‘Our Man in Charleston’

OUR MAN IN CHARLESTON: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South. By Christopher Dickey. Crown. 388 pages. $27.

The man in Charleston is Robert Bunch, Her Majesty’s Consul from 1853 to 1863, who prevented Great Britain from supporting the South in the American Civil War, according to author Christopher Dickey, provides a richly detailed account of mid-19th-century spying.

Bunch was an “ambitious man,” Dickey writes in “Our Man in Charleston.” “A consul’s job could be like that of an exalted clerk, or it could be the work of a diplomat.” So, when offered the post in Charleston, he knew there were important issues “which centered on the problem of slavery.”

One of his most pressing assignments was to “amend or end the abominable Negro Seamen Act,” a law that required the jailing of black British seamen who came on to shore in the U.S. until their ship was ready to sail again. The ship’s captain was billed for their incarceration, often resulting in an even worse fate for these seamen.

Charleston harbor served as the U.S. hub of a trans-Atlantic sea lane that had Liverpool, England, at the other end, with Manchester’s nearby mills ready to process King Cotton. Robert Bunch and his new wife, Emma, arrived in Charleston from Washington, D.C., in November 1853. They moved into a three-story house at 58 Tradd St.

“Bunch quickly found that Charleston society was small, rich, and spoiled,” and disinclined to address slavery’s moral question, he reported to the British government. Slaves were still being sold on the auction block outside the Old Exchange Building, and at “nine o’clock in the winter and ten in the summer the bells of St. Michael’s Church would peal,” a signal for blacks to be off the streets. “These were, precisely, the sights of Charleston that welcomed Bunch and began to change him,” Dickey writes. Bunch became the South’s enemy within.

He kept his opinions to himself and appeared to be concerned only with England’s interests. He got on well in Charleston society. He performed the myriad everyday responsibilities of a consul, monitoring treaty obligations, noting port traffic and trans-Atlantic trade and issuing passports to British citizens.

Although the slave trade had been banned by the British and Americans in 1807 (the Americans had a 20-year delay proviso), cotton production had grown enormously and slaves were in short supply. Illegal slave ships were bringing Africans to Cuba and Brazil, many of whom were then smuggled into Southern states.

In 1858 the USS Dolphin captured the slave ship Echo, east of Cuba, which was brought into Charleston Harbor along with its almost indescribable horrors: emaciated human beings surrounded by filth; a ship’s hold seething with cockroaches, gnats and fleas, reeking with an unbearable stench.

An article in the Charleston Daily Courier argued that the only “humane” thing to do would be to enslave the African prisoners and put them to work in “useful occupations.” The Charleston Mercury wrote that the “savages” from the ship entertained onlookers with dancing and singing.

“A week after the Echo arrived in Charleston Harbor, its manifest horrors had begun to sink in,” Dickey writes. “The Mercury might paint a picture of happy savages desperate to stay in the United States, but the Courier seized on the evident atrocities committed aboard the ship to justify its position against revival of the slave trade.”

New slaves would stain the flag, heathenize established slaves and endanger slave masters, the Courier’s editorial claimed.

In the meantime, the South’s march to war continued, and in December of 1860, the Union was dissolved.” Bunch wrote to London: “My city (Charleston) is wild with excitement — bells ringing, guns firing, and scarcely one man in a thousand regrets the dissolution.” The die was cast.

“Our Man in Charleston” covers the convolutions, compromises, politics and intrigues of the Civil War in intricate and well-researched detail. It tells of early debates in the British parliament when England was leaning toward support of the South, and of the ensuing diplomatic battles, including the notorious Trent Affair, which is story unto itself.

It was, in large part, Bunch’s intimate reports of Charleston — its elite and the inhumane treatment of its slaves — that influenced Britain not to take the side of the South. That decision made a huge difference. Without the support of Britain’s powerful Royal Navy and its vast industrial complex, the South was far less likely to prevail.

Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer in Charleston.