Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Civil War balancing act

The British hated slavery, but they depended upon the cotton produced by slave labor on plantations in the American South. That devil-and-hard place situation proved ticklish in the 1850s, and for Robert Bunch, Britain's consul in Charleston, it became downright dangerous once war broke out between the North and South.

Christopher Dickey tells Bunch's story in Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South, just published by Crown.

Because he witnessed the buying and selling, as well as the physical abuse, of slaves first hand, Bunch hated slavery even more than most of his countrymen. Yet he was a diplomat, so he behaved diplomatically, trying to maintain cordial relationships with slaveholders while regularly sending frank communications back to London expressing what he really thought about the nasty business. Had these letters been intercepted he could have been killed, for he rarely sent his messages in code, thinking that would only make them seem more suspicious.

Ironically, William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State, became convinced Bunch favored secession and was working to get Great Britain to enter the war in support of the South. The South, too, expected active support from Britain, but the British, thanks in part to Bunch, managed to straddle the fence until the war's conclusion gave them what they wanted, both a resumption of cotton shipments and the end of the slave trade in America.

Dickey probably tells us more about Robert Bunch than most of us care to read, and his book can get tedious at times, yet it reveals something about the Civil War probably even most devout Civil War buffs didn't previously know.

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