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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-


But as the saying

goes, be careful what

you wish for!

Our Man in Charles-


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


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


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


Given his personal feelings on slavery, Bunch had to walk a

fine line to maintain access and influence in Charleston.