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Our Man in Charleston
Reviewed by Nora Rawn.
Christopher Dickey's latest history book draws on his ample skills as a foreign correspondent to delve into the nitty-gritty of diplomatic posts through the story of British consul Robert Bunch, Civil War-era diplomat in the secessionist hotbed of Charleston. While Bunch as an individual never comes into very clear view, the book adeptly uses the archives of the British Foreign Secretaries who were Bunch's superiors to show the delicate inner workings of diplomacy at a crucial moment. Through extensive quotations from primary sources, he traces the early days of 'fire-eating' secessionist rhetoric and the start of the Confederacy, when the possible intervention of British naval power in favor of either side hung in the balance. Dickey argue that Bunch's disgust with the slave-owning elite of Charleston, and his careful monitoring of their not-so-secret plans to re-establish the slave trade, helped tip the balance towards neutrality despite the inflammatory bluster of the Union's Secretary of State William H. Seward. While Britain's economy was dependent on Southern cotton to fuel the profitable mills of Liverpool, public and political opinion was strongly abolitionist, and repugnance for the Confederacy's unapologetic slave-holding warred with the urge to protect the industrial cotton economy of Britain's North.
Bunch's experience of Southern mores caused him to secretly lobby against any intervention for the Confederacy, even perhaps beyond his mandate, for he had the ambitions to be promoted above the level of consul. Yet at the same time his station in Charleston obliged him to put on a false front of conciliation with plantation society, fearing that exposure of his true beliefs would expose him to risk in the violently pro-slavery environment of South Carolina. Unfortunately, Dickey hints at this mental strain without making it vivid, just as Bunch's family and personal life appear as mere facts. The depiction of the Southern society surrounding him also lacks verve, even though the period being depicted is one full of sensational figures. The efficacy of Bunch's advocacy is also more told than shown, perhaps blown somewhat out of proportion in order to propel the book's narrative arc. Additionally, the narrative itself abruptly stops before the war ends, as a diplomatic gaffe leads to Bunch being deployed elsewhere. The book's most important contribution may be in making it impossible to argue that state's rights were anything but a thin veneer on the issue of slavery as the cause of the war. Again and again the singular importance of slave labor to the Southern economy and its definitional status as the very identity of the Southern states is shown through the words of Southerners themselves. For this alone the book is eye-opening reading, tragic and damning and inarguable.
There are other rewarding details to be found here for a devoted armchair historian, too. While not so many generations removed, the transmission of information was incredibly more difficult during the mid 1800s, and Bunch had to resort to various ciphers in his letters which traveled within the diplomatic pouch, open to interception. News traveled at a slower pace, and indeed the very start of the Civil War was comparatively slow, with the taking of Fort Sumter initially uncontested by the Union. The value of a foreign service officer on the ground for information-gathering was certainly vital at such a time, and the intricacies of the British Foreign Affairs department are shown in careful detail. Those extremely interested in the history of the Civil War or British diplomacy of the era will find it compelling reading on account of the unique approach Dickey takes to the well-trod territory of the Civil War, though the book's claims of Bunch's critical importance in the ultimate outcome of the fight are too wide to be lived up to. Nevertheless, an enthusiast who has read exhaustively about the topic will be happy to have this detailed inside look at the experiences of South Carolina's British consul, though others may find themselves better served with a more comprehensive look at the subject.
Out of 10: 8.2