Russia’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War

Not many people are aware of the fact that the Russians came to the aid of Abraham Lincoln and the Union during the Civil War.

The year was 1863 and as the Confederacy fought fiercely against the Union, the fate of the United States hung in the balance. Foreign powers were watching with keen interest. Among them, France, who harbored ambitions beyond its European borders. The American continent beckoned, and French involvement could have had a major impact – It could change the outcome of the war.

Britain and France, both major players on the international stage, were teetering on the brink of intervention in the war. Their sympathies leaned toward the Confederacy, threatening to tip the scales against the Union.

In a diplomatic exchange that reverberated across continents, the Russian czar issued a stern ultimatum to France: 
“Stay out of the USA or face the wrath of Russian forces on your own soil.”

Crewmen of the Russian frigate Osliabia pose for the camera 

The world watched as the Russian Navy’s Baltic and Pacific fleets made an unprecedented appearance in American ports. New York and San Francisco welcomed these formidable vessels.

  1. New York (Atlantic Squadron):
    • Arrived in New York in September 1863. It included the following ships:
      • Alexander Nevskii: A Russian frigate.
      • Peresviet: Another Russian frigate.
      • Osliabia: A 33-gun frigate that unexpectedly entered the port of New York.
      • Gaidamack: A Russian steamer that also docked in New York.
  1. San Francisco (Pacific Squadron):
    • Arrived in San Francisco around the same time. It was commanded by Rear Admiral Popoff and consisted of the following ships:
      • Rynda: A corvette.
      • Kalevala: A corvette.
      • Bogatyr: A corvette.
      • Novyk: A corvette.
      • Abrek: A clipper.

The czar’s navy arrived just in time to dissuade foreign aggression. Secretary of State William Seward acknowledged the gravity of the situation, noting that the Russian fleet prevented a potential world war.

The British were ready to offer the Confederacy Ironclad ships, known as Laird rams that were under construction in Britain. Their delivery could have shattered the Union blockade of Southern ports, altering the course of history.

“The Grand Procession of our Russian Visitors Through Broadway, Under Escort of the Militia and the Police.” Harper’s Weekly, October 17, 1863. This is at Broadway and East 10th Street; note the distinctive Grace Church at top left.

It was not just the military, and members of the Lincoln administration, who were thrilled by the visit of the Russian fleet. New York City’s mercantile and social elites rejoiced at the visit of these exotic sailors.

Soon after the arrival of the Russian fleet, a banquet was held in its honor at the Astor House, hosted by business leaders. And a society ball soon took place at the Academy of Music on 14th Street in Manhattan.

Sailors from the Russian Ship Varyag, on their visit to New York City.
Civil war photographs, 1861-1865, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Even before the Civil War, during the American Revolution, the British asked Catherine the Great to send 20,000 Cossacks to help put down the rebellion in their colonies and she refused.

Many American Civil War veterans recognized the debt owed to Russia.

Many boldly asserted that “without Russia, the Union could not have won the war.”

3 thoughts on “Russia’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War

  1. The Democrats hatred toward the Russians has been ongoing for many years!!!

  2. A well-researched piece! The facts presented are eye-opening. It’s crucial to spread awareness on this issue, and you’re doing a commendable job.

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