June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
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
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.:
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?
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.