How Russia Helped the North Win the Civil War
“Russia is actively, 24/7, interfering in our election. They did so in 2016 and they are doing so now.”
So said Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during an interview on CNN the other day.
It’s that Russia-Russia-Russia thing again; the continuous vilification of the former Soviet Union decades after the Cold War ended.
The country-specific focus – contra Russia – is quite telling.
Every great power on Earth has a vested interest in who leads other powers. So “interference” on some level is to be expected… and certainly not from Russia alone.
Many other nations play in the U.S. sandbox. And to expect otherwise is the height of geopolitical naivety.
Smart leadership counters all harmful influence, instead of throwing toothless temper tantrums about a particular instigator.
And brilliant leadership understands that other nations constantly pursue their own interests, and then uses that knowledge to advantage the home team.
Just consider the fact that Russia “interfered” in the U.S. Civil War! And it’s a big part of the reason why the North won.
Indeed, without Russian interference in 1863–64, the U.S. would likely be a vastly different place today; maybe not even a country.
And the map of North America, if not the world, might look quite different as well.
Few people talk about it these days, but this part of American history is critical to the foundations of modern geostrategy. It sheds strong light on the current state of world affairs.
Let’s dig in…
The U.S. Civil War commenced on April 12, 1861, at Charleston, South Carolina, about five weeks after President Abraham Lincoln took office.
South Carolina militia bombarded the Union redoubt at Fort Sumter for two days, until it surrendered.
President Lincoln responded by immediately issuing a call for troops to recapture the Fort. The war was on.
Soon, Great Britain issued a declaration of “neutrality” in matters between the American North and South. That term created an important legal distinction within the realm of international law.
In essence, Britain declared that the Confederate States of America were in effect a “belligerent” party.
So this new American war was not simply an internal matter of the United States. No, the British declaration in 1861 elevated the rebellious Confederacy into the legal status of nationhood.
France followed the British lead… declaring “neutrality” as well.
In short, two of the world’s great powers recognized the fundamental nationhood of the breakaway Confederates.
This was more about geopolitical posturing than any sort of sympathy for the Southern cause.
For obvious reasons, Britain harbored a fundamental grudge against the very existence of the United States going back to 1776.
More British grudge came from the War of 1812–14, when the U.S. invaded Canada and British troops marched through Maryland to burn the White House.
The U.S. and Britain continued to bicker for the first half of the 1800s, mostly over the exact boundary line between the U.S. and British North America, aka “Canada.”
France, too, held more resentment against the U.S. than most people today recall.
Of course, France helped the U.S. during its revolution against Britain: money, troops, equipment, General Lafayette and even the French navy at Yorktown in 1781.
And French efforts promoted the Treaty of Paris, formally ending the Revolutionary War in 1783.
But after the French Revolution, U.S.-French relations deteriorated. On the high seas, there was a mini war between the U.S. and France in 1798.
Later, many French stewed over the “loss” of Louisiana Territories in 1803. That is, the U.S. viewed its “Louisiana Purchase” as a matter of legitimate, nation-to-nation dealings. But many French saw the entire affair as underhanded theft during a difficult time.
Then there was the matter of U.S. trade with Russia. In the 1810s, Napoleon blockaded Europe to most trade as part of his ongoing fight with Britain. But U.S.-flagged ships sailed freely through the Baltic Sea to St. Petersburg, Russia.
Napoleon regarded this as a breach of his French cordon, which led to the disastrous French invasion of Russia in 1812.
And in 1861 both Great Britain and France bore ill will towards the U.S. for siding with Russia during the Crimean War in 1853.
During the war, U.S. doctors traveled to Crimea to help Russian army medics. The U.S. also sent food and military-related materiel to Russia. Closer to home, the U.S. built ships for the Russian Imperial Navy in the dockyards of New York.1
In short, both Britain and France had many decades of pent-up political and economic frustration with the fledgling United States. When the Civil War broke out, there was a palpable sense of opportunism in London and Paris.
Thus, recognizing the legitimacy of the breakaway South damaged the interests of the North.
And declaring themselves “neutral” gave the British and French the cover they needed to support the South with trade, finance and materiel to use against the North.
In May 1861, two Southerners with Confederate “diplomatic” credentials boarded a British mail ship sailing from Havana, Cuba.
The U.S. knew about these Southerners. A U.S. Navy vessel intercepted the British ship on the high seas and arrested the pair. Off they went, to confinement in Boston.
The British government was outraged at this offense against its flagged vessel. Britain demanded an apology and the return of the Southerners.
When the U.S. government refused, the British sent troops and armaments to Canada, posing a direct military threat to the U.S. northern frontier. Britain also embargoed the sale to the North of chemicals used to manufacture gunpowder.
For its part, the U.S. blockaded Southern ports, preventing open trade. Union ships also patrolled the Caribbean, stopping and searching any ships attempting to slip through the blockade.
Then in 1862, Britain began constructing warships in British yards for the Confederacy. One of the ships was CSS Alabama, which went on to naval fame as a highly effective commerce raider.2
Confederate raider CSS Alabama, constructed in Britain.3
It wasn’t long before the British and French positions began to create the desired effects.
As 1863 unfolded, the war was not going well for the North. In April and May 1863, the South defeated the Northern army at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Then in early July, the Battle of Gettysburg played out.
The South lost the fight at Gettysburg, but in the immediate aftermath there was no telling if General Robert E. Lee might regroup and invade the North again.
Then just two weeks after Gettysburg, in mid-July 1863, the Union endured “draft riots” in New York. These were — and remain — the largest riots in American history. They evidenced deep-seated disaffection with the war among the American working class.
In London and Paris, British and French policymakers discussed whether or not to increase aid to the American South, if not to deploy their respective navies to break the Union blockade and even send troops to America to fight for the South.
President Lincoln feared British and French entry into the war. The possibility of foreign military intervention was grave. And just the diplomatic and political angles of outside intervention would be disastrous to the Northern cause.
So President Lincoln wrote to Tsar Alexander II of Russia, requesting assistance.
Friendly relations between the Russia and the U.S. date back to 1781, when American Ambassador Benjamin Franklin created a strong rapport with Russian diplomat counterparts while stationed in Paris.
Indeed, based on his dealings, Franklin later became the first American ever admitted to the Russian Academy of Sciences.
In 1809, future President John Quincy Adams was U.S. Ambassador to Russia, where he built upon the sense of amity established by Franklin. Later as president, Adams granted “Most Favored Nation” status to Russian trade.
Favorable relations between the U.S. and Russia further improved in the 1840s–50s, when American engineers helped build the fledgling Russian railway system.
Russia’s relationships with other nations, on the other hand, were more frayed.
Russia begrudged France’s Napoleonic invasion of 1812. Of course, no nation — certainly not Russia — can overlook its capital city being overrun and occupied.
Meanwhile in North America, Russian and British interests conflicted in the northwest part of the continent.
Russia had claimed Alaska and much of the Pacific coastline, butting up against British interests in the interior, namely what is today Yukon and the Northwest Territories, down into British Columbia.
Meanwhile, Russia was concerned over British and French intentions towards the U.S., particularly a permanent division of the U.S. into two new, competing nations.
So Russia was more than prepared to aid its old friend.
In September and October 1863, Russia’s Baltic Fleet sailed into New York Harbor, while the Russian Pacific Squadron arrived in San Francisco.
Russian naval vessel in New York, 1863, Naval Historical Foundation.4
These powerful fleets remained in the U.S. for over seven months. They anchored-out, or in some instances tied up to piers. While in U.S. waters, they fired no cannon except for occasional practice rounds.
Ashore, U.S. military bands feted and serenaded the guests. Russian sailors paraded down Broadway, while Russian naval officers were hosted at official functions and private parties. Their role was to be highly visible… showing off Russian support for the Union cause.
Russian officers in New York. Naval Historical Foundation.5
On the East Coast, the Russian fleet served as a direct warning to Britain not to interfere in the U.S. war or to attempt to run the blockade against the South. British ships would have to fight not just the Union Navy, but the Russian navy as well.
On the West coast, Russian ships guarded the San Francisco waterfront, particularly real estate near the U.S. Mint.
That’s where boxes of gold and silver coins were stamped out of ore brought down from Sierra Nevada mining operations, as well as from Nevada’s storied Comstock Lode.
Then, safe from attack by Southern sympathizers ashore or commerce raiders offshore, Union vessels hauled the coins around South America, to the Union treasury. That money — “real” money, as in precious metal — paid for Lincoln’s war.
By mid-1864, fortunes for the North had improved. Lincoln found his “fighting general” in Ulysses Grant, and under his command combat power of the South was being systematically wrecked.
More importantly, neither Britain nor France intervened in the U.S. Civil War… though they could have.
Indeed, those two Russian fleets were critical to keeping the Civil War an “internal” matter to the U.S. And it’s fair to say that the Civil War might have turned out quite differently, if not for those two Russian fleets.
In 1879, Tsar Alexander II explained why he sent his ships:
“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.”6
In other words, Russia pursued her national interests… helping “save the Union” in the process.
Russian intervention in the Civil War didn’t just keep Britain and France out of the conflict.
It also changed the world and influenced events down to this very day:
- U.S.-Russian relations grew closer, to the point that in 1867 the latter nation “sold” Alaska to the U.S. The Russian idea was to box the British between two distinct U.S. territories, perhaps leading to a U.S. takeover of what is now the Yukon and British Columbia.
- Also in 1867, Britain in turn granted sovereignty to what is now Canada. The idea was to create a new nation, not perpetuate a colony of Britain. Thus, there would be less U.S. interest in taking its Civil War-hardened army and conquering Canada.
- Post-Civil War the reunited U.S. began an urgent, westward expansion that included building rail lines to connect each coast of the country. This led to a massive, national industrialization effort along with phenomenal growth in population and agriculture. It was the beginning of the U.S. becoming a wealthy global power.
- Across the Pacific Ocean, Japan witnessed the political dynamics of Russia and the U.S., versus Britain and France. This example of Great Power politics was instrumental in moving Japan along with its Meiji Revolution, which led to Japan becoming an industrial nation with a powerful military.
- In Europe, Germans watched things unfold and determined to become a unified nation, if for no other reason than to protect themselves against French and British hegemony. Otto von Bismarck acted accordingly, such that by 1870 a unified Germany had defeated France in the first major European war of the industrial age.
There’s more as well…
But just this alone is plenty of food for thought. And along those lines, ponder how Russian actions during the Civil War still form an important part of the DNA of the modern U.S., if not the world.
So Russia may or may not be “interfering” in U.S. elections. But you can be sure that it still pursues its national interests. As should every nation.
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
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6 Interview with American banker Wharton Barker on Aug. 17, 1879, later published in The Independent March 24, 1904.