Thursday, September 3, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Our Man in Charleston. Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey

I should read more U.S. history. Whenever I do, I’m embarrassed by how little I know. But the sorry truth is, I’m more interested in medieval and Renaissance European history, and don’t read a whole lot of nonfiction to begin with, so straightforward US history falls to the bottom of the pile.

Fortunately, after noticing a review of Our Man in Charleston. Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey in my newspaper, I saw the book available from Netgalley and was intrigued enough to request it. This wonderfully informative book relates the story of Robert Bunch, the British consul assigned to Charleston in 1853. Bunch was intelligent, ambitious, and sly. Although appalled by slavery and disgusted by the manners and affectations of the majority of southerners he came across, he was able to hide his true opinions, ingratiate himself with the locals, and send damning dispatches to his counterpart in Washington as well as corresponding with ministers in London for nearly ten years. His careful collection of information and keen insight helped to shape Britain’s role as the American Civil War loomed and then erupted. His own situation (and that of his wife and child) became increasingly precarious as the southerners grew first more violent and then more desperate.

Our Man in Charleston is meticulously researched and is written in a straightforward style. It is primarily a political history, awash in names and negotiations and details. For me, it was a slow read—the type of book I had to put down frequently and then return to, not a book I could read all in a sitting. And yet, it was not a book I considered abandoning. Bunch was more a bureaucrat than a cloak-and-dagger spy; nevertheless, I wanted to follow his journey along to the end.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.