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Hero of the Battle of New Market
Born in Richmond in 1844, Ezekiel was the first Jewish cadet to attend Virginia Military Institute (VMI). It was there that he gained the distinction of taking part in the Battle of New Market, a decisive Confederate win during the Civil War.
In 1864, he and other VMI cadets were called up to provide support to General Breckenridge at New Market in the Shenandoah Valley. Marching 80 miles, the cadets let by VMI Commandant of Cadets Lt. Col. Scott Shipp, met a vastly superior Union force north of Lexington. Grant’s Union forces outnumbered Confederate troops. The battle raged for hours, the Union forces split the Confederate front line. When all seemed lost, VMI cadets surged into the breach, wrestling victory out of almost certain defeat. Ezekiel’s roomate, Thomas Garland Jefferson – grand nephew of President Jefferson – died in Ezekiel’s arms as he tended his friend in a nearby home. A Moses Ezekiel sculpture – Virginia Mourning Her Dead – permanently commemorates the fallen cadets, and on each May 15, VMI solemnly celebrates “New Market Day” on campus.
World Renowned Sculptor
After studying sculpture in Cincinnati, in 1870, Ezekiel moved to Berlin to study at the Royal Art Academy, covering his expenses by serving as a correspondent for the New York Herald. It was in Berlin that he carved his first statue, Virginia Mourning Her Dead.
While in Berlin, Ezekiel won the prestigious Michel Beer Prix de Rome competition, and the winning stipend enabled him to move to Rome. There, he established his studio and his home in the Baths of Diocletian, a sumptuous bath from 6th Century A.D., imperial Rome. These remained his studios and home for 31 years until his death in 1917.
Jewish Community Leader
For his entire adult life, Moses Ezekiel remained an important part of the world Jewish community. Born into a Richmond Jewish family – of the Sephardic (Iberian) branch – he was raised in Richmond’s Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome congregation (now Congregation Beth Ahabah).
One of his largest sculptures is Religious Liberty, commissioned by the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The sculpture now stands at the Philadelphia Museum of American Jewish History.
Ezekiel created a number of religious-themed pieces important to the Jewish community: Israel, Judith, Moses on Mount Sinai, David Singing, Judas Maccabees. He carved the bust of Rabbi Isaac Wise, founder of Reformed Judaism and also designed a stained glass window for Temple Knesseth Israel in Philadelphia.