Review: Our Man in Charleston


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.

A photograph of Charleston taken in 1865, showing large parts of the city in ruins, much of which was due to the ‘Great Fire’ of December 1861 which Robert Bunch experienced.

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.

Pages: 400
Random House
Published: 2015

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. 



Review: Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies


Even when you are as fascinated by the American Civil War as I am, one sometimes wonders if there is much more that can be written about this momentous conflict.  It seems that almost every aspect of the War has been covered in great depth.  In my own modest library for example, books on the Battle of Gettysburg alone take up almost three shelves, whilst visiting the bookshops at any of the well-preserved Civil War battlefields maintained by the US National Parks Service one is presented with a vast array of Civil War books to choose from.  It is therefore against this background that one can be somewhat sceptical when picking up another new book, particularly one that claims to examine ‘Civil War Controversies’.

In his blog author Philip Leigh states that Lee’s Lost Dispatch this book:

“…revisits eleven episodes of the Civil War era—some lesser known than others—that, upon reexamination, may challenge our received understanding of the course of that conflict. It is hoped that this small volume will promote discussion and debate among those who enjoy Civil War history and contemplating alternatives to conventional conclusions and analyses.”

And it does exactly this, covering episodes that are both diverse and interesting.

The book opens with two examinations of what the author terms ‘The Greatest Confederate and the Greatest Federal’ errors respectively.  In these opening chapters he lays out his approach, which is essentially to challenges some of the prevailing, and in cases, long-held ideas about the Civil War. Thus in these chapters he highlights the Confederacy’s mistaken reliance upon the power of ‘King Cotton’ to create international influence, and the Union’s failure to invest in breech-loading and repeating rifles early enough which, had it done so, might have helped shorten the War. In the subsequent chapters the author considers subjects as diverse as how banking in America was transformed under the leadership of Salmon Chase in order to finance the Union War effort; the responsibility for the burning of Atlanta; the relative merits of George H. Thomas and William T. Sherman as successful Union generals, and the relationship between McClellan and Lincoln.  And of course the eponymous ‘Lost Dispatch’ receives its own chapter in which Leigh explores how the famous set of orders from Robert E. Lee’s headquarters in September 1862 fell into Union hands and should have gifted George McClellan the means to beat Lee.  He considers the various theories as to how this situation occurred and concludes:

“Only the ghosts of those involved know the truth of how the Lost Dispatch came to be misplaced. But give the burgeoning access to historical information enabled by the Internet, more theories are surfacing.  They range from the bizarre to the thought provoking.  Perhaps you, dear reader, shall discover the answer.”

In all these and other subjects covered, the book provides thought provoking insights and observations on the American Civil War.

This is not a book that the average reader will pick up.  As the author alludes to in the quote above, this book “revisits episodes” in the Civil War and a degree of prior knowledge is necessary to appreciate the discussion. However, this book is one that Civil War buffs will wish to read in order to have norms challenged and interest reinvigorated, and it will be retaining a place on the shelves in my library, despite the fact that they already bowing under the weight of Civil War literature!

Pages: 224
Westholme Publishing
Published: 21 May 2015