A spy’s exploits in the heart of the Confederacy
By S. C. Gwynne
June 8, 2015
Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South, by Christopher Dickey, Crown, 400 pp., $27
On May 22, 1856, South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks entered the Senate chamber and savagely beat Senator Charles Sumner with his cane. An abolitionist from Massachusetts, Sumner had made a speech three days earlier criticizing slavery and disparaging Brooks’s cousin, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, observing that he had taken as his mistress “the harlot, Slavery.” Brooks, who nearly killed Sumner in the brutal attack that shocked the nation, nevertheless became an instant southern hero.
That such an act was perpetrated by someone from South Carolina was no surprise. The state, and particularly Charleston, had long been the epicenter of secessionism. In the early 1830s, South Carolina, alone among southern states, had attempted to defy the federal government by “nullifying” its laws regarding tariffs, backing off only when President Andrew Jackson threatened to bring in federal troops. In the increasingly bitter sectional conflict over slavery and states’ rights, South Carolinians could always be counted on to take the most extreme positions.
South Carolina’s very radicalism and leadership role among the southern states make it an ideal place from which to observe the lurch toward disunion in the years leading up to the Civil War. In his new book, Our Man in Charleston, Christopher Dickey has gone one better: his subject, Robert Bunch, is the British consul in Charleston, an outsider whose job was to monitor what was going on and secretly report back to the British Foreign Office. Dickey, relying on Bunch’s voluminous reports and correspondence, is able to see and hear what northerners of the time could not: the inside of Charleston’s seething cauldron of secessionism in the 1850s and early 1860s.
Bunch is in most ways a brilliant find. He is keenly ambitious, tart tongued, and deeply opinionated. Though the slight, balding consul has a British aristocrat’s disdain for American institutions (he says at one point that he has as much fondness for American-style democracy as for “sour wine”), he detests slavery and is shocked by its practices. He equally detests the planter class, finding its members shallow, rich, idle, spoiled, cruel, arrogant, and hypocritical. This does not stop him from cultivating the slave-owning class as a way to gather intelligence. Bunch is a spy, living a spy’s double life, ingratiating himself with Charleston society while sending home harsh reports about the inhumanity he witnesses. He really hates these people, and his acid way with words lends an entertaining edge to his deeply biased missives.
Because of Charleston’s huge influence in the South, British authorities relied on Bunch’s reports to understand what was going on. One of his first assignments was to try to effect a repeal of a South Carolina law called the Negro Seamen Act, which allowed black British sailors (all free men, from the West Indies) to be locked up and held while their British ships were in port. Bunch soon expanded his activities to include the ongoing slave trade, which had been outlawed in 1807, much of it conducted by American-flagged ships transporting slaves from Africa to Cuba and sometimes even directly to the United States. He reported in detail his conversations with Charleston residents who expressed their profound hope that the trade would soon be legal again.
Such intelligence was of critical importance to Great Britain, a nation with conflicted views about the American South. Although most Britons were deeply uncomfortable with the institution of slavery, their national economy relied heavily on slave-produced southern cotton to supply their textile mills. Needless to say, once the war started, the Confederacy saw British recognition—or better yet, intervention—as central to its hopes of survival.
As interesting and incisive as his dispatches are, Bunch was not always right. In 1859, he wrote that he did not believe that the South could possibly come together in a confederacy. “I do not believe that any three Southern States could be found to agree upon any one simple point, except perhaps that every man has an inalienable right to ‘wallop his own nigger.’ ” At another point, in a fit of mild hysteria, he says that he doesn’t doubt for a minute that Great Britain will have to go to war with the United States.
Both Bunch and Dickey can sometimes seem a bit shrill in their condemnation of southerners in general and of South Carolinians in particular. The denizens of Charleston are “monsters,” both “detestable” and “sinister.” Bunch considers the whole idea of the Confederacy a “farce,” describing it as a place full of “frightful” people who routinely commit “atrocities.” Though slavery was obviously a great evil and many slaveowners and traders were cruel, abusive people, such characterizations can seem a bit categorical. Not all slaveholders were themselves evil. Twelve U.S. presidents owned slaves, eight while in office, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson. They were not all evil men. Moreover, many northerners got rich off the slave trade (for a long time, it was a mainstay of Connecticut’s economy), and two-thirds of southern families did not own slaves. Nuances like these sometimes get lost in Dickey’s book, where we see the world mostly through the eyes of the slavery- and slaveowner-hating Bunch. Lincoln, who married the daughter of wealthy Kentucky slaveowners, believed it was possible to hate the institution without hating every slaveholder; Robert Bunch did not subscribe to that notion.
Dickey also imposes a heavy narrative burden on the little consul. The story stretches from the backrooms of Washington to the global slave trade to Secretary of State William Seward’s escapades in Europe to the secession conventions, the Trent affair, the British press, Italian politician Giuseppe Garibaldi, the political machinations of Lord Palmerston, secret diplomatic missions to Richmond, and a British mercenary who was allied with John Brown. Bunch is in the middle of some of this; some of it is clearly beyond his reach.
But Dickey does manage to keep his far-flung narrative on track, and its minor weaknesses are made up for by his main character’s astounding ability to see, as a complete outsider with deep diplomatic cover, into the political and cultural heart of the secessionist South. Dickey, the foreign editor of the Daily Beast and a former longtime Newsweek correspondent, uses his research well: in a story like this one, point of view is everything, and Bunch’s is razor sharp.
S. C. Gwynne is the author of Empire of the Summer Moon, about the Comanche Indians, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His recent book Rebel Yell, a biography of Stonewall Jackson, also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, was shortlisted for the PEN Literary Award for biography.