Russian Intervention in the U.S. Civil (1861-’65)

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 that event is wrong, in part – but 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

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