Our Man in Charleston, by Christopher Dickey *****

OurmanincharlestonThis is the most fascinating book I’ve read in a long time! Equal parts biography and American Civil War nonfiction, it details the experiences of Britain’s foremost spy, Robert Bunch, who was living in Charleston, South Carolina when the Civil War began and for its duration. I am truly grateful to Crown Publishers and Net Galley for permitting me to read the DRC in advance. And perhaps it is just as well, in a way, that my kindle fell in the potty when I was done and with it went hundreds (genuinely) of notations that I made as I wended my way through it; I had procrastinated writing this review because there was so much I wanted to say. Too much, in fact! Sometimes I have to remind myself I am writing a review for would-be readers who might want to discover a few things on their own. Part of my writing mind is still wired in the direction of academic analysis, which is too ponderous for most readers to slog through, and not really necessary for our purposes.

I was riveted almost from the get-go. At first I had the bizarre notion that a British view of the Southern Rebellion would be objective. If I’d thought harder, I would have realized that isn’t true; Britain had a tremendous amount of interest in the outcome of this fight. But its interest was completely different from either the Union’s or that of the Confederacy. There were a couple of horrifying instances in which it might have chosen to recognize the Confederacy, but those moments quickly passed.

Even before war broke out, tension had been quietly mounting over the treatment of British seamen that landed in Charleston. On one occasion a single Black sailor had instigated a relatively small uprising on a plantation, and this act—the most fearful nightmare of the Southern ruling class, self-styled aristocrats who lived as a tiny minority among an enormous number of Black laborers who had every reason to hate them—gave birth to the Negro Seaman Act. The law stipulated that any Black sailors from another country that worked on board a ship that docked in Charleston, must be kept in jail until it was time to leave again. This was the stuff of which international incidents were born. Britain would attempt to solve the problem through Washington, D.C., only to find that Charleston had already begun to flout Federal law and that the nation’s promises were not kept. Eventually, a quiet negotiation began with Charleston authorities. When they continued to behave badly, Britain had little recourse, since it did not want it known in Washington that they had been dealing with the government of South Carolina as if it were sovereign. This probably also fed the delusions of Southern grandeur and may have encouraged them to believe they did not need the national government at all.

Robert Bunch was originally stationed in the north, but found himself in Charleston more and more often. His habit, as Britain’s agent, had been to head north during the unbearably humid, tropical summers of the deep South, but as events polarized the nation and northerners were no longer welcome, his own position became more and more tenuous. His job was to send reports to Britain, but whenever he went in public, as he had to do a great deal in order to pick up information, he was questioned increasingly closely about Britain’s view of the Confederacy. Which side would Britain take? Was he a spy? (Gracious, no!) Maybe, were he on the side of the Union, he should be locked up! (Please, please no!) He would have preferred, at one point, to go north and stay there, but his orders were to stay put, so that’s what he did.

In order to maintain his role and save his own neck, his behavior became increasingly misleading. The dispatches he sent to England were so adamantly opposed to recognition of the Confederacy that he was reproached a time or two for trying to make policy when his job was simply to provide information. However, when he was asked by local folk whether surely, Britain would soon recognize the Confederacy, and wouldn’t he encourage this, he gave misleading smiles, made ambiguous remarks, and agreed that of course he would be happy to slip the British nanny’s letter home in his diplomatic pouch so that it could reach the U.S. mail from which they were otherwise cut off.

He became so convincing in his subterfuge that at one point, he was nearly brought up on charges of treason against Britain. U.S. Secretary of State Seward, a difficult, punctilious man, had a number of bones to pick with Britain, and at one point tried to foment war with them, convinced that if it broke out, the South would drop their ridiculous posturing and rush to defend the red, white and blue. Lincoln felt differently, however, and made it clear to Seward and to Britain that he was only interested in fighting one war at a time. To save face, Seward latched onto Bunch’s dismissal as the single demand he would press. Surely, in order to avoid international tension, Britain wouldn’t mind hanging one of their lowly agents out to dry? Send the boy home and there’s an end to it. Get him gone.

Lord Palmerston, a man with power disproportionate to most in his position, had eclectic tendencies, and was having no part of firing Bunch. He liked the guy, and wasn’t really interested in being shoved around by the former colonies of Britain. If the US of A had to have its capitol torched a second time to get the point as to whose navy was better? Fine. Hopefully not, but Bunch was staying. And that is how it was.

There are two things that popped out at me in reading this compelling work. My vantage point, for those who haven’t read my reviews before, is that of a former history teacher. It was my job to teach teenagers about the American Civil War, or as much as teens can learn in ten weeks at one hour a go. It was by far my favorite quarter of the school year, but I was so overwhelmed with work and meetings that I didn’t have a lot of time to read in my field. I could use my six weeks off in the summer to read whatever I chose, if I wanted to, and that was about it. So although I could have used this information back then, it is nevertheless satisfying to have one nagging question answered, however belatedly.

My question, and my students’ question sometimes, was if Europe was able to rid itself of slavery by the government’s buying slaves from slave owners, why didn’t that work in the USA? And the only response I had—one provided by reading James McPherson and a Marxist historian named George Novack—was that they refused. They just wouldn’t do it.

But why? Surely it was obvious they were living in a feudal economy that the rest of the industrializing nations had abandoned. Surely they had to know they could not freeze history. Why cling to it beyond all reason?

Questions related to war are always rooted in economics, and so to simply say they were irrational, which is more or less my answer apart from I-don’t-know, felt incomplete. A number of other historians gave that reason, but it felt like a puzzle piece forced into the wrong hole. And Dickey provided me with the missing piece. Although I had read vague things about speculation in slaves and that uniquely American, horrific practice, slave breeding, which brought us international shame before all was said and done, I didn’t recognize the link between speculation and the tiny handful of wealthy plantation owners that made the choice to go to war rather than let it go.

Those that have followed the financial news in the USA and many other nations over the past decade are aware that a lot of home owners are losing their houses when they can’t pay mortgages, especially balloon mortgages, and more dreadful still is the fact that they are “under water”, meaning that after the bank takes the house back, or it is sold, they will still owe payments on it. They’ve borrowed more against it than it is worth, and only bankruptcy will solve their problem. When they lose that house, they lose everything.

And so it was with a large number of plantation owners. They had borrowed against their slaves. That was where their equity was: in human capital. If they allowed the government to buy their slaves at their current market value, they would become bankrupt, and having gained their social standing on nothing more than wealth and pale pigmentation, they would be ruined socially and financially. As long as there was any other choice, they would take it. They would send their own sons to die for it, though generally they chose to pay someone else to go in their own places.

They were underwater.

Britain’s perspective at the outset was that if one side had slaves and the other did not, then of course they would not recognize the upstart nation. When the border states were permitted to keep their slaves, it was still considered wiser to back the winning horse in any race, and so unless it appeared the Confederacy was about to win the war and gain international status as an independent nation anyway, there was nothing to be gained by antagonizing Lincoln’s administration.

I had wondered, in past years, whether Britain might not have yearned for the South to become independent. If one looks at a map of the USA as it was then, and the size of British possession of Canada, if it also dominated the Southern USA economically, and if it had a navy in the Atlantic that could pound the coastline, could it not overturn the American revolution? That slice of the Union is small compared to Canada, when the Confederate states are added in like the bottom bun of a hamburger. How delicious!

Not so, says Dickey. Britain had other fish to fry. It had been absorbed in fighting the Crimean War, and at the time, events in Europe were considered vastly more important than our own emerging outpost. It might be nice to have, but they didn’t need it badly enough to weigh in with the slaveocracy. The South had been so smugly sure that Britain needed their cotton for its mills, but in fact, they had planned well against such an eventuality, and had over a year’s worth of cotton socked away in storage. To the impertinent Southern men and women that sashayed up to their representatives to announce that Britain would simply have to recognize them, the response was generally somewhat courteous, muted, non-committal. If pressed, they suggested that cotton could indeed be grown in India. No worries.

And here I am three pages later according to Microsoft, and I have really only skimmed the surface. Think if I’d had my notes available! Believe me when I say I have just scratched the surface. I had so many delicious quotes, and now you’ll have to go ferret them out for yourself!

This magnificent book comes out July 21, 2015. For once I can tell you that whether or not you are conversant with the finer details of the American Civil War, you will be able to read this with no trouble. A knowledge of the broad contours of the war will make it more satisfying, but not strictly necessary. Those who enjoy history in general, or biographies in general, will likewise find it a must-read.

You have to get this book!