Review: Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South

Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South
Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review is also available on my blog, Read Till Dawn.

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.

View all my reviews


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