Thursday, December 10, 2015

Guns, Slaves, Insurrection and the Hidden History of the 2nd Amendment



My column for The Daily Beast, "The US 'Right' to Own Guns Came with the 'Right' to Own Slaves," published Dec. 6, caused predictable outrage among NRA types, who thought I was accusing them of racism. I certainly was not. But having read their various tweets and emails, I am impressed by their ignorance.

People cling to the myths that suit them, and the myth that many gun-owners clutch so tightly you'd have to pry it from their cold dead hands is that collecting and carrying firearms is somehow an antidote to tyranny, and that's why the Founding Fathers wrote the 2nd Amendment into the Bill of Rights.

That sounds plausible, given the history of the Minute Men and the early battles of the American Revolution, but it's simply not true.

Paul Revere rode through the streets shouting "The British are coming!" to warn people the Redcoats were out to take their guns, and the rabble in arms at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill did a creditable job firing from behind stone walls and trenches against Englishmen foolishly mounting frontal assaults in the open.

But George Washington understood very quickly that, over the long run, the militias were no match for a regular army. Even at Bunker Hill, significant desertions contributed, ultimately, to the loss of the rebel position.  At the disastrous Battle of Camden, in South Carolina in 1780, the militias on the front lines, faced with a bayonet charge, turned and ran without firing a shot.

Eight years later, as the former colonies debated ratification of their new Constitution and the need for amendments, few of the leaders had much faith in the efficacy of armed citizens up against a foreign invasion or the regular army of their own government. The purpose of the "well regulated militia necessary for the security of a free State" codified in the Bill of Rights was quite different.

In "The Hidden History of the Second Amendment," an academic paper published in 1998, law professor Carl T. Bogus argued that, "The Second Amendment was not enacted to provide a check on government tyranny; rather, it was written to assure the Southern states that Congress would not undermine the slave system by using its newly acquired constitutional authority over the militia to disarm the state militia and thereby destroy the South's principal instrument of slave control."

Some relevant passages —


Where did the militias and the need to bear arms fit in?

Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia all had regulated slave patrols, and by the mid-18th century the patrols had become the responsibility of the militia.

Is there more to the story? Of course. And I'd take issue with Bogus's apparent contention that the amendment was only about slave-patrol militias. The idea that "the rifle hanging on the wall" is a bulwark against tyranny (a notion embraced in an oft-cited out of context quote by George Orwell) was at least as strong in the late 18th century as it is today.  The romance of insurrectionism, born early, lived on among politicians, and there were a few states in the North that codified the right to bear arms before the Bill of Rights, notably "Live Free or Die" New Hampshire. In the great push westward, manifest destiny manifestly depended on a populace that carried guns.

But the power over this issue lay in the South, which was much bigger, much richer, and much more concerned about "servile insurrection." And in the South, it was precisely the combination of slaveholding and insurrectionism that eventually lead to the Civil War.

After John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859 (illustration above), the militias started to look more and more like regular armies, not only to intimidate and subdue the slaves, but to prepare for secession. And, ironically, the Federal government, dominated at the time by Southern interests, gave them all the guns they needed to launch a war against the Union just 18 months later.

None of this, it seems to me, argues in favor of "gun rights" today.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

At 1:00 today, Our Man in Charleston ... in Paris at Abbey Bookshop

I’ll be signing copies of "Our Man In Charleston" today 1:00 pm at The Abbey Bookshop, wd love to see you there. @abbeybookshop 29 rue de la Parcheminerie 75005 Paris France

Monday, October 19, 2015

Save the Date: Nov. 23 - Our Man in Charleston - in New York! - Mid-Manhattan Library - 455 5th Ave - 6:30 PM

At last, Christopher Dickey will be presenting Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South at an event open to the general public in NYC. The event's at 6:30 on November 23 at the Mid-Manhattan Library, on the corner of 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, diagonally across Fifth from the famous NYPL stone lions. Looking forward to seeing you there.


Friday, September 25, 2015

Had a great time presenting #OurManInCharleston, stepping back into the 19th century at @theplayersnyc last night

What a great venue for a book about the Civil War and the madness that led to it — the home of the great actor Edwin Booth, brother of the infamous assassin John Wilkes Booth. Those who came to the reading were privileged to visit Edwin's bedroom, where there is only one picture of his brother, and that a very small one positioned behind the corner of his bed where he would see it only very rarely, if ever. 

You can find out more about the club here.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Looking Back on a Great Tour of North and South Carolina


In Charleston, where the Union was dissolved ...

At Blue Bicycle Books on King Street in Charleston

They've got some real classics at Blue Bicycle - My father's poems, Joan Didion's White Album and smiling Pat Conroy

A banner event at Barnes and Noble

Two great "Moveable Feasts" put on by Litchfield Books

A great dinner party with John Henry Whitmire, my brother Kevin, and friends. This was the shrimp stock brewing ...

My parents' graves at All Saints Waccamaw

Mementoes someone left on my father's grave.

The Waccamaw River at sunset

An image of youth seen in passing at Landfall in Wilmington, NC

Turtles and cloud at Landfall

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Coming Up - "Our Man in Charleston" Events in South Carolina


SOUTH CAROLINA

Thursday, September 17th Charleston, SC - 12:00pm Blue Bicycle Luncheon Talk, Q&A, Signing Hall’s Chophouse

2:00pm Preservation Society of Charleston, Stock Signing Book & Gift Shop

6:00pm Barnes & Noble, Talk, Q&A, Signing 1812 Rittenberg Blvd 


Friday, September 18th Pawleys Island, SC 

11:00am – Discussion Moveable Feast Luncheon, Pawleys Plantation, book signing after.

2:00pm – 3:00pm Litchfield Books – Signing Only 

Saturday, September 19th Little River, SC 

11:00am – Discussion Moveable Feast Luncheon, 12:00pm - The Parson’s Table 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Watching Ken Burns' 'The Civil War' after Dylann Roof




















The PBS documentary turns 25 this year, just as the Charleston murders and the Confederate flag debate freshly exposed a nation’s racial wounds—wounds the film mostly ignores.


In October 1862, the photographer Mathew Brady opened an exhibition in his New York studio called “The Dead of Antietam.” In it he presented nearly 100 images of the Civil War battlefield that saw what was, up to that time, the bloodiest confrontation ever fought on American soil. In one day, more than 20,000 men had been killed, wounded, or gone missing
Brady’s assistants, Alexander Gardner and James Gibson, arrived soon after the fighting was over and turned their lenses on the corpses of the Union and Confederate soldiers, capturing the grotesque reality of death in an age when people still imagined that war was a chivalrous affair. Here were the bodies piled on top of each other in “The Bloody Lane,” there were the bloated cadavers of Confederates, their pockets turned inside out by pillagers. One of the most memorable images was of a dead gray horse that looked as if it were resting, and only the caption informed the viewer that both the animal and the man riding it had been killed.
Eventually, most or all of these photographs were available for purchase as “stereo cards” which could be looked at through special lenses until the full depth and horror of the sepia images leaped out at the viewers. The cameras used by Brady’s team, you see, recorded the American Civil War in 3-D.
Filmmaker Ken Burns used a great many of those gruesome pictures from Antietam and the many other battles fought between 1861 and 1865 in his monumental 11-hour documentary film series, “The Civil War,” first broadcast 25 years ago. Now, to mark the silver anniversary of that momentous television event, PBS will rebroadcast it over the course of five consecutive nights, beginning on Labor Day, and in a never-before-seen high-definition version that should be almost as vivid as Brady’s stereo cards.
But if you saw the documentary a quarter-century ago, or indeed one year ago, you are likely to feel as I did, after binge-watching it once again over the last few days, that the experience is very different than it was in the past, and not because of the technology, but because of what happened in Charleston, South Carolina, in June of this year.... READ ON

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Upcoming Events with Christopher Dickey

Upcoming events - Please come if you're in the neighborhood - or even if you're not!

GEORGIA

September 2, 7:15 - Georgia Center for the Book - Talking about my father's last poems in "Death and the Day's Light"

September 3, 7:15 - Georgia Center for the Book - Talking about growing up in the South, and writing "Our Man in Charleston"

CONNECTICUT

September 8, 7:00 -   RJ Julia Booksellers, Talk, Q&A, Signing, Madison, CT 06443

SOUTH CAROLINA

Thursday, September 17th Charleston, SC - 12:00pm Blue Bicycle Luncheon Talk, Q&A, Signing Hall’s Chophouse

2:00pm Preservation Society of Charleston, Stock Signing Book & Gift Shop

6:00pm Barnes & Noble, Talk, Q&A, Signing 1812 Rittenberg Blvd 


Friday, September 18th Pawleys Island, SC 

11:00am – Discussion Moveable Feast Luncheon, Pawleys Plantation, book signing after.

2:00pm – 3:00pm Litchfield Books – Signing Only 

Saturday, September 19th Little River, SC 

11:00am – Discussion Moveable Feast Luncheon, 12:00pm - The Parson’s Table 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Star-Spangled Slave Trade of the 1850s: My Talk at Politics and Prose

This is part of my talk at Politics and Prose in Washington D.C., which included many interesting questions raised by the audience.
At about 40 minutes into the presentation a man asked about the 
transatlantic slave trade in the 1850s, and in the six minutes that followed I tried to convey some sense of the horrors of that traffic—most of which was conducted between the west coast of Africa and Cuba, but under the flag of the United States.


Slaves in Cuba
I subsequently wrote a piece for The Daily Beast adapted from the book and focusing on the issue of the Cuban slave trade.

This is a link to the full presentation at Politics and Prose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=31&v=yf0QSdGBirg





Sunday, August 9, 2015

Bull Run Aftermath - Rebels Bayoneting Wounded according to Harper's Weekly




"The Rebels bayoneting our wounded on the battlefield at Bull Run" — It took the editorialists and engravers at Harper's Weekly several issues to catch up with the Union defeat at Manassas. This is from the issue dated August 17, 1861. For more about the battle and the context, read Our Man in Charlestonnow available on Amazon and at your local bookstores

All engravings courtesy The American Library in Paris.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Bull Run Aftermath - Harper's Weekly Aug 10, 1861 - Charge of the Black Horse Cavalry



It took the editorialists and engravers at Harper's Weekly several issues to catch up with the Union defeat at Bull Run. Over the next few days we will be running some of the illustrations, which grew progressively more dramatic. This is from the issue dated August 10, 1861, and shows the charge of the Black Horse Cavalry. For more about the battle and the context, read Our Man in Charleston, now available on Amazon and at your local bookstores

All engravings courtesy The American Library in Paris.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Bull Run Aftermath - Harper's Weekly August 10, 1861

It took the editorialists and engravers at Harper's Weekly several issues to catch up with the Union defeat at Bull Run. Over the next few days we will be running some of the illustrations, which grew progressively more dramatic. This is from the issue dated August 10, 1861, and shows what looks like an orderly "retreat by moonlight." As the account by William Howard Russell in Our Man in Charleston makes clear, that was far from the case.



Thursday, July 23, 2015

Would the South Have Won the War? My appearance on BBC TV

When the Confederates seceded from the Union they took it as a given that Britain would back them … Robert Bunch’s reporting was one major reason that did not happen.

Audio of my (rather passionate) interview on NPR's Here and Now

Published This Week, Moving Up the Amazon Best-Seller Lists

Your local independent bookstore should have Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South
prominently displayed. (And if not, ask why not!) It's also all over Amazon, with a fantastic price for the moment of $14.01 for the beautifully produced hardcover edition, plus a Kindle edition, and an Audible audio version read elegantly and appropriately by a Briton, Antony Ferguson. 

The hardcover book also is available at Barnes and Noble stores and B&N online.

This month I have written two essays for The Daily Beast that put "Our Man" in the context of recent events and my own background as a Southerner. The first, "Confederate Madness Then and Now," many of you have seen already. (It's had well over 100,000 readers.) The second was just published Tuesday and includes the full length 1974 documentary I made about my uncle and his passion for Civil War artillery projectiles. Don't miss the last ten minutes when he defuses a 100-pound explosive shell with a sponge, a screwdriver and a hammer ... :




Confederates in the Blood



This week I have been talking about the book and about the Confederate legacy on NPR's "Here and Now," the BBC and MSNBC. There will be more.

I am happy and, yes, more than a little proud to say the early reviews and comments have ranged from good to great, and this week the New York Times Book Review will list Our Man as an "Editor's Choice":


"Our Man in Charleston is a joy to discover. It is a perfect book about an imperfect spy."
—Joan Didion

"Thoroughly researched and deftly crafted. [Our Man in Charleston will] introduce people to a man who should be better known, one who cannily fought the good fight at a fateful moment in history."
Wall Street Journal

"One heck of a good read."
The Charlotte Observer

"[Bunch is] a brilliant find…Dickey, the foreign editor of The Daily Beast and a former longtime Newsweek correspondent, uses his research well: in a story like this one, point of view is everything, and Bunch's is razor sharp."
American Scholar
"Dickey has written a book that is as much suspense and spy adventure as it is a history book... A story as compelling as this one does not come around very often. With so much already written about the Civil War, and more coming every year, originality is a rare thing these days. The story of Robert Bunch is that and more."
The Carolina Chronicles

"A fascinating tale of compromise, political maneuvering, and espionage."
—Publishers Weekly
"Dickey's comprehension of the mindset of the area, coupled with the enlightening missives from Bunch, provides a rich background to understanding the time period….A great book explaining the workings of what Dickey calls an erratic, cobbled-together coalition of ferociously independent states. It should be in the library of any student of diplomacy, as well as Civil War buffs." 
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"A fine examination of a superbly skilled diplomat."
Booklist 

"Britain's consul in Charleston before and during the first two years of the Civil War was outwardly pro-Southern and earned notoriety in the North. But in secret correspondence with the British Foreign Office he made clear his hostility to slavery and the Confederacy. His dispatches helped prevent British recognition of the Confederacy. Christopher Dickey has skillfully unraveled the threads of this story in an engrossing account of diplomatic derring-do." 
—James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom

"Did Robert Bunch, Her Majesty's consul in Charleston, keep Britain out of the Confederacy's war? Drawing on Bunch's clandestine correspondence, Christopher Dickey makes a compelling case that this dazzlingly duplicitous, ardent anti-slaver played a key role. A fascinating, little-known shard of vital Civil War history, brought glitteringly alive with all the verve and panache of a master story teller."
 —Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March

"In his extraordinary new history Our Man in Charleston, Christopher Dickey has written a book you can't put down. This is a well-researched history with the immense power and sheer element of surprise we find in the finest spy novels. It's like reading a book by Graham Greene, written while he was staying at the house of John le CarrĂ©, discussing the fate of nations over drinks. With Charleston consul Robert Bunch, Dickey has introduced a new great man in the great war that haunts America still. I adored this book."
—Pat Conroy, author of The Great Santini and South of Broad

"Our Man in Charleston is a superlative and entertaining  history of the grey area where diplomacy ends and spy craft begins. British Consul Robert Bunch played a secret role in the anti-slavery fight in Charleston, which would remain secret to this day were it not for Christopher Dickey's extraordinary detective skills."
—Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire and Georgiana

"Wonderfully written and researched, Our Man in Charleston is the best espionage book I've read. I couldn't put it down."
 —Robert Baer, former CIA case officer and author of See No Evil

"Robert Bunch is an unlikely spy, but his bravery and moral sensibility make him an intriguing hero for Christopher Dickey's Civil War history. Dickey knows his stuff, from spying to the slave trade, and he's a master at telling a fast-paced, gripping yarn." 
—Evan Thomas, author of John Paul Jones and The Very Best Men

"Christopher Dickey has accomplished the near-impossible—exhuming a forgotten but irresistible character from the dustbin of Civil War history, and bringing him back to life with painstaking research and bravura literary flair. This irresistible book opens new windows onto the complicated worlds of wartime diplomacy, intelligence-gathering and outright intrigue, and the result is fresh history and page-turning excitement." 
—Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln and the Power of the Press and winner of the 2015 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize

"A long-needed study of Robert Bunch, British consul in Charleston—a secret agent for the Crown in the Civil War era who outwardly praised the city and its people while privately loathing both, and who discouraged diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy by keeping his superiors abreast of its determination to continue importing slaves. Elegantly written, well researched, an engrossing story."
—Howard Jones, author of Blue and Grey Diplomacy

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

July 21, 1861 - Today the Battle of Bull Run (and publication of OMIC)





On the 154th anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run or First Manassas, an excerpt from Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South, published today:

On the morning of July 21, 1861, William Howard Russell was running late for a battle. Confederate troops under Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard, whom he knew from Charleston, and the Union Army under Gen. Irvin McDowell, whom he’d met several times, were now massed around a little rivulet called Bull Run near the Manassas Gap Railroad junction. Everybody in Washington seemed to think this first major battle would be a Northern victory. It might be the beginning of serious fighting. It might be the end of it. Whatever happened, there was no question, Russell had to be there to see it.

Since Russell’s return from the South to the Federal capital, nothing had gone right for him. While he’d been away, and despite his reams of reporting, Delane and the other editors of the Times of London had taken a stand of clear sympathy with the secessionists. They reflected the interests of an elite with commercial concerns about cotton and contempt for the American notion of a republic. They also embraced the idea that, because President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward insisted this war was not about freeing the slaves, then truly that was the case. And for the masses, there was the appeal of the Southerners as underdogs struggling against the subjugation of Washington. The Times editors had become just the apostles of the fait accompli that Seward had feared. So even though the paper still ran Russell’s articles about the inadequacies of the Southern military position, the arrogance of King Cotton, 



“If the Confederates do not grasp that which will never come again on such terms, it stamps them with mediocrity.”



and the monstrosity of slavery, its editorials were such that Russell found the Times “assailed on all sides as a Secession organ, favorable to the rebels and exceedingly hostile to the Federal government and the cause of the Union.” The net result for its correspondent was that he no longer had the kind of access to the Union military that he’d wanted and expected. Seward would still see him, but War Department passes were hard to come by, and on the eve of combat no one would give him the countersign so he could get through checkpoints to see the battle begin at dawn.

Not until midday did Russell finally get close enough to the fighting to hear “the thudding noise, like taps with a gentle hand upon a muffled drum” of artillery in action. Among congressmen and other dignitaries, many of them accompanied by their wives, he watched from atop a hill above Centreville as distant wisps of smoke marked the opposing lines. He ate a sandwich. He drank some Bordeaux he’d packed in his case. By the time he drew closer to the fighting, the Union forces were pulling back; then, suddenly, they were fleeing in a rout so complete that he could hardly believe his eyes. Russell was on a borrowed nag threading his way toward the action when he heard loud shouts ahead of him and saw several wagons coming from the direction of the battlefield. The drivers were trying to force their way past the ammunition carts coming up the narrow road. A thick cloud of dust rose behind them. Men were running beside the carts, between them. “Every moment the crowd increased, drivers and men cried out with the most vehement gestures, ‘Turn back! Turn back! We are whipped.’ They seized the heads of the horses and swore at the opposing drivers.” A breathless officer with an empty scabbard dangling by his side got wedged for a second between a wagon and Russell’s horse.

“What is the matter, sir?” Russell asked. “What is all this about?

“Why, it means we are pretty badly whipped,” said the officer, “and that’s the truth.” Then he scrambled away.

The heat, the uproar, and the dust were “beyond description,” Russell wrote afterward. And it all got worse when some cavalry soldiers, flourishing their sabers, tried to force their way through the mob, shouting, “Make way for the general!”

Russell had made it to a white house where two field guns were positioned, when suddenly troops came pouring out of the nearby forest. The gunners were about to blast away when an officer or a sergeant shouted, “Stop! Stop! They are our own men.” In a few minutes a whole battalion had run past in utter disorder. “We are pursued by their cavalry,” one told Russell. “They have cut us all to pieces.”



After a while there was nothing the world’s greatest war correspondent could do but fall in with the tide of men fleeing the fighting. In all his battles, he had never seen anything like this: “Infantry soldiers on mules and draught horses, with the harness clinging to their heels, as much frightened as their riders; Negro servants on their masters’ chargers; ambulances crowded with unwounded soldiers; wagons swarming with men who threw out the contents in the road to make room; grinding through a shouting, screaming mass of men on foot, who were literally yelling with rage at every halt and shrieking out, ‘Here are the cavalry! Will you get on?’ ” They talked “prodigious nonsense,” Russell said, “describing batteries tier over tier, and ambuscades, and blood running knee-deep.” As he rode through the crowd, men grabbed at Russell’s stirrups and saddle. He kept telling them over and over again not to be in such a hurry. “There’s no enemy to pursue you. All the cavalry in the world could not get at you.” But, as he soon realized, he “might as well have talked to the stones.”

It was a long way back to Washington that day. But after several brushes with violent deserters, drunken soldiers, and more panic-stricken officers, Russell made his way in the moonlight to the Long Bridge across the Potomac and into the capital. He told anyone who asked him that the Union commander would regroup and resume the battle the next morning. But when he awoke in his boardinghouse on Pennsylvania Avenue, he found the city full of uniformed rabble. “The great Army of the Potomac,” he wrote, “is in the streets of Washington instead of on its way to Richmond.”

The Federal capital was essentially defenseless. “The inmates of the White House are in a state of the utmost trepidation,” Russell wrote, “and Mr. Lincoln, who sat in the telegraph operator’s room with General Scott and Mr. Seward, listening to the dispatches as they arrived from the scene of the action, left in despair when the fatal words tripped from the needle and the defeat was already revealed to him.”

For the South, “here is a golden opportunity,” said Russell. “If the Confederates do not grasp that which will never come again on such terms, it stamps them with mediocrity.” But the rebels stayed where they were, and the fact that they did not march on Washington suggested this would be a long war.

As Russell studied the city, its politicians, and its dispositions in the aftermath of the battle, he did not agree with “many who think the contest is now over.” He figured the Northerners had learned
a lesson about “the nature of the conflict on which they have entered” and would be roused to action. But when the Times ran Russell’s article on the battle, his balanced judgment about the lessons learned got no play. The whole effect of his account of the rout was to reinforce the editors’ image of a South that not only would fight, but that could fight better than the North and, therefore, should soon be free of it.

Obviously now the Palmerston government in London could recognize the Confederacy and would and should. And yet it did not.

Southerners, in full hubris, were continuing to withhold their cotton in order to inflict as much pain as possible on Britain for its evident reluctance to join their cause. British consul Robert Bunch sent a note to Lyons in cipher about these developments, then concluded, uncoded, with the ironic comment, “We are getting much ‘riled’ at not being recognized.” Lyons labeled the letter in his file, Wicked designs of the South.

Why did Britain hold back? ...


Illustrations from "Harper's Weekly," which tried desperately to put a positive face on the battle, courtesy of The American Library in Paris.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

From my essay "Confederate Madness Then and Now"











The essay explains recent events through the lens provided by Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South, to be published Tuesday, July 21:



The debate this last month about Confederate symbols—and about the whole damned history of the Confederacy, if truth be known—has raised questions that need to be asked, and not only about the Civil War: How do you honor brave men and women who fought to defend an evil institution? How do you dignify the memory of those who were killed, and who killed, in a war without a legitimate cause? Should they be honored at all? And if so, how?


If we’re going to answer that question—and as a Southerner, the father of a soldier, and a correspondent who has covered many wars, I think we should— then the first step toward honoring the fallen should be to tell the truth as best we can about the war in which they fell and the people who started it.


One of the most shameful aspects of the American Civil War is that hundreds of thousands of men and many women in the Confederacy gave their lives in a fight to defend the interests of a small slave-holding elite that had used its money, its control of politics and the press, the exploitation of racism and fear, and a shrewd if sickening appeal to status to mobilize the masses and then lead them to destruction. ... MORE

July 19, 1861 - The secret mission to Jefferson Davis in Richmond begins

Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South will be published July 21. As it happens, that is also the 154th anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run or, if you will, First Manassas. While William Howard Russell, the great war correspondent for the Times of London, was in Washington D.C. examining preparations for the battle everyone knew would be coming soon in northern Virginia, his friend Consul Bunch in Charleston began laying the groundwork for secret talks with the Confederate government (which he loathed).

The time had come for the mission to Richmond. Bunch made his way along Meeting Street, then
William Henry Trescot
down through the covered market, which was packed with people on a Friday after­noon. His old friend William Henry Trescot had an office nearby on East Bay Street. After the usual exchange of pleasantries and the offered drink, Bunch asked, “How well do you know Jefferson Davis?”

“Why, we have very cordial relations.”

So Bunch went to the heart of the matter. He said that he and Monsieur de Belligny, the acting French consul in Charleston who had replaced the Count de Choiseul, had received dispatches that morning from their respective governments that were “of the most delicate and important character.”

“We’re instructed to make contact with the government in Richmond—but to do so through an intermediary,” Bunch said. “I cannot explain more fully except in the presence of my French col­league, but we have agreed to meet you, to give you the instructions, and ask you to become the channel of communication between us and Richmond.” According to Trescot’s notes on the conversation, Bunch said this was a step of “great significance and importance.”

That night, Trescot met with Bunch and de Belligny. Bunch read aloud the initial dispatch from Lord Russell sent in May, an official letter Lyons had sent him in early July, and a long private letter from Lyons, as well, outlining the need to have the Confederate govern­ment sign on to the three key provisions in the Declaration of Paris.
“And now you know all that I know myself,” he said.

Trescot tested the consuls to see just how far they might go. “Are you prepared for the Confederate government to make an of­ficial declaration based on your request, thus giving it implied rec­ognition in the eyes of the world?”

“No, no,” said the consuls, almost in unison. “This has to be a spontaneous declaration,” said Bunch.

“I don’t see how you can ask that,” replied Trescot. He also failed to see how the supposedly spontaneous commitment to the terms of an international treaty by an as yet unrecognized state would be binding. But the consuls were adamant about secrecy.

“If this becomes public, the United States government will revoke our exequaturs and will dismiss Lyons and Mercier from Washington,” Bunch warned. The consuls might, as private citi­zens, say this was an important step toward recognition, but even assuming the aim of the British and French governments was to reach recognition, they wanted to do it so as not to provoke a break with Washington. Lyons had been perfectly explicit about that. “This indirect way is the only way,” said Bunch.

Trescot didn’t like the sound of it. “All this secrecy that you say is essential to the negotiations takes away from the Confederate government the very same incentive you say you’re giving it.”

“We can’t make any commitments in that respect,” said Bunch. “You will find the consequences most agreeable and beneficial to the Confederate government,” de Belligny assured Trescot.

Finally Trescot agreed to accept the mission but with an explicit understanding that when he met with Davis, he would be free to advise him to accept the proposal or reject it, “as I think right.”


The ball was now in play.

July 18, 1861 - A passing encounter with Lincoln before Bull Run begins

Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South will be published July 21. As it happens, that is also the 154th anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run or, if you will, First Manassas. While Consul Bunch in Charleston began laying the groundwork for secret talks with the Confederate government (which he loathed), his friend William Howard Russell, the great war correspondent for the Times of London, was in Washington D.C. examining preparations for the battle everyone knew would be coming soon in northern Virginia.

Rumors abound about fighting that hasn’t taken place. The battle has been postponed for two days. Amid the furor, a passing encounter with Lincoln crossing Pennsylvania Avenue. He’s had a special telegraph set up to communicate with the general in the field.



July 18. … At the War-Office, at the Department of State, at the Senate, and at the White House, messengers and orderlies running in and out, military aides, and civilians with anxious faces, betokened the activity and perturbation which reigned within. I met Senator Sumner radiant with joy. “We have obtained a great success ; the rebels are falling back in all directions. General Scott says we ought to be in Richmond by Saturday night.” Soon afterwards a United States officer, who had visited me in company with General Meigs, riding rapidly past, called out, “ You have heard we are whipped ; these confounded volunteers have run away.” I drove to the Capitol, where people said one could actually see the smoke of the cannon ; but, on arriving there, it was evident that the fire from some burning houses, and from wood cut down for cooking purposes, had been mistaken for tokens of the fight. …



On my way to dinner at the Legation I met the President crossing Pennsylvania Avenue, striding like a crane in a bulrush swamp among the great blocks of marble, dressed in an oddly cut suit of gray, with a felt hat on the back of his head, wiping his face with a red pocket-handkerchief. He was evidently in a hurry, on his way to the White House, where I believe a telegraph has been established in communication with McDowell s head-quarters. …

On my return to Captain Johnson s lodgings I received a note from the head-quarters of the Federals, stating that the serious action between the two armies would probably be postponed for some days. McDowell s original idea was to avoid forcing the enemy s position directly in front, which was defended by movable batteries commanding the fords over a stream called “ Bull s Run.” He therefore proposed to make a demonstration on some point near the centre of their line, and at the same time throw the mass of his force below their extreme right, so as to turn it and get possession of the Manassas Railway in their rear ; a movement which would separate him, by the by, from his own communications, and enable any General worth his salt to make a magnificent counter by marching on Washington, only 27 miles away, which he could take with the greatest ease, and leave the enemy in the rear to march 120 miles to Richmond, if they dared, or to make a hasty retreat upon the higher Potomac, and to cross into the hostile country of Maryland.


McDowell, however, has found the country on his left densely wooded and difficult. It is as new to him as it was to Braddock, when he cut his weary way through forest and swamp in this very district to reach, hundreds of miles away, the scene of his fatal repulse at Fort Du Quesne. And so, having moved his whole army, McDowell finds himself obliged to form a new plan of attack, and, prudently fearful of pushing his underdone and over-praised levies into a river in face of an enemy, is endeavoring to ascertain with what chance of success he can attack and turn their left.

July 17, 1861 - "No system, no order, no knowledge, no dash!" among Northern officers





Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South will be published July 21. As it happens, that is also the 154th anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run or, if you will, First Manassas. While Consul Bunch in Charleston began laying the groundwork for secret talks with the Confederate government (which he loathed), his friend William Howard Russell, the great war correspondent for the Times of London, was in Washington D.C. examining preparations for the battle everyone knew would be coming soon in northern Virginia.

In fact, the North is not prepared for this fight.



July 17th. I went up to General Scott s quarters, and saw some of his staff young men, some of whom knew nothing of soldiers, not even the enforcing of drill and found them reflecting, doubtless, the shades which cross the mind of the old chief, who was now seeking repose. McDowell is to advance to-morrow from Fairfax Court House, and will march some eight or ten miles to Centreville, directly in front of which, at a place called Manassas, stands the army of the Southern enemy. I look around me for a staff, and look in vain. There are a few plodding old pedants, with map and rules and compasses, who sit in small rooms and write memoranda ; and there are some ignorant and not very active young men, who loiter about the head-quarters halls, and strut up the street with brass spurs on their heels and kepis raked over their eyes as though they were soldiers, but I see no system, no order, no knowledge, no dash !