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The Tsar's Navy off the American Shore: What Role did Russia Play in the American Civil War

What role did Russia play in the American Civil War? Russia Beyond.

Photo: Shutterstock

Russian-American relations have not always been as difficult and tense as they are now. During the American Civil War, Russia supported the Union of States primarily because its main geopolitical adversary at the time was Great Britain, which sympathized with the Confederation. In addition, in the first half of the XNUMXth century, relations between the United States and Russia were good, despite the fact that they had very different political systems.

Although the American Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, it is still controversial. The recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where controversy over the demolition of a Confederate war monument sparked a public outcry leading to violence and death on August 13, are just a recent example.

The Civil War was undoubtedly a watershed moment in American history, and Russian leaders, while living far from battle, followed events closely and ended up playing a small but vital role that proved decisive for the North's victory.

Imperial Russia supported the Union

From the very beginning of the war, Russia expressed its full support for the government of Abraham Lincoln, stating that it is the only legitimate authority in the United States.

“Russia primarily wants to preserve the American Union as a single indivisible nation,” Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov wrote in 1862 to Bayard Taylor, secretary of the US Embassy in St. Petersburg.

Among other European countries, only Switzerland supported the Union so strongly. As for the two leading powers of Europe - Great Britain and France - their leaders discussed the possibility of intervention on the side of the Confederation; but later they abandoned this idea and remained neutral.

In the aforementioned letter to Taylor, Gorchakov mentioned that his country had received an offer to join a coalition that would probably support the Confederation but vehemently rejected it.

Photo: Shutterstock

Russian warships in New York and San Francisco

Russia's role in the Civil War was more tangible than just an expression of diplomatic support. In September 1863, a Russian fleet of six warships headed for the east coast of North America and stayed there for seven months. Based in New York, they patrolled the neighborhood. The same happened on the west coast, where a fleet of six warships was based in San Francisco. This helped prevent surprise attacks by southern raiders on these important Union port cities.

Both citizens and the government of the Union warmly welcomed the Russian fleet, and eyewitnesses said that the Americans really wanted to see Russian sailors and officers and invited them for banquets and celebrations.

"Russia sent its fleet into American waters as a sign of sympathy for the Union cause," wrote the American historian James Callahan enthusiastically in 1908. However, historians later learned that the truth was more complex.

Why did the king sympathize with Washington

Russia was not deeply concerned about the internal conflict in America, although Alexander II himself became famous for abolishing serfdom in 1861, just two years before Lincoln abolished slavery. As historian Nikolai Bolkhovitinov noted in his article, Russia had pragmatic reasons for supporting the North.

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The second half of the 1853th century was a difficult time for Russia in international relations. After the defeat in the Crimean War (1856–1863) to the Alliance of Great Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire, a few years later Russia faced another challenge. In XNUMX, an uprising took place in the regions of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which were under Russian rule.

Inspired by the recent military defeat of Russia, the Poles tried to regain their independence, while Britain and France considered the possibility of intervention from Poland. Bolkhovitinov emphasizes that the transfer of part of the Russian Navy to America would help in the event of a war with the European powers. If Russian warships were based in neutral ports, it would be easier for them to attack British and French ships in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. But this was not necessary, because Great Britain and France did not support the Polish uprising, which was suppressed by Russian troops.

Photo: Shutterstock

Different goals, common interests

Research in the state archives of Russia confirms the loyalty of Bolkhovitinov's point of view - Russia supported the United States pragmatically, and not out of loyalty to their ideas. However, this does not disprove the fact that cooperation was critical to the Union's cause.

On the subject: Conspiracy and history revived: five features of the American hinterland

The union could be calm - its coastal waters were in security, which helped the North to win the civil war. It is easy to imagine that without the Russian Navy, the strategic ports of New York and San Francisco could be attacked and seriously damaged, which in turn would deal a serious blow to the Union's military efforts and morale.

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Miscellaneous policy Navy Russia culture Civil War in the USA Russian fleet Union of States support Gorchakov confederates
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