- - Tuesday, September 15, 2015

OUR MAN IN CHARLESTON: BRITAIN’S SECRET AGENT IN THE CIVIL WAR SOUTH

By Christopher Dickey

Crown Publishers. $27, 388 pages

Disgusted with the noisy support of slavery among his fellow residents of Charleston in the pre-Civil War era, attorney James L. Petigru famously declared, “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”

One person who certainly shared Petigru’s sentiments was Robert Bunch, the British consul, who was in the uncomfortable position of feigning agreements with the firebrand secessionists, whom he detested, and trying to keep Southern cotton flowing to the demanding textile mills back home.



A supply of the textile was essential to the British economy. Mills in Lancashire and elsewhere wove cloth in an industry that employed a million or more persons. Which is one reason that despite anti-slavery laws and public sentiment, Britain displayed a certain complacency about the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

Christopher Dickey’s book is an engrossing read on several levels. Through Bunch’s dispatches, unearthed in obscure archives throughout Britain, he provides keen insight into the mindset of a culture built on slave-holding. One recoils when a Bunch acquaintance, well-placed in planter society, casually relates how he routinely stripped slaves — male and female — and flogged them with a horsehide whip.

There are the fetid slave ships that routinely defied U.S. law to bring into port human cargoes from Africa crammed so tightly that there was “scarcely space to die in.” Federal judges, defying the dictates of the law, routinely acquitted masters and owners of the illicit slave vessels. The court “treated Federal statutes as a joke.” And the slave markets in the center of the city provided cruel visual amusement for persons of all ages.

Bunch’s task, imposed by the British ambassador in Washington, was to provide insight into whether the slave states of the South would actually leave the Union. Doing his job required Bunch to hold his nose — literally, when he ventured near a slave-holding pen — and pretend to sympathize with his hosts. All the while, he reported that the state legislature was “full of lunatics.”

He did have a success or two. For instance, he persuaded South Carolina to repeal a “Black Seaman Act,” which required that if British black seamen sailed into Charleston harbor, they would be thrown into jail until their ships were about to leave. The stated reason was the fear the West Indian blacks might incite local slaves to insurrection.

Ironically, the economic demand for slaves mounted even as abolitionist sentiment soared in northern states. In 1857, for instance, Bunch reported a “remarkable … rise in the price of Negroes.” An able-bodied man now sold for $1,500, versus $800 of a few years earlier; a woman for $1,400 rather than $600. Cotton production had increased “about 3,000 percent in the first half of the century,” while the slave population went up only 150 percent. Thus, the South wished to reopen slave trade with Africa. “Such is the evil which is rapidly developing,” Bunch reported to London.

But Bunch was prescient in predicting the outcome. To be sure, he wrote, “[the Southerners] are rather amused at the idea of embarrassing the Federal government and perhaps, in a lesser degree, of annoying Great Britain, but they will awake from their delusion to find the Democratic Party broken up and the whole power of the Country thrown into the hands of the Republicans. When this happens, the days of Slavery are numbered .”

As secession loomed, Bunch feared for the lives of himself and his family, for Charleston was caught in a “reign of terror.” Ironically, when the federal government intercepted some of his diplomatic messages (illegally, of course) the obtuse Secretary of State William Seward commented that some of the letters were “very treasonous,” overlooking the fact that Bunch’s loyalty was to Britain, not the United States.

In the end, Bunch’s incisive reporting on the realities of a slave society played a major role in Britain’s decision not to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation, and not to extend any aid. And in 1862 a notorious slave trader named Nathaniel “Lucky Nat” Gordon, who had evaded justice for years, was tried in New York, convicted and executed — the first and only captain ever hanged for dealing in slaves.

Nevertheless, I have some quibbles with the book, commencing with the “secret agent” reference in the subtitle. Bunch’s presence in Charleston, and his role as a diplomat, was about as covert as a sunrise. And only by a ludicrous stretch of the language could his work be characterized as “espionage.” Gathering information is included in a diplomat’s job description, and several friends who achieved ambassadorial rank in the U.S. Foreign Service would bridle at being described as “espionage agents.”

A splendid read into the mind of the South before and during the war — and a valid explanation of how its cause failed.

Joseph Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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