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
Both countries, also, were in a formative stage and only beginning to realize their adult prowess. The future was theirs together (as Voltaire and Tocqueville had long since observed). In any case, the editorial concluded, the hearty welcome given the Russians at New York would “create more apprehension at the Tuileries and at St. James than even the Parrott gun or the capture of the Atlanta. If it be followed up by diplomatic negotiations, with a view to an alliance with the Czar, it may prove an epoch of no mean importance in history.”
There were no takers for the proposal. Nonetheless, for many years the legend persisted that the arrival of the Russian fleet had been intended to demonstrate the Czar’s sympathy for the Union cause, that with this gesture he had successfully put pressure on the French and British to stay out of the American Civil War, and had thus substantially aided the North. Other Russian ships were at the same time visiting San Francisco, where their officers and men were similarly feted, and seemed ready to do battle against Confederate raiders in the Pacific. But nothing ever came of it, and it was not until many years later that the purpose behind the Russian visit was revealed.
In 1915 Dr. Frank A. Golder, who had access to the official Russian records, told the true story in the American Historical Review. This had not been a “friendship” visit at all, but a secret diplomatic maneuver inspired—and that seems to be just the word—by Russia’s own problems on the Continent. A maneuver so secret, in fact, that even the Russian ambassador was surprised when the ships weighed anchor off Manhattan. The Czar’s treatment of the Poles during their tragic rebellion (“a purely domestic affair,” in familiar Russian terms) had aroused the combined opposition of England, Austria, France, and other European powers to a point where it seemed only too likely that war was inevitable. Russia’s fleet was no formidable armada but, such as it was, at the outbreak of any hostilities it surely would have been bottled up in its home ports by the enemy.
To avoid any such possibility, the best of the ships belonging to both the Atlantic and Pacific squadrons were quietly ordered to sea in June, 1863, and to head for New York and San Francisco respectively—the only convenient ports at which they might expect a welcome and where they would enjoy freedom of operation in the event war did break out abroad. From these two friendly and ample harbors, at least, they could quickly sally forth onto the trade routes to prey on British commerce, as best they could. Such depredations might be enough to persuade England, once she was aware of the situation, to think again before starting trouble over the Polish question.
The scheme seems to have succeeded. As things worked out, in all events, Alexander II is reported to have considered it a major triumph of naval diplomacy. For whatever reasons, England delivered no ultimatum, and France, automatically, would not act unilaterally. Before the winter was over the Polish question had been shelved, for a time. Meanwhile, Yankee victories at Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge, following those at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, gave the interventionists additional reasons for second thoughts. Less and less did it seem timely to choose sides, the Southern side anyway.
Meanwhile, also, all during their months of watchful waiting, the Russian naval forces, acting under specific instructions, very carefully refrained from getting involved in our domestic issues. That they came as interested supporters of the Northern cause was a notion concocted and nurtured by the Unionists who were only too happy to imagine it to be true.
None of this was known to the American public, however, when, to the strains of “Yankee Doodle” rendered by the Russian band, it boarded the vessels for inspection. To all appearances, they were a welcome offset to the English and French ships in the harbor and provided a boost, quite unintentionally, to Yankee morale at a time when it helped.