by Larry Smith
Last June, a gunman walked into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina and shot nine people to death at a prayer meeting. The shooter said his goal was to start a race war.
Pictures of the shooter draped with a Confederate battle flag triggered widespread controversy in the US. In the years following the Second World War, this 'southern cross' flag was flown as a symbol of resistance to racial desegregation. It was used especially by the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist group that targeted blacks.
The Charleston massacre led to the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse, where it had flown ever since 1961. As most people know, South Carolina was where the American Civil War began a hundred years before - when the state's militia shelled a US army garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour.
The bloody war that ensued was fought purely over the issue of slavery. The constitutional compromises reached at independence, which had allowed slave- and non-slave-holding states to co-exist, broke down when the anti-slavery candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860.
There can be no doubt about this. South Carolina's secession document clearly notes that, "A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the states north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of president of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”
Mississippi put it this way: "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.”
And Texas was even more explicit: "We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various states, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”
Jefferson Davis, the Louisiana senator who was elected president of the Confederacy, said bluntly that the slave-owning states seceded “to save ourselves from a revolution” that threatened to make “property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless."
Now, a book has been published which tells the story of the Civil War from the point of view of the resident British consul in Charleston - a man named Robert Bunch, whose father was a Bahamian adventurer. In Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South, journalist Christopher Dickey says Bunch, an ardent abolitionist, played a major role in persuading Britain not to recognise the Confederacy.
As the southern states seceded from the Union, Bunch wrote that “This new Confederacy is based upon the preservation and extension of Negro slavery…(and) it is founded upon the possession of what may be called a monopoly of one single production —cotton.”
In fact, cotton (which was, of course, picked by African slaves - there were four million of them at the time) was the South's key bargaining chip in seeking British recognition. Most of the crop produced by Southern plantations was exported to British textile mills, and Lord Palmerston - the British prime minister - believed Southern secession was in Britain’s best interests, although he personally held strong anti-slavery views.
Since cotton exports to Europe were the South’s main source of revenue, within days of the shelling of Fort Sumter, President Lincoln had proclaimed a blockade of Confederate ports like Charleston. But fast ships would still make the 560-mile journey to Nassau loaded with cotton, and return with manufactured goods. The cotton would eventually find its way to textile mills in England.
As usual, this illicit trade grew out of the Bahamas’ convenient geographical location - it was near enough to the Confederate coast to serve as a depot to receive Southern cotton and to supply Southern war needs. By the end of the war, 397 ships had sailed from the Confederacy to Nassau, and 588 went from Nassau to the Confederacy. In April 1862, Bunch told the British ambassador in Washington:
From 1853 to 1863, Bunch’s dispatches from Charleston to his superiors in Washington and London revealed that an elite group of powerful planters and slaveholders held the fate of the United States in their hands and wanted to re-start the abominable Atlantic slave trade that the British had been working to suppress since outlawing it in 1807.
After four years of bloody fighting, Confederate troops abandoned Charleston in early 1864 and Federal forces moved in. The same officer who had surrendered Fort Sumter at the start of the war again raised the Union flag over its shattered walls. And on that same night - only days after General Robert E Lee’s surrender at Appomattox - President Lincoln was assassinated.
Christopher Dickey, the author, is an editor at The Daily Beast news website. Previously he worked for Newsweek Magazine, and was Washington Post bureau chief in Cairo and Central America.
OUR MAN IN CHARLESTON: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South. Copyright © 2015 by Christopher Dickey. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.