Review: Our Man in Charleston

Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey

Crown, 2015.  Hardcover, 400 pages.Cover:  Our Man in Charlestown

This historical work takes a different spin on the issues of slavery and the American Civil War.  Instead of being viewed through an American lens, it is written from a British angle.  This is done by profiling the work and life of Robert Bunch, the British consul in Charleston, South Carolina.

Bunch, the product of a British father and American mother, first arrived on the scene in 1853.  He was sent to Charleston to deal with the Negro Seamen Act.  This act allowed the South Carolina government to imprison and sometimes enslave black British sailors.  Concurrent to this, Bunch also tracked slave auctions and the illegal slave trade for the British Empire.  Britain had abolished slavery in its empire decades earlier and saw itself as the protector of the African people.  They patrolled the coast and tried their best to prevent the illegal activities.  And it was shocking to learn just how widespread the illegal slave trade was and how crafty the slave-traders were to hide their activities.  Even more appalling was that the fact was an open secret in the antebellum South and many southerners wanted to reopen the legal slave trade!  And Charleston was the bastion of these desires, forcing Bunch to walk a fine line and live a double life while tending to these issues.

Also troubling was how close Britain and the United States came to war in the early 1860s.  First, it was the illegal slave trade prompting the worries.  Once the American Civil War began, the issue only magnified.  The Confederacy thought that Britain’s mills needed its cotton enough to overlook slavery and side with them, thus giving the new “nation” needed legitimacy.  The Union, however, kept finding ways to irritate Britain, mainly because of Secretary of State William Seward‘s biased thoughts.  At one point, Britain sent troops to Canada in case it was invaded by the Union! And this was not an idle threat.  The last of the book’s five sections details these issues, addresses the Trent Affair, and how Bunch found himself trapped in the middle of these debates.  To say the least, Bunch was thought to be an ally of the fledgling Confederacy by both American nations while only Britain knew the full truth.

Also included throughout the help the readers understand is an overview of British politics at home.  This is necessary because each change in the government  meant a change in to whom Bunch reported and how the reporting was handled.  Therefore readers will learn the names and basic facts about the prime ministers and relevant secretaries in London.  For anyone who is widely read on mid-19th Century European History, these will be familiar names-Lords Palmerston, Clarendon, and John Russell to name a few.  Also detailed was the minister (then title for ambassador) in Washington, D.C., Lord Lyons, and newspaperman William Howard Russell* with whom Bunch closely worked.

Over all, this was an interesting book and I learned a lot about the country I call home.  History textbooks left many of the issues mentioned in this work out of their texts.  Perhaps it is because the depth of the issue was rarely known, for much of the book is based on correspondence and reports held by the British National Archives.  Additionally, the text of this novel flowed very well.  It read like a suspense novel.  Adding to the effect, when the original text works best, it is included verbatim and logically integrated with no interruption to the story.

Our Man in Charleston releases tomorrow, 7/21/15.  I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Do you think you will read this unique angle on the complicated issue?  Do you know of another book that addresses the British views on the American Civil War and the issues leading up to it?  Or perhaps another country’s?  Or a different book that addresses this hidden and textbook-unmentioned illegal slave trade?

*William Howard Russell is also known for his groundbreaking coverage of the Crimean War in Europe, especially the coverage of the charge made famous in the Tennyson poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

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