The True Story Of A British Secret Agent In The Civil War South

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Christopher Dickey (Elise Calahan)
Christopher Dickey (Elise Calahan)

After nine African-Americans were gunned down in their Charleston church last month, the South Carolina legislature voted to take down the Confederate flag that had flown at the statehouse for decades.

Journalist Christopher Dickey, whose own family demonstrates the complicated history of the Civil War, has written a new book (excerpt below) that looks at slavery through the eyes of a British agent who served in South Carolina before and during the war.

He discusses his book, "Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South," with Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd.

Interview Highlights: Christopher Dickey

On the false histories told about the Civil War

“The big false history, and you still hear it argued all the time in the South, is that the Civil War was not ‘about slavery.’ It was about slavery. Here’s exactly how it happened - and you can tweet it out: the South seceded to protect the institution of slavery and the North went to war to stop secession. That is how the war started. Eventually, by 1863, it became a crusade against slavery, but it wasn't in the beginning. But had there been no issue of slavery, there would have been no war.”

On South Carolina's Confederate flag controversy

“I think people totally misunderstood, and misunderstand, what that battle flag has come to represent. When Robert E. Lee, whose battle flag it was, surrendered at Appomattox, that battle flag was furled and the war was over for him. That flag came out again with a vengeance as a reaction to the civil rights movement, starting in the '40s and building through the '50s and '60s. That was not a flag honoring the Civil War dead. That was a flag to say ‘no’ to civil rights. That was held up in defiance by white people for white people in memory of people who didn't die for the most part defending slavery. They were sucked into the war by the elite slave owners. But once the war was started, they were dying to protect their homes and families, they thought. That’s what they were dying for. But the flag - that flag - that’s all about racism.”

On whether Confederate deaths can be appropriately honored

"We’re still hearing in different ways the last shots fired in the Civil War. In one horrible way, we heard those shots fired in Charleston a few weeks ago."

Christopher Dickey

“We do have to understand that hundreds of thousands of men and women died in the South in that war because they were led into it by an elite that was protecting its own very narrow interests using its money, its power over the press, its power over the courts and its power of propaganda generally to do that. And then we have to say, were those people complete fools? No, they were deluded like people who are led into war all the time - many wars, even wars that have been fought in the last few years. So I think we just have to say, ‘Look, they fought bravely, they died bravely, in many cases. They died for the wrong cause, but we shouldn’t insult their memories just because some racists in the 1950s and '60s wanted to wave one of their flags.”

On the change in the Civil War's legacy

“We’re still hearing in different ways the last shots fired in the Civil War. In one horrible way, we heard those shots fired in Charleston a few weeks ago... I think the reaction to the murders in Charleston is certainly a turning point in the way people think and talk about these issues. It can’t be addressed casually anymore. It’s not a half joke anymore. It’s not an old man with a gray beard and a Confederate cap waving the flag and saying ‘Forget hell.’ No, it’s not that anymore. I think we’ve had to look at it very seriously and at the same time I think we’ve had to recognize that the South is changing really dramatically. And the scars left by the war, some of the scars left by slavery and some of the scars left by the occupation of the South by the North after the war, those are fading now as the South picks itself up and moves on.”

Book Excerpt: 'Our Man in Charleston'

“Today is to decide the question of Lincoln or no Lincoln,” Her Majesty’s man in Charleston, Robert Bunch, wrote to Lord Lyons, the British envoy to Washington, on Election Day 1860. “My people are stark staring mad, and in the present temper I should be surprised at nothing they might do,” he said.

The results of the election reached Charleston four days after the vote. People poured out of their homes and offices clamoring for immediate secession; calling for the creation of a great Southern Confederacy. A huge red flag waved above Broad Street with a yellow palmetto on it, the symbol of South Carolina, and a lone star, for independence.

“A state of things has arisen since the election of Mr. Lincoln very nearly akin to a Revolution,” Bunch wrote a few days later to Lord John Russell, the foreign secretary in London. He knew Russell hated the word “revolution.” “The violent agitation which has prevailed throughout the State of South Carolina during the last fortnight,” wrote Bunch, “seems to increase day by day in intensity.”  Hundreds volunteered to be “Minute Men” ready, like the legendary militias of the American Revolution, to fight at a moment’s notice, and mobs descended on anyone accused of “uttering abolition sentiments.”


A couple of days later, Bunch followed up with another “brief summary” to Lord Russell about “the feeling of hatred to the North, which has been steadily growing ever since it became evident that the rule and power of the South were rapidly vanishing before the superior population, wealth, industry and enlightenment of the Free States.”

The people of South Carolina and other slave states, Bunch said, had convinced themselves that their very lives were at risk if they remained part of the Union. Many would acknowledge that Lincoln’s election was fair, but with their fears of “servile insurrection” (a slave uprising) constantly fanned by what they read of Republican Senator William Seward and others in his Republican party, including newly elected President Abraham Lincoln, “they contend that the question is no longer [of] one’s logic, but of existence, and that the instinct of self-preservation renders it impossible for them to recognize a Ruler whom they believe to be pledged to their destruction.” Bunch understood their concerns, and wanted to make sure Lord Russell did as well. But he continued using the issue of the slavery and the slave trade to undermine the Southerners’ cause.

The outgoing governor of South Carolina, William H. Gist, sent a message to the legislature as it began its session in late November that gave Bunch a perfect chance to illustrate the sentiments that prevailed. Gist wanted to roll back even those very limited rights that black men and women might hope for. In Charleston, particularly, free blacks worked in small commerce and in crafts, and slaves often were hired out by their masters to do skilled labor—or they earned their own money and paid their masters a share. Gist wanted to do away with all that in a “system of slavery,” Bunch wrote, that was meant “to keep the man of color, for all time and to all purposes, as a hewer of wood and drawer of water, without rights as a human being and without the power of raising himself in the social scale by ability, industry or good conduct.”

Then there was the matter of the Federal forts in Charleston Harbor, Moultrie and Sumter, which Gist said would have to be surrendered, even as he called on the people of South Carolina to take up arms. Bunch underlined several passages in Gist’s address in red pencil, including one toward the end of the message where Gist said if the forts were not surrendered it would mean a fight to the death. Hyperbole was helping to drive the country toward war, and Gist gave a fine example of it. South Carolina, he said, would “infinitely prefer annihilation to disgrace.”

Bunch’s final word on Gist’s message: "I have no hesitation in saying that, in the present excited condition of the public mind, an opportunity for the shedding of blood would be eagerly welcomed.”

What Bunch did not say, but certainly knew, is that he was always just one discovered dispatch away from the risk that the blood shed would be his. Over the years Bunch had known of white men beaten, tarred and feathered, and ridden on rails. He had written dispatches about all that. Now the public mood was still more dangerous. The mob was looking for people to hate, and there was no hatred as intense as that of the mob when it felt betrayed.

Bunch had never set out to portray himself as a brave man, and probably he was not. He never had been nor tried to be a soldier. The greatest risks he took as part of his consular duties through most of the Charleston years had been the rescue now and then of a black British subject unfairly thrown into one of the prisons of the Carolinas. He had guarded his tongue, as best he could, and he had built a life of relative creature comforts by ignoring in public and even among his in-laws the abuses of a system he attacked constantly in his official dispatches and private and confidential letters. But in a society whose leaders talked of preferring annihilation to disgrace—annihilation, what a word!the madness he had half-joked about in the past truly had taken over. Irony could no longer protect Robert Bunch from what lay ahead.

Adapted from OUR MAN IN CHARLESTON. Copyright © 2015 by Christopher Dickey. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.


  • Christopher Dickey, foreign editor for The Daily Beast. His new book is "Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South." He tweets @csdickey.

This segment aired on July 21, 2015.

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