 

"Religious Liberty" at the National Center For Jewish History in Philadelphia

Moses Ezekiel died in Rome at the age of 72 on March 27, 1917.  You can read his New York Times obituary here.  He had spent the last few years of his life working for the Red Cross in Europe during the First World War.  Ezekiel was initially buried in Rome, but according to his wishes, was moved to Arlington Cemetery and buried at the foot of his Confederate War Memorial. Despite being an artist of great renown his headstone simply says,

Moses J. Ezekiel, Sergeant of Company C, Battalion of Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute.”

 I saw the Confederate Memorial and Moses Ezekiel's grave on a visit to Arlington Cemetery in November 2012

On a family vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains I took a day with my father and nephew to tour the New Market Battlefield and Lexington, Virginia.  It was one of the best times I ever had with my father, whose life-long love of history has been an inspiration to me. 

Me and my dad at New Market Battlefield