A Mole in Plain Sight: A Review of Christopher Dickey’s “Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South”

Our Man in CharlestonJournalist Christopher Dickey makes a significant contribution to the literature on antebellum and Civil War Charleston, South Carolina, with his new book Our Man in Charleston. With all the hallmarks of a spy novel, Dickey introduces us to Robert Bunch – the British Consul stationed in Charleston, who was much more than he appeared. On the surface, Bunch was a mild-mannered, thirty-something commercial agent for Great Britain. He affected an easy-manner, a plain style of dress, and seemed to Charlestonians to be one of them – agreeing, seemingly, with even radical-minded secessionists. But as readers quickly discover, Bunch uses this deceptive appearance as a cover to collect information on the thoughts and intentions of South Carolina firebrands. He is, in fact, a staunch anti-slavery zealot who reported his findings to the British Ambassador to the United States and the Foreign Ministry in London; despite the very real danger to himself, should his real activities be discovered. In short, he is really a spy.

Stationed in Charleston for about a decade beginning in 1853 and terminating in the midst of the American Civil War, Bunch was anxious to prove himself to the British Foreign Ministry with an eye toward a diplomatic posting in an important European locale. So, although Bunch was not sent to Charleston as a spy, his ambition led him to stretch beyond the boundaries of his job description. As it turned out, this suited Great Britain just fine, and the information he reported – especially about southern notions about reopening the African slave trade – would, according to Dickey, influence Great Britain’s reluctance to recognize the independence of the Confederacy during the war. “The people who had known Consul Bunch in Charleston would never be aware of the role he had played in defeating their plans for a slaveholding empire (313),” Dickey noted about Bunch’s evacuation from Charleston in 1863.

While cultivating the outward friendship of important southern figures, for the sake of the information he might discover, Bunch’s ability to keep a straight face was tested over and over. “Robert Barnwell Rhett,” for example, was “the very epitome of unreason that Robert Bunch so detested (48).” But what revulsion Bunch felt was assuaged in part by the sheer entertainment value Rhett unfailingly provided.

When Great Britain appointed a new envoy to the United States in December 1858 – Lord Richard Lyons, the value of his man in Charleston soon became apparent to the young diplomat. What appeared to Lyons as a “foolish affair” when John Brown seized the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in October, 1859, Bunch immediately identified as a crisis and potentially an international incident – if the British were implicated. Not-so-coincidentally, Bunch made a trip to Washington in early November to speak to the new British minister. Dickey suggests that what Bunch wanted to discuss with Lyons was too sensitive to risk putting in writing. In effect, a British gun-for-hire by the name of Hugh Forbes had come to America and become involved with John Brown – though eventually Forbes found Brown too mentally unstable to partner with. Still, Forbes – who may have been an acquaintance of Bunch – had written a guerilla tactics manual that may have been used by Brown and his men. In short, the risk that the Briton Forbes might be linked to the John Brown raid was considerable and Bunch may have wanted to warn Lyons. Interestingly, Dickey also suggests that Forbes had visited William Seward prior to the raid and probably revealed the plot to Seward – though Seward subsequently denied this. In any case, Dickey argued that Bunch’s visit to Washington “changed radically the tone in the relationship with Lord Lyons (119).”

By 1861, “Robert Bunch was in the eye of a storm that was about to shake the world like a Carolina hurricane. Her Britannic Majesty’s consul in a small city in the American South…had become the single most trustworthy source of information about a fast-approaching war with vast and yet unimagined consequences (202).” As each day passed, Bunch feared for the safety of himself and his family, with good reason. Charlestonians saw treason everywhere, though they did not suspect Bunch – yet. Bunch had convinced them that he saw the world as they did. But the mask would be ripped away if a single one of Bunch’s dispatches fell into the wrong hands. Bunch was playing a dangerous game, in the name of advancing his professional aspirations.

At about the same time that Bunch thought that his prayers for advancement in the diplomatic corps were answered, William Seward – now Lincoln’s Secretary of State – received a report that indicated that “Mr. Bunch [was] a notorious secessionist that [had] used his position in every way he could since the troubles began to [aid] the secession movement (261).” When Lyons was approached by Seward about the matter, the British minister tried to assure the secretary that Bunch was trustworthy. That seemed to satisfy Seward at the time, but Lyons – as Dickey points out – probably considered cancelling Bunch’s secret mission.

The mission that Bunch interpreted as paving the way toward a more dignified diplomatic appointment was delicate indeed. He was to open negotiations with Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, to try to secure a promise from Jefferson Davis that his government would honor British and French neutral rights as embodied in the 1856 Declaration of Paris. Desperate as Davis was for European recognition of Confederate independence, Bunch would have to try to secure the promises without promising recognition would follow, but hint that it might. The trick too, was to secure the Confederate assurances without the North finding out. To accomplish all of this, Bunch turned to a close acquaintance in Charleston, William Henry Trescot – a former diplomat that had served the U.S. legation in London and later served in President Buchanan’s administration on the eve of conflict. Bunch chose his emissary well. After much hand-wringing by Jefferson Davis, the Confederate Congress went on to endorse three out of four provisions of the Declaration of Paris; they chose to preserve the ability to license privateers.

Bunch was elated at the success of his mission, indeed, while “Charleston was Hell in August…Robert Bunch was, more or less, in heaven (274).” Ironically, while the Charleston Consul was congratulating himself, William Seward had Bunch in his sights. Thanks to a loyal Kentuckian, Seward had learned about a braggart named Robert Mure, who arrived in Louisville boasting that he was the British Consul in Charleston, among other things. Subsequently arrested, Mure was found with the official British diplomatic pouch and many other letters not under seal. Bunch had grown sloppy in his choice of couriers and now it came back to bite him. And though there were no smoking gun revelations about Bunch, it soon became clear that “Seward wanted a scapegoat, and almost in a literal sense: he wanted all the sins of Britain laid upon it (282).” Shortly thereafter Bunch lost his diplomatic credentials, when Seward withdrew Bunch’s exequatur.

Bunch remained in Charleston, despite losing his credentials, in an unofficial capacity as an observer, until he was withdrawn when Charleston was about to be bombarded by the Union navy. Although Bunch’s downfall was largely the result of his own increasing sloppiness about security, “Bunch’s long record of dispatches about the southerners, their politics, their key personalities and especially their craving for new slaves from Africa had slowed London’s march toward recognition of the Confederacy (290).”

Christopher Dickey’s latest work is well written, lively, and endlessly fascinating. It provides a fresh look at Charleston on the eve of war, from the perspective of an outsider. It is especially important for the insight it provides into how the prospect of the South resurrecting the African slave trade influenced how the British viewed the coming conflict and the early days of the war. This valuable book should take its place on the bookshelf of every student of the war, right beside Amanda Foreman’s great book A World on Fire.



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