Tom Dugan’s Robert E. Lee

I am not a big fan of historical impersonators. More often than not their interpretations reflect a consensus view that simply reinforces deeply held beliefs. The goal seems to be more entertainment than education. Such is the case with Tom Dugan, who pulls off a pretty good Lost Cause-inspired interpretation of Lee.  Here is Lee the beleaguered slavemaster who wants nothing more than to see slavery end.  Even a cursory perusal of Lee’s letters or the recent biography by Elizabeth Brown Pryor reveals a very different attitude regarding slavery and race.  A bit more disturbing is the Lee who never quite gets over the “high watermark of the rebellion” – even before it had become the high watermark.  Funny, that I am here reminded of Michael Fellman’s overly-psychological interpretation of Lee.  I would love to bring Dugan in to perform for my Civil War Memory class.  It would make for a wonderful discussion.

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11 comments… add one
  • Marc Ferguson Feb 2, 2010 @ 22:32

    Disturbingly irresponsible, falsehood laden, romanticized nonsense.

  • margaretdblough Feb 2, 2010 @ 18:20

    It is amazing how much unmitigated claptrap can one presentation contain. Aside from the blatant falsehood of the Mayflower and other errors that have already been identified, he completely misrepresents the 3/5 ratio. I have Madison's Notes of the Federal Convention of 1787. It was the extreme pro-slavery forces that wanted to count each slave as one person, but that was for the purposes of taxation and the of the census. It gave no rights to the slaves. Others pointed out the hypocrisy of wanting to count as “persons” that which the slave states claimed as property. The 3/5 ration was the compromise.

    At best, Lee belonged to the older slavery as a necessary evil school rather than the Calhounite slavery as a positive good school but the older school contended that God would end slavery when He saw fit (which generally appeared to be seen as a time long after the speaker and his progency were long gone). As for unpreparedness for freedom, who was answerable for that? During the antebellum period, the Southern pro-slavery forces refused to even discuss the possibility of slavery ever ending. They managed to suspend the First Amendment's petition clause for over a decade with the Gag Rule against even receiving anti-slavery petitions, even regarding DC which was federal property. It's not like the northern states had anything against gradual abolition. That's how many of them ended slavery within their own borders.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2010 @ 18:39

      I don't think it's necessary to distinguish between two schools here. Lee's understanding of slavery and race fit easily into the culture of a slave owning society. The big problem with Dugan's interpretation is that it attempts to place Lee outside of this society rather than trying to understand his racial outlook. It's unfortunate because there is plenty of good material available for such an interpretation.

      • margaretdblough Feb 2, 2010 @ 19:20

        Kevin-Actually, I think it is an important distinction since statements Lee made that are consistent with the slavery as a necessary evil school can be misinterpreted/misrepresented by modern Lee advocates to make it sound like he was actively anti-slavery. However, the emphasis for Lee and others like him was on the necessary, not the evil. While they'd talk about God ending the institution, it was always in terms of sometime in the vague and unforeseeable future.

    • Marc Ferguson Feb 2, 2010 @ 22:36

      Margaret, I think the historical record during Reconstruction shows that it wasn't the former slaves who were not prepared for freedom.

  • bobhuddleston Feb 2, 2010 @ 17:40

    “That was exciting that was gripping. The average audience did not know that”

    My heavens: such a collection of myths, going beyond the normal Lost Cause! The Mayflower was not used as a slaver – she was engaged in the wine trade and, as far as anyone knows, never made another voyage to the Americas as a blackbirder or anything else.

    I liked the criticism of abolitionists and Radical Republicans. Hmm. “Lee” failed to mention the Southern secessionists as having any responsibility for the Wah..

    And I did not know that REL suggested to Davis to emancipate at start of war – somehow I doubt that Davis knew that either!


    • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2010 @ 17:58

      I also thought that the criticism of the abolitionists and others was done well. The problem is that it is done to distance Lee from the issue as if he as disinterested observer.

    • Tom Dugan Oct 26, 2010 @ 19:59

      All of the facts in my play were checked and approved by The Museum of the Confederacy, The Appomattox Court House Museum, Washington and Lee University and The Virginia Historic Society. If you find any actual misstatements in my play please notify me and I will quickly make the appropriate corrections.

      Tom Dugan
      Playwright “Robert E. Lee – Shades of Gray

  • Mike Radinsky Feb 2, 2010 @ 16:31

    Grant said it best, although he underestimated the longetivity of the Lost Cause:
    “With us, now twenty years after the close of the most stupendous war ever known, we have writers
    –who profess devotion to the nation–engaged in trying to prove that the
    Union forces were not victorious; practically, they say, we were slashed
    around from Donelson to Vicksburg and to Chattanooga; and in the East
    from Gettysburg to Appomattox, when the physical rebellion gave out from
    sheer exhaustion. There is no difference in the amount of romance in
    the two stories.

    I would not have the anniversaries of our victories celebrated, nor
    those of our defeats made fast days and spent in humiliation and prayer;
    but I would like to see truthful history written. Such history will do
    full credit to the courage, endurance and soldierly ability of the
    American citizen, no matter what section of the country he hailed from,
    or in what ranks he fought. The justice of the cause which in the end
    prevailed, will, I doubt not, come to be acknowledged by every citizen
    of the land, in time. For the present, and so long as there are living
    witnesses of the great war of sections, there will be people who will
    not be consoled for the loss of a cause which they believed to be holy.
    As time passes, people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it
    was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified
    institutions which acknowledged the right of property in man.”

    Memoirs, Vol. I

    • Bob_Pollock Feb 3, 2010 @ 15:16

      “As time passes, people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it
      was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified
      institutions which acknowledged the right of property in man.”

      I don't think it is a matter of Grant underestimating the longevity of the Lost Cause. His mistake was not realizing how quickly former Confederates would begin to deny that slavery had been the root cause of the war, and how easy it would be for them to obfuscate the truth. BTW- Great article by Dwight Picaithley, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service on this subject in that mangled magazine.

      • Kevin Levin Feb 3, 2010 @ 15:22

        The Pitcaithley piece is ok. It's always nice to see such distinctions made between the Upper and Lower South in a popular magazine. Than again it doesn't add much beyond what has already been written in the same publication by Charles Dew, William Freehling and others. On the other hand, the article about the execution of USCTs was horrible.

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