Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Book Review: Our Man in Charleston

 

Our Man in CharlestonThe 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.

There are 5 comments.

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  1. Kay of MT Member

    I want to read this book!

    • #1
    • September 27, 2015, at 8:09 AM PDT
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  2. Concretevol Thatcher

    Fantastic, thanks for the tip!

    • #2
    • September 27, 2015, at 6:26 PM PDT
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  3. The Reticulator Member

    I’ll add that to my list of things to read. Thanks!

    • #3
    • September 28, 2015, at 8:00 PM PDT
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  4. Mr. Dart Inactive

    I’ve read the letters of Henry Pinckney Walker, British consul in Charleston, SC at the time of the 1860s war but have never heard of this Bunch fellow. Interesting that more than one person was a British consul in Charleston at that time.

    Henry Pinckney Walker’s observations and commentary from Charleston during the period could not be more opposed to those of Bunch as you describe them. In fact, two of H.P. Walker’s sons enlisted and fought for the CSA. His wife’s letters are also edifying, especially those from the time of the shelling of the city.

    Walker was born in England in 1816, was a British consul in the Carolinas for 24 years, died in 1890, and is buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston.

    I’ll take a look at the book about Robert Bunch. Thanks for the review.

    • #4
    • September 29, 2015, at 1:09 PM PDT
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  5. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter

    Mr. Dart: I’ve read the letters of Henry Pinckney Walker, British consul in Charleston, SC at the time of the 1860s war but have never heard of this Bunch fellow. Interesting that more than one person was a British consul in Charleston at that time.

    Walker was the assistant consul, under Bunch until Bunch was forced out by Steward. Bunch appointed Walker in 1861, after South Carolina seceded, so Walker was not a diplomat over most of the period covered by the book.

    Walker became a US citizen in 1844, so he could practice law. He supported slavery, and also incurred the wrath of the Lyons, the British minister to the US, for favoring Confederate over British interests once in charge at Charleston.

    There were several British consuls in Southern ports who “went native,” purchasing slaves, and generally serving as advocates for the South prior to and during the Civil War. Bunch was unusual in that he did not.

    Seawriter

    • #5
    • September 29, 2015, at 3:17 PM PDT
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