In Summer 2008, I spent my days processing hundreds of telegrams, letters and other manuscripts that Civil War researchers would love. One day, I found some letters that Robert E. Lee’s wife, Mary Randolph Custis Lee, wrote from her home in Lexington, Virginia to an unnamed correspondent whom she called a “dear young friend.”
In one letter, she described how her front parlor was filled with several Virginia Military Institute cadets who had arrived to escort young ladies to a society meeting. In another, she tells how the sculptor Edward Valentine had recently completed a bust of her husband that was the best likeness of him she had seen. She concluded yet another letter by encouraging her friend to continue pursuing his art studies abroad, since his prospects were so good there.
An accompanying envelope addressed to “Cadet Ezekiel” helped me conclude that Mrs. Lee’s “dear young friend” was Moses Ezekiel, the 1866 graduate of Virginia Military Institute who became an award-winning sculptor.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, Ezekiel was the first Jewish cadet to attend VMI. He and other VMI cadets fought in the Battle of New Market in 1864. In the years following his graduation, Ezekiel studied art in Cincinnati and in Berlin, remaining in Europe for his career. Ezekiel presented one of his best-known works, “Virginia Mourning Her Dead,” to VMI. The sculpture commemorates the cadets who died in the Battle of New Market. Ezekiel’s portrait of Napoleon and a replica of his statue of Stonewall Jackson for the West Virginia State Capitol can also be found at VMI.
In addition to creating several portrait busts of historic figures, Ezekiel designed the Arlington Confederate Monument in Arlington National Cemetery, where he was buried in 1921.
Click here to read “Dear Young Friend: Letters from the Lees,” my article on pages 35-37 of the Summer 2009 issue of W&L: The Washington and Lee University Alumni Magazine.