Book Review: Our Man In Charleston

Our Man In Charleston, by Christopher Dickey

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Blogging For Books/Crown Publishers in exchange for an honest review.]

At the heart of this gripping and immensely sympathetic narrative history is an obscure character, Robert Bunch, whose influence on the course of the Civil War has been immensely neglected, and whose life has remained obscure, largely because he did not publish any of his voluminous writings, but rather labored as an ambitious but mostly anonymous British diplomat in a lengthy career spent in the Americas. In this book, we see from private correspondence heroically complied by the author a picture of a surprising secret agent. On the outside, Robert Bunch spent close to a decade as the British consul in Charleston, blandly friendly to his ferociously pro-slavery neighbors, easygoing but also easy to forget. In private, he seethed against the barbarism of slavery and the horrors of the clandestine slave trade many in Charleston supported and were involved in. Towards the beginning of the Civil War, his presence as the only active British diplomat in the Southern parts of the United States gave him a decisive role in informing the British political establishment about the Confederacy, with the express goal of preventing recognition.

The organization of this particular book, which has a main text of a little over 300 pages followed by an excellent annotated bibliography and extensive notes, is conventional in nature. It begins in media res in 1861, as Bunch hosts celebrated British reporter William Russell, and then provides a brief introduction to Bunch’s unconventional life and career, a detailed discussion of Bunch’s dispatches and how they relate to the double life he lived with an exterior smile to his South Carolina neighbors and an interior seething with indiscreet hostility to the South. Amazingly, despite his candid and critical commentary on the people of South Carolina, he was thought from his arrival to his departure as a friend to the people of South Carolina. Despite the vulnerability of his position and the massive gulf between pretense and reality in his job as a politically inclined diplomat, Bunch managed to preserve his cover for years in territory he considered hostile and frightening. In a way, this book provides a way for someone to be an envoy in hostile territory, although it appears to have been immensely difficult on him—preserve friendliness, be a canny judge of character, and find some outlet for venting one’s true feelings to reduce the internal pressure that comes from having to be gracious and warm in the presence of one’s enemies and under continual scrutiny.

Aside from the South Carolinians, who come off as immensely foolish [1], the most villainous character in this story is William Seward, who is portrayed as an incompetent party hack whose continual provocation of Great Britain nearly ended in warfare, and whose hostility against Bunch led to the removal of his diplomatic credentials, and to a year spent in a delicate position as a persona non grata in Washington DC and with an uncertain position in Charleston, where he was popular with people whose intense pro-slavery views horrified the ambitious diplomat. The book is a compelling read, full of drama, and manages to help perform a just deed in allowing this important man to be remembered as providing key inside information on slavery and the slave trade and perceptive political analysis of the United States, in particular South Carolina and the South as a whole, that led Britain to refuse to recognize the Confederacy and provide effective aid to their efforts, while successfully defending British interests in the Confederacy and avoiding causing offense to the prickly and sensitive Southerners in a dangerous time. This was no mean achievement; in fact, it was a stellar accomplishment of dissembling and successful self-restraint, one that deserves to be remembered as being helpful for the cause of justice in the world by helping to bring about the defeat of the Confederacy. As the author states in the closing to the epilogue in this book: “A smug official in the Foreign Office described Bunch as “a man spoilt by being raised beyond his proper sphere, and consequently too much impressed with a sense of his own dignity,” but Bunch did his best to maintain his sense of justice and of irony right up until his death in 1881. Bunch had helped to change the course of history; he had fought secretly but relentlessly against the cruel lunacy of slavery that surrounded him and that threatened to drag the whole world into America’s war; he had defended the humanity of black men and women who were treated no better than animals. And yet he, Robert Bunch, had been forgotten. A little respect for his dignity did not seem, to him, too much to ask (326-327).” Far from it. This is precisely the sort of book that is most likely to ensure that Robert Bunch is remembered by true friends of liberty and justice in the future.

[1] See also:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, International Relations, Military History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: Our Man In Charleston

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