So with the Olympics closing soon I have had many friends and coworkers ask me about Russia. They have been especially interested in the history that they were never taught in school. Basically in your history books, Russia appears three times. First, as the place napoleon invaded and failed, second, as the place Hitler invaded and failed and third as the big evil red commie scourge that America triumphantly defeated in the cold war. Well it is interesting to note that there were several other interactions between the United States of American and the Russian Empire that actually showed a level of friendship between the two nations.
When I was in St. Petersburg, I visited Tsarskoe Selo, Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace. While I was there I learned that the palace was a sort of summer playground for the imperial youth. While walking the grounds my attention was directed to a small island what looked a bit out of place. Our guide told us that the island was a favorite play spot of future Tsar Alexander II, who would grow up to free the serfs in 1861. This created among US and Russian diplomats a kind of cultural bond between Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln, who motioned to free the American slaves in 1862. Upon the death of Alexander II in 1881, the American Ambassador presenting the Romanov family with acorns from the the oak tree at Lincoln’s burial site. The Romanovs planted the acorns on the island that the young Alexander played on and the flourished. It is now one of the only places that American Oak trees grow in Russia. But, that is not the only interaction American and Russia had in the mid 19th century. In fact, Russia was a critical player in the outcome of the American Civil War.
During the American Civil War the North was at a loss for international help. It naturally turned to its allies in France and Spain, and even looked to its former imperial mother Great Britain but was ultimately rejected by all of these nations. This was largely due to Europe hoping to capitalize on trade relations with both the North and the South. But there was one country who was willing to work with the Union, and that was Russia.
See, Russia was already facing its share of difficulties with Europe after the Polish rebellion of 1863 and was worried that the other European powers, hoping to capitalize on the revolution, would deploy their forces in order to weaken Russia. Therefore, the Russian Admiralty sought new ports for the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. The Russian ports could easily be blockaded by enemies and, in the case of the Atlantic fleet, could be frozen and unable to leave port. So the plan was to winter their ships in American ports. Abraham Lincoln welcomed this and allowed the Russian navy to dock their ships in New York and San Francisco.
Now, some historians have asserted that the Russians were looking to help the Union and prevent Europe from entering the war on the side of the Confederacy but a more reasonable explanation is that Russia got access to warm water ports and the Union got the publicity of foreign aid that it desperately needed. Therefore, in the fall of 1863, a dozen Russian ships docked in American harbors.
Upon arriving the Russians were met with all the fanfare and celebration that American had to offer. Mary Todd Lincoln personally received the Russian navy and even attended a party on the Russian Frigate Osliaba.
The arrival of the Russian fleet in America was a huge propaganda boon for the Union. It helped to rejuvenate the failing war effort and gave many Northerners hope that the world was starting to support them. It would also cement US/Russian relations for decades to come.