Friday, October 23, 2015

"Our Man in Charleston" by Christopher Dickey (2015)

This book tells the story of the diplomatic efforts which kept Great Britain from recognizing the government of the Confederate States during the American Civil War. Moreover, it tells the story of how and why that eventuality was avoided.

As the North and South grew ever closer to war in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s election to the Presidency, there was another war; unseen by most at the time; taking place between Washington and Downing Street, the outcome of which could turn the tide of the Civil War.

To understand this book you need to have some rudimentary background about both the United States and Great Britain as relating to the cotton crop. And that is not as simple as you may have been led to believe.

The North desperately needed to keep Southern cotton from reaching England. Had it done so it would have financed the war for the South; while plunging the North further into debt.  Moreover, the United States would have had to take a stand against Britain and risk a war which would have us fighting the British to the North,  as they came down from Canada, at the same time we would have to fight a full scale insurrection to the South and West.

As it turned out, morality; rather than just a quest for victory; came to play in this drama. And that morality surprisingly came from London. Well, maybe it’s not such a surprise after all, as the British had abolished slavery throughout the United Kingdom even as we were fighting the American Revolution here in America. So the British had a vested interest in seeing the Union win the moral contest. At least that is how Her Majesty’s government saw it.

But the other side of the British coin was that the lack of cotton from America; with not enough cotton from Egypt or Africa; had the mills of Lancashire silent as there was no cotton to weave. BY 1862 there were hundreds of thousands out of work and literally starving. So the working class of England wanted to recognize the Confederacy, if only to put food back on their tables. But Prince Albert; consort to Queen Victoria; had worked his entire life to end the African Slave Trade, and he was not about to let the progress he had made toward that goal fall victim to what he considered to be a short term economic problem.

But, even as we were on the brink of war with Britain on one point, we were closer to her on another. The problem was how to exploit the latter, while downplaying the former. There were several people involved in this seemingly impossible task, and all played crucial roles in keeping the situation from spinning out of control.

To begin with there was the English Consul in Charleston, Robert Bunch, who came to America in 1853 and therefore had a bird’s eye view of the developing friction between the North and South. This background was invaluable in shaping his opinions and actions in the opening days of the Civil War, while he was still allowed to dwell in Charleston even though the British Government had not recognized the South diplomatically. And while he was there he used his time to send intelligence reports back to Downing Street informing them of every development and how they would affect the Crown should she decide to recognize the new nation.

The other chief player in this drama was American Secretary of State Seward, who vacillated between belligerence and diplomacy in his efforts to keep us out of war with the English. A mercurial man at best, he used the threat of war with England to avoid actually going to war with them, and much to everyone’s surprise; including his own; we never did have to fight that war.

1862 was a pivotal year for this whole diplomatic contretemps. While this dance was taking place the United States seized British packet steamer Trent as she left Cuba bound for London with former US Senator James Mason and Louisiana Senator John Slidell aboard. American Navy Captain Charles Wilkes; commanding the American steamer USS San Jacinto; intercepted the Trent and boarded her, removing the 2 Southerners and returning them to the United States. The British were furious. This is the point at which Prince Albert shines the most brightly. This episode became known as the Trent Affair.

Lord Palmerston and Lord Russell drafted an ultimatum to the United States, directed at the much despised Secretary of State Seward, giving the United States one week form receipt of the ultimatum to release the two diplomats. It lacked only the approval of Queen Victoria to become a reality.

And this is where history gives us a fine example of the randomness of all things. The Queen was busy getting dressed for a dinner party and was not to be bothered. Albert, on the other hand, was ill with the early stages of the typhoid which would end his life in only a few more days, and so he decided to remain behind. That is how he came to see the draft of the ultimatum before the Queen did. He simply changed it to read “Her Majesty’s government is unwilling to believe that the United States intended wantonly to put an insult upon this country.”

Now Seward had a way to wiggle out of; and also explain; why the United Sates had taken the action it had. You must remember that Albert was faced with the prospect of recognizing the Confederacy and that would entail allowing the African Slave Trade to continue; thus destroying his legacy. This was made very plain to the Confederate Secretary of State via the released Senator Mason.

At about the same time the Lincoln administration was seeking to assure the Crown that there would be no reconciliation with the South if slavery were not abolished outright.  Lincoln crafted the Emancipation Proclamation to deny the South the necessary labor to carry on the cotton trade and also satisfy the Crown that slavery, where it already existed in the United States; and which Lincoln was willing to live with as per his 1861 Inaugural address; was gone forever. 

This bond between the 2 nations was the actual linchpin which kept England from trying to influence the war. It was a highly noble stance, especially considering the economic implications which would result from the decision not to recognize the Confederacy.

This is a highly charged piece of history which has been skillfully crafted by the author. The quotes from Robert Bunch are extraordinary, and I will include one which lends much insight into the mind of this diplomat cum intelligence agent;

“Other nations; especially those enlightened and more old fashioned in their notions; rebel and fight for Liberty. South Carolina; and the Confederacy; are prepared to do the same for Slavery.”

Reading this book is essential to a full understanding of the diplomatic war which was raging even as the canons were firing and the grape flying. It underscores the old adage that the “Pen is mightier than the sword.” But for the agreement between the United States and Great Britain, the Civil War just might have taken a different turn.


  1. I'm writing a paper on international angles of the Civil War and while I have a copy of "Our Man in Charleston" I can't find the full quote you use right at the end anywhere (the book clips out "and the Confederacy"). If it's not too much trouble, could you point me toward where I could find the entire quote in a citable place?

    1. I'm sure it is cited in the book. But that's where I got it from. As a review I didn't feel the need to research it further than the author's quote. Might have to pull it out of the library again. But if I quoted it - it came from the book...

    2. Okay, I'll look again and see if I'm mixing it in the end notes. Thanks!