The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2016
92 JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2016 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Diplomacy Across the Pond Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South Christopher Dickey, Crown Publishers, 2015, hardcover, $27, 325 pages. Reviewed By Stephen H. Muller Robert Bunch, Great Britain’s consul in Charleston, South Carolina, from 1853 to 1863, had what a contemporary Foreign Service officer would likely consider a dream assignment. He was on his own at a post of critical importance during a time of earthshaking events, and his reports went directly to the British Foreign Sec- retary. But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for! Our Man in Charles- ton tells several stories. First and fore- most, it recounts Bunch’s remarkable life and career. But it also offers insights into the British Foreign Office of the time, on relations between the United States and Great Britain in the period before and during the Civil War, and on developments in the South leading up to secession. Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War covers the bilat- eral relations of this era much more comprehensively, but Dickey’s book reviews the main developments and issues in sufficient detail for readers who don’t want to tackle Foreman’s 800-page volume. (Bunch rates four mentions in Foreman’s work and, spoiler alert, U.S. Secretary of State WilliamH. Seward does not come off well in either book.) Bunch was an avid abolitionist, and he sent a steady stream of reports to the Foreign Office’s Anti-Slavery Department on the U.S. slave trade. In one such report, “Observations on the Price of Negroes,” he presciently predicted that the opening of new territory to cotton cultivation would require more slaves than could be found in the South, and that the Southern states would inevitably need to procure new sources from abroad. This kind of reporting gave Bunch direct access to the Foreign Secretary, but that turned out to be a mixed blessing for Bunch’s career. The consul was very much a Foreign Office outsider: he had no title, no family, university or political connec- tions, and no military career. In fact, he apparently never even lived in Great Britain. He was born in Colombia to a British adventurer father and lived in New York City. He had an American wife, and served as deputy consul in New York City before his transfer to Charleston. To many of his colleagues Bunch was, as the British say, “a jumped- up nobody,” and many in the Foreign Office bureaucracy resented his direct access to the Foreign Secretary. Even Dickey, a sympathetic biogra- pher, calls Bunch a “careerist” and “a man of relentless ambition” who occasionally lobbied for promotions and pay increases at inopportune times. Despite this, the British minister (as London’s ambassador was titled) in Washington, D.C., and the Foreign Office both relied on his reporting at critical periods. Given his personal feelings on slavery, Bunch had to walk a fine line to maintain access and influence in Charleston. As Dickey notes, he led a double life: “He found himself mingling with men and women who held frightful opinions and committed atrocious acts, and yet he wished them to think of him as a sympa- thetic friend.” In fact, he did such a good job of dis- guising his personal feelings that not only his Charleston contacts believed he was pro-South—but the U.S. government did, too. Bunch even came to the attention of WilliamH. Seward, who had become Secretary of State in 1861 and withdrew Bunch’s authorization to serve as a British consular agent. Following secession, however, Seward’s writ did not extend to South Carolina, and the British kept Bunch in Charleston until early 1863 when it looked like the city could be attacked by Union forces. Bunch’s contem- porary reporting on the events of 1860- 1861 is important in light of the recent controversy over the Confederate battle flag and the reasons behind secession. He leaves no doubt that the leaders of the South Carolina secession movement—the “Fire Eaters”—sought to secede to protect slavery as an institution, expand it to new territory in the United States and possibly elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, and reopen the African slave trade. Fewmid-level diplomats have the opportunity to influence events at the highest political level. Bunch had this chance, and he made the best of it. His reporting on conditions and attitudes in the South was instrumental in convincing the British government not to recognize the Confederacy, thereby denying it access to British markets and making the Civil War unwinnable for the South. Stephen H. Muller spent 26 years as a Foreign Service economic officer, serving in Quito, Brasilia, Mexico City, Ottawa, London and BOOKS Given his personal feelings on slavery, Bunch had to walk a fine line to maintain access and influence in Charleston.