2016-07-07 / Opinions

Book Review

Our Man in Charleston
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Maybe because of our unsettled times and fears, a number of books are being published about historical secret agents and espionage. Our Man in Charleston is the story of a British consul in Charleston from 1853 until the middle of the War Between the States. Robert Bunch was horrified by the brutality of slavery but enjoyed cordial relationships with the leaders and plantation owners in and around Charleston.

The specific issue that he needed to deal with in the beginning was the treatment of black British seamen. Most of them were free men from the British West Indies. If they set foot in Charleston, authorities, fearful of their influence on the slave population, put them in jail (or worse). Britain, whose relationship with the U.S., and later with the Confederacy, was shaky, could not put up with this mistreatment of British citizens.

Bunch was born in the U.S.; his mother was a member of a prominent New York family. His father was an English gunrunner who came to own property in Columbia. He was not of the English aristocracy from which most diplomats came. Thus Bunch seems to have found his position with the upper classes in the South a pleasant experience. He took his work for the government in London seriously, however, sending dispatches about the possibilities of civil war and later insights into Southern strategies.

Christopher Dickey explains the political situation in Britain and the different people whom Bunch reported to. Some appreciated his work; others later ignored it. He tracked everything from shifting public sentiment to the gritty details of slavery. He “was deeply disturbed by the mixtures of arrogance and fear, cruelty and luxury, piety and hypocrisy that were so deeply ingrained in Southern culture.”

Among the issues that Bunch and his superiors dealt with were the threats to Cuba from Southern interests and the practice of British ships trying to stop the slave traders, including those American ships who were illegally participating in the trade. There were several standoffs at sea and episodes of hysteria in the press and in Congress.

By early 1863 the North’s war machine was so enormous that both the British and French, in spite of the efforts of Southern diplomats and merchants, had given up any thought of challenging it directly. “The people who had known Consul Bunch in Charleston would never be aware of the role he played in defeating their plans for a slaveholding empire.” Bunch was reassigned to Cuba and left the U.S. in 1863, while Charleston held out for another two years. In the end, Sherman decided that “the jewel of the South” was not worth taking. Finally in February, 1865, after Confederate troops left, Federal forces occupied the almost-destroyed city.

Our Man in Charleston, a slightly different viewpoint of The War, is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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