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The Civil War Spy: Christopher Dickey's "Our Man in Charleston"

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When settling on a new project, popular historians face a dilemma: Write about a well-documented subject and hope to squeeze out enough fresh insights to justify a book, or attempt to single-handedly lift a topic out of obscurity? In Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South (Crown, July 21), Christopher Dickey makes the latter gambit, arguing that Robert Bunch, Her Majesty’s consul to Charleston, South Carolina, in the lead-up to secession, has a place alongside Mata Hari and Anthony Blunt as one of history’s most colorful spies.

To the extent that Bunch survives in accounts of the Civil War, it is as a footnote. He has largely been dismissed as a Confederate sympathizer who almost dragged Britain into the war. There are no busts or plaques in his memory. More tellingly, he does not, at press time, have his own Wikipedia page.

Dickey, a DEPARTURES contributor, maintains that Bunch’s obscurity was by design. Far from supporting the Southern agenda, Bunch was in fact deeply disgusted by it, as evidenced by his fiery dispatches to Britain’s Foreign Office on the topic of slavery. He embedded in Charleston society, playing a convincing good old boy, only to sabotage attempts to reopen the African slave trade and imprison British citizens of color.

A veteran correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast and the author of several novels, Dickey has a journalist’s nose for the scoop and a thriller writer’s sense of pacing. His debt to Graham Greene is clear not just from the book’s title but also from his grasp of skullduggery and human contradiction.

“Bunch was leading very much a double life,” says Dickey. “The people in Charleston had no idea how hostile he was to them, their society, to the institution of slavery, and to the entanglement of the British government and British interests with what he saw as a truly evil institution.”

Bunch whiled away the end of his career as British ambassador to Colombia and Venezuela and disappeared from history without his contributions being recognized. Which is perhaps as it should be—a famous spy, after all, is an unsuccessful one. But now, thanks to Dickey’s masterful book, he’ll surely deserve our society’s highest honor: a Wikipedia page.

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