A Royal Welcome For The Russian Navy

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No delegation of Russian visitors, the Bolshoi dancers not excepted, ever has been welcomed to this country with anything like the enthusiasm that greeted the Czar’s Atlantic fleet when it dropped anchor in New York Harbor in 1863. The fleet’s arrival was completely unexpected—a point to which we will return—but the American reaction was immediate, spontaneous, and open-armed. The ships’ officers were swept at once into a whirl of official ceremonies and social celebrations that must have tried their stamina beyond anything they were likely to encounter on the open sea. Deputations from a half-dozen Northern states came to pay formal respects, and the United States government made available every resource our own Navy could provide, including the facilities of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, so long as the visitors remained with us.

The Russian fleet arrived, a ship or two at a time, over a period of weeks in September. The first warship to appear, flying the unfamiliar imperial ensign of the Czar, was the Osliaba, followed in due course by the corvettes Variag and Vitiaz. On September 24 the clipper Peresvet and the flagship Alexander Nevsky made the most dramatic entrance of all by approaching New York through Long Island Sound, running the Hell Gate passage, and coming down the East River past cheering throngs to anchor off the Battery.

Why had they come? The city was soon alive with rumors. The commanding Russian officer, Admiral Lessovsky, did nothing to discourage speculation when he told editor and politician Thurlow Weed that he sailed under “sealed orders,” to be opened only if “during the Rebellion the United States becomes involved in a war with foreign nations.” In any case, New York seems generally to have assumed that this was a “friendship visit,” and must indicate Russian support for the Northern cause—a legend that lost nothing in the retelling, over the years, and that was not finally put to rest until 1915.

At the time the Russians’ presence was considered an obvious cause for rejoicing. New York began its train of hospitality for these visitors on the first of October with a pre-tickertape procession along Broadway, an occasion that attracted a vast concourse of curious and excited citizens who lined the streets, filled the windows, and climbed to the roofs for the best view of the march of the Muscovites. A few weeks later, on November 5, the city staged the greatest ball and the most elaborate banquet the nation had ever witnessed as a further honor to their favored guests.

These were also enormously popular affairs. The ball was too popular, the Herald conceded the following day. “We will call it a dance,” the paper reported,

out of respect to conventional and popular prejudice. In truth it was a very wonderful and indescribable phantasmagoria of humanity. The frantic few struggling against the determined and desperate many … It was mere mass and mere matter. As for a dance it was a mere sway of crude material, moved a little this way, a little that, but not a dance.

Alas! for the Russians. It is known or should be, that these Sclavic [ sic ] heroes are not the very largest of the human race—that they are small men in fact—and what is to become of small men in such a jam? Early in the night we saw several of them in the embrace of grand nebulous masses of muslin and crinoline, whirled hither and thither as if in terrible torment, their eyes aglare, their hair blown out, and all their persons expressive of the most desperate energy, doubtless in the endeavor to escape. What became of them we can not tell.

The survivors of that melee moved on by way of a covered passage to a “Soirée Russe,” a banquet prepared by Delmonico’s, at which the strains of soft music and the laughter of elegantly costumed people could hardly be heard above the popping of corks from bottles of Veuve Cliquot and other pleasant wines. The scent of flowers and the fragrance of the fare was as heady as the perfumes of the bejeweled ladies. Diamonds were everywhere.

Setting type is too expensive these days to reproduce the menu here in all its long abundance. However, as the World reported at the time, since “the ovation and ball is one which may leave its traces on centuries to come, we give, for the sake of history, an account of the principal edibles used, viz.:

Twelve thousand oysters—10,000 poulette and 2,000 pickled. Twelve monster salmon—30 lbs. each. Twelve hundred game birds. Two hundred and fifty turkeys. Four hundred chickens. One thousand pounds of tenderloin. One hundred pyramids of pastry. One thousand large loaves. Three thousand five hundred bottles of wine.”