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

Leah Courtney
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I love history, and I've always been interested in the time period of The Civil War. I was very interested to read Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South. The book, by Christopher Dickey, explores a side of the Civil War I've not read much about- the role that England played and interest that country had in the war.

Review of Our Man in Charleston; nonfiction; Civil War

With all of the events occurring in America at the time, it's easy to overlook what was happening in other places around the world. But when we consider the bigger picture, we can see the response to slavery that was taking place in England. At the same time the country disapproved of slavery, they also counted on cotton and other goods from the American South. And so, they had strong opinions about what the outcome of the Civil War conflict would be.

In Our Man in Charleston, Christopher Dickey examines the role of Robert Bunch, the British consul who came to Charleston in 1853. It was interesting to learn about his position and how his relationship with Charleston society developed throughout the Civil War.

From the book's description:

When Robert Bunch arrived in Charleston to take up the post of British consul in 1853, he was young and full of ambition, but even he couldn’t have imagined the incredible role he would play in the history-making events to unfold. In an age when diplomats often were spies, Bunch’s job included sending intelligence back to the British government in London. Yet as the United States threatened to erupt into Civil War, Bunch found himself plunged into a double life, settling into an amiable routine with his slavery-loving neighbors on the one hand, while working furiously to thwart their plans to achieve a new Confederacy.

As secession and war approached, the Southern states found themselves in an impossible position. They knew that recognition from Great Britain would be essential to the survival of the Confederacy, and also that such recognition was likely to be withheld if the South reopened the Atlantic slave trade. But as Bunch meticulously noted from his perch in Charleston, secession’s red-hot epicenter, that trade was growing. And as Southern leaders continued to dissemble publicly about their intentions, Bunch sent dispatch after secret dispatch back to the Foreign Office warning of the truth—that economic survival would force the South to import slaves from Africa in massive numbers. When the gears of war finally began to turn, and Bunch was pressed into service on an actual spy mission to make contact with the Confederate government, he found himself in the middle of a fight between the Union and Britain that threatened, in the boast of Secretary of State William Seward, to “wrap the world in flames.”

In this masterfully told story, Christopher Dickey introduces Consul Bunch as a key figure in the pitched battle between those who wished to reopen the floodgates of bondage and misery, and those who wished to dam the tide forever. Featuring a remarkable cast of diplomats, journalists, senators, and spies, Our Man in Charleston captures the intricate, intense relationship between great powers on the brink of war.

I thought Our Man in Charleston was very well-written. The author has the ability to give lots of information and delve deeply into the politics and relationships surrounding the Civil War without sounding like a dry, dull textbook. The book is informative as well as interesting, and it gave me a new perspective on the war.

If you're a history buff and have interest in the Civil War, this book will make a good one to add to your collection. You can find Our Man in Charleston on Amazon here.

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Leah Courtney / Author & Editor

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