Friday, October 21, 2016

Our Man in Charleston by Christopher Dickey, 2015

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Between the Confederacy and recognition by Great Britain stood one unlikely Englishman who hated the slave trade. His actions helped determine the fate of a nation.
As the United States threatened to break into civil war, the Southern states found themselves in an impossible position: Their economic survival would require reopening the slave trade, banned in America since 1807, but the future of the Confederacy could not be secured without official recognition from Great Britain, which would never countenance such a move. How, then, could the first be achieved without dooming the possibility of the second? Believing their cotton monopoly would provide sufficient leverage, the Southerners publically declared the slave trade dead, even as rapacious traders quickly landed more and more ships on the American coast.
The unlikely man at the roiling center of this intrigue was Robert Bunch, the ambitious young British consul in Charleston, S.C. As he soured on the self-righteousness of his slave-loving neighbors, Bunch used his unique perch to thwart their plans, sending reams of damning dispatches to the Foreign Office in London and eventually becoming the Crown's best secret source on the Confederacy—even as he convinced those neighbors that he was one of them.
In this masterfully told story, Christopher Dickey introduces Consul Bunch as a key figure in the pitched battle between those who wished to reopen the floodgates of bondage and misery, and those who wished to dam the tide forever. Featuring a remarkable cast of diplomats, journalists, senators, and spies,
Our Man in Charleston captures the intricate, intense relationship between great powers as one stood on the brink of war.
(400 pages)

I actually read this over the summer, but I was just so busy working on applications and starting my classes that I couldn't find time to review it. Then I got a bunch more books to review, with actual deadlines staring me in the face, that kept distracting me from doing Our Man in Charleston. I'm finally getting more organized now–I put all the books I have for review into a calendar, and I force myself to methodically go through and read/review them in that order–and it's made me actually efficient at something for once, so now I'm reviewing Our Man in Charleston.

And honestly, I loved it. Every single word. This is the sort of historical nonfiction I adore, full of character studies and firsthand quotes and vivid descriptions that make it feel like a fictional novel. Books like Our Man in Charleston (and The Family Romanov, and A Night to Remember) are so amazing, because they really make the events they describe feel real. When I put down Our Man in Charleston, I not only finally understood the American Civil War (the motives, the conflict, the nature of the fighting), but I also saw how it fit into a grander global context. Before reading this, I had no idea that the rest of the world was even watching the Civil War, let alone how close Britain came to coming into it on the side of the South.

It's a horrible book at times, though. Bunch lived in Charleston, the heart of Southern rebellion, and some of the stories he tells about the way Southerners treated their slaves are absolutely sickening. Also, one of the biggest conflicts that sprung up between the North and the South, and one of the most hotly debated ones inside the South, was the question of whether or not America should reopen the slave trade with Africa. I kid you not, there was a shortage of slave labor and the most common Southern reaction was "okay, let's just go capture fresh Africans and ship them here. That will solve all of our problems!" I just . . . can't even think of anything to say about that. It takes a special kind of evil to think like that.

I don't know what else to say, besides read this! If you're at all confused by the forces behind the Civil War, read it. If you're a Civil War geek looking for an intimate, international angle, read it. If you're still trying to argue that the war had nothing to do with slavery and was really just about the right to secede, then please read it–and I dare you to come out the other side still talking about the "War of Northern Aggression."

I don't usually quote specific lines from the books I review, but I'll do it just this once because there's a quote I want to end with that perfectly encapsulate's South Carolina's attitude at the onset of the Civil War:
"Other nations, especially those enlightened and more old-fashioned in their notions, rebel, fight, and die for Liberty," wrote Bunch, while South Carolina "is prepared to do the same for slavery."
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review. 

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