Sometimes one reads a book that you cannot put down until it is finished. Our Man in Charleston by Christopher Dickey is one such volume. Subtitled ‘Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South’, it tells the fascinating story of Robert Bunch, the British Consul in Charleston, South Carolina from 1853 to 1863.
Now one might not think of this as the subject matter for a gripping page-tuner, in which case one would be wrong. The narrative follows Bunch’s ten year stay in Charleston during the lead up to, and the first two years of, the American Civil War, some of the most turbulent times in American history. Indeed as the author says:
“…an assignment in Charleston was a treacherous one for a British envoy. It was the epicenter of all the contradictions that London, whatever its passions, found difficult to face. England hated slavery but loved the cotton the slaves raised, and British industry depended upon.”
Bunch’s role as the consul was multifaceted. He was expected to look after a whole range of British interests in the busy port, and his duties ranged from making sure local authorities observed treaty obligations regarding British shipping, liaising with US customs and representing the interests of British sailors and citizens if they got into trouble, to issuing passports and recording the births, marriages and deaths of British residents within his fairly extensive area of responsibility. Indeed, as is quoted in the book, Bunch once wrote to a colleague that:
“With the exception of the administration of the sacrament of baptism and exercising the business of executioner, it would be difficult to say what duties I cannot be called on to perform.”
However, as the book’s subtitle alludes, the most important role that Bunch performed during his tenure, as was common for diplomats at that time, was to act as the eyes and ears of the British government in what was rapidly becoming the centre of unrest in the United States. As such Bunch was in a precarious position in which, as the United States slid towards Civil War, he found himself having to lead a double life. On the one hand he was the friendly and engaging consul whose social circle included many of his slave owning neighbours, whilst on the other hand, fuelled by his personal revulsion of slavery, he made every effort possible to make sure that Great Britain did not recognise the emerging Confederacy. The central narrative of the book charts Bunch’s work in this respect, as he produced an almost constant stream of dispatches to his boss, Lord Lyons the British Minister in Washington, and ultimately to the Foreign Secretary in London. The story of Bunch, his work and tribulations is superbly executed and provides an incisive and illuminating insight into the international political machinations of the period.
In addition to Bunch’s story Dickey also paints a vivid picture of Charleston at this critical moment. The book is alive with descriptions of the place and its people; and it was a colourful place with an eclectic and interesting cast. From this one gains an excellent picture of the environment in which Bunch was working, the challenges he faced and the intrigue and politicking that was going on.
It should be noted that whilst an engaging and entertaining read, this book is also a very professionally produced and argued history. As the endnotes and bibliography highlight, Dicky has done a great deal of research, accessing hitherto largely untapped sources, including Bunch’s own unpublished private correspondence.
In short this is a great read and an important contribution to the vast library of literature on the American Civil War and its causes. Its content will certainly appeal to American Civil War aficionados, but its style and pace make it very accessible to the more general reader too. Highly recommended.
Note: For those who would like to find out more about the subject online, I would recommend Christopher Dickey’s related blog “OUR MAN IN CHARLESTON,” and Echoes of the Civil War.