Confederate Madness Then and Now

A British consul witnessed the cynical process that plunged the United States into civil war in the 1860s. His observations can teach us a lot today.

07.14.15 5:10 AM ET

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.

That now-infamous battle flag that was on the statehouse grounds in South Carolina had come to represent in American culture not only racism, but militarism, jingoism, and even paternalism at home and abroad. Of course it inspired a little white supremacist peckerwood like Dylann Roof, alleged to have slaughtered nine good people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. But such was the flag’s resonance and acceptability in the recent past that a version of it used to be sold at the commissary in the Green Zone in Baghdad as a memento of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Harper's Weekly courtesy The American Library in Paris

In truth, it is not so much a banner for rebellious spirits as it is a symbol of unthinking submission to exploitation. Few flags in modern history so clearly represent what the French call “the logic of war,” when people are aroused to the point of hysteria, and the real and obvious costs of a conflagration are not calculated, while the imagined benefits are fabricated. And few people saw that sort of madness taking hold more clearly than Robert Bunch, the central figure in Our Man in Charleston: Britains Secret Agent in the Civil War South, to be published next week.

From 1853 to 1863, this young and cynical—but quite sane—British consul served in South Carolina as the representative of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. While he worked to ingratiate himself with the local slave-holding gentry, his secret dispatches to the Foreign Office in London and to his superiors at the British legation in Washington conveyed his horror at what he saw around him.

Like one of those conflicted, ambiguous figures in a John Le Carré novel, Bunch was not outwardly heroic, his motives could be ambiguous, and he operated in what the historian Amanda Foreman has called “the grey area where diplomacy ends and spy craft begins.” But all of that makes his non-ideological reporting all the more useful as we try to make sense of what happened more than 150 years ago, and indeed what has happened over the last month since Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel AME Church.

* * *

In January 1854, just a few weeks after Robert Bunch and his new wife arrived in Charleston, he wrote a private letter to a colleague at the Foreign Office that summed up not only the monstrous way blacks were treated but the unrepressed decadence of the white elite around him: "The frightful atrocities of slaveholding must be seen to be described,” wrote Bunch. “My next door neighbor, a lawyer of the first distinction and a member of the Southern Aristocracy, told me himself that he flogged all his own people—men and women—when they misbehaved. I hear also that he makes them strip, and after telling them that they were to consider it as a great condescension on his part to touch them, gives them a certain number of lashes with a cow-hide. The frightful evil of the system is that it debases the whole tone of society—for the people talk calmly of horrors which would not be mentioned in civilized society. It is literally no more to kill a slave than to shoot a dog."   

So extreme was the pro-slavery avant-garde in Charleston in the 1850s that its leaders pushed to reopen the long-banned importation of captive Africans: a commerce—a holocaust, in fact—in which over the years millions of men, women, and children were packed into ships where, as one U.S. Navy officer put it, there was “scarcely space to die in.”

The role Britain played, or rather, refused to play in the American Civil War was absolutely critical to its outcome. Today people think they know that the British opposed all slavery, or they think they know that Britain supported the South during the war. But the truth lay between those contradictory views.

Harper's Weekly courtesy The American Library in Paris

Britain had banned the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, after the passionate religious, moral, and political campaign against it by William Wilberforce. The United States had done so the same year after a clause in the original U.S. Constitution that guaranteed freedom to import human beings expired. Britain then went much further, eventually abolishing slavery throughout its empire in 1833. But in the meantime, the global economy was changing, and cotton became the great sought-after commodity in world trade.

At the beginning of the 19th century there had been serious thought that slavery would wither away in the South. But by the 1850s slaves were so important to the cotton industry that there really was no question of that. (Indeed, there was a bubble market in human chattel, as manifest destiny kept expanding the South’s cotton-growing frontiers and Virginia and Maryland, known as slave-breeding states, could not keep up with demand.) So Britain, which got 80 percent of its raw cotton from the South, was willing to make its peace with the fact that slave labor there produced it.

There were all sorts of cynical British rationalizations for this, much as modern Western democracies rationalize their relations with tyrannical oil producers, and as a result the slave-owning Southerners concluded that King Cotton ruled the world, trumping whatever qualms the British might have.

But there was one deep red line: the slave trade with Africa. For economic and internal political reasons, the British crown had spent five decades, considerable blood, and enormous treasure—by some estimates 2 percent of its gross domestic product—fighting against that grim commerce.

The secessionists did not want to see this, and many academics have since ignored it. But as the historian William W. Freehling has pointed out, “the reopening campaign offers the best window into the (minority) mentality that would ultimately make a revolution.” And Robert Bunch made that the window through which he showed the Confederacy to the Foreign Office.

Beginning in 1857, Bunch began working to persuade the British cabinet that it must eventually turn away from the South and find cotton elsewhere because the “slavocracy,” no matter what it claimed publicly, would soon reopen the slave trade with Africa. Some individuals already had such projects under way. And Bunch spared few opportunities to remind London of the horrors that entailed.

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* * *

By 1858, the transatlantic traffic in Africans was booming, with American-flag smugglers carrying tens of thousands to the sugarcane plantations of Cuba. Occasionally British warships managed to intercept the slavers off the African coast and the U.S. Navy, under British pressure, actually interdicted a handful. One of those captured by the American squadron off Cuba was the Echo, which was brought to South Carolina along with its human cargo in the summer of 1858.

Some 455 Africans had been taken on board near Kabinda on the African coast. More than 140 had perished during the weeks at sea and been thrown overboard, a typical rate of attrition. (“The shark of the Atlantic is still, as he has ever been, the partner of the slave trader,” wrote a British editorialist.) It took the U.S. Navy prize crew six days to sail the Echo from Cuban waters to Charleston Harbor, the most important American port within reach of the fetid vessel. By then another eight captives had died. And they just kept dying.

The Charleston Mercury, a secessionist paper, reported that the slaves taken off the Echo and held in the as yet unfinished Fort Sumter were happy and dancing. But of course that was a lie. The U.S. marshal at Charleston, who had been vocal in his support for reopening the trade with Africa, felt differently after watching over its victims for the three weeks the Echo’s people were held before being shipped to Liberia. “Thirty-five died while in my custody,” he wrote to a friend, “and at one time I supposed that one hundred would have fallen a sacrifice to the cruelties to which the poor creatures had been subjected on board the slaver. I wish that everyone in South Carolina who is in favor of the re-opening of the slave trade could have seen what I have been compelled to witness…It seems to me that I can never forget it.”

Under federal law the African slave trade was deemed piracy, and the penalty was death. Yet when the Echo and other African slave-trade cases came before the federal courts in the South, the local grand juries refused to indict. Some businessmen figured they had a green light to start importing Africans. The Wanderer and the Clotilda were the last known slave ships to land their cargos in the U.S., in 1858 and 1860, respectively. Southerners were growing ever more confident about their ability to defy the federal government and destroy national institutions that did not bend to their will, including the Democratic Party, which they had long dominated.

In an extraordinarily prescient letter in January 1859, Bunch wrote of the Carolinians, “They are rather amused at the idea of embarrassing the Federal Government, and perhaps, in a lesser degree, of annoying Great Britain, but they will awake from their delusion to find the Democratic Party broken up and the whole power of the Country thrown into the hands of the ‘Republicans.’…When this shall happen, the days of Slavery are numbered…The prestige and power of Slave holders will be gone, never to return.”

A year and a half later, that is exactly what happened.

At the 1860 national Democratic Convention in Charleston, the party split three ways. That led to the election of “black Republican” candidate Abraham Lincoln, and that became the pretext for outright withdrawal from the Union. The policy of the rabid secessionists had been to rule or ruin the federal government. And so they did.

* * *

Bunch, reporting on all these developments, wanted to be sure that London understood one central and unavoidable fact amid a fog of Southern propaganda: The purpose of secession was to defend the institution of slavery, and “slavery can only be maintained at the point of the sword.”

The South Carolina secession convention’s final and authoritative statement was published on Christmas Eve, 1860. It concerned itself entirely and exclusively with slavery—not tariffs or abstract principles. The issue of “states’ rights” came down to the very specific right of white people in some states to own Negro slaves, to get them back if they ran away to free states, and to import them from Africa as they had been imported in the early years of the Republic.

Harper's Weekly courtesy The American Library in Paris

Not quite four months later, South Carolina’s artillery batteries opened fire on the small, isolated federal garrison in Fort Sumter and the shooting war began, strangely, with no casualties. Bunch was a witness. “So far as I can learn, not one soul has been hurt on either side, which after 33 hours bombarding is a little curious. But we live in curious times.”

By the time the true costs of the conflict became evident, there was no stopping it. The logic of war now ruled, and it spread with a vengeance both North and South, sucking millions of Americans into its madness. The conflict that began as a misguided defense of the slave-owning elite came to be seen by the mass of Southerners who were fighting and dying every day as a struggle for their very survival. They were in mortal combat, they believed, for their hearths, for their families, and, as always in war, for their comrades in arms.

The same radical secessionists who had led the South to disaster failed the Southern troops utterly and completely. Some of the old political hacks were sent to Europe to win the full recognition and support they had promised they must have from Britain and France, only to discover that was not going to materialize. The Europeans recognized a state of belligerency to assure they would be treated as neutrals, some businessmen contrived to lend covert support, but the governments did not recognize the Confederacy, and the most powerful militaries in the world did not come to its defense.

Bunch and his superior in Washington, Lord Lyons, had convinced the crown that no matter what the Confederate politicians claimed, even if they wrote a ban into their constitution, they were not willing or able to prevent the reopening of the African trade to North America. As a result, each time Britain came close to recognition or intervention in 1861 and 1862, that belief presented itself as a major obstacle.

In 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation transformed the war unequivocally into a crusade against slavery, and the Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg made it clear that secession was no fait accompli, all chances of British support for the Confederacy withered and died—but the fighting went on for almost two more horrible years. In the end, as Bunch had predicted, the prestige and power of the slaveholders was gone, and their world was laid waste.

* * *

The battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia might once have served as a reminder of the bravery of those who fought, as they believed, to defend their homes. But soon it was adopted by those who wanted to re-create that myth of the South, of The Lost Cause, that we see when the movie Gone With the Wind opens: an Old South that was a land of “cavaliers” and “ladies fair”—and obedient slaves. It was a “pretty world” where “gallantry took its last bow,” unless you were being stripped and flogged by an owner who thought you should be honored if he touched you.

By the 1950s and 1960s, when the battle flag was raised over the gold dome of the capitol in Atlanta (from 1956 to 2001 it was part of the Georgia state flag) and then over the state house in South Carolina, it was a symbol once again of that racism and hate-mongering that the rich had used so successfully to manipulate poorer whites a century before. Taking it down is no disrespect to the brave men and women of the Confederacy. Keeping it up would have been.

So, now that the issue of the “that flag,” as South Carolina state Senator Jenny Horne called it amid tears of rage, is almost settled, let’s let the statues erected to the soldiers of the South and the other relics of that old history remain. Let’s let those gray sculptures remind us that all wars are horrible. Let’s remember that almost all wars are launched by ambitions, miscalculations, and grand illusions cherished by a few at the expense of the many. Perhaps the Confederate monuments will remind us we should be wiser about what wars we fight in the future.