Living as I do a short distance from Gettysburg, due to sheer repetition the facts and battles of the Civil War have honestly never been very interesting to me. I’ve avoided the various museums and exhibits featuring items from that time, and in general have been a poor student of local history. However, a recently purchased book about the Civil War has kept my attention, much to my own surprise.
Our Man In Charleston touches upon a little-considered aspect of the War: that of the international response to our homegrown conflict. Established nations such as Britain naturally had diplomatic representatives stationed in various cities across the young United States. These individuals lobbied for favorable trade rights, hosted visiting dignitaries, and in general kept their government informed about the inner stirrings of the American political animal. A consul could be a valuable witness and resource to his superiors during a time of unrest, and the time leading up to the Civil War was certainly one of those.
Britain was firmly against the slave trade that kept the American South competitive in the cotton trade, and a series of problems between the nations on this issue had convinced the English that they needed a more complete knowledge of the area. Robert Bunch was a career politician who wanted a challenge, and so he was appointed the local consul for the area and instructed to learn as much as he could about the area and local feeling in regards to slavery in general, as well as to change local laws that put British-born African sailors in danger. In order to do so, he was also required to convince the influential citizens of Charleston that he shared, or at least condoned, their own bigoted and cruel system of slavery, when in truth he held them in a deep contempt, as did the majority of British citizens.
The book is an interesting examination of the careful tightrope Bunch was forced to walk in order to do his job in a time when both his neighbors and the Northern government were constantly on the alert for any hint of disloyalty. It also includes character portraits of many of the important figures of the era such as Judah Benjamin who, for good or ill, feature in the events of the era. I’d highly recommend it to any student of the Civil War or even history in general. It’s the unknown or unheard stories that are often the most interesting.