Modern History/American Civil War/Wartime Diplomacy/US-Russian Relations
American Civil War Foreign Relations Series
United States Relations with Russia 1861 to 1865
Throughout the American Civil War, tsarist Russia maintained a diplomatic friendship with the United States that remained diplomatically unofficial until after the war ended. Although the United States and Russia had similar “peculiar institutions” prior to the war, slavery in the United States and serfdom in Russia, the Russians did not view serfdom in the same light as slavery. Even after the Confederacy seceded, the majority of Russians still viewed the United States with contempt in regard to segregation and racism. However, Tsar Alexander II had freed the serfs in Russia before Lincoln’s inauguration, giving Lincoln partial justification for emancipating American slaves. During the war, Russia needed American goodwill and support due to increasing tensions with England and France, than the United States needed Russian support. This essay will attempt to construe the nature of the friendship between Russia and the United States, the reasons for this friendship, and the effects of the friendship.
By the time of Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, Russian Minister to the United States Edouard de Stoeckl had been in America for twenty years and had been Minister for seven. Stoeckl had witnessed the gradual decline into secession and war. He witnessed the deaths of the “Great Compromisers” in the early 1850’s, and was dismayed by the lack of ability remaining in Congress. Stoeckl personally held a low opinion of Lincoln-criticizing what he perceived to be Lincoln’s indecisiveness, ignorance, and inability to perform the presidential duties-and, alternately, a rather high opinion of his friend, Jefferson Davis. In April 1861, Stoeckl volunteered to act as a mediator between Confederate commissioners and Federal representatives to determine the status of the Confederacy peacefully. Secretary of State William Seward declined to participate in the mediation, which the Confederates wholeheartedly supported.
Russia was the first nation to stand behind the Union in friendliness. The nature of this relationship was not one of support - the Russian leadership did not love democracy - but one of convenience. Russia aligned itself with the United States because England and France, Russia’s enemies, aligned themselves more closely with the Confederate States. Although the Russian aristocracy had no use for democracy, they feared insurgency. Along with all other conservative monarchs in Europe, Tsar Alexander II would not recognize the Confederacy mainly because he considered it a revolutionary regime in an era of frequent revolutions and regime changes in Europe. It is apparent that the Tsar, as well as other monarchs, feared that the insurrection mounted by the Confederacy would spark the beginning of another round of revolutions throughout Europe. It is interesting to note at this point that extremely few European nations retain their monarchs a century later.
Russia had a second motive to align itself behind the United States. A reunited United States would potentially be a powerful ally for the Russians, an ally that Russia desperately needed after losing the Crimean War. In 1863, Tsar Alexander II ordered the Russian Atlantic Fleet and the Pacific Fleet to United States ports for the winter. Many construed this action to mean that Russia was openly aiding the Union and that the Russian Navy would supplement the Federal Navy against the Confederacy. However, this apparent meaning proved false. Tensions between Russia and England were escalating over Russian actions against the Polish and war between the two was on the horizon. The Tsar sent the navy to the United States so that the naval fleets would not be trapped by the winter ice in arctic Russia ports. An underlying motive probably was to warm American support for Russia in case of war with England.
The effects of the relationship between Russia and the United States were relatively few, but very important. In 1861, the Russian government proposed a land based telegraph line from the United States to Europe through Canada and Russia. This plan was later abandoned in 1867 when the Atlantic cable was laid, but throughout the war Lincoln and the Congress supported this option as the most viable. Russia also agreed to refuse to participate in any European planned intervention or interference into American affairs. This agreement came in 1863 with France and England trying to persuade Russia to participate in a European intervention in the American Civil War. Coinciding with this invitation was an invitation from England and France to the United States to act against Russia for its suppression of Poland. These invitations to both the United States and Russia were no more than a western European attempt to disrupt the diplomatic relationship between those two nations. Russia’s refusal of the France-England invitation was to ensure that the United States would not interfere in Russian affairs in return. Lincoln maintained American isolationist policy by refusing the France-England invitation to react against Russia, even though he was personally opposed to Russian despotism.
On 3 March 1861, Tsar Alexander II freed over twenty million serfs in Russia and ended serfdom forever. This action gave American abolitionists fuel for their fight against slavery and helped to justify Lincoln’s decision to free the slaves in America. The main difference in the two emancipations was race. The serfs were of the same race and heritage, spoke the same language, had the same religion, and shared the same culture as their masters. Upon emancipation, the serfs gained full civil rights (to Russian standards), self government, and had a claim to the land they had toiled on for years. American emancipation was much different. The slaves were of a different race and considered inferior to their masters. They were not allowed to worship with their masters; they had a different heritage and culture, and many times spoke a different language adopted solely by slaves. Upon emancipation they were granted civil rights by law, but in practice most of those rights were denied. They were kept out of government by their former masters and could not make a claim on the land on which they had previously toiled. The treatment of former slaves by white Americans soured relations with Russia somewhat. Russia was critical of segregation and racism within the United States and became vocal in their criticisms.
Russia and the United States maintained friendly relations during the American Civil War. The reasons for this friendliness differ between the two nations; both had a need for international friends, but both were wary of the other. The nature of this relationship was opportunistic-Russia needed a strong ally against England and France, and the United States needed a quasi-ally to disrupt European interference in American affairs. The effects of the relationship were based on the nature of the relationship. Both Russia and the United States were able to disrupt intervention into their affairs by western European powers by maintaining their diplomatic friendliness. Diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States were important in the course that each nation made its own.
- Harold Hyman, ed. Heard Round the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1969).
- Howard Jones. Union in Peril (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 1992).
- Dean Mahin. One War at a Time (Washington D.C.: Brassey’s. 1999).
- Belle Becker Sideman and Lillian Friedman, ed. Europe Looks at the Civil War (New York: The Orion Press. 1960).
- Philip Van Doren Stern. When The Guns Roared (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co. 1965).
- Albert Woldman. Lincoln and the Russians (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 1952).
Dr. C. J. Stumph, D.D.