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With the secession of 11 Southern states and the onset of the American Civil War in 1861, one of the primary goals of the Confederate government was official diplomatic recognition from European nations, beginning with Britain and France.  That achievement not only would have lent the struggling Confederacy prestige on the world stage, but probably would have led to diplomatic pressure on the Union to settle the conflict or perhaps even to European military assistance for the South.  Napoleon III, the emperor of France, approached Russia about joining a coalition to mediate the war, but the administration of Czar Alexander II refused.  Russia looked favorably upon the Union cause, and had recently fought France and Britain in the Crimean War (1853-1856).  It was particularly unwilling to cooperate with the latter against which it competed for territory in Afghanistan.  Moreover, unlike Britain and France, Russia had no economic need to obtain Southern cotton.

In early 1863, an uprising against Russian rule occurred in Poland, which fostered substantial pressure in France and Britain for those respective governments to intervene on behalf of the Polish people.  This had the effect of solidifying Russia’s support for the Lincoln administration, which it viewed as similarly trying to defeat a violent assault on national unity while contending with the meddling of France and Britain.  Given the possibility of war with the two European powers over Poland, Russia decided to send its Atlantic and Pacific naval fleets to New York City and San Francisco, respectively, in the fall of 1863 as a precaution against being frozen in Russian ports during the winter. 

Meanwhile, French troops had overthrown the Mexican republic in June 1863, and by early the next year Napoleon III had established a monarchy under a puppet ruler, Archduke Maximilian.  The South offered to recognize the new Mexican government in return for French recognition of the Confederacy.

In the midst of this tense international situation, the arrival of the Russian fleets in American ports was greeted with relief and jubilation across the North.  There was diverse speculation on reasons for the visit, though many newspapers recognized the national interest motivating the Russians.  However, expressions of Russia’s action as an act of friendship gained dominance, and the myth soon developed that the event was an altruistic show of force by Russia on behalf of the Union cause.  While that was, at best, a secondary consideration, the impressive concentration of Russian battleships may nevertheless have had some influence on British and French refusals to recognize the Confederacy.

Sources Consulted

Delahaye, Tom.  “The Bilateral Effect of the Visit of the Russian Fleet in 1863.”  Loyola University Student History Journal.

“Europe and the American Civil War.”

Jones, Howard.  Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom:  The Union & Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War.  Lincoln, NE:  University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

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