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'Our Man in Charleston' follows a Civil War 'spy in plain sight'

As one of only two full-time consuls for the UK in the US, Robert Bunch stealthily gathered intelligence for his own country, even as he attempted to remain on amicable terms with his slavery-loving neighbors. 

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    Our Man in Charleston:
    Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South
    By Christopher Dickey
    Crown
    400 pp.
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Go back in American history and you’ll find a scorpion tongue flicking at the foibles of the powerful. Just like today’s master political satirists, this young man draws heat from a cauldron of wit, passion, and righteous anger. But his audience is tiny, his opinions are secret,and his life is on the line. His name is Robert Bunch, and he’s a British diplomat embedded in South Carolina as the Civil War looms.

A spy in plain sight, Bunch spends his days and nights with the Southerners he despises. One moment, he’s glad-handing the Charleston swells and trying to convince them to trust him. Another moment, he’s mocking the slavery-loving “Fire Eaters” in secret missives to London and plotting how he can help destroy slavery once and for all.

Maneuver, manipulate, report. And then repeat. Bunch is good at all three essential diplomatic skills, but he’s playing a dangerous game in a dangerous time. As war comes closer, Bunch’s big mouth could place him in danger. Will his dedication to the demise of slavery cost him his life, bring the UK into the war or both?

The answers await in Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South, a fascinating page-turner that takes on special relevance as South Carolina fills our thoughts in the summer of 2015. Author Christopher Dickey, son of poet James Dickey, brings life to a feverish Southern city, an un-united nation of states, and the “lively and indiscreet, indefatigable and thoroughly British” man in the middle.

Bunch’s job in 1850s and 1860s Charleston is to represent British interests and the British people. As one of only two full-time consuls for the UK in the US, he spends much of his time making sure that ships can engage in shipping. His country, after all, relies hugely on slave-picked Southern cotton to keep its textile mills running, putting it in an awkward position despite its “deep British loathing” of human bondage.

Even more than some of his bosses, Bunch hates slavery and the banned-for-now slave trade. But here he is, living in the hottest of secessionist hotbeds, a state devoted more than any other to making the federal government heel. To make matters worse, he has to charm a wealthy upper class devoted to the cultivation of refined leisure on the backs of slaves.

Bunch “was deeply disturbed by the mixture of arrogance and fear, cruelty and luxury, piety and hypocrisy that were so deeply ingrained in Southern culture,” Dickey writes. Like a 19th-century version of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, however, Bunch tries to observe it all with what Dickey calls “detached irony.”

The most enjoyable parts of "Our Man in Charleston" are the letters from Bunch, who’s a blend of drama queen (he fears “almost certain death” in a pestilent Charleston summer) and catty commentator on current events. But also like today’s Stewart and Colbert, his bitterness sometimes shines through his jibes. His anger even replaces sarcasm entirely when he’s especially frustrated: “I hate the US and am most anxious to get away.”

Dickey, the author, is a veteran foreign correspondent and brings helpful perspective about international intrigue to the book. He clearly understands the dance of diplomacy that evolves day by day as personalities and priorities change.  

Charleston is a character in itself, one that will sound familiar to readers who’ve never been there but followed last month’s events. Rebel slave leader Denmark Vesey, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Meeting Street all make appearances, bringing the story home in a way the author could have never anticipated.

The story of Bunch’s ultimate fate won’t be spoiled here. But we do know what happened next in South Carolina: defeat, disgrace, and never-ending bloody efforts to turn back time.

Sadly, Bunch would recognize more than the landmarks today in the refined but troubled city he reluctantly called home, even in a state with a black US senator (the first to represent the South since Reconstruction), and the nation’s first Indian-American female governor.

Then again, he harbors a “sneaking kindness for our American off-shoot,” a place with a “substratum of conservative common sense” lurking under “the fantastic folly of the masses.” From a larger perspective, he believes, the nation is “full of faults” but “has much to do yet for the good of mankind.”

His brand of faith, the product of a man choosing hope over the despair within, shines bright in the words he left behind.

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