Through a Cold Prism:How Russia's contribution to the Preservation of the Union has been lost. | Print |  E-mail
Tuesday, 11 December 2007
The Editrix put together a research paper on the Russian contribution to the Union during the American Civil War, and asked me to read through it. I learned, I was impressed, I asked if we could host it.

In this document she builds a case for a much larger contribution than is thought in contemporary times, and shows how without entering hostilities Russia may well have kept other belligerents out of the American Civil war.

We're pleased to host it here, and are happy that in addition to editing everyone else's work she gets the opportunity to show her research and writing skills.


Even if deployment of the Russian Atlantic and Pacific fleets to New York and San Francisco was more a politically symbolic gesture than a firm declaration of military solidarity with the Union, Russia still played a much more important role in dissuading England and France from aiding the Confederacy than is commonly acknowledged today. The vital fact is that neither Britain nor France could say with certainty that Czar Alexander II would not send his ships against their merchant vessels if they attempted to shatter the naval blockade that ultimately choked the Confederacy.

At the time of the Civil War, the United States and Russia were natural allies. Despite very different forms of government, the nations were united by similarities in their developmental stages and geographies, troubled slaveholding histories, and longstanding uneasy relationships with Britain and France. Articles from the mid to late 1860s paint a picture of the political reality of the time: Alexander II, while by no means a benevolent ruler by today's standards, did institute reforms. Russia was seen by the Union as representing an important deterrent to the natural inclinations of the other two major European powers�namely, to see the United States splintered, the promise of her abundant natural resources and industrial acumen reduced by infighting until this government of, by, and for the people did, in Abraham Lincoln's words, indeed perish from the earth.

A strong America was a threat to England's global economic and military supremacy and desire to further expand its empire. France under Napoleon III harbored sympathies for the Confederacy that were expressed in a New York Times editorial dated Feb. 19, 1863: "We repeat that we have very little doubt of the recognition of the Southern Confederacy by France within the next two months�to be followed or accompanied by a breaking of the blockade."[i] The Times went on to state that, under the guise of war with Mexico and protection of its puppet government there, France had amassed in the Gulf of Mexico "a naval squadron carrying very nearly as many guns as our whole blockading force."

So when Russia sent nearly its entire fleet of warships to the United States, the Union celebrated the deployment as an admonition to France and England, which also had vessels in U.S. waters, that breaking neutrality by recognizing or aiding the Confederacy by breaking the blockade would be seen as casus belli by Czar Alexander II. Granted, Russia's fleet was no match for the might navies of England and France, but its ships could do significant and costly damage to merchant shipping.

Why, then, do most history books published in the past 50 years mention the alliance symbolized by the Russian squadrons' visit only in passing, if at all, generally spending at most a few sentences dismissing it as nothing more than a calculated move by Alexander to keep his fleet from becoming icebound or bottled up in the Baltic Sea as possible war with England and France loomed over Poland? Could it be that the cooling of the friendship between the United States and Russia after the rise of Communism in 1917 has led to the marginalization of the contribution Alexander made to the Union victory and the preservation of the Union?


"The decks are white as holy stones and sand can make them, the paint work spotless, the brass and other bright work shining."[ii]

In September 1863, New Yorkers rushed to the harbor and thronged the streets of the city. First the 33-gun frigate Oslyabya arrived on Sept. 11. Then, on Sept. 24, the flagship of the Imperial Russian Navy, the 51-gun frigate Alexander Nevsii, described by the Oct. 17, 1863, edition of Harper's Weekly as "lying almost on a line westward from Trinity Church," joined the Oslyabya. With her sister ships, the 48-gun frigate Peresvet, the 17-gun sloops the Vitiaz and the Variag, and the clipper Almaz, the Nevsii must have been quite a welcome sight for Northerners demoralized by McClellan's ineffectiveness and removal, along with Burnside's bloody losses at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and fearful of British and French intentions. While the Russian fleet was at sea things had started to turn for the Union, but when it set out, the implications to France and England were large. At No. 55 Broadway, Tiffany & Co. undraped a "Russian flag of huge dimensions."i In the harbor and on the streets of New York, the banner of Alexander II flew next to the Stars and Stripes, and Russian officers were lavishly entertained. Accounts talk of balls and dinners belied the wartime status of the nation.

On September 16, Mary Todd Lincoln boarded the Oslyabya and exchanged toasts with Russian officers while the ship's band played "Yankee Doodle." It was a public relations coup at a time when the Lincoln administration needed a boost. The New York Sun saluted Russia as "the only European power that has maintained a hearty sympathy with the United States during our present troubles."[iii]

Across the continent in San Francisco, the corvettes[iv] Bogatyr, Kalevala, and Rynda and the clippers Abrek and Gaydamak dropped anchor. The Atlantic and Pacific squadrons remained in U.S. waters until the summer of 1864, making excursions along the coasts; Boston and Provincetown were ports of call.

By the time the fleet returned to Russia, the Union had established naval dominance[v] and the threat of England or France entering the war on the side of the Confederacy had subsided. No shots had been fired by Russia on behalf of the Union, but then again, neither had England or France recognized the Confederacy, nor overtly set out to break the Union blockade. Popular opinion in Europe turned to the side of the Union once word of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation spread. When the North was fighting not for abolition but to maintain union, the liberal masses in Europe had no particular solidarity with the North, while the upper classes in England and France were sympathetic to the Confederacy and to the idea of a splintered United States; few nobles wanted the young Republic to succeed. Moreover, by 1864 a series of Union victories, beginning with Gettysburg and Vicksburg, convinced England and France that the North would likely prevail, ending Jefferson Davis' hopes of diplomatic recognition.


In 1863 Russia was itself embroiled in an uprising. Poland declared its freedom in response to protests by young men who objected to being drafted into the Russian army. The Poles counted on military backing by France, but as with his support of the Confederacy, Napoleon III was all talk, little action, and Alexander brutally suppressed the Polish rebellion.[vi] It seems at first glance that Lincoln and this Czar had little in common, however, those who now claim that the Russia/Union alliance was a cynical, one-sided marriage of convenience rather than an alliance of equals ignore some historical facts and the parallels between the United States and Russia in the mid-1860s: Large undeveloped geographical areas rich in natural resources, fast-growing populations, and leaders who ultimately recognized the untenable nature of owning human beings.

Alexander freed millions of Russian serfs in 1861, presaging Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Unlike Lincoln, he did so without a civil war, and freed serfs were given small allotments of land. While still a Czar and not likely to be seen as embracing republican ideals, Alexander is remembered as a reformer who sympathized with the oppressed to an extent not seen before in Russia.[vii] In a March, 1856 speech, Alexander said, "The existing condition of owning souls cannot remain unchanged. It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until it begins to abolish itself from below."[viii]

He also perceived that Russia needed to emulate the American model of industrialization if it hoped to modernize enough to provide a counterweight to British influence in Europe. To this end Alexander instituted educational and financial reforms, and he looked to America for a guide. Said Lincoln in 1859: "Russia has called on us to show her how to build steam-boats and railroads."[ix] Russia's intellectual elite had had long admired the experiments of Benjamin Franklin, who was elected the first member of the Russian Academy of Science.[x]


To accept that Russia dissuaded England and France from aiding the Confederacy, we must establish that these powers seriously intended to help the South. A strong case can be made to that effect.

Britain clearly had a national interest in seeing the rising power of the United States diminished. While the War of 1812 was primarily fought for freedom of the seas, a contributing factor was British military support for Native American tribes, provided to further England's desire to stop the United States' westward expansion.

Again in the 1860s, England's leaders made moves toward an advantageous military position. Notably, in the wake of the Trent Affair, Britain put the Royal Navy on alert, and 11,000 troops set sail for Canada.[xi] In 1861 and 1862, British shipyards were in the process of constructing two Confederate commerce destroyers, the C.S.S. Florida and C.S.S. Alabama, despite U.S. Minister Charles Francis Adams' vehement objections to this breach of neutrality.[xii] Many British seamen signed on to man blockade runners because of the round-trip pay: $5,000 in gold for captains and $250 for crewmen.[xiii] England was no stranger to war at sea, and breaking the Union blockade to reopen the flow of cotton to its mills would have been a welcome action to the country's powerful merchant class.

In his 1958 book, The Great Democracies, Winston Churchill discusses Britain's view of the United States in the Civil War period. England feared that the land-hungry young nation would extend the concept of Manifest Destiny through Canada.[xiv] The British government watched with interest "Lee's spirited and resolute operations" and considered joining with France to request mediation. If the Union refused, Churchill maintains that recognition of the confederacy would have followed.[xv] In the spring of 1863, Britain's shipbuilding industry was busily constructing the Laird rams, vessels that could have tilted the balance of the naval war; of course, this was despite vehement protests by the Union. While the Laird rams were never released to the Confederacy, the copious amount of spying that went on among the major powers suggests Russia may have known of their existence.

As for France, Napoleon III had 35,000 troops in Mexico by June 1863. The French had installed an illegitimate Mexican government under Archduke Maximilian and dallied with a plan to recognize the Confederacy, if the Confederacy would in return recognize the French-controlled puppet regime.[xvi] This scheme, of course, ended quite badly for Maximilian. Still, only the refusal of Russia stopped Britain and France from proposing a suspension of the naval blockade at the end of 1862.[xvii] Had Lincoln refused to suspend the blockade, it's altogether possible that an attempt would have been made to end it by force. This would at the very least prolonged the war.

There was certainly an element of self-interest to Russia's gesture, but that does not diminish the psychological and tactical importance of the naval deployment. In fact, the timing of the Russian ships' 1863 arrival came on the heels of victories by the Confederacy. Fredericksburg saw 12,600 Union dead in November 1862. Stones River, though promoted as a Union victory, was effectively a draw. Tactically significant Vicksburg remained in Confederate hands despite a costly campaign, and Lincoln was under public pressure to relieve General Ulysses S. Grant. By May 10 the Army of the Potomac had lost an additional 17,000 men in four days at Chancellorsville. In July of 1863 there were riots in New York City as mobs of Irish Catholics protested the draft and the concept of emancipation; the peace Democrats' strength peaked in the spring of 1863.[xviii]

Of course, Russia's influence on the war was never realized by overt action against the Confederacy. In fact, actual naval intervention was hardly required in the absence of outright hostility by England and France. By 1863, the Union Navy's success was one of the few encouraging factors for a Northern public that was growing accustomed to bloody defeats and a discouraging reluctance by McClellan (and later Burnsides) to put the Army of the Potomac to the test. The Union Navy effectively controlled the Mississippi River, and its blockades were beginning to choke the Confederacy, just as Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott predicted in his much maligned "Anaconda Plan."

In San Francisco, the presence of Russian ships may have dissuaded Confederate vessels from attacking the large shipments of gold that frequently left California.

Still, when Alexander dispatched his squadrons, the outcome of the war was still very much in question. The arrival of the Russian ships gave a desperately needed boost to Northern morale and was by all accounts of the period a public relations prize for Lincoln's administration.


The groundwork for the Russian fleet's deployment had been laid several years before. In 1861 Lincoln named abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay U.S. ambassador to Russia. Clay distrusted England and advised Lincoln that, to Britain and France, having the Union dissolved was a politically desirable outcome because it would fragment the strength of the growing North American continent. After the war, Clay summarized his mission, saying the U.S. and Russia were "bound together by a common sympathy in the cause of emancipation. I did more than any man to overthrow slavery. I carried Russia with us and thus prevented what would have been a strong alliance of France, England, and Spain against us, and thus saved the nation."[xix] Clay, who was never accused of excessive modesty, may have overestimated his influence, but throughout his life he firmly maintained that Russia was fully prepared to enter the war on the side of the Union.

Alexander also saw an alliance with the United States as beneficial in that, if it stepped in to dissuade England and France from recognizing the Confederacy, perhaps America would return the favor if his country were threatened. Russia had cause to fear that Britain had designs on its sovereignty. In April 1854, T.H Seymour, U.S. minister to Russia from 1853 to 1858, wrote to then Secretary of State William Marcy saying "the danger is that the Western powers of Europe ... after they have humbled the Czar, will domineer the rest of Europe, and thus have the leisure to turn their attention to American affairs."[xx]

In further demonstration of the military partnership between the Union and Russia, several Russians fought on the side of the North in the Civil War, and General McClellan had traveled to Russia to study the tactics used in the Crimean War. Perhaps the most famous Russian in Lincoln's army was John Basil Turchin, a skilled soldier and commander who rose to the rank of brigadier general. Turchin was born Ivan Vasilevich Turchaninoff and had been a colonel in the Russian army; he saw action in the Crimean. [xxi]


Harper's Weekly in 1863 published a much-cited editorial that discussed the issue of whether Russia would be willing to fight for the Union:

"Americans do not suppose that Russia is on the point of becoming a Republic, but they observe that the English aristocracy and the French Empire hate a republic quite as much as the Russian monarchy hates it; and they remark that while the French Empire imports coolies into its colonies, and winks at slavery, and while the British government cheers a political enterprise founded upon slavery, and by its chief organs defends the system, Russia emancipates her serfs. There is not the least harm in observing these little facts. Russia, John Bull will remember, conducts herself as a friendly power. That is all. England and France have shown themselves to be unfriendly powers. And we do not forget it."[xxii]

The friendship continued after the Civil War, as Russia adopted superior U.S. shipbuilding technologies. The Czar also sought out other American advances. In his Dec. 1863 address to Congress, Lincoln stated that "arrangements have been made with the Emperor of Russia to lay a continuous line of telegraph through that empire from our Pacific coast." [xxiii]

In 1867 Russia sold the Alaskan territory to the United States for $7.2 million, and in 1872 the Grand Duke Alexis, son of Alexander, visited the United States. He reportedly went buffalo hunting in Nebraska with General George Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody. Later, in 1878, Ulysses S. Grant, now a former president, toured Russia. [xxiv]

In his 1899 State of the Union Address, President McKinley made reference to the United States' continued interest in establishing trade with Russia, saying: "A suggestion for a permanent exposition of our products and manufactures in Russia, although not yet fully shaped, has been so cordially welcomed by the Imperial Government that it may not inaptly take a fitting place in whatever legislation the Congress may adopt looking to enlargement of our commercial opportunities abroad." [xxv]

By 1911, the United States had become Russia's largest trading partner�but the seeds of later discontent had been sown as well.

In fact, the United States' relations with Russia began to sour in the 1890s and early 1900s, coinciding with the rise of anti-Semitism as Alexander III rejected many of the reforms his father had put in place. Russia penalized visiting American citizens of some religious affiliations, most of them Jews but also Catholics and Lutherans, leading both the Democratic and Republican parties to condemn Russia's anti-Semitic policies in their 1892 platforms. [xxvi] Under Alexander III's government, protective tariffs were imposed, and his son, Tsar Nicholas II, who took the throne in 1894, moved Russia yet further away from the republican ideals of the United States.[xxvii]

The founding of the Russian Social Democratic Worker's Party in 1898, large-scale Jewish pogroms in 1905, and finally the February Revolution of 1917 all signaled the decline of the friendship between the United States and Russia. The final blow was the rise of Stalin and the commencement of the Cold War.

Who can say how much different the world would have been had the Russian Revolution not violently installed a socialist state in 1917. It's likely that history would have treated Russia's early friendship with the Union more kindly had the course of history run differently, had Alexander III continued the reforms begun by his father and moved to a constitutional or parliamentary monarchy rather than mismanaging his country into the throes of Communism.

As it is, we're left with the words of an unknown Russian diplomat: "The American nation may count upon the most cordial sympathy on the part of our August Master during the important crisis which it is passing through."[xxviii]

Would sympathy have translated to cannonballs? It's fortunate that the Union never had to find out, but it's unfortunate that today's casual scholars of Civil War history don't know that Russia stood by the legitimate government of the United States at a time when England and France did not.

Discuss this article on the forums: Here.

12 DEC 07: Modified sections to reflect Scott Washburn's observations on the forums. In particular, Grand Duke Alexis visited in 1872, not 1877, and McClellan was not commander of the Army at the time the Russian fleet arrived - he was replaced by Burnsides in late 1862.

[i] New York Times editorial titled Prospects of Foreign War Our Relations With France; Wed., Feb. 19, 1863

[ii] Editors, Harper's Weekly, (Volume VII No. 355, Oct. 17, 1863), Pages 661, 662

[iii] Czech, Kenneth P., The Russians are Coming, (Article Source: America's Civil War; Sep96, Vol. 9 Issue 4, p38)

[iv] Small warships with a single row of guns

[v] Chaitin, Peter, The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1984), 142

[vi] Hingley, Ronald; The Tsars 1533-1917 (New York: Macmillan, 1968), 276

[vii] Hingley, The Tsars 1533-1917, 260

[viii] Hingley,, The Tsars 1533-1917, 262

[ix] Lincoln, Abraham; Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 3, 1809-1865. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 363

[x] Roucek Joseph S., Education in Czarist Russia (History of Education Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2., Winter, 1958, 41

[xi] Simmons, Gerald and Woodhead, Henry, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1983), 118

[xii] Simmons, Woodhead, Runners and Raiders, 122

[xiii] Kirchberger, Joe H. The War at Sea and the Foreign Powers The Civil War and Reconstruction, An Eyewitness History. (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1991). American History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE52&iPin=EHCWREssay06&SingleRecord=True (accessed November 3, 2007).

[xiv] Churchill, Winston; The Great Democracies. (New York, N.Y.: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1958), 103

[xv] Churchill, The Great Democracies, 215

[xvi] McPherson, James; Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. (New York, N.Y.: McGraw Hill Higher Education), 371

[xvii] McPherson, James; Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. (New York, N.Y.: McGraw Hill Higher Education), 326

[xviii] McPherson, James; Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. (New York, N.Y.: McGraw Hill Higher Education), 389

[xix] Turkel, Stanley; Heroes of the American Reconstruction. (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2004), 49.

[xx] Protopopov, Michael; A Russian Presence: A History of the Russian Church in Australia. (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2006), p. 4

[xxi] Parry, Albert; John B. Turchin: Russian General in the American Civil War (Russian Review, 1942).p. 47

[xxii] Kushner, Howard: The Russian Fleet and the American Civil War: Another View (The Historian Volume 34, Issue 4), p. 633.

[xxiii] Lincoln, Abraham; Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 7, 1809-1865. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), p. 363

[xxiv] U.S Department of State; United States Relations with Russia: Establishment of Relations to World War Two;

[xxv] "Annual Message to Congress, 1899." American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. ItemID=WE52&iPin=E13832&SingleRecord=True (accessed November 3, 2007).

[xxvi] Healy, Ann, Tsarist Anti-Semitism and Russian-American Relations (Slavic Review, 1983) p. 410

[xxvii] Freeze, Gregory; Russia: A History (Oxford & New York, Oxford University Press, 1997) p. 205

[xxviii] Czech, Kenneth; The Russians are coming! America's Civil War (Wheeling, Illinois, Harlan Davidson, 1996) Vol. 9 Issue 4, p. 38

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