Archive | March, 2018

Review of Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South, by Christopher Dickey

27 Mar

Christopher Dickey’s Our Man in Charleston is one of the more original recent entries in the proverbial flood of Civil War scholarship. While the overwhelming majority of books on the conflict naturally feature chronicles of battlefield exploits or detail the lives of individuals, this book focuses on something equally important but frequently overlooked; the possibility of official recognition of the Confederacy by European powers. Of the many contingencies and turning points in the Civil War which factored in its outcome still debated by historians, formal recognition of the Confederacy as a legitimate, independent, nation by Britain or France certainly ranks as among the most consequential. Our Man in Charleston, then, purports to reveal the inside story of how one of the South’s most coveted dreams never came to be a reality by examining the activities of influential British consul Robert Bunch.


While the British government famously exhibited considerable sympathy with the South in its war with the Union and in several ways passively contributed to the Southern military effort by allowing commerce raiders to be built in the country, among other things, the nation remained officially neutral throughout the contest. Among several factors mitigating towards that position was the fact that most of Britain’s leaders, and no small portion of its general population, by the 1860s had come to regard slavery as an anachronistic and barbaric institution. Britain could scarcely publicly ally itself with a nation which practiced slavery at the time, as much as its leaders might have quietly desired to aid the Confederacy. Britain, after all, had much to lose should the supply of cotton which kept is world-famous looms running be interrupted. In addition, many of its leaders eyed the young and ascendant United States with suspicion and trepidation due to concerns that America, which had to the enduring consternation of the British already bested them twice in wars in the previous century, might soon eclipse Britain as a world power. British foreign policy regarding the American Civil War was anything but equivocal as a result.

According to Christopher Dickey, a key reason why moral and philosophical arguments against recognition of the Confederacy won out over the financial and practical among British leadership can be traced directly to the work of the consul Robert Bunch. Bunch served at his post in South Carolina from 1853-1863, a critical period in which the movement towards secession gathered momentum and the formation of the Confederacy became a reality. Charleston, his base of operations, served as an epicenter for both. Bunch’s behind-the-scenes work in keeping his government abreast of developments, taking the form of a copious amounts of correspondence illuminating what life was really like in a slave society and what Southern leaders really thought about Confederate independence, in Dickey’s telling served to consistently counterbalance the blossoming of any pro-Southern views among the highest ranks of British leadership. Bunch stood fundamentally opposed to slavery and found Southern secessionist leaders abhorrent, morally bankrupt blowhards, and availed himself of every opportunity to paint the Southern aristocracy and the chances of a successful Southern republic in the most unflattering light to his superiors. Yet Dickey makes it clear Bunch played the part of the consummate diplomat throughout his years of service, listening politely to vapid rhetoric and managing to consistently allow those that courted him to feel as if recognition of the Confederacy might indeed become a reality through his influence.

Two things must be noted by careful readers here. For one, alleging that Bunch was a “secret agent” seems a bit disingenuous. Bunch was an officially appointed and duly recognized representative of the British government whose job it was to report on situations of concern to leaders in London. This he did and did discreetly, but neither the British nor Charlestonians or any of the other Southerners with whom he came into contact perceived his activities to be espionage. Two, the ultimate significance to the notion that Bunch played a deciding role in averting recognition of the Confederacy is posited on the assumption that such action was otherwise forthcoming. While I am no scholar of British politics, I do know that prime minister Lord Palmerston was a vocal critic of the slave trade and that the institution of slavery had become anathema to the British people by this time (Britain abolished slavery in its empire in 1833). I also know that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, which in effect made the abolition of slavery an aim of the war, effectively made it impossible for Britain or France to openly side with the slave-owning South. Positioning Bunch as the lone figure which stood between certain British alliance with the slave South and a commitment to the moral high ground, even if inadvertently, seems to need much more context to be convincing.

The biggest issue most readers will have with the book is much simpler than figuring out exactly how much clout Robert Bunch really carried, though. Our Man in Charleston is an incredibly slow-moving book, filled with tedious and repetitive stories of the endless stream of individuals in Charleston and beyond who sought to bend Bunch’s ear towards advocating for support of the South by Britain. While it is important that this mountain of information has been presented in book form, there is never a particular moment of crisis around which the story centers. Hence, many readers may regard the book as less a narrative of an important chapter in history than a summary catalog of unfulfilled diplomatic efforts. This is not to say the book will not be on the whole an interesting read for many students of Southern history, for it may be that in the long run many will find its paramount importance to lie in the fact that the book contains a treasure trove of unfiltered first-hand observations on Southern society and the ambitious goals of its leaders offered by a man in a very unique position to judge both.


Deliberation in the Classroom

20 Mar

Last year I was privileged to participate in a unique and innovative effort to more effectively communicate the lessons of history in the classroom by the David Mathews Center for Civic Life. The center is an Alabama non-profit corporation whose mission is to “build skills, habits, and capacities for more effective civic engagement and innovative decision making.” The initiative, featuring the deliberative process as a framework for the examination of crucial events in Alabama and U.S. history, is a refreshing effort to infuse critical thinking into understanding of the past by students. It is, in my opinion, one of the bright spots in efforts at history education and worth noting because of the overall uninspiring approach to teaching history of which we have often complained about in this blog.

Matthews Center

The Matthews Center describes deliberation as “a form of decision-making in which participants examine multiple perspectives of a complex issue, weigh possible action ideas against their costs, consequences and tradeoffs, and identify common ground for action.” In practical terms, the DMC uses deliberation to train teachers to introduce important historical issues as turning points. Participants learn that people at the time of the event had clear choices about how to respond, and use an examination of those responses to better understand how and why events occurred as they did and better assess their importance in our nation’s historical development. In the lesson on responses of the Creek people to the Creek civil war which preceded the Creek War of 1813-14 in Alabama, for example, students learn about Creek society and what motivated individuals to choose to take one side or the other in the conflict by explaining their worldview and what the consequences they believed would occur by taking one of the paths presented them. It is sophisticated, thought-provoking stuff, and stimulates both conversation and serious reflection on the past in ways students might not otherwise have an opportunity in which to engage. Clearly, there are profound implications for larger civic life which students will take from this understanding of history and be able to apply after their school days.

I am glad to see such important work being done in Alabama by the DMC, and honored to have been able to contribute in some very small way to the development of one of their training models. I look forward to further progress in this worthwhile effort.

For a short video about the project, click here.


Review of The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, by Joseph Ellis

13 Mar

Joseph Ellis has a well-established reputation as master American storyteller, having authored bestselling epic tales from America’s founding such as Founding Brothers and Revolutionary Summer and acclaimed biographies of Revolutionary Era leaders including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. His latest book, The Quartet, Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, is a chronicle of what he terms the “revolution after the Revolution,” meaning the process by which the newly independent American republic transitioned from a loose collection of autonomous states to forming a true, stable, national government. As readers of American history have come to expect from Ellis, the book is a stunning piece of scholarship presented as only someone extraordinarily well-versed in our nation’s formative years can present. Yet I suspect that those familiar with the story of America’s political birth may, like myself, feel the book may feature a bit of oversimplification due to the effort to have the entire multi-faceted story be driven by only four essential characters.

Ellis The Quartet

Ellis has chosen to tell the story of the writing and ratification of the constitution through the prism of four indispensable leaders; George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. The logic is simple enough, as these men were indeed pivotal in the story—Washington the military hero whose endorsement of a new compact all regarded as critical to its success; Hamilton the energetic advocate of federal prerogative; Jay the consummate diplomat, Madison the smooth persuader who massaged complex differences into a palatable compromise. Filtering the story through these large-than-life figures appropriately gives them the attention they are due for making consequential contributions to the formation of our republic, but it at the same time perhaps oversimplifies the arguments and options which the founders wrestled with as they attempted to create a federal government strong enough to hold the young union together yet flexible enough to be acceptable to manifold provincial interests which pervaded the American political universe at the time. It also underplays the range of opinion and positions among the citizenry of the original thirteen states and clouds over, to some degree, our appreciation of the signal accomplishment of the framing and approval of a constitution at a time in which doing so seemed both improbable and highly experimental.

We sometimes tend to think the writing of our constitution nearly foreordained after victory in the Revolutionary War. Most Americans forget just how pervasive was the distrust of a consolidation of political power—even in the hands of fellow Americans instead of an ocean away in London—and how pathetically weak as a consequence was our first national government under the impractical Articles of Confederation. Despite the obvious core shortcomings of the Confederation government, state and local interests and fear of the surrender of any degree of autonomy seemed to mitigate against there ever being a truly united grouping of states in the 1780s. Indeed, those fundamental aspects of our republic’s early years shaped events not only in the Revolutionary Era, but to some degree those in each successive one right down to this very day. In following the process by which our national government was formed, Ellis brings all this into clear focus. To his credit, despite the book’s primary thesis focusing on four key leaders, he does attempt to highlight just how critical was the work performed by a host of others.

The formation of our current government required quite a bit of statesmanship among many parties with incredibly divergent interests, economies, religious heritages, points of view, backgrounds, and geographical settings plus a willingness to compromise for the greater good that is remarkable. It is especially so in light of the winner-take-all mentality of our modern political parties which seemingly yields a perpetual dysfunctional aspect to national political discourse and retards progress. As Ellis shows, our nation’s founders were not perfect and there were surely as many small minds as visionaries among them, but they came together to remedy a critical problem at a pivotal time in our nation’s development and their actions enabled both the formation and endurance of our republic. The Quartet brilliantly encapsulates four of the salient factors prerequisite for their accomplishment as personified in four key men, but I think the greater lesson lies in the sheer number of individuals who soberly evaluated the deficiencies of our government and collectively managed to work together for the common good. If Ellis’ latest book does nothing else, then, perhaps it will remind us that even though we have few true statesmen in the halls of our federal government today, with committed, broad-based willingness to accomplish something our country can endure for centuries more.


Review of Alone; Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory, by Michael Korda

6 Mar

There is something about Great Britain’s defiant, solo, stand against Hitler’s Germany in the early days of World War II that captivates me. I am fascinated by the unwillingness of British leadership (essentially the force of nature that was Winston Churchill) to cave in or compromise even though all around them were doing so. Knowing the odds and the fearful price to be paid, Great Britain’s leaders and populace resolved that if they were to go down to the seemingly irrepressible Wehrmacht then devouring Europe as the United States quietly observed from the sidelines, they would go down fighting. It is a powerful and inspiring legacy of resolve—and at length, triumph—in the face of despotism and a true turning point in world history. I believe it did nothing less than preserve western civilization in the modern era. There was a rather serious bump in the road along the way to this happy ending, of course, in the form of a near-total disaster which threatened to derail the whole effort before it really even got started. Its name is Dunkirk.

Virtually synonymous with somber endurance of calamity, the very name of the place evokes images of despair, sheer luck, and stoicism. Despite its association with crushing defeat, it is venerated and celebrated in a way unique among battles in modern military history not because of any victory, but mere survival. On the beaches at Dunkirk, France, in May and June of 1940, thoroughly beaten British and French forces were pressed to their last line after having engaged in weeks of retrograde fighting as they stubbornly but inexorably yielded ground to the advancing German army. It was a humiliating and total defeat and it took something just short of a miracle to extricate the allied armies. The fact that some 350,000 men did make the escape by the narrowest of margins enabled Great Britain to continue the fight. Had they not, World War II might have effectively ended right there.

Book Review Alone
Michael Korda’s Alone; Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory tells the story of this climactic turning point with rare poignancy and insight. The accomplished former editor in chief for Simon and Schuster, Korda is a prolific and noted author of dozens of novels and other books. No amateur in the field of historical writing, he has produced biographies of Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Lawrence of Arabia among others. Coming as it does on the heels of the recent award-winning movie on the subject by Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), Alone is a book that promises to receive much attention.

In Alone, Korda chronicles the brutal, intense fighting preceding the evacuation at Dunkirk as he also provides an overview of the political context of World War II’s beginnings. His explanation of the lack of coordination or a clear plan among the allies, evaluation of the questionable commitment on the part of the French, and delineation of the disagreement over the aims of the war among British leadership are notable strong points of the book. Alone is at its best, though, in recounting the gritty reality of the final days of the British and French forces stranded on beach at Dunkirk. With smoking oil tank ruins in the distance, Stuka divebombers periodically buzzing the huddled soldiers with no place to hide, and a narrow pipeline of escape through the crashing waves at their back, the terrible plight of the soldiers seemed forlorn indeed. Their improbable rescue by unlikely ad-hoc civilian navy of trawlers, ferries, fishing boats and pleasure craft is one of the most remarkable and heroic in the annals of World War II and perhaps all of British military history. Korda does justice to this epic tale of commitment, suspense, and tension, enabling readers to understand the situation through the eyes of the soldiers.

But Korda attempts something more, and it is in this effort that the merit of the book surely rests. Interspersed within his narratives of military and political events are personal memories of life in his family’s home in England from the time, meant to serve as a way to cast light on the homefront and what the whole affair meant to the British people as few others have. This examination of the spirit of resiliency among the British—what they have come to venerate as the “spirit of Dunkirk”—is in some ways at the core of the book though a minority of its pages. Though a child of less than ten at the time, Korda has clear memories of a few iconic moments and, with the benefit of hindsight, is able to make intelligible numerous others in a way that adds to the reader’s understanding of the time. But the effort goes astray in places owing to its inordinate focus on his wealthy father, a film maker who in no way represented the experiences of the great majority of the British people and ends up making the book part stirring history and part disjointed family saga. This is unfortunate, for the bulk of the book is stellar indeed and had Korda restricted his personal memories to a lengthy prologue they could have significantly enhanced the book. As it is, however, some of the memories are resonant and stand as powerful testimony of the times, while others seem to be little more than misplaced non-sequiturs. Still, if you have an interest in the events of Dunkirk, Alone is definitely worth the read even if it is not destined to become the new standard source on the subject.