“…Who was our friend when the world was our foe?”
Never question Russian resolve. If you’re ever in a fight you’d better hope you’ve got them on your side.
The Imperial Russian fleet in New York harbor, October 1863, Harper’s Weekly
In 1863 the United States was being torn apart by a great Civil War. It would take more American life than any other war before or since; more would die in the Civil War than in the First and Second World Wars combined.
With the issue still in the balance, Britain and France conspired (as great powers do) for political advantage. In their perception, a divided America would strengthen Anglo-French power. But a unified America might one day wield greater power than all of Europe combined. Before the future was taken by the upstart young nation, they would seize the moment and destroy a potential rival.
Paris and London plotted intervention on the side of the Confederacy. They claimed to be moved by purely “humanitarian” motives. Enough blood has been shed, they declared; the wiser, older European powers, masters of civilization, would put an end to the barbaric bloodletting. In fact, claimed motives were cynical and false. Great nations do not go to war out of charitable instinct.
They saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. France could recover territories lost in the Louisiana Purchase. England knew that, without access to the port of New Orleans, the North could not long survive economically. A bankrupt Union might even reverse the outcome of the American Revolution, and England would (at the very least) enlist a new ally in the Confederacy. Both England and France tried to enlist the Russian Empire in their ploy. The Russian reply was unexpected and immediate.
The Czar rejected Anglo-French overtures. A capable and intelligent man, he did not trust the British any more than he did the French. Countering their cynical scheme, Czar Alexander mobilized the formidable Russian Navy. In America’s weakest moment, it came to her aid:
On September 24, 1863, the Russian Baltic fleet began to arrive in New York harbor. On October 12, the Russian Far East fleet began to arrive in San Francisco. …The Russian admirals had been told that, if the US and Russia were to find themselves at war with Britain and France, the Russian ships should place themselves under Lincoln’s command and operate in synergy with the US Navy against the common enemies.
Coming on the heels of the bloody Union reverse at Chickamauga, news of the Russian fleet unleashed an immense wave of euphoria in the North. It was this moment that inspired the verses of Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of the most popular writers in America, for the 1871 friendship visit of the Russian Grand Duke Alexis:
“Bleak are our shores with the blasts of December,
Fettered and chill is the rivulet’s flow;
Thrilling and warm are the hearts that remember,
Who was our friend when the world was our foe.
Fires of the North in eternal communion,
Blend your broad flashes with evening’s bright star;
God bless the Empire that loves the Great Union;
Strength to her people! Long life to the Czar!”
The Russian Brig Merkury in battle (Tkachenko, Mikhail Stepanovich)
When an attack on San Francisco by the Confederate cruiser Shenandoah appeared imminent, the Russian admiral ordered his ships to defend the city, by any means necessary. With no Union warships on the scene, Russia was ready to fight for the vulnerable United States.
Could a divided United States of America have successfully fought the British, and the French, and the Confederacy, and won? It seems unlikely. But for our Russian friends we might not be here to ask the question. Luckily, Lincoln never had to find out. As Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles put it: “…God bless the Russians.”
Kenneth Bourne’s Britain and the Balance of Power in North America, 1815-1908
Jones (The Union in Peril; The Crisis Over British Intervention in the Civil War)
(Not everyone agrees with the foregoing—here is an example–what do you think?
This is one of those questions that people are having difficulty taking seriously, but it is actually another one of those strange corners of history that it may be worth shining a little light on.
The OP is talking about the arrival, in September 1863, of a Russian squadron of six warships in New York. At the same time another six Russian warships arrived in San Francisco.
The New York squadron, commanded by Real Admiral Lessofsky, consisted of the frigates Alexander Nevsky, Peresvet, and Osliaba, the corvettes Variag and Vitiaz and the clipper Almaz.
The San Francisco squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Popoff, consisted of the corvettes Rynda, Kalevala, Bogatyr, and Novyk, and the clippers Abrek and Gaydamak.
These squadrons patrolled off the US coast for seven months and may, or may not, have had some effect in protecting these ports, and their shipping, from Southern raids.
Crew of the frigate Osliaba in Alexandria, Virginia, 1863
At the time, the Czar, Alexander II, expressed his support for the North, possibly through fellow feeling (after all, he had emancipated the serfs in 1861) but more likely because after losing the Crimean War (1853-1856) to the alliance of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire, he was concerned about Russia’s relative isolation in the international community.
At the time, Russia was facing a rebellion in Poland and Lithuania, the January Uprising. The signing of the Alvensleben Convention between Russia and Prussia in February 1863, risked dragging Britain and France into the conflict but, in the event, this did not happen and the Russians dealt with insurrection with extreme brutality.
Russian warships in New York harbour, 1863
However, at the time, the Russian thinking was probably more to the effect that by sending elements of their fleet to the USA they couldn’t be trapped in Kronstadt in the case of a war breaking out in Europe and they might have had some use as commerce raiders. This was certainly the opinion of Frank A. Golder, the American (born in the Ukraine) historian and Russia expert.
However, the assertion in the question that the Russian fleet was dispatched to the USA in order to deter the British from becoming involved in the American Civil War is far from the mark – although it might have had some currency in US newspapers at the time – as is the assertion that the Royal Navy was in any way afraid of these squadrons – or the Russian Navy as a whole.
These squadrons were composed of minor warships and the disparity, in both force and quality, was so great that they would never have been more than a trivial speed-bump had the British or French actually decided to intervene in the American Civil War.