How The Russian Navy Saved The Union In The Civil War

By Larry Jimenez on Sunday, February 1, 2015
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In A Nutshell

A little-known alliance between the US and Tsarist Russia led to the Russian fleet showing up in force in New York and San Francisco. It arrived at a crucial time in 1863 when Britain and France were on the verge of intervening in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. An actual world war was on the horizon that would “wrap the world in flames” as Secretary of State William Seward put it. The mighty Russian presence deterred the Anglo-French from invading, and the Union was saved.

The Whole Bushel

In the summer of 1863, the year of the battles at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, came the latest crisis to plague the relationship between the US and Britain during the American Civil War. Two powerful ironclads called the Laird rams, intended for the Confederacy and capable of breaking the Union blockade of the Southern ports, were under construction in Britain. US ambassador Charles Francis Adams warned British Foreign Secretary Lord Russell that if the warships were ever delivered to the rebels, “It would be superfluous in me to point out to your Lordship that this is war.”

The tangled diplomacy between the US and Britain had one major war scare before. In late 1861–62, two Confederate envoys, Mason and Slidell, were taken off the British ship Trent by the US Navy as they were on their way to London and Paris to seek European intervention. War hysteria gripped Britain, and Prime Minister Lord Palmerston ordered troop deployment to Canada in anticipation of conflict. In any case, the British strategy hinged on their overwhelming naval force. Provoking the secession of Maine was also discussed, as well as plans to bombard and burn Boston and New York. The latter was considered by the Admiralty “the true heart of US commerce . . . to strike her would be to paralyze all the limbs.” Tensions were eased, but not eliminated, when Mason and Slidell were released.

The private secretary to Ambassador Adams, his son Henry, had the impression that Lord Russell was determined to break up the Union. The British ruling class actually sympathized with the North’s intention of freeing the slaves. But President Abraham Lincoln initially shelved that idea to keep the border states in the Union. He thus lost support of the aristocracy. All the while, Britain felt that a divided US was in the British interest, making her North American possessions more secure. She was officially neutral, but it was a neutrality that masked an unmistakable hostility.

In October 1862, an ultimatum was issued to North and South to end the war or face “more resolute action” from the British. Whether that meant military action is unclear, but the implication was the ultimate survival of the Confederacy as a sovereign nation. France, meanwhile, was mirroring Britain’s hostile neutrality. Napoleon III had designs on Mexico, and a weak US would give her a free hand in America.

Union morale was therefore at its lowest ebb in 1863, despite the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. In the midst of the Laird rams crisis, rescue came from an unlikely source—Tsarist Russia.

At this time, Russia was also facing its own insurrection from her subject Poles, who were supported by Britain and France. Facing the same hostile coalition brought the governments of Lincoln and Tsar Alexander II together. Alexander had also freed the Russian serfs and thus sympathized with the Union cause. On September 1863, the Russian Baltic Fleet arrived in New York and the Far East Fleet in San Francisco.

The real reason Russia sent her fleet to the US might be self-serving: She didn’t want it bottled up in case the threatened war with Britain over Poland erupted. But its presence was nonetheless salvation for the Union in its hour of desperation. “God bless the Russians!” exulted Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. After the war, Oliver Wendell Holmes hailed Alexander “who was our friend when the world was our foe.” The Russians showed themselves willing to fight for the US. When the Confederate cruiser Shenandoah prepared to attack San Francisco, the Russian admiral gave orders to defend the city in the absence of Union warships.

The British realized that with Russia on the US side, the cost of military intervention would be too high. Besides, the Union victories of 1863 signaled that the Confederacy was a losing cause. Had the British attacked, it might have meant a world war in which the US and Russia, allied perhaps with Prussia and Italy, would face Britain and France supported by Spain or Austria. The First World War exploding in the 1860s was a distinct possibility.

Fortunately, Britain and France backed down before the Russian presence. The Laird rams never made it into Confederate hands, and the Union was saved.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: Punch, 1863
“U.S. Civil War: The US-Russian Alliance that Saved the Union,” by Webster G. Tarpley
“The Bilateral Effect of the Visit of the Russian Fleet in 1863,” by Tom Delahaye
“The US/Russian Alliance during the Civil War,” by Craig L. Barry
The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War, by Thomas R. Flagel