Thursday, July 23, 2015

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

video
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 !

July 16, 1861 - It's not looking good for the North

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.

It’s not looking good for the North.



July 16. … On arriving at the Washington platform, the first person I saw was General McDowell alone, looking anxiously into the carriages. He asked where I came from, and when he heard from Annapolis, inquired eagerly if I had seen two batteries of artillery Barry s and another which he had ordered up, and was waiting for, but which had”gone astray.” I was surprised to find the General engaged on such duty, and took leave to say so. “Well, it is quite true, Mr. Russell ; but I am obliged to look after them myself, as I have so small a staff, and they are all engaged out with my head-quarters. You are aware I have advanced ? No ! Well, you have just come in time, and I shall be happy, indeed, to take you with me. I have made arrangements for the correspondents of our papers to take the field under certain regulations, and I have suggested to them they should wear a white uniform, to indicate the purity of their character.” The General could hear nothing of his guns ; his carriage was waiting, and I accepted his offer of a seat to my lodgings. Although he spoke confidently, he did not seem in good spirits. There was the greatest difficulty in finding out anything about the enemy. Beauregard was said to have advanced to Fairfax Court House, but he could not get any certain knowledge of the fact.

“Can you not order a reconnaissance?”

“Wait till you see the country. But even if it were as flat as Flanders, I have not an officer on whom I could depend for the work. They would fall into some trap, or bring on a general engagement when I did not seek it or desire it. I have no cavalry such as you work with in Europe.”

I think he was not so much disposed to undervalue the Confederates as before, for he said they had selected a very strong position, and had made a regular levee en masse of the people of Virginia, as a proof of the energy and determination with which they were entering on the campaign.


Monday, July 13, 2015

William W. Freeling writes about the importance of the African Slave trade issue on "The Road to Disunion"

One reason great civil war historians, including James McPherson, Amanda Foreman, Howard Jones and Harold Holzer have been so receptive to Our Man in Charleston is because the question of reopening the African slave trade is one that has been too long neglected. William W. Freeling explained the issue well in one chapter of The Road to Disunion Vol. II Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861, and in this particularly useful note:

The movement to reopen the African slave trade almost always receives short shrift in accounts of the coming of the Civil War. The reason: The radicalism never captured anything close to a southern majority and thus allegedly must be considered an
antebellum sideshow. But by that reasoning, secessionism, also never commanding a majority until Lincoln “coerced” the disunionists, also must be considered a sideshow. The point is that a disunionist minority ultimately made majoritarian history (as minorities often do). While anti-secessionists sometimes wished to reopen the African slave trade, the movement was primarily the secessionists’, as was nothing else. (Caribbean expansionism, for example, was most often seen as an alternative to disunion.) Thus the reopening campaign offers the best window into the (minority) mentality that would ultimately make a revolution. Something so analytically valuable deserves central consideration.

The best book on the reopeners’ movement remains Ronald Takaki’s excellent A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade (New York, 1971)

Freehling, William W. (2007-03-09). The Road to Disunion: Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861: 2 (p. 555). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

July 10, 1861 - Civil war censorship

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. 

Here, in an excerpt from Russell's My Diary North and South, is his take on censorship imposed by the commander of Union forces in the name of what's known today as "national security." Russell says his fellow reporters claim they will obey, but won't, and the government will not keep its promises either. Russell argues that a free country has to give the press free rein.

July 10. ... The Government have been coerced, as they say, by the safety of the Republic, to destroy the liberty of the press, which is guaranteed by the Constitution, and this is not the first instance in which the Constitution of the United States will be made nominis umbra [a shadow of its reputation]. The telegraph, according to General Scott's order, confirmed by the Minister of War, Simon Cameron, is to convey no dispatches respecting military movements not permitted by the General ; and to-day the newspaper correspondents have agreed to yield obedience to the order, reserving to themselves a certain freedom of detail in writing their despatches, and relying on the Government to publish the official accounts of all battles very speedily. They will break this agreement if they can, and the Government will not observe their part of the bargain. The freedom of the press, as I take it, does not include the right to publish news hostile to the cause of the country in which it is published ; neither can it involve any obligation on the part of Government to publish despatches which may be injurious to the party they represent. There is a wide distinction between the publication of news which is known to the enemy as soon as to the friends of the transmitters, and the utmost freedom of expression concerning the acts of the Government or the conduct of past events ; but it will be difficult to establish any rule to limit or extend the boundaries to which discussion can go without mischief, and in effect the only solution of the difficulty in a free country seems to be to grant the press free license, in consideration of the enormous aid it affords in warning the people of their danger, in animating them with the news of their successes, and in sustaining the Government.

Engraving of William Howard Russell from "Harper's Weekly" courtesy The American Library in Paris

Thursday, July 9, 2015

July 9, 1861 - Feeble old Winfield Scott commands Union forces

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 to ensure British and French maritime rights as neutrals in the conflict, 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.

July 9th. ... A swarm of newspaper correspondents has settled down upon Washington, and great are the glorifications of the hightoned paymasters, gallant doctors, and subalterns accomplished in the art of war, who furnish minute items to my American brethren, and provide the yeast which overflows in many columns ; but the Government experience the inconvenience of the smallest movements being chronicled for the use of the enemy, who, by putting one thing and another together, are no doubt enabled to collect much valuable information. Every preparation is being made to put the arrny on a war footing, to provide them with shoes, ammunition wagons, and horses.

I had the honor of dining with General Scott, who has moved to new quarters, near the War Department, and met General Fremont, who is designated, according to rumor, to take command of an important district in the West, and to clear the right bank of the Mississippi and the course of the Missouri. "The Pathfinder" is a strong Republican and Abolitionist, whom the Germans delight to honor, a man with a dreamy, deep blue eye, a gentlemanly address, pleasant features, and an active frame, but without the smallest external indication of extraordinary vigor, intelligence, or ability ; if he has military genius, it must come by intuition, for assuredly he has no professional acquirements or experience. Two or three  members of Congress, and the General's staff, and Mr. Bigelow, completed the company. The General has become visibly weaker 


The General regarded the situation with much more apprehension than the politicians.



since I first saw him. He walks down to his office, close at hand, with difficulty ; returns a short time before dinner, and reposes ; and when he has dismissed his guests at an early hour, or even before he does so, stretches himself on his bed, and then before midnight rouses himself to look at despatches or to transact any necessary business. In case of an action it is his intention to proceed to the field in a light carriage, which is always ready for the purpose, with horses and driver ; nor is he unprepared with precedents of great military commanders who have successfully conducted engagements under similar circumstances. 

Although the discussion of military questions and of politics was eschewed, incidental allusions were made to matters going on around us, and I thought I could perceive that the General regarded the situation with much more apprehension than the politicians, and that his influence extended itself to the views of his staff. General Fremont's tone was much more confident. Nothing has become known respecting the nature of Mr. Davis's communication to President Lincoln, but the fact of his sending it at all is looked upon as a piece of monstrous impertinence. 

The General is annoyed and distressed by the plundering propensities of the Federal troops, who have been committing terrible depredations on the people of Virginia. It is not to be supposed, however, that the Germans, who have entered upon this campaign as mercenaries, will desist from so profitable and interesting a pursuit as the detection of Secesh sentiments, chickens, watches, horses, and dollars. I mentioned that I had seen some farm-houses completely sacked close to the aqueduct. The General merely said, "It is deplorable !" and raised up his hands as if in disgust. General Fremont, however, said, "I suppose you are familiar with similar scenes in Europe. I hear the allies were not very particular with respect to private property in Russia," a remark which unfortunately could not be gainsaid. 

As I was leaving the General's quarters, Mr. Blair, accompanied by the President, who was looking more anxious than I had yet seen him, drove up, and passed through a crowd of soldiers, who had evidently been enjoying themselves. One of them called out, "Three cheers for General Scott," and I am not quite sure the President did not join him.

Illustration from "Harper's Weekly" courtesy The American Library in Paris

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

July 8, 1861 - The Union Army ill prepared for battle




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 to ensure British and French maritime rights as neutrals in the conflict, 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. On this day, Russell visited the Union encampment on Arlington Heights, on land that is now Arlington Cemetery. His description of D.C. with its unfinished obelisk devoted to Washington and the "fantastic pile" of the Smithsonian makes for interesting reading if you know the city today. But most importantly this account from Russell's book My Diary North and South reflects Russell's deep skepticism about the readiness of the Union army to take on the Confederates in what would be the first major battle of the war.






July 8thI hired a horse at a livery stable, and rode out to Arlington Heights, at the other side of the Potomac, where the Federal army is encamped, if not on the sacred soil of Virginia, certainly on the soil of the District of Columbia, ceded by that State to Congress for the purposes of the Federal Government. The Long Bridge which spans the river, here more than a mile broad, is an ancient wooden and brick structure, partly of causeway, and partly of platform, laid on piles and uprights, with drawbridges for vessels to pass. The


Potomac, which in peaceful times is covered with small craft, now glides in a gentle current over the shallows unbroken by a solitary sail. The " rebels" have established batteries below Mount Vernon, which partially command the river, and place the city in a state of blockade. 

As a consequence of the magnificent conceptions which were entertained by the founders regarding the future dimensions of their future city, Washington is all suburb and no city. The only difference between the denser streets and the remoter village-like environs, is that the houses are better and more frequent, and the roads not quite so bad in the former. The road to the Long Bridge passes by a four-sided shaft of blocks of white marble, contributed, with appropriate mottoes, by the various States, as a fitting monument to Washington. It is not yet completed, and the materials lie in the field around, just as the Capitol and the Treasury are surrounded by the materials for their future and final development. Further on is the red, and rather fantastic, pile of the Smithsonian Institute, and then the road makes a dip to the bridge, past some squalid little cottages, and the eye reposes on the shore of Virginia, rising in successive folds, and richly wooded, up to a moderate height from the water. Through the green forest leaves gleams the white canvas of the tents, and on the highest ridge westward rises an imposing structure, with a portico and colonnade in front, facing the river, which is called Arlington House, and belongs, by descent, through Mr. Custis, from the wife of George Washington, to General Lee, Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate army. It is now occupied by General McDowell as his head-quarters, and a large United States flag floats from the roof, which shames even the ample proportions of the many stars and stripes rising up from the camps in the trees.

At the bridge there was a post of volunteer soldiers. The sentry on duty was sitting on a stump, with his firelock across his knees, reading a newspaper. He held out his hand for my pass, which was in the form of a letter, written by General Scott, and ordering all officers and soldiers of the army of the Potomac to permit me to pass freely without let or hindrance, and recommending me to the attention of Brigadier-General McDowell and all officers under his orders. "That'll do ; you may go,” said the sentry. ”What pass is that, Abe?” inquired a non-commissioned officer. ” It's from General Scott, and says he's to go wherever he likes.”

“ I hope you ll go right away to Richmond, then, and get Jeff Davis's scalp for us,” said the patriotic sergeant.

At the other end of the bridge a weak tĂȘte de pont, commanded by a road-work farther on, covered the approach, and turning to the right I passed through a maze of camps, in front of which the various regiments, much better than I expected to find them, broken up into small detachments, were learning elementary drill. A considerable number of the men were Germans, and the officers were for the most part in a state of profound ignorance of company drill, as might be seen by their confusion and inability to take their places when the companies faced about, or moved from one flank to the other. They were by no means equal in size or age, and, with some splendid exceptions, were inferior to the Southern soldiers. The camps were dirty, no latrines, the tents of various patterns but on the whole they were well castrametated [the making or laying out of a military camp].

The road to Arlington House passed through some of the finest woods I have yet seen in America, but the axe was already busy amongst them, and the trunks of giant oaks were prostrate on the ground. The tents of the General and his small staff were pitched on the little plateau in which stood the house, and from it a very striking and picturesque view of the city, with the White House, the Treasury, the Post-Office, Patent-Office, and Capitol, was visible, and a wide spread of country, studded with tents also as far as the eye could reach, towards Maryland. There were only four small tents for the whole of the head-quarters of the grand army of 
the Potomac, and in front of one we found General McDowell, seated in a chair, examining some plans and maps. His personal staff, as far as I could judge, consisted of Mr. Clarence Brown, who came over with me, and three other officers, but there were a few connected with the departments at work in the 
rooms of Arlington House. I made some remark on the subject to the General, who replied that there was great jealousy on the part of the civilians respecting the least appearance of display, and that as he was only a brigadier, though he was in command of such a large army, he was obliged to be content with a brigadier's staff. Two untidy-looking orderlies, with ill-groomed horses, near the house, were poor substitutes for the force of troopers one would see in attendance on a General in Europe, but the use of the telegraph obviates the necessity of employing couriers. I went over some of the camps with the General. The artillery is the most efficient-looking arm of the service, but the horses are too light, and the number of the different calibres quite destructive to continuous efficiency in action. Altogether I was not favorably impressed with what I saw, for I had been led by reiterated statements to believe to some extent the extravagant stories of the papers, and expected to find upwards of 100,000 men in the highest state of efficiency, whereas there were not more than a third of the number, and those in a very incomplete, ill-disciplined state. Some of these regiments were called out under the President s proclamation for three months only, and will soon have served their full time, and as it is very likely they will go home, now the bubbles of national enthusiasm have all escaped, General Scott is urged not to lose their services, but to get into Richmond before they are disbanded.

It would scarcely be credited, were I not told it by General McDowell, that there is no such thing procurable as a decent map of Virginia. He knows little or nothing of the country before him, more than the general direction of the main roads, which are bad at the best ; and he can obtain no information, inasmuch as the enemy are in full force all along his front, and he has not a cavalry officer capable of conducting a reconnaissance, which would be difficult enough in the best hands, owing to the dense woods which rise up in front of his lines, screening the enemy completely. The Confederates have thrown up very heavy batteries at Manassas, about thirty miles away, where the railway from the West crosses the line to Richmond, and I do not think General McDowell much likes the look of them, but the cry for action is so strong the President cannot resist it.

Photograph of Union officers on the steps of the Custis-Lee Mansion from the collection of Arlington House.


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

July 8, 1861 - "Wicked designs of the South"; arrests in the North

From Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South, to be published July 21.

Purcell M’Quillan was an Irishman who’d been working as a clerk in a Charleston carpet warehouse, and asked for a passport from Bunch so he could go visit his father in Baltimore. When he was arrested, manacled and sent to the infamous prison at Fort Lafayette in New York harbor, M’Quillan was, like many other suspected Southern agents and sympathizers, denied habeas corpus. The
ostensible charges were spying for the rebels and trying to buy weapons, but M’Quillan was released after a few weeks following protests by Lord Lyons. He may never have been involved in anything, and it is plausible that the main reason the clerk was picked up was so Seward’s men could gather more information on Bunch.

The Charleston consul pretended to be unperturbed by all this. After all, M’Quillan was just one of so many messengers he’d sent northward. “I had some conversation with him when I gave him his passport (which I did after full inquiry, an examination on oath, etc.),” Bunch wrote to Lyons. “I asked him if he were going to Washington on his return to Charleston, and on his replying in the affirmative gave him a line to Your Lordship stating that he was a respectable young man and might be trusted with anything you might have for me. Of course he may have been buying arms for the Southern Confederacy, but I really do not believe it.” The last two pages of that letter are in code, which has not been deciphered and, from context, appear to deal with Southern plans for retribution against Britain if it does not recognize and support the Confederacy. They are summed up on the back of the document by the phrase “wicked designs of South.”






Engraving of "the political prison at Washington, corner First and A Streets" from "Harper's Weekly," courtesy of The American Library of Paris.