Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Book Review: Our Man in Charleston

Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South
Christopher Dickey
History, biography

This is the story of Robert Bunch, Britain's consul in South Carolina from 1853 to 1863. Bunch was personally revolted by slavery, and particularly seethed at some Southerners' unvarnished desire to not only expand it but to reopen the Atlantic slave trade. He faithfully and repeatedly hammered home these views to his superiors. But he also had to do his duty (representing his country's interests), which meant remaining on civil terms with slaveholders.

That's pretty much it for Our Man in Charleston. Bunch wasn't a secret agent in any real sense of the term. He wasn't in urgent danger, in spite of Christopher Dickey's attempts to play up the tense atmosphere. He didn't do anything that wasn't his job. Granted that some other British consuls don't even seem to have done that, Bunch's performance doesn't seem worthy of more than ordinary approbation.

Dickey may be over-faithfully following the analysis laid out in Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in America's Civil War. Foreman lays a lot of stress on William Seward's erratic behavior towards Britain, particularly in 1861-1862. If not for antislavery sentiment, goes the argument, Seward might have provoked Britain into intervening for the South, with consequences that would have been truly unspeakable. Therefore, anything that fanned the antislavery flames in London (by reminding people just how genuinely revolting the Confederacy was) was crucial.

Well, maybe so. I'd be interested in a less obviously derivative argument, and there were surely other people than Robert Bunch who had some impact. Our Man in Charleston is a very readable book, and it brings its subject and its time vividly alive. It also does a valuable service in reminding us all of how truly loathsome were the views of many white southerners in the 1860s. All the same, I'd have to rate this as a good read for the Civil War enthusiast rather than as a book for general consumption.

In spite of any counterclaims expressed herein, Foreman's book is truly wonderful, and can be read with pleasure by anyone who's even moderately interested in history.

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