Matthew Price, writer and book critic
Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South
By Matthew Price. The Boston Globe, July 23, 2015

A small city that played an outsized role in the old South, Charleston was a hotbed of pro-slavery, secessionist fervor during the antebellum years. A wealthy white elite dominated this once major port, anxiously ruling over a population nearly half of which was slaves or free people of color.

It was here that Robert Bunch came in 1853 to take up his post as British consul. An Englishman abroad in the employ of the Foreign Office, the young, ambitious Bunch would find himself caught up in a tense drama as the clouds of war gathered and then broke over the Union.

In “Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South,” author and Daily Beast foreign editor Christopher Dickey tells Bunch’s story with aplomb and a good deal of fine wit. On one level, Dickey has written a spicy historical beach read, chock-full of memorable characters and intrigue. But into this page-turning entertainment, Dickey has smuggled a thoughtful examination of the geopolitical issues of the day.

No issue was greater than the fate of slavery. The British Empire, which emancipated its slaves in 1833, jealously prowled the oceans, hunting down slave traders who did a vigorous business in Cuba and Brazil. But Britain’s righteous stance was complicated by its reliance on Southern cotton harvested by slaves and then shipped to the whirring mills of Lancashire. Charleston stood at the nexus of this tangle of interests.

“It was the epicenter of all the contradictions that London, whatever its passions, found difficult to face,” Dickey observes. “England hated slavery but loved the cotton the slaves raised, and British industry depended on it. Defending Britain’s political interests while serving its commercial interests required constant delicate diplomacy, even in the most informal settings.”

Bunch’s official business turned on the protocols of this delicate diplomacy, and he did his job well. His public face seemed friendly to Southern interests, but in private he seethed. The hideous spectacle of slaves being sold at market appalled him; the Charleston gentry, whose riches turned on such transactions, inflamed his contempt. Bunch’s private correspondence and confidential dispatches to London, which Dickey quotes extensively, convey his disgust: “The frightful evil of the system is that it debases the whole tone of society — for the people talk calmly of horrors which would not be mentioned in civilized society.”

The agreeable Bunch masked his feelings well but clashed with South Carolina leaders over the controversial Negro Seaman Law, which targeted black sailors for arrest regardless of nationality. He was even more alarmed by the heated rhetoric about reopening of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which the United States had outlawed in 1808. Bunch warned his colleagues that the South was nothing less than an incipient empire hellbent on expansion, determined to spread the contagion of slavery as it annexed new territories.

South Carolina was in the vanguard of such efforts. By the eve of conflict, Bunch, “the single most trustworthy source of information about a fast-approaching war with vast and as yet unimagined consequences,” had made himself indispensable to the British government as it managed relations with its trading partners in the South.

Dickey keeps things bouncing along as he describes how Bunch scrambled to gather intelligence. Charleston figures pressed him on whether the British would grant the South formal recognition, a delicate matter that put Britain, ever protective of its interests, on the hot seat. They constantly (and loudly) told Bunch that Britain could never do without Southern cotton, but the consul held firm against the bluster. (“I think I can manage them unless they go quite mad,” he phlegmatically informed Lord Lyons, the British minister in Washington.)

More worrisome was the language coming from Lincoln’s Cabinet. For Secretary of State William Seward, who thundered against Britain’s perceived bias toward the South, Bunch became highly suspect. The irony is mordant: The consul, who loathed the edifice of a Southern society built on the cruelties of slavery, was so good at dissembling he was suspected of being a pro-Southern spy.

Dickey deliciously teases out the contradictions of Bunch’s position as he undertook a secret exchange with Richmond, the Confederate capital, to clarify Britain’s commercial rights during a time of war, a complex matter that turned on whether the Confederacy was a newly sovereign state or merely a rebellious province. A dry distinction perhaps, but, as Dickey’s splendid telling makes clear, the stakes for all involved could not have been higher.


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Matthew Price, writer and book critic


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