Book Review: Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South

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by Christopher Dickey

New York: Crown Broadway Books, 2016. Pp. xii, 388. Illus., map., notes, biblio., index. $17.00 paper. ISBN: 0307887286

Britain’s Eye In the Confederacy

This is a very interesting book. Conventional wisdom about British attitudes towards the Civil War suggests that the British ruling class favored the Confederacy, but the reality was much more complicated.

Great Britain had made a national commitment to oppose the international slave trade in 1807. While this commitment was at first ineffective, slavery was eventually (1827) deemed piracy and made punishable by death, with an entire squadron of the Royal Navy dedicated to interdicting the trade. The British were often exasperated with the United States, which was supposed to be assisting in the suppression of the slave trade, because it often seemed that the American squadron off the coast of Africa existed mostly to prevent British warships from searching U.S.-flagged vessels. The British were particularly upset with South Carolina's "Negro Seaman Law," requiring every crewman of African descent from any ship that docked in South Carolina, had to be put in jail for the full duration of his vessel's time in port.

Into this situation came Robert Bunch (1820-1881) as the British consul in Charleston in 1853. Bunch had been serving as deputy consul in New York, then Philadelphia, but was shifted to Charleston because the man in that post had created an ugly incident in his attempts to get South Carolina to change or repeal the Negro Seaman Law.

The book details – largely through letters found in British archives – Bunch's efforts, eventually successful, to succeed where his predecessor had failed, but also his total disgust with the ruling South Carolina elites. As the United States drifted toward Civil War, Bunch was able to keep Britain informed on events in the cockpit of disunion, and on one crucial issue – the South's attitude towards the international slave trade – he was adamant that the language of the Confederate Constitution was irrelevant: An independent Confederacy would eventually seek to re-open the trade, and would certainly "look the other way" at many irregular efforts to continue it, regardless of laws on its books.

The result is a fascinating and very different view of British attitudes towards the American conflict, containing much good information from inside the heart of the rebellion.

 

Note: Our Man in Charleston is also available in hard cover, e-, and audio-editions.

 

Our Reviewer: James F. Epperson is a 60-something child of the 60s (both 19th and 20th Centuries) who taught university mathematics for 21 years before moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan to take a position in academic publishing. He is a frequent speaker at CWRTs, lives modestly in Ann Arbor with his wife of 35 years and their elderly Border Collie, and maintains a number of Civil War-related websites, http://www.civilwarcauses.org/ http://www.petersburgsiege.org/, and http://www.jfepperson.org/chrono.htm. He previously reviewed Ron Chernow’s Grant.

 

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Reviewer: James F. Epperson    


Buy it at Amazon.com




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