It is a mark of how rare it is to encounter a book on the American Civil War that offers an entirely fresh perspective, adds measurably to our understanding of critical aspects of the conflict, and yet is extremely well written, that I found myself championing its merits well before I had actually finished it. Such a volume is Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South, by Christopher Dickey – published in the final sesquicentennial year of the rebellion that left such a deep scar on the nation that it still resonates in the contemporary political landscape – which I had the privilege to obtain in the form of an uncorrected proof as part of an early reviewer’s program. The official publication date is scheduled for July 21, 2015.
I have had mixed luck with books obtained through the early reviewer program; more than one I forced my way through out of obligation rather than enjoyment or intellectual enrichment. Our Man in Charleston was a thoroughly delightful exception to what has been trending towards a somewhat dreary rule, and it could not have arrived at a better time. While I have spent a lifetime reading and studying about the Civil War, I have devoted the sesquicentennial years to a deeper appreciation that has included battlefield tours and even a weekend seminar with noted historian Ed Bearss in his ninetieth year, who giddily ran ahead of me and a devoted group of the less physically fit on rocky outcrops at Antietam and windy overlooks at Gettysburg, all the while steadily lecturing us in his inimitable stentorian voice. I am fresh from walking at the commencement ceremony for my Masters in History from APUS, obtained partially by fulfilling the final program requirement of an internship that in my case entailed spearheading a project with a local museum for digitizing a lost trove of Civil War diaries, memoirs and correspondence – which also earned me the Academic Scholar Student of the Year Award from the School of Arts and Humanities. On the way home, I spent time at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse. In other words, I am invested in the larger topic at hand, one that according to some sources has been the subject of more than 70,000 books, with new ones published all the time; that may in fact be a low reckoning. So, as they say on the block, I don’t impress easy. This book thoroughly impresses me.
Dickey, a journalist rather than a trained historian who has an impressive resume that includes works both of fiction and non-fiction, managed to target an extremely unique character and perspective and put these to pen admirably, drawing the reader into the narrative in the first few pages and never letting him or her go until the tale is complete. Our Man in Charleston is literally Robert Bunch, a relatively minor character who has until now essentially been lost to history, the British consul stationed in Charleston, South Carolina through much of the final decade of the antebellum years, who remained at his post until 1863. The view is decidedly a British one, which is both unfamiliar and highly informative for students of the era who in general do not look to the war from the vantage point of foreign soil. Bunch finds himself a witness – and sometimes more – to key events that include the explosive Democratic convention held in Charleston which resulted in the terminal fracture of the party that was to ensure Lincoln’s eventual win, the lead up to secession in the very nucleus of its inception, the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor that inaugurated the war, and a host of other events of great significance as the rebellion and the Confederacy took shape. As a journalist, author Dickey must have deliciously imagined what it must have been like to have been an eyewitness to history taking shape in this way; as a writer of a solid book of history that contains a thick sheaf of citations, rather than imagination Dickey relied upon outstanding resources in the paper trail that Bunch left behind. The author admirably sets Bunch’s perspective into the broader context of war, diplomacy, politics and much more, and it is clear that he is no novice to the wider arena in which these events occurred.
The first third of the book is focused upon something that seems at first to have nothing to do with the later secession of South Carolina, which is some years away when Bunch arrives in Charleston in 1853 with instructions from his government to use all diplomatic means to urge a change in policy that up to that time had seen black British seaman seized and held by the authorities when ships with such crews flying the Union Jack were in port. Under the “Negro Seaman Act,” first enacted in Charleston in 1822, which inspired similar acts elsewhere in the south, free black British sailors – primarily of West Indian heritage – were seen as a kind of contagion that could potentially inspire slave uprisings: “Liberated blacks were seen as carriers of an insurrectionary plague that must be quarantined.” [p12] The law provided for this “quarantine” by mandating that such seaman be incarcerated as long as the ship was in port and holding the captain liable for the expenses this entailed; a refusal to cover such costs could result in penalties that included seizing and selling these sailors into slavery. There was also the very real danger that during incarceration they could be kidnapped and sold as human “livestock.”
Two critical elements present here that were to assume much larger significance in historical retrospect. The first is that the British, who economically represent a huge market for southern cotton, are nevertheless appalled by slavery, which has been abolished throughout their empire. The second is that the Charlestonians cannot comprehend that there is an alternative perspective to their own, which holds that per God and man the optimal role of blacks is to serve as human chattel property. The contrast in these essentially irreconcilable positions is underscored as Bunch learns that not only is there zero sympathy for even the mildest antislavery position, but the South Carolinians are leading advocates of the reopening of the slave trade, outlawed since 1807, to fuel their massive appetite for plantation labor. Curiously, their concern is less for international outrage than the opprobrium they might invite from the more northerly southern states, like Virginia, where since Jefferson’s time slave labor had become economically unfeasible but slave breeding thrived; prices would likely plummet once importation began anew. In the meantime, Bunch learns, there was such a thing as smuggling.
The British were committed to interdicting the illegal slave trade out of Africa and vigorously employed their navy to prevent slavers from making it to the Americas – sometimes these were ports in the US, more often Brazil and Cuba. The United States was technically committed, as well, but the effort was lukewarm at best as the Buchanan Administration sought to avoid raising southern ire. The exception was the capture of the Echo, a slaver that was towed into Charleston Harbor. In today’s south – where remarkably the Confederate Battle Flag still flies at the South Carolina State House*, roads named after Confederate politicians and generals crisscross the landscape, and there has been a new and vehement resurgence of the “Lost Cause Myth” that promotes the lie that the rebellion was predicated upon states’ rights rather than the proud creation of an independent “slave republic” – slavery is commonly downplayed and the treatment of slave property has been euphemized as generally beneficent. As historians of the antebellum period are well aware, this is nonsense: slaves were often treated cruelly and always arbitrarily, frequently whipped or otherwise mistreated and sometimes murdered with no legal repercussions. In 1830, a slave named Jerry accused of rape was duly sentenced by a South Carolina court and subsequently executed by burning alive! Still, a full knowledge of these realities hardly prepares the reader for what awaits when Bunch and others see the Echo in the harbor:
“Vomit and urine and feces and blood had seeped deep into the raw wood of the sunless, slapped-together slave decks in the hold, staining them indelibly with filth. Cockroaches by the millions seethed among the boards, and clouds of fleas and gnats rose up from them. The stench that came from this vessel wasn’t the smell of a ship full of cattle and horses, but that peculiar smell that surrounds humans, and only humans who are very afraid and very sick or dying or dead . . . Some 455 Africans had been taken on board the Echo near Kabinda on the African coast. More than 140 had perished during the weeks at sea and were thrown overboard. (“The shark of the Atlantic is still, as he has ever been, the partner of the slave trader,” wrote a British editorialist.) It took the U.S. Navy prize crew six days to sail the Echo to Charleston Harbor, the most important American port within reach of the fetid vessel. By then, another eight captives had died. And they just kept dying . . . ‘Their condition on leaving the brig Echo was painful and disgusting in the extreme. They had been huddled together closer than cattle, and slept at night in as close contact as spoons when packed together. Privation of every kind, coupled with disease, had reduced all of them to the merest skeletons, and to such a state of desuetude and debility that on entering the fort they could not so much as step over a small beam, one foot high, in the doorway, but were compelled to sit on it and balance themselves over. It is impossible for you to imagine their sad and distressed condition.’” [p90-94]
The survivors were herded into the still incomplete Fort Sumter. The death of nearly three dozen more under the watchful authority of the U.S. marshal, formerly a proud supporter of reopening the slave trade, changed his mind for good. Most Charlestonians, however, were decidedly unfazed: in fact their dander was up over the humiliating treatment afforded to the captain and crew of the vessel when paraded through town upon their capture. Bunch, like any modern audience reading this account, was horrified.
As British council, Bunch does his best to form positive relationships with his American hosts, but his correspondence reveals that he clearly detests most of them. Perhaps he most admired James Petigru, the politician who opposed secession and famously declared that: “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” But even Petigru was a slaveholder. Bunch’s visceral antislavery orientation, shared by most key members of the British Parliament in both parties, was an anathema to almost all South Carolinians. Bunch was present in Charleston through the secession crisis, the firing on Sumter, the formation of the nascent Confederacy, the diplomatic crises with Britain over blockade and the seizing of Mason and Slidell by an overeager Union navy captain, and much more. He even took part in some “undercover” diplomacy with Richmond in the interests of the British, which sadly backfired and unfairly characterized him in the eyes of the Lincoln Administration as a Confederate sympathizer. South Carolina – and the entire Confederacy – bet that a British hunger for southern cotton would trump any opposition to slavery on the other side of the Atlantic and foster both recognition and even military assistance. As history has demonstrated, this was hardly a sound gamble, especially as southerners burned their cotton in the early stages of the war to increase demand. The British sought and located alternative markets, and at the end of the day it was very difficult for British politicians to trumpet support for the Confederacy, whose economy and in fact raison d’être was predicated upon the human chattel slavery Britain was committed to oppose on every shore. South Carolinians, as revealed by the Dickey book, could never possibly comprehend any of that.
It is impossible to find anything significant to criticize in this fine work. Our Man in Charleston is original, well-written, carefully documented and presented as only the very best narrative history is meant to be: it offers a unique perspective on a critically important subject in a thoroughly original manner. I highly recommend this book and I predict that it will earn more than one award for its contribution to American Civil War studies.
*Postscript: On July 10, 2015, spurred by the shooting massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Confederate battle flag was finally removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds. Less a Civil War relic than a modern symbol of racism – the flag was raised in 1961 and flew primarily to celebrate the state’s stubborn resistance to Civil Rights – the cynical on each side of the flag debate can claim that the move was either opportunistic or politically correct, yet it nevertheless represents a step forward for the state that spawned secession and the sanguinary struggle that was to follow. As President Obama tweeted that day: “South Carolina taking down the confederate flag – a signal of good will and healing, and a meaningful step towards a better future.”