Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Our Man in Charleston book review

This past fall I got a new job.  Putting my degree to real use in an industry I have a personal interest in.  Everything about the job is great, except for one thing.  I went from a 6 minute commute (each way, yes I timed it) to a total of an hour and a half daily (30 minutes in the morning but closer to an hour in the evening).  But its only 4 days a week, and I've found another silver lining, books on tape.  Obviously I was always aware of books on tape but with such a short commute it was not really feasible.  Now my daily book is something I look forward to, in fact some days I don't want to go into the office until a particular section is finished.

My latest book "read" this way was "Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South" by Christopher Dickey.  This is the story of Robert Bunch the British consul in Charleston who served there from 1853 to 1863.  Another review I saw took issue with calling Bunch a secret agent as it is the job of a diplomat to gather information about the country he is serving in.  And I agree with that.  I think the reason the title refers to him as a secret agent is that Charelstonians thought Bunch was sympathetic to their cause.  He had mainly friends in Charleston society and he had family connections through his wife to slave owners.

However Bunch was very much against slavery, in particular the international slave trade that had been outlawed in the United States in the 1830s but had continued in a covert way since.  It was this issue that Bunch hammered in his reports, believing that the Confederacy would reopen the trade at some point.

One could tell that the author had done extensive research in British archives (of course no notes or bibliography was available in an audio book, so I'm making some assumptions about that).  I've done very little reading previously about Britain's viewpoint so this was an eye opener in many respects.  For instance it seems from the correspondence among the foreign service officers and various prime ministers of Bunch's decade that there was never any chance of British involvement in the war.  The southerners, and then the Confederacy, made several missteps along the way that did not endear them to the British.  One would be the insistence that England needed Southern cotton. One exchange between the British indicated that if they (England) were so weak that they could not survive without Southern cotton then they should just give up being a country at all.

England might have been able to support a country with slavery but under no circumstances would the international slave trade be permitted.  In one case it was suggested to the Confederacy that if England did become involved the Confederates would have to state that the international slave trade would not be resumed.  The Confederate response was that their constitution outlawed this and that it would be unconstitutional to state so again in a treaty with England,  That last bit of reasoning seems a bit flawed to me, I cannot understand how restating a law (or in this case article of their constitution) would unconstitutional.  Not that this one moment would have turned the British to openly declare for the Confederacy but it was yet another mark against that.

In fact it seems like British involvement in the Civil War would have been because they wished the Union split than any sympathies for the South, cotton or otherwise.  A smaller USA and a new CSA might be a better international situation for the British than a large USA.

Another aspect I found interesting was that the common theme of the Emancipation Proclamation is that the war now being for freedom was what effectively turned the British against involvement in the war.  But the author instead says that Seward had raised the possibility of freeing the slaves as the first step in a racial warfare, that they would be able to cripple the South in that way.  This is what he had been telling the British during the spring/summer of 1862 so when the Proclamation was announced England's first reaction was not that this was making the war about freedom but that the North was grasping for straws to end the conflict.  And if they were this desperate this was not the sort of war England wanted to be involved in.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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