At the center of Virginia Military Institute's campus is a monument to the famous Confederate General and former VMI professor, Stonewall Jackson. Donated in 1912, the statue stands at the easternmost side of the main parade field and acts as a focal point of the beautiful campus. The statue is directly in front of the cadet barracks and is positioned symbolically, surveying the field before the Battle of Chancellorsville, VA where Stonewall Jackson received his mortal wound. Like many other Confederate monuments, VMI has received social and political pressure to remove the statue. This is a cause for debate throughout the South and makes this a particularly intriguing historical monument.
On Nov. 11, 1839, 23 young Virginians were mustered into the service of the state as the first cadet corps of the Virginia Military Institute. A few short years later, in 1851, the soon to be famous general, Thomas J. Jackson, joined the faculty and served until the start of the Civil War. During the war, he was promoted to the rank of general in the Confederate Army and earned the name “Stonewall.” This name came after many bold and heroic acts of leadership that make him one of the greatest commanders of all time. Early in the Civil War, the Cadet Corps trained recruits for the Confederate Army. This continued until the institution was destroyed by Union Forces on June 12, 1864. Through the dedicated persistence of VMI faculty and leadership, VMI was reopened on Oct. 17, 1865.
The statue was donated by Moses Jacob Ezekiel, a student of VMI and personal pupil of Stonewall Jackson. At a young age Ezekiel was taken in by his grandparents because his parents were so poor. Once he was old enough he found his way to VMI where he could receive a free education in exchange for military service. It was at this time that Ezekiel worked under the direct instruction of Jackson. The Civil War interrupted their time at VMI, as they both went off to serve in the Confederate Army. However, their time together continued because Ezekiel served under Jackson’s command while in Confederate service. He saw firsthand the extraordinary leadership that Stonewall Jackson is known for and Ezekiel went so far as to cite him as a personal hero. Though Jackson was killed in battle, Ezekiel returned to VMI to finish his degree prior to going to Rome where he became a very accomplished artist.
The statue, like other Confederate monuments throughout the South, has attracted controversy in recent years. In September of 2017 the state’s top Democrats, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, called for moving Confederate statues to museums, saying they have grown too divisive as symbols meant to venerate the Lost Cause. The Stonewall Jackson monument has been specifically referenced due to its place on the university campus and the potential messages that might matriculate into the culture or values of the institution. In response to this pressure there are many people standing in defense of the Stonewall Jackson monument arguing that the focus is the role he played in the early years of VMI and as a leader in battle, rather than the ideals of the Confederate Army. VMI continued the defense by releasing a statement, part of it reads as follows, “…Like the United States itself, who we were in the past only defines in part who we are today. Hate, bigotry and discrimination are wrong, do not represent the values of the Virginia Military Institute, and will always be addressed decisively…” Though the argument can be made either way, VMI has decided to keep the statue. Thus the statue remains standing tall and proud at the center of the VMI campus.
In the end, this statue remains an incredibly powerful statue in many ways. To some he stands overlooking the cadet parade field as a symbol of military expertise and bold confidence in battle. To others, he stands before in front of an institution as an oppressive symbol of white supremacy and confederate values. Despite the various arguments in support of either side, the importance of the statue does not stop at the end of the politicized debate over its symbolism. The statue, much like the VMI campus, is rich with invaluable history that tells the story of how this nation came to be.