I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Our Man In Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey


I began on my journey of studying the Civil War my junior year in High School.  Mrs. Williams asked us when in U.S. history we wanted to start. We chose to begin in the middle.  We spent a month on the Civil War (To my Yankee friends, historians will tell you that the Civil War was a huge turning point in history.  Besides, all but two of the battles took place in the South, so we have a vested interest.)  Over the years I have read books (both fiction and non-fiction), seen movies, and documentaries.  I thought I had viewed the War from every possible viewpoint.  I was wrong.  Apparently the British had one.  To my knowledge, the only role the British played was that the Southerners were desperate for weapons and money and knew that England and France were dependent on them for cotton.  They believed that they could convince them to help them win the war based on this, but began losing so many battles that the countries decided not to back a losing side.  This was rather far off from the truth.

This book begins in 1853, when a man named Robert Bunch arrived in Charleston, South Carolina to be the British consul position.  The consul is a paid government job that involves doing passports, looking after British citizens and British interests, especially the Negro Seaman Act, which allowed South Carolina to take black British sailors off their ships when they dock and put them in jail as long as the ship is in port.  Now, sometimes these men did not always stay in jail.  Sometimes they ended up being sold into slavery.  The United Kingdom began, for the most part, abolishing slavery in 1833, so they took a very dim view to this practice.  Bunch's main objective, while there was to put teeth into a law stopping this.  He was also sent to spy.

Bunch and his new wife were not too happy to be in the South, but Bunch was ambitious and thought that a job involving anti-slavery acts, which the British government were fiercely against, might grant him a position as a diplomat.  The British had just finished battling Spain to end the African Slave Trade to Brazil in 1850. Morality, however, was not the only reason the British were against the African Slave Trade.  With slave work, the Spanish were able to sell sugar and coffee much cheaper than the British.  Now the British were working to stop the Slave Trade from going to Cuba.  America, who had abolished it in 1807, according to the constitution.  Though Bunch despised slavery and the people who owned them, he was able to fit in immediately, mainly because those from Charleston thought of themselves as being from Britain.  Also, he hid his feelings well.  Too well, as the case will turn out years later. 

Bunch was not the only spy.  The consul in New Orleans and New York were also spies.  The Foreign Minister was Clarendon, a cautious man, but a smart one and a man Bunch had worked with before and trusted.  Palmerston was at that time, the Prime Minister, though he would shuffle around between Home Office, Foreign Office, and Prime Minister during his lifetime.  He was also known as "Lord Cupid" for his many affairs.  He was once even named as the cause in a divorce when he was in his seventies (He was Irish.) It is rather confusing keeping track of who is in what position when what occurred.  There is also Lord Russell who also hopscotched back and forth with Palmerson as Prime Minister. The main difference between the two was that Palmerston was actually interested in the Civil War because he could see how it was going to affect Britain and Russell was busy with all the many other things Britain was involved in around the world and just wanted the whole thing over with, and quite frankly, did not know as much about America or have as much faith in Bunch as the other two. 

Anyhow,  Bunch would find that some people were actually quite nice and good, especially James Petrigru, the one man who be left standing when war began who would still be a "Unionionist".  He was a rather stubborn, well respected man who came from a nice family so no one bothered him about his views.  Bunch also was able to, after three years, get the Negro Seaman Law passed.  Things seemed to be better, but the exact opposite was true.  "Fire-eaters" were beginning to stir things up.  They wanted the South to start importing slaves from Africa again and expand west and farther.  This was something that the British were definitely against.  Soon, rumors of slave ships arriving start circulating and one does indeed get caught by the British and brought to Charleston for trial, but the jury, even though there is an abundance of evidence, refuses to even hear the case, and it is thrown out.  The remaining Africans who haven't died on the way there, or in the Fort while the trial was going on, mostly died on their way back to Africa. The Officer in charge of the Fort who had been in favor of the slave trade said that after what he had saw, changed his mind.  This would not be the last ship.  The problem was that British ships could not board a ship with an American flag. So the slaver ships (which originated from ports north, such as New York where they were financed, with captains from Boston) would fly hoist up an American flag if a British one came near and the American ships who were supposed to be stopping the slave trade ships were doing nothing. 

Soon the fire-eaters were whipping up a fervor in South Carolina, which wasn't all too hard in a state that has been threatening and trying to secede ever since it signed the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.  They are quite a contrary group of people, I have to say.  This time, though, the fire-eaters succeed in convincing even the sensible people after the election that the North is out to get them and will attack them and that they need the African Slave Trade.  In a way the war was not exactly started over slavery precisely, because Lincoln said the South could keep their slaves, but they could not import slaves from Africa and they wanted to do just that.  In their constitution they would have to leave that out in order to try to court Virginia and Maryland who bred slaves to sell and  if a the slave trade was opened back up the prices of slaves would drop like a stone and they would go broke.  Of course, they had no intention of doing this.  The South would send people to Britain and France to gain support.  They readily assumed that they would have it.  They would be in for a rude awakening. As Bunch would tell one of the fire-eaters if you plan on importing slaves from Africa, this would be against British interest.  Bunch, by the way, predicted that the South would be importing slaves from Africa and that they would eventually break away from the North because the price of slaves had leaped up a few years before the War. 

The first minister to the U.S. from the U.K. (today seen as an Ambassador) was much more interested in Washington society than in this job. When he was  replaced by a little known man named Lord Lyon, a man Bunch gets off on the wrong foot with but who becomes fast friends, quickly turns things around.  He supports Bunch and gives him all the help he can.  By this time the mail is compromised, even mail marked with a foreign government seal, so Bunch has to depend on some not quite so upstanding characters to carry the mail north to Lyon.  They also use code when they can.  The funny thing is that eventually Bunch will come under scrutiny by Secretary of State Seward, who really is an idiot, that I am grateful he went on a nine month trip to Europe right before the election, which gave the Presidency to Lincoln.  Lincoln was forced to give Seward his position because of his high appeal in the Republican Party, but the truth he did more harm that good.  Lincoln really should have sent him to China.  All Seward did was to keep threatening to go to war with Britain and France.  He pushed things with Britain so far that we came within a  hairs breath of being at war with both the South and the U.K. at the same time, if it had not been for a sad quirk of fate.  South Carolina, however, firmly believed Bunch to be one of their own, even though he had a Yankee wife and his sister-in-law, though married to a South Carolina plantation owner, was very vocal about her anti-slavery views.  I guess you really can be too good at your job.

This book will tell you things about the War that you never learned in Ken Burns great documentary.  It also gives you a look into England during this time in history.  I have to say, I've always meant to look up the Crimean War and learn more and this book discusses it  and what its resolution has to do with the Civil War.  Britain was in a delicate position.  It did get most of its cotton from the South.  It also abhorred slavery and was looking for other places to get its cotton. When the War began it had a surplus of cotton so they were not concerned with needing the South.  But as the War waged, people began to lose jobs and the government began to question if maybe they should sacrifice their principles.  But people like Bunch and Lyon kept reminding them what was at stake and that eventually good would win out and not give in.  Its something worth remembering. 

Link to Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Our-Man-Charleston-Britains-Secret/dp/0307887278/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1464358767&sr=1-1&keywords=our+man+in+charleston+britain%27s+secret+agent+in+the+civil+war+south

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