Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South

Article excerpt

Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South. By Christopher Dickey. (New York: Crown Publishers, 2015. Pp. [xii], 388. $27.00, ISBN 978-0-307-88727-6.)

Christopher Dickey has written a fascinating account of Robert Bunch's tenure as British consul in Charleston, South Carolina. Between 1853 and 1863, in addition to discharging the normal duties of a consul, Bunch undertook several subtle diplomatic campaigns. He first sought to repeal the Negro Seamen Act (which affected British sailors of color and offended Foreign Office sensibilities) before quietly working to expose the illicit slave trade that still brought boatloads of suffering Africans to southern shores. Once secession broke out, Bunch did his best to keep his superiors--Lord Lyons, the British minister in Washington, D.C., and Lord John Russell, the foreign secretary in London--apprised of events in the spiritual home of southern separatism. Bunch sought to undermine international sympathy for the new Confederacy by ensuring that South Carolina's attitudes toward the reopening of the transatlantic slave trade were conveyed to the outside world. All the while, he played a dangerous double game by masking his true feelings and objectives from the South Carolina elites among whom he worked. In 1861, Bunch's greatest triumph--helping secure Confederate adherence to the Declaration of Paris--was followed almost immediately by his downfall, which was precipitated by an incident involving one of the couriers he had used to carry his diplomatic pouches. The federal government revoked Bunch's exequatur, and although he remained in Charleston until early 1863, the usefulness of this ambitious consul was at an end.

Not surprisingly for someone with such an extensive journalistic background, Dickey is a practiced and highly effective storyteller. The work has a "you were there" quality as it takes the reader from the fetid and miserable holds of slave ships to the aristocratic elegance of the South Carolina Jockey Club's Washington Race Course during Race Week. …

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