Britain's Secret Agent in the Heart of Dixie During the Civil War


OUR MAN IN CHARLESTON: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South By Christopher Dickey (Crown Publishing Group, $27, 400 pp.)

CHRISTOPHER Dickey makes a compelling argument that if it wasn't for efforts of an accidental spy, the American Civil War could have escalated into a trans-Atlantic conflagration.

Through careful research of American and British archives, along with close scrutiny of personal correspondence between representatives of Her Majesty's government, Dickey unveils the marvelous deeds of one Robert Bunch, an Englishman bent on climbing up the rungs of Great Britain's foreign ministry hierarchy.

His duties as consul require him to remove himself from the comforts of Manhattan to hot, humid, mosquito-plagued Charleston, S.C., in the early part of the 1850s.

Bunch's duties include ensuring the flow of cotton to Britain's mills continues unabated, but he's also asked to quietly keep tabs on the rising tensions between the American North and South and on Southerners' ambition to expand slavery.

Through acute observations, polite inquiries and delicate conversations, Bunch amasses a wealth of information on the budding Confederacy and its intentions.

What makes this so compelling is Dickey's comprehensive portrait of Bunch as an English everyman, striving to make the most of his talents, working diligently to serve his country and always looking out for the welfare of his young family. He becomes more and more engrossed in passive espionage, the type that eventually comes to the attention of the U.S. State Department (Secretary of State William Seward becomes an unexpected nemesis).

Bunch risks his good name, his family and the strained relations between the United States and Great Britain to inform Her Majesty's government of Confederate policies that counter Britain's, including the potential reestablishment of the African slave trade.

Readers of American Civil War history will gain much insight of how the North and Great Britain avoided a military confrontation by learning of Bunch's deeds. Dickey's work gives an obscure yet stealthy important figure his due in determining the outcome of North America's great 19th-century calamity.

Jeff Schulze is a night sports content editor at The Free Lance-Star. ___

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