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The Confederacy was almost certainly doomed, even had it won the Civil War. Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey, explains why.
The book tells of Robert Bunch, Great Britain’s consul in Charleston, SC between 1853 and 1863. It shows Bunch to be the man most responsible for Britain’s refusal to recognize the Confederacy.
Bunch was sent to Charleston seeking the repeal or modification of South Carolina’s 1822 Negro Seaman Act, making it a crime for free black sailors to set foot in South Carolina. Any who did were arrested and fined. Unpaid fines led to imprisoned sailors being sold as slaves to pay the fine. This included black citizens of Great Britain, even if shipwreck victims.
Bunch’s predecessor went to law to exempt British citizens, alienating South Carolinans, and leading to recall. Bunch got modifications by befriending influential locals. Bunch detested slavery, but concealed personal beliefs to further his mission.
Bunch concealed nothing from his superiors in London, however. He kept the Foreign Office and Parliament informed through official and unofficial channels of attitudes in South Carolina and the southern United States during the years leading up to the Civil War. He reported Southern plans to export slavery by creating new slave states in the Caribbean and Central America, and reinstitute the Atlantic slave trade, despite official denials.
Dickey highlights Great Britain’s repugnance toward slavery. Its government tolerated continuance within the US, but not expansion or transatlantic slaving. Britain would have fought to stop those. Bunch’s reports led Britain to withhold recognition of the Confederacy, even following Northern provocations.
Our Man in Charleston is filled with irony. Confederate politicians counted on Britain’s bad relations with the US to aid them, while ignoring that these bad relations were due to Southerners’ efforts to reopen the slave trade. Bunch so ingratiated himself in Charleston that the Federal government withdrew Bunch’s diplomatic credentials, forcing Britain to recall Bunch, who was the North’s most effective advocate in the Confederacy.
Our Man in Charleston is well-written and revealing — a don’t-miss book for Civil War buffs.
“Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South,” by Christopher Dickey, Crown Publishers, 2015, 400 pages, $27, (hardback)
This article was originally published in the Daily News of Galveston County.