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A Royal Welcome For The Russian Navy
Flags flew and champagne flowed when the Czar’s ships anchored in New York Harbor. Fifty years later we learned the reason for their surprise visit
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
It should be added that the “pyramids of pastry” were great confections which featured sweet, sculptured likenesses of Lincoln, Alexander II, Washington, and Peter the Great on “pedestals of variegated sugars,” as well as replicas of famous monuments and symbols of plenty. Not even the visit of the Prince of Wales a few years earlier had called forth such a conspicuous display of extravagant hospitality.
Next morning there were headaches and misgivings. “Now that the sounds of the revel are dying, …” soberly reflected the editor of Harper’s Weekly, “we are saying wisely to each other that the ball was not, after all, so very sensible a thing.” Not that any of the cordiality toward the Russians had been exhausted by the tumultuous occasion; but that other things may have been lost sight of in the general excitement. The bloodlettings at Gettysburg and Chickamauga were still in the news, and there was reason enough to expect more and worse holocausts before the Civil War could be ended. The great Battle of Chattanooga was, in fact, shaping up as the Weekly was issued. In cold daylight it hardly seemed the time for thoughtless and unrestrained festivity.
Let’s have another ball, to be sure, wrote the editor, and let the ladies again shower themselves with diamonds. But this time, after the last dance, let them donate their baubles to the Sanitary Commission to provide every possible comfort for the lads in blue at the front and their buddies who had been moved to hospitals in the rear. “Would not their radiance, in such a case, flash not only from wall to wall of the ball-room, but down through the vale of time to the most distant age, lighting the fame of New York women, and proving that they were worthy wives and daughters of the brave men who are dying for their country?”
In mid-November the Russians responded by giving a ball of their own, on board the Alexander Nevsky, at which the dancing reportedly lasted for eleven hours. Moreover, when the fleet headed south at the end of the month, Admiral Lessovsky gave the city $4,700 for its poor. There were other celebrations to follow, when the Russians stood in at Hampton Roads and sailed up the Potomac to Alexandria. Congressmen, members of the Cabinet, and other distinguished citizens and their wives were entertained at a banquet aboard the Osliaba, and President and Mrs. Lincoln gave a brief reception at the White House. Scarcely a week before the river iced up, the Russians sailed down the Potomac again—bound this time for winter ports—three ships for the West Indies, two for Annapolis, and one for Hampton Roads.
What did it all amount to? This brief bit of pageantry makes better sense when it is portrayed against the diplomatic background of that critical season of the Civil War. A French army had taken Mexico City in June and, paced by Napoleon III, the interventionist forces of Europe looked for ways to improve their positions in the New World while the United States, divided within itself, bled of its own wounds. In this respect, one of the most curious commentaries on the Russians’ visit appeared in an editorial in Harper’s Weekly for October 17,1863, reflecting on Washington’s warning against “entangling foreign alliances.”
We all dislike to see any principle of policy settled by the Father of the Country being brought into question, but still it is obvious that, as the world has kept moving since Washington’s time, there must be a great portion of his work which, though perfect enough in his day, has, by the advancement of civilization and the changes in the world’s condition and circumstances, been rendered susceptible of improvement now. Is it not possible that this dread of “entangling foreign alliances” may have been wiser or more natural seventy years ago than it is now?
The use of steam for power and locomotion, the telegraph, and other aids to speedy travel and communication, continued the editor, had shrunk the world decisively and brought the nations of the earth into close and quick contact with one another. The Atlantic Ocean was no longer the barrier it had been, now that America was a mere fifteen days’ distance from any part of Europe’s coast. Since England and France were unfriendly to the Union cause (and ships of their fleets were also anchored in New York Harbor at the time) “would it not be wise to meet the hostile alliance of the Western Powers of Europe by an alliance with Russia? France and England united can do and dare much against Russia alone or the United States alone; but against Russia and the United States combined what could they do?”
What gave the suggestion special point were the analogies drawn between the common interests and attitudes of the United States and Russia. True, as was reiterated at every official function, there was a traditional friendship between the two nations. But, beyond that, had not Alexander II just freed the serfs, as Lincoln had freed the slaves? Was not Russia putting down a rebellion of Poles, as the North was trying to put down an insurrection of Southerners? Had not Russia declined a French proposal to line up against the North in recognition of the Confederacy, as the Union had refused a French suggestion to take sides against Russia?