Perhaps one of the most famous paintings of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is one that is about 50% historically inaccurate, but 100% inspiring to most historians and Southerners.
Of course, I’m referring to the masterpiece titled “The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson”. Painted by Everett B. D. Julio in 1869, it was originally titled “The Heroes of Chancellorsville”. The moment depicted is said to be the last time Jackson and Lee saw each other on May 2nd, 1863, before Jackson took his division of 28,000 men around to “Fighting Joe” Hooker’s exposed right flank. Accounts from soldiers of the time said that Jackson had rode up to Lee, some hushed words were exchanged, and then he rode off waving his cap to his commander. It’s still a mystery what exactly was said between the two, but the moment has been immortalized in Julio’s work.
The immediate flaws in the painting lie within the scenery. The last meeting did not take place with sweeping, snow-capped mountains in the distance. The ground was not nearly as rolling, and would have been far more densely packed with thick second-growth forest along the road that cut through the Wilderness. Jackson, also, is not properly dressed for his cameo. On the day of the march, Jackson was wearing a raincoat and not the glorious cape he is pictured with.
The symbolism of the piece, however, is what most art historians and military historians tend to lean on. Little Sorrell, Jackson’s mount, has her head bowed while Traveler, Lee’s horse, is up and eager to move ahead. This represents the fate of the two generals, that Jackson will fall at Chancellorsville and Lee will continue on to Pennsylvania that summer in his Gettysburg campaign. Lee is also pointing down the road, which can be interpreted as the road that all Southerners must travel to victory or defeat in this war. This is not a road Jackson can follow. The division of light and dark between the two subjects also serves as a distinction between their futures (or lack thereof). Jackson’s background is darker, set against the foreboding woods he is about to enter. Lee, on the other hand, stands in front of this beautiful and inspiring landscape.
Within the darkness that Jackson is bound for, are three soldiers. Some may interpret them as actual historical figures present at the meeting, southerners who are witness to this last moment though they aren’t aware that it’s the last moment. They also wouldn’t be aware of the coming fate of their Confederacy. Another interpretation is that these soldiers are stand-ins for the Fates themselves, waiting and watching for their moment to strike a blow to the Confederate high command. This was said to be the Confederacy’s greatest moment, their “High Tide” as many historians put it.
Whatever Julio’s intention behind the meaning of the painting, he aimed for it to be his crowning glory. He had planned to let this work catapult him into earning the title of the “Great Southern Painter”. However, despite the painting’s widespread fame today, it did not sell in Julio’s lifetime.
Born in 1843 on the island of St. Helena, Julio immigrated to the United States on the eve of the Civil War in 1860. He played witness to the war and all its trials. When it was over, he put his painting talents to use. He had studied painting in France and then at the Lowell Institute in Boston. He moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1864 and between then and 1869, worked on “The Last Meeting”. Julio conferred with Lee about the project and had offered it to the aging general, but Lee wrote to him saying, “It is not that I do not appreciate your feelings, or value your kindness, that I cannot accept your picture, but that I desire you to have all the benefit as well as the credit of your labors.”
The painting went up for sale in 1870 and was on display at his studio in New Orleans – where he had moved to after St. Louis – on Canal Street. When it wasn’t at his studio, it was exhibited at Wagner Art Gallery on Camp Street. Julio also painted landscapes and other portraits. Many of his pieces depicted scenes of Louisiana country living on the bayou. In 1873, Julio decided to further educate himself and traveled to France to study with Leon Bonnat, considered the best colorist of the modern French artists. In 1875, he returned to New Orleans, and in addition to painting, he arranged exhibitions of his work and of other artists, such as Richard Clague.
Julio’s collection is small. His paintings rarely surface in the art market at auction. In 1879, ten years after he finished his “Lost Cause” masterpiece, he died of health complications at the age of 36. He died in debt and without the title he had strived to earn in his short lifetime. “The Last Meeting” wouldn’t sell while he was alive, but at his estate sale, Col. John B. Richardson of the Washington Artillery in Louisiana – who saw action in many of the major engagements in the eastern theater – purchased the painting.
It would later fall into the hands of the curators at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. For a time, the painting was on display along with many accoutrements and relics like Robert E. Lee’s boots, John Bell Hood’s uniform, and Jackson’s pistol and haversack. When the Museum of the Confederacy was recently absorbed into the American Civil War Museum just a few blocks away, the painting changed hands as well. Visitors can donate to the preservation of the massive painting, weighing in at 102 inches tall by 74 inches wide and ornately framed in walnut to boot. Donations of $25 can also earn you a print of your own to frame and mount in your home, so you can have a little piece of Lee and Jackson in your living room or office. (this is as of the fall of 2019)
Standing in front of the behemoth, it’s hard not to be impressed by Julio’s dedication to the project. While it was at the Museum of the Confederacy, there was a bench where visitors could sit and bask in the presence of the masterpiece. I did this – and checked my phone – and understood why the piece had become such a draw for “Lost Cause” advocates around the country. The characters depicted are larger than life, idolized and deified over the century and a half since its inception. It’s now part of the last display in the American Civil War Museum and there is no bench, but when I visited the painting for a second time, I was still in awe of its use of color and symbolism. It’s not the most impressive piece of Civil War art in existence, but it’s certainly still meaningful.