ACOUPLE OF WEEKS AFTER BULL RUN, a Unionist from Connecticut who would later be described as “a trustworthy gentleman” was signing the register at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, when “a distinguished looking stranger entered the room and was immediately surrounded by a number of gentlemen of the secesh persuasion.” Now that the fighting had begun in earnest, emotions were running high in the contested border state of Kentucky. Everybody was on edge, and the stranger’s voice echoed through the reception area of the hotel. He told his new acquaintances that he was the British consul in Charleston, South Carolina, that he was an ardent sympathizer with secession, and that he expected soon to be appointed British minister to the Confederate government in Richmond. Everybody was listening. He said he was freshly arrived from the rebel capital with all the latest news. And his name, he said, was Robert Mure.
In fact, Mure was a bluff Scotsman who still spoke in Doric dialect after almost thirty years in South Carolina. He was a naturalized American citizen, and he had served in one of the Carolina militias (rumor had it he’d fought in the bloodless battle for Fort Sumter). Mure certainly was not the British consul in Charleston, but he had volunteered to serve as one of the many couriers used by the real consul, Robert Bunch. If he had not been such a braggart, he might well have gone about his business unmolested and, ultimately, with next to no impact from the widening American Civil War. But he just couldn’t shut up.
Later that same day, the Unionist from Connecticut, who seems to have been a particularly diligent amateur spy, found himself sitting near Mure and another man in the hotel office as they were having a quiet but quite audible conversation over cigars. Mure said he had been closeted in Richmond with Jefferson Davis and members of his cabinet “for several days,” and they had entrusted him with papers “which he believed would insure the recognition of the Confederacy by the Governments of Great Britain and France,” along with financial documents “representing a large amount of money for the purchase of arms and munitions of war.” Mure said he planned to leave Louisville on Sunday, August 11, heading for New York and Boston, where he would take the Cunard steamer for Liverpool under an assumed name.
The “trustworthy gentleman” from Connecticut followed Robert Mure to Cincinnati. Then he hurried to the telegraph office in the middle of the night to send a message to Seward. The operator was rousted out of bed and, as it happened, “possessed the Government cipher.” He sent the following message, which landed like a bombshell in Seward’s office the next morning:
CINCINNATI, August 12, 1861
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State, Washington, D.C.:
Robert Mure, an Englishman by birth but resident of Charleston, S.C., for the last thirty years, is to take the steamer at New York Wednesday for Europe. He has highly important dispatches from Confederate Congress very carefully concealed. Intercept dispatches and the Confederates will be in your power. Mr. Mure is cousin to British consul at New Orleans.
B. T. HENRY.
For the U.S. secretary of state and his spies, this bit of information seemed to pull everything into focus. For months, Seward’s agents had been targeting Britain’s consuls with a vengeance, and they had come across some incriminating information about the veteran William Mure in New Orleans. They claimed that he was working with his brothers in Canada on a blockade-running scheme and that he’d sent thousands of letters designed to help the Confederacy under theprotection of the British seal.
If this Robert Mure was indeed a relative of the consul in New Orleans, that fact alone would raise suspicions. Mure’s itinerary also was incriminating: he had traveled a circuitous route from South Carolina to Kentucky and Ohio in order to avoid Federal lines. And then there was the Charleston connection.
The same morning Seward got the message from “B. T. Henry,” he sent a telegram of his own to Superintendent John A. Kennedy of the New York Metropolitan Police ordering Robert Mure’s arrest. When the detectives tracked him the next day to the Brevoort House Hotel in Greenwich Village he immediately presented his documents, of course. The one authorizing him as an official courier of the diplomatic pouch was signed by Her Majesty’s Consul Robert Bunch.
It seemed to Seward that he not only had the Confederates in his power, as the mysterious Mr. Henry had suggested, but Great Britain as well.
Two days after Mure’s arrest, Seward called Lord Lyons to the State Department and showed him the haul that had been sent down from New York. Seward said he was sending the official dispatch bag, wrapped in brown paper, directly to London to be delivered in person to Lord John Russell. He also told Lyons that almost two hundred letters had been found among Mure’s belongings that were not under seal. He had not read all of them yet, but he would.
Far to the South, Bunch was oblivious to the threat taking shape. Indeed, he remained almost euphoric. This was the first full summer he had spent in Charleston’s pestilential climate, but the fevers of August had been mild, and he was feeling quite well—or better than well, because he saw himself as a survivor. How many times had he told the Foreign Office that to pass these summer months in Charleston was certain death for those who were not acclimated? And here he was, alive. And, yes, it would seem, very well acclimated.
On July 17, the same day that Lyons was writing up letters and dispatches about his unpleasant encounter with Seward and the captured documents that Bunch had entrusted to Mure, Bunch decided to press his case for a raise and for a promotion. He noted that George Mathew, then in Mexico, was making £1,000 a year as secretary of legation, almost twice his salary. Bunch thought that, given his stellar performance with the Trescot mission—the Confederate Congress had just accepted the neutrality provisions in the Declaration of Paris—maybe he could win an income and title similar to Mathew’s, or maybe a better one, and maybe even in Richmond if at some point diplomatic representations there were upgraded. Bunch outlined his thoughts in a letter to Lyons, who had given him so many proofs of his friendly interest, and he enclosed a formal request to Lord Russell for a new position and a raise in salary.
In Washington, Seward and his men continued poring over every one of the letters Mure carried that was not in the diplomatic pouch. They were looking for something incriminating that they might include in a message to Lord Russell to accompany the unopened diplomatic bag. Seward had told Lyons he had no particular complaint about Bunch’s conduct. But now he saw there was a great deal he could say about him. Many of the letters looked, to Seward, very treasonous, indeed, and some of them, certainly, praised Bunch as a friend of the South. After all, the merchants of Charleston were convinced this man was very much on their side. But among the papers spread across the tables at the State Department was one curious little note that seemed to be quite damning. It was not sealed in any way. It was not dated. It was not signed. But it said, in part:
Mr. B., on oath of secrecy, communicated to me also that the first step to recognition was taken. He and Mr. Belligny together sent Mr. Trescot to Richmond yesterday, to ask Jeff. Davis, president, to [accept] the treaty of [commerce], to [accept] the neutral flag covering neutral goods to be respected. This is the first step of direct treating with our government, so prepare for active business by January 1.
Less than one week after Mure’s arrest, this mysterious, incendiary note was leaked to the New-York Tribune, presumably by William Seward, and with it the Union secretary of state began to whip up a crisis around Her Majesty’s consul in South Carolina.
As usual, communications across the Atlantic moved slowly, but on September 3, Charles Francis Adams, the U.S. minister in Great Britain, was able to deliver the captured diplomatic pouch to Lord Russell along with Seward’s demands that if any portion of the contents should prove treasonable to the United States, it should be turned over to the Americans, and Consul Bunch should promptly be made to feel “the severe displeasure” of his own government. In a separate note to Lord Russell that same day, Adams included an extract of the infamous unsigned letter and flatly demanded that Bunch be relieved of his duties.
When Bunch himself first learned of the mysterious note about his clandestine activities, he could hardly think what to say. He wrote to Lord Lyons in code: “Pray do not believe a word of the intercepted letters respecting my communication to the supposed writer. It is false and the work of a spy. The letter itself is absolute nonsense, as you must have seen. I am anxious to hear from you.”
Lyons, increasingly paternal, wrote back, “I consider your negotiation to have been admirably managed,” and, “I don’t think the contretemps about Mr. Mure will signify.” Lyons told Lord Russell he believed the “affair of Mr. Bunch’s negotiation” would go away, and he thought it was “extremely well managed by Mr. Bunch and M. de Belligny.” But Lyons did not forward Bunch’s request for a promotion and a raise.
IF MURE AND the correspondence he carried had not been intercepted by Seward’s agents, London’s negotiation with the South might have ended there “without any drawback,” as Lyons put it. The Crown’s concerns about its shipping had been addressed. The Confederate delegation in London was still kept at arm’s length. And Seward may have wanted to let the whole issue fade away, as Lyons believed. But Seward’s initial reaction to the Bunch affair made that nearly impossible. In the heat of the moment after the Mure arrest he may really have believed that the diplomatic pouch was full of secret communications from the Confederate government to its agents in Europe. Then the leak to the Tribunehad made the whole matter public and put Seward in a position from which it was very hard to back down. And eventually the passions aroused were such that Seward almost achieved for the Confederacy the recognition that Trescot’s mission did not.
Seward focused the entire controversy on the fate of Robert Bunch, giving the impression that he himself had known nothing about what the British and French were up to with the Confederates. But Seward had known for months, in fact, since just after the recognition of the South’s belligerent status. He had met with Lord Lyons and Count Mercier on May 18, and Mercier had shown him a letter from the French foreign minister that said plainly a communication with the Confederate government about the Declaration of Paris was in the works.
For that matter, as the crisis developed, Seward seemed to ignore completely the role of the French. He said nothing about de Belligny. His entire focus was on Bunch.
In fact, Seward wanted a scapegoat, and almost in the literal sense: he wanted all the sins of Britain laid upon it. And Bunch seemed such an easy target. He was just a consul. If Seward exerted enough pressure, surely London would sacrifice him.