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Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South Paperback – Illustrated, July 26, 2016
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New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
"Our Man in Charleston is a joy to discover. It is a perfect book about an imperfect spy."
"Thoroughly researched and deftly crafted. [Our Man in Charleston will] introduce people to a man who should be better known, one who cannily fought the good fight at a fateful moment in history."
—Wall Street Journal
"Dickey tells Bunch’s story with aplomb and a good deal of fine wit. On one level, Dickey has written a spicy historical beach read, chock-full of memorable characters and intrigue. But into this page-turning entertainment, Dickey has smuggled a thoughtful examination of the geopolitical issues of the day...splendid."
"A fascinating page-turner that takes on special relevance as South Carolina fills our thoughts in the summer of 2015...[Dickey] brings to life a feverish Southern city, an un-united nation of states, and the 'lively and indiscreet, indefatigable and thoroughly British' man in the middle. Dickey...clearly understands the dance of diplomacy that evolves day by day as personalities and priorities change."
—Christian Science Monitor
"A dynamite tale of international gamesmanship...Dickey’s prose is lively and entertaining. He writes with care for the reader — identifying and characterizing the major players in the political drama that unfolded."
—Dallas Morning News
"One heck of a good read."
—The Charlotte Observer
"Dickey tells the story of this unsung hero with dash, clarity and a feel for fine detail. ... Our Man in Charleston blows the dust off this forgotten chapter in history and, remarkably, turns it into a thriller."
“A good historical primer on the buildup to the Civil War and a behind-the-scenes look at England’s concern for its own future as the conflict unfolded.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A unique history of the War Between the States from the perspective of Bunch and his important, and little-known, role in the outcome of the conflict.”
—Fort Worth Star Telegram
"[Bunch is] a brilliant find…Dickey, the foreign editor of The Daily Beast and a former longtime Newsweek correspondent, uses his research well: in a story like this one, point of view is everything, and Bunch’s is razor sharp."
"Dickey has written a book that is as much suspense and spy adventure as it is a history book... A story as compelling as this one does not come around very often. With so much already written about the Civil War, and more coming every year, originality is a rare thing these days. The story of Robert Bunch is that and more."
—The Carolina Chronicles
"A fascinating tale of compromise, political maneuvering, and espionage."
"Dickey's comprehension of the mindset of the area, coupled with the enlightening missives from Bunch, provides a rich background to understanding the time period….A great book explaining the workings of what Dickey calls an erratic, cobbled-together coalition of ferociously independent states. It should be in the library of any student of diplomacy, as well as Civil War buffs."
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
"A fine examination of a superbly skilled diplomat."
"Britain's consul in Charleston before and during the first two years of the Civil War was outwardly pro-Southern and earned notoriety in the North. But in secret correspondence with the British Foreign Office he made clear his hostility to slavery and the Confederacy. His dispatches helped prevent British recognition of the Confederacy. Christopher Dickey has skillfully unraveled the threads of this story in an engrossing account of diplomatic derring-do."
—James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom
"Did Robert Bunch, Her Majesty's consul in Charleston, keep Britain out of the Confederacy's war? Drawing on Bunch's clandestine correspondence, Christopher Dickey makes a compelling case that this dazzlingly duplicitous, ardent anti-slaver played a key role. A fascinating, little-known shard of vital Civil War history, brought glitteringly alive with all the verve and panache of a master story teller."
—Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March
“In his extraordinary new history Our Man in Charleston, Christopher Dickey has written a book you can’t put down. This is a well-researched history with the immense power and sheer element of surprise we find in the finest spy novels. It’s like reading a book by Graham Greene, written while he was staying at the house of John le Carré, discussing the fate of nations over drinks. With Charleston consul Robert Bunch, Dickey has introduced a new great man in the great war that haunts America still. I adored this book.”
—Pat Conroy, author of The Great Santini and South of Broad
"Our Man in Charleston is a superlative and entertaining history of the grey area where diplomacy ends and spy craft begins. British Consul Robert Bunch played a secret role in the anti-slavery fight in Charleston, which would remain secret to this day were it not for Christopher Dickey's extraordinary detective skills."
—Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire and Georgiana
"Wonderfully written and researched, Our Man in Charleston is the best espionage book I've read. I couldn't put it down."
—Robert Baer, former CIA case officer and author of See No Evil
"Robert Bunch is an unlikely spy, but his bravery and moral sensibility make him an intriguing hero for Christopher Dickey's Civil War history. Dickey knows his stuff, from spying to the slave trade, and he's a master at telling a fast-paced, gripping yarn."
—Evan Thomas, author of John Paul Jones and The Very Best Men
"Christopher Dickey has accomplished the near-impossible—exhuming a forgotten but irresistible character from the dustbin of Civil War history, and bringing him back to life with painstaking research and bravura literary flair. This irresistible book opens new windows onto the complicated worlds of wartime diplomacy, intelligence-gathering and outright intrigue, and the result is fresh history and page-turning excitement."
—Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln and the Power of the Press and winner of the 2015 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize
"A long-needed study of Robert Bunch, British consul in Charleston—a secret agent for the Crown in the Civil War era who outwardly praised the city and its people while privately loathing both, and who discouraged diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy by keeping his superiors abreast of its determination to continue importing slaves. Elegantly written, well researched, an engrossing story."
—Howard Jones, author of Blue and Grey Diplomacy
About the Author
Award-winning author CHRISTOPHER DICKEY, the foreign editor of The Daily Beast, is based in France. Previously he was the Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor for Newsweek. He served as Cairo bureau chief for the Washington Post and, before that, as the paper's Central America bureau chief. His books include the acclaimed memoir Summer of Deliverance as well as Securing the City, Expats, With the Contras, and two novels about espionage and terrorism.
- Item Weight : 10.4 ounces
- Paperback : 400 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0307887286
- ISBN-13 : 978-0307887283
- Product Dimensions : 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
- Publisher : Broadway Books; Illustrated Edition (July 26, 2016)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #323,729 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Nothing new is this summary. What is new and a real treat is the story Christopher Dickey unspools to describe this. He starts with the appointment of one Robert Bunch, a relatively minor official in the British Foreign Office, as a replacement British consul in Charleston, South Carolina in 1853, and follows Bunch’s tenure until his eventual reassignment in February 1863. There were 14 British consuls in the United States, including 7 in slave states, all answerable to the British Minister (ambassador, as it were) in Washington, DC. They had a variety of tasks to perform. First and foremost was to facilitate the movement of British goods and people – to keep the lines of commerce open and flowing. A close second was to act as London’s eyes and ears in the US hinterland, monitoring and reporting back on commercial, cultural, political, military, and economic events that might prove important to British interests. Most of these consuls were part-timers who mixed their private business with their unpaid official duties, but Bunch was one of the few that was a full-time salaried professional. He would also prove himself to be one of the best and most prolific. His reports were comprehensive, detailed, and perceptive. He is an excellent vehicle through which to tell this story.
Three things I like about this book: First, it sheds light on a slice of Civil War history that hasn’t seen a lot of play in popular histories – the underlying Royal and Parliamentary anti-slavery sentiment, how the British Foreign Office worked, the source network that Bunch (and by interpolation the other consuls) developed, and how Bunch personally had to operate in the Deep South so as do his job without revealing his personal hatred of the South’s “peculiar institution”. Second, Christopher Dickey’s style. He is a trained and experienced journalist, and already an accomplished author prior to this book. Thus, he knows how to write. This is an easy, smooth read that flows linearly through time with seamless transitions between events, locales, and personalities – not only informative, but a joy to read. One downside is that Mr. Dickey’s abhorrence of slavery comes through the text. It doesn’t get in the way of the narrative, but it’s visible. And then, third, there is the description of the diplomatic motives and strategies initiated and played out within and between Britain, the Confederacy, and the United States. In what too often can be a dry topic, the maneuverings are not only described with pulse and pace, but their intricacies and backgrounds are well explained. Take, for example, the Negro Seamen Act of 1822 – a South Carolina law that was a thorn in Britain’s side. The law required free seamen of African descent working aboard domestic and foreign ships (including British ships) to be jailed while the ship was in any South Carolinian port for fear that if they were allowed free access to local slaves, riots and other unrest might ensue. Moreover, when it was time to leave, the ship’s captain had to pay a fine for the release of seaman held captive. You can imagine Britain’s reaction.
This book is a great read, and I recommend it highly. If you need more convincing, you might check out
Bunch's letters however are appealing and gives the reader a good insight into the thinking of South Carolina's coastal elite in the years preceding the civil war. The book is written in a fluid style that keeps the reader engaged and immersed in the story. Dickey does a great job of bringing the elites of South Carolina to life. Their thoughts, their fears and rampant paranoia are presented in a way that helps the reader understand why South Carolina was so quick to secede. The reader is also presented with a unique look of the role of the British consuls, their personal thoughts, lines of communications, and the way they handled delicate matters. This book is very informative for those looking to get the perspective of the British side when it came to whether or not they would recognize the confederate states.
Re: my first point, this book is not about an official British spy. Robert Bunch was the British consul in Charleston, and held that post more or less officially (his privileges were withdrawn by the union about a year before he left the country) for many years. It is true that he was working tirelessly to inform his superiors of the secessionists' views on slavery and their increasing interest in officially reopening the Middle Passage while simultaneously trying not to reveal his opinions on the matter. In the beginning, withholding his opinions was primarily for diplomatic reasons; that is, it was easier for him to do his job if he was perceived as friendly to the cause. As secession loomed, however, withholding his opinion did become a matter of personal safety, and he started to write his letters to Britain in code. It was definitely fascinating to read, but I did not necessarily find that storyline to be the gripping spy drama I was expecting from the reviews. Bunch did his job so well, in fact, that when he finally left for Britain, the Charlestonians firmly believed he was on their side, and the real threats to his job (but not necessarily his safety) ended up being from northerners convinced of his secessionist sympathies.
What I found to be most interesting about this book were the details of the secessionists' obsession with slavery and the reopening of the Middle Passage. I knew some of this going into the book, but Bunch's perspective is unique, and he was one of the few British consuls in the Confederate states who was regularly sounding the alarm on this topic. Furthermore, I found that some of the rhetoric used by pro-slavery secessionists has some striking parallels to that of some modern politicians. The justifications for slavery and the fears of a slave uprising are not totally unlike modern justifications for mass incarceration or fears of foreigners or racial minorities. For this reason alone, the book is a five-star read.
Again, if you are looking for a real spy thriller, this is probably not your book. There are better nonfiction books that will really have you on the edge of your seat, if that is what you want. If you are looking for a thought-provoking book that offers a new perspective on the south from an outsider pretending to be an insider, then this is exactly what you need.
Top reviews from other countries
Extremely well researched, written and insightful.