History, Politics, Truth

Russian intervention in U.S. Civil War (1861-1865)[1]

U.S. Civil War has become a popular topic of late, but as it turns out, what nearly everyone thinks they know about hat event is wrong, in part – and this part is very significant. My high school and university history classes left me with the impression that the war was fought over the issue of slavery: the “North” (good guys) was against slavery and wanted it abolished; the “South” (bad guys) wanted to keep the slaves, so they all went to war. Good guys won, bad guys lost, slaves got their freedom, and the world was made a better place. That, in a nutshell, is what I thought I knew about the Civil War. I’m not sure why I had that idea so, to make sure I wasn’t mistaken I conducted an informal survey among my American friends and acquaintances, all university educated people, some of them with advanced degrees. I asked about a dozen of them what they thought U.S. Civil War was about. To a person, all of them unhesitatingly answered that it was about the abolition of slavery. Furthermore, none of them were aware that Russia played any role at all in the Civil War. It struck me that maybe my friends and I all had the same basic idea about that event because we were meant to have that idea, which is now pretty much part of the popular culture. However, the popular interpretation omits some critical aspects of history.

While slavery was one of Civil War’s pivotal issues, the notion that the war was fought over slavery alone is simply wrong. The main issue on the opposing sides’ agendas was the secession of the southern Confederation vs. the preservation of the Union. The issue of slavery was a distant second on President Lincoln’s agenda and he showed no intention to force the southern states to free their slaves. In his inaugural address he said: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it now exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Lincoln did not change his position even well into the war. In his August 22, 1862 letter to Horace Greely, he wrote, “My paramount objective is to save the union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the union without freeing any slave, I would do it.[2]

Far from being a domestic affair about the human rights of the slaves, Civil War was a momentous geopolitical event with massive international implications. In his 1960 book “War for the Union,” historian Allan Nevins wrote that, “It is hardly too much to say that the future of the world as we know it was at stake. … Anglo-French intervention in the American conflict would probably have confirmed the splitting and consequent weakening of the United States; might have given French power in Mexico a long lease, with the ruin of the Monroe Doctrine; and would perhaps have led to the Northern conquest of Canada. … The popular conception of this contest is at some points erroneous, and at a few grossly fallacious…[3]

Behind the veil of overt neutrality, British and French governments both worked to bring about the breakup of the Union, covertly siding with the Confederation. A powerful faction in the British cabinet, which included the Prime Minster Lord Palmerston, Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone, and Foreign Minister Lord John Russell, strongly advocated British intervention on the side of the Confederation. However, for a variety of reasons, Britain had to be extremely cautious about taking any strong actions. For one thing, Britain was dependent on the U.S. and Russia for over 50% of all of her wheat imports. Any serious interruption to that trade risked bringing about famine and a social uprising at home. Another recurrent British worry was the risk that their troops might defect to the American side. After years of fighting multiple wars on three continents, the Empire already suffered a growing intervention fatigue. As a result, much of the British public and even Palmerston’s War Minister George Lewis opposed the prospect of yet another military adventure.[4] While extensive plans were made for the Royal Navy to bomb and burn the cities of New York and Boston, help the Confederation break the Union’s naval blockade, and even to foment a secession of Maine, war hawks in the British government needed a good pretext to overcome the dovish faction’s opposition to war.

Lincoln&AlexanderII_AllianceIn1860s

U.S. – Russian alliance as illustrated in the British magazine, “Punch.” Note that President Lincoln is portrayed as a troglodyte.

On October 23, 1862, Foreign Minister Lord Russell convened a cabinet meeting to discuss his plan of intervention between the Union and the Confederacy. France’s Napoleon III offered his own support in carrying out this plan and even invited Russia’s Czar Alexander II into the alliance. The idea was to pose an ultimatum to the warring sides to agree to an armistice, followed by a lifting of the Union’s blockade of Confederacy’s ports. The objective of Britain and France was to organize negotiations during which they would pressure Washington to accept Confederacy’s secession and recognize its status as an independent nation. Washington’s refusal would give Britain and France the needed justification to recognize the Confederacy’s independence and provide it with military assistance against the North.

On 29th October 1862, only six days after the British cabinet meeting, Russian Foreign Minister, Prince Gorchakov received Washington’s envoy Bayard Taylor in a very cordial meeting. Gorchakov informed Taylor that France and Britain asked Russia to back their armistice ultimatum, assured him that Russia would not support their plan and that Washington could rely upon Russia’s commitment. In the following days, “Journal de St. Petersbourg,” the official publication of Czar’s government, published Russia’s official position on the issue, denouncing the French-British plan against the U.S. In effect, Russia formally sided with Abraham Lincoln’s government, opposing the British, French and the Vatican which also supported the Confederacy.

Meanwhile, on the American continent things were not going too well for Washington. In spite successful battlefield campaigns at Antietam and Gettysburg, the Confederacy proved very resilient and scored a major reverse against the Union at Chickamauga. By autumn of 1863 the Union had grown exhausted from warfare. Facing the widely expected French-British military intervention and persisting reports that the British were about to deliver critical armaments for the Confederacy to break the naval blockade, an ominous mood overcame the Union and the morale sank to its low point.

At that juncture precisely, on September 24, 1863 Russian Imperial fleet arrived to New York while another contingent sailed to San Francisco. The fleet remained anchored at these two key port cities for over six months, through April 1864. On the 26th September 1863, the New York Times jubilantly wrote: “The presence of a Russian fleet in the harbor of New York is welcomed by all persons with the greatest pleasure. Five splendid men-of-war, fully manned and in perfect trim, are now lying at anchor in the North River, in full view of our noble harbor…[5] Russian Admirals had been instructed that, should the U.S. and Russia find themselves at war against Britain or France, Russian fleet was to submit to President Lincoln’s command to operate together with the U.S. Navy against their common enemies. This move by Czar Alexander II was the clearest possible signal to the British and the French to desist in their plans to intervene militarily in the American war.

God bless the Russians

A number of historians judged Russia’s role in the preservation of the United States as decisive. Webster Tarpley stated that, “During the American Civil War, the Russian attitude was the most powerful outside factor deterring Anglo-French interference.[6] American historian and Lincoln biographer Benjamin P. Thomas wrote that, “in the first two years of the war, when its outcome was still highly uncertain, the attitude of Russia was a potent factor in preventing Great Britain and France from adopting a policy of aggressive intervention.[7] In his 1992 book “Union in Peril,” American historian Howard Jones wrote that, “Russia’s pro-Union sentiment prevented participation in any policy alien to the Lincoln Administration’s wishes.Philip Van Doren-Stern pointed out that, “The Russian visit … ended the last chance of European intervention. And it was now practically impossible for the South to be recognized as an independent nation…[8]

The arrival of the Russian fleet to New York and San Francisco “unleashed an immense wave of euphoria in the North.” [9] Shortly after their arrival, Russian sailors and officers were led in a parade down Broadway under American and Russian flags, cheered by thousands of New Yorkers. On November 5, a ball in the honor of the Russian guests was organized in New York at the Academy of Music. A Harper’s Weekly reporter wrote that, “the Russian guests from the fleet were worn out by the expressions of friendship and affection extended to them.[10] In a very overt display of appreciation for the Russian fleet’s arrival, President Lincoln sent his wife to visit with the Russians in New York where she drank a toast to the Czar. The New York Herald pointed out that, “Mrs. Lincoln knew what she was doing,” as her action would generate, “a hearty response throughout the country.[11] The New York Sun wrote that Russia was, “the only European power that has maintained a hearty sympathy with the United States during our present troubles.[12]

Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote in his journal, “In sending them [the fleet] to this country there is something significant. What will be its effect on France and the French policy we shall learn in due time. It may be moderate; it may exasperate. God bless the Russians.Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of America’s most popular authors at that time, wrote in 1871 the following tribute to Russia, referring to the Civil War episode: “Thrilling and warm are the hearts that remember; Who was our friend when the world was our foe.

But beyond the euphoria of the moment, Russian intervention of 1863 had long-lasting impact, further reinforcing the friendship between the two nations. Historian E.D. Adams spoke of the “special relationship,” and even “extreme friendship” between the U.S. and Russia, noting that in the North, Russia was widely regarded as a “true friend” in contrast to the resentment felt toward London and Paris and their “unfriendly neutrality.” Another historian, Thomas Bailey wrote that the “curious and incongruous friendship,” between the U.S. and Russia had become “an indestructible part of our folklore.

It is utterly fascinating to consider how and why Russian-American alliance became airbrushed from history while the Civil War itself became reduced to a fight to the death over freedom of the slaves (as at the very same time native Americans were being wiped out in their millions). As it happens, thanks to the Reece Committee special investigation (1953), we now have a fairly good understanding of precisely how and why this happened.

The above is an excerpt from my recent book, The Killing of William Browder: Deconstructing Bill Browder’s Dangerous Deception which is available on Amazon.com (Kindle version is free through Friday, 25th August 2017)

BookCover_KillingOfWilliamBrowder

 

 

Notes:

[1] For my grossly condensed summary of this important historical event I am indebted to Dr. Webster Tarpley who, in addition to bringing this episode to public attention, also provides a thorough and invaluable review of numerous other historians’ works on this subject.

[2] (S. Jones 2017)

[3] (Tarpley, U.S. Civil War: The US-Russian Alliance that Saved the Union 2011)

[4] Idem

[5] (New York Times 1863)

[6] (Tarpley, U.S. Civil War: The US-Russian Alliance that Saved the Union 2011)

[7] Idem

[8] Idem

[9] (Tarpley, U.S. Civil War: The US-Russian Alliance that Saved the Union 2011)

[10] (Delahaye 1983-1984)

[11] Idem

[12] Idem

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One thought on “Russian intervention in U.S. Civil War (1861-1865)[1]

  1. Pingback: Charlottesville Theatrical & the #45 « arnielerma

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