How Russia Saved The United States

Who was our friend when the world was our foe.” –
Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1871

In a time when tensions are high politically we can always turn to history, not only to avoid repeating past mistakes, but to remember who our friends are. Unfortunately, this part seems fuzzy in the history books you read in high school. You are taught that the Civil War was fought between The Union (North) and the Confederacy (South). This war in particular is the bloodiest the United State of America has ever seen. You may think I’m crazy saying this, but facts are facts. A staggering 2.1 Million soldiers fought for The Union, and another 1 million fought for the Confederacy.


However, the number of casualties during the Civil War reached an unprecedented 620,000. We lost more American lives in one war than we did in World War I and World War II combined. In fact, you would have to combine the Revolutionary War, Korean War, Vietnam War, World War I, and World War II to surpass the amount of casualties suffered.

I’m sure you heard that in school, but did you know Russia actually sided with The Union during the Civil War? It’s arguable that the American Civil War was on the brink of being World War I. The prospect that a world war could have been fought on American soil is unsettling considering what the war was about. Secession of the southern states was directly related to the election of President Abraham Lincoln.

While it’s debated about the direct cause of the Civil War, it’s widely attributed to the freeing of African American slaves as well as the differences in direction for the government. The southern states widely believed in states rights, and that the federal government should be a limited power. To read more into the events that triggered the Civil War, click here.

“The Civil War started because of uncompromising differences between the free and slave states over the power of the national government to prohibit slavery in the territories that had not yet become states.” -James McPherson

The United States has come a long way from the Civil War, but as a whole we seem to not understand who sided with The Union. The war had a direct impact on the United States relation with European powers, being France and Great Britain. Both countries were a monarchy, and as big of a surprise it may be, a monarchy does not ordinarily like to see a rebellion succeed in any country. This was not the case here. Great Britain and Europe’s aristocracies were not pleased with the success of the “Yankee Democracy”having won independence from a powerful Britain . These monarchies now saw a chance to show that democracy does not work, and in turn boost the confidence of their citizens.

The war up until the fall of 1862, from the north’s perspective, was simply to preserve the Union. As far as Europe was concerned, no moral issue was involved; the game of power politics could be played with a clear conscience and with such these two powers were siding with the Confederacy. Following this, Jefferson Davis (president of the Confederacy) appointed James M. Mason and John Slidell as commissioners to represent Confederate interests abroad, Mason in England and Slidell in France.

Captain Wilkes of the U.S.S San Jacinto heard about Mason and Slidell. He stated that A nation at war had a right to stop and search a neutral merchant ship if it suspected that ship of carrying the enemy’s dispatches. Mason and Slidell, Wilkes reasoned, were in effect Confederate dispatches, and he had a right to remove them. So on November 8, 1861, he steamed out into the Bahama Channel, fired twice across Trent’s bows, sent a boat’s crew aboard, collared the Confederate commissioners, and bore them off in triumph to the United States, where they were lodged in Fort Warren, in Boston Harbor. Wilkes was hailed as a national hero. Congress voted him its thanks, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, ordinarily a most cautious mortal, warmly commended him.

However,  in England there was an uproar which almost brought on a war with the Union. The mere notion that Americans could halt a British ship on the high seas and remove lawful passengers was intolerable. Eleven thousand regular troops were sent to Canada, the British fleet was put on a war footing, and a sharp note was dispatched to the United States, demanding surrender of the prisoners and a prompt apology.

This is when Russia comes into play via a secret alliance between the U.S and Tsarist Russia. Russia sent their naval fleet which arrived in force in New York and San Francisco. This was a crucial time in 1863, with British troops in Canada simply waiting for the command, the world was on the verge of World War I a mere 50 years before the the first world war as we know it today.

The heart of the British strategy in case of war was “overwhelming naval strength based on a few select fortresses”. British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston dispatched a powerful squadron of eight ships of the line and thirteen frigates and corvettes under Admiral Milne to the western Atlantic, and wanted to use the Great Eastern, the largest ship in the world, as a troop transport. London even considered ways to foment secession in Maine. Bombarding and burning both Boston and New York was actively considered as a contingency.

We will wrap the whole world in flames! No power is so remote that she will not feel the fire of our battle and not be burned by our conflagration!” -Secretary of State William Seward

“God bless the Russians!” exulted Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. After the war, Oliver Wendell Holmes hailed Alexander “who was our friend when the world was our foe.” The Russians showed themselves willing to fight for the US. When the Confederate cruiser Shenandoah prepared to attack San Francisco, the Russian admiral gave orders to defend the city in the absence of Union warships.

Through the actions of the Russian Navy and the victories for the Union in 1863 Britain and France determined the cost of military intervention would be too high a risk. Had the British attacked, it’s possible that the United States and Russian alliance could have included Prussia (what was at disagreements with France) and Italy while Britain would have likely been supported by Spain and France.


“U.S. Civil War: The US-Russian Alliance that Saved the Union,” by Webster G. Tarpley

“The Bilateral Effect of the Visit of the Russian Fleet in 1863,” by Tom Delahaye

“The US/Russian Alliance during the Civil War,” by Craig L. Barry

The History Buff’s Guide to the Civil War, by Thomas R. Flagel

Europe and the American Civil War

Wrapped in Flames: The Great American War and Beyond

Image Credit



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