The Russo-Union Alliance: A Marriage of Convenience

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it, “all men are created equal except negroes.” When the Know-nothings get control, it will read, “all men are created equal except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.” When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty–to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN, letter to Joshua F. Speed, Aug. 24, 1855

SHADOWED so long by the storm-cloud of danger,

Thou whom the prayers of an empire defend,

 Welcome, thrice welcome! but not as a stranger,

 Come to the nation that calls thee its friend!

Bleak are our shores with the blasts of December,

 Fettered and chill is the rivulet’s flow;

Throbbing and warm are the hearts that remember

 Who was our friend when the world was our foe.

Look on the lips that are smiling to greet thee,

 See the fresh flowers that a people has strewn

 Count them thy sisters and brothers that meet thee;

 Guest of the Nation, her heart is thine own!

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!

So Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1871 in honor of the visit of Grand Duke Alexei, fourth son of Tsar Alexander II, as a good will ambassador to the US.  He encountered in the Northern states a vast reservoir of good will towards Russia for its steadfast support of the Union during the Civil War.  Russia and Great Britain were enmeshed in the cold war known as the Great Game for control of Central Asia.  The Russians viewed the United States as a power traditionally hostile to Great Britain and viewed the Civil War with alarm as a possible diminution of the power of the United States, along with a potential Anglo-Confederate alliance if the South achieved independence.  From the beginning the Russian government publicly proclaimed its support for the Union and its opposition to any attempt by other powers to intervene in the conflict.

Lincoln at the outset of the War told the Russian ambassador to the US:

“Please inform the Emperor of our gratitude and assure His Majesty that the whole nation appreciates this new manifestation of friendship. Of all the communications we have received from the European governments, this is the most loyal.”

On September 24, 1863 Russian naval squadrons arrived at San Francisco and New York on good will missions to the US.  The reception the fleets received was joyous and tumultuous throughout the North.

Tsar Alexander II in 1879 recalled this demonstration of Russian support for the Union:

“In the Autumn of 1862, the governments of France and Great Britain proposed to Russia, in a formal but not in an official way, the joint recognition by European powers of the independence of the Confederate States of America. My immediate answer was: `I will not cooperate in such action; and I will not acquiesce. On the contrary, I shall accept the recognition of the independence of the Confederate States by France and Great Britain as a casus belli for Russia. And in order that the governments of France and Great Britain may understand that this is no idle threat; I will send a Pacific fleet to San Francisco and an Atlantic fleet to New York. “Sealed orders to both Admirals were given. My fleets arrived at the American ports, there was no recognition of the Confederate States by Great Britain and France. The American rebellion was put down, and the great American Republic continues.

“All this I did because of love for my own dear Russia, rather than for love of the American Republic. I acted thus because I understood that Russia would have a more serious task to perform if the American Republic, with advanced industrial development were broken up and Great Britain should be left in control of most branches of modern industrial development.”

 The Russian naval squadrons remained in the US for seven months, only departing after the threat of foreign intervention in the Civil War had diminished.  During their stay the Russian naval officers were celebrated at a reception at the White House on December 19, 1863.  Lincoln was ill and could not attend.  His place was ably taken by Mrs. Lincoln who proposed toasts to the Tsar and the Emancipation of the Serfs that the Tsar Liberator carried out in 1861.

Harper’s Weekly noted that the Russo-Union alliance was carried out in a spirit of realism:

“John Bull thinks that we are absurdly bamboozled by the Russian compliments and laughs to see us deceived by the sympathy of Muscovy…. But we are not very much deceived. Americans understand that the sympathy of France in our Revolution for us was not for love of us, but from hatred of England. They know, as Washington long ago told them, that romantic friendship between nations is not to be expected. And if they had latterly expected it, England has utterly undeceived them.

  “Americans do not suppose that Russia is on the point of becoming a Republic, but they observe that the English aristocracy and the French Empire hate a republic quite as much as the the Russian monarchy hates it; and they remark that while the French Empire imports coolies into its colonies, and winks at slavery, and while the British government cheers a political enterprise founded upon slavery, and by its chief organs defends the system, Russia emancipates her serfs. There is not the least harm in observing these little facts. Russia, John Bull will remember, conducts herself as a friendly power. That is all. England and France have shown themselves to be unfriendly powers. And we do not forget it.”

Published in: on March 21, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. Surely the sale of Alaska two years later belongs to the same context – virtually neutralizing British North America (a.k.a. Canada) for all strategic and imperial purposes.

  2. No doubt Fabio. It of course helped that Russia had no shortage of undeveloped bleak territory and that the Tsars had tended to regard the chief utility of Alaska as being a place to send out of favor courtiers.

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