Revising History: the Russian factor in America’s Civil War

Normally we treat history as a constant or static account of events.  Even though the winners often write the books, we forget that these winners often go back and edit these stories over the course of time when convenient.  These revisions occur due to geopolitical changes.

Webster G. Tarpley wrote an essay a few years ago about the Russian influence in the American civil war.  This essay can be found here.  He uses other historian accounts to accredit this influence as crucial for preventing the Anglo-French alliance from entering the war on the side of the Confederacy.  Since the beginning of WWI historians tried to diminish the Russian pro-Union influence and ignore the hostilities that existed between the Union and the United Kingdom and France.

 “During the American Civil War, the Russian attitude was the most powerful outside factor deterring Anglo-French interference.”

Russia also helped to decide the outcome in economic terms.

“Statistics provided by Crook show that in 1861-64, the US and Russia together provided more half or more of all Britain’s wheat imports (16.3 million cwt out of a total of 30.8 in 1863)… King Wheat was therefore more powerful than King Cotton. [19]”

This reminds us of the fundamental importance of food commodities, which remain crucial in the contemporary world.  Manufactured goods and services are important, but basic commodities are fundamental. Food security will always remain the primary concern of all nations.

Another common misconception is our assumption that the British working class was sympathetic to the Union cause.  We overestimate the British public’s genuine interest and loyalty.  Tarpley compares and contrasts a few historian accounts discussing this issue.  He uses Owsley’s remarks in King Cotton Diplomacy as a reason to doubt the working class’ will or even ability to support the Union.

Little doubt remains concerning the loyalties of the British aristocracy. It was not a secret that the British upper class was pro-Confederate.  Charles Francis Adams said that the British aristocracy favored the south because a Union victory would awaken a suffrage movement for the working class.  It seems these fears were realized. Shortly after the Union victory, a Reform Bill in the United Kingdom and the formation of the Canadian federation both occurred.

Lastly, from a contemporary standpoint, we underestimate the chance that the United Kingdom, France, and/or Spain could have intervened in the conflict.  Remember, during the War of 1812 the British burned the White House.

However, more significantly, the European powers were on the move during the American Civil War.

Between about 1848 and 1863, the British Empire was at the aggressive height of its world power, had launched attacks on China, India, and Russia, and in the 1860s was backing Napoleon III’s adventure in Mexico and Spain’s in Santo Domingo, both direct challenges to the US Monroe Doctrine.

Most notable of these interventions was the French invasion of Mexico (1861-1867). The French goal of this operation was to discredit the Monroe Doctrine and to secure another footing in North America while the United States was divided. Afterwards they could participate directly in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy.

It is speculated that the British and the French did not become more involved for a variety of reasons. The first is that the Europeans were waiting for both American sides to weaken one another further. The battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg convinced the foreign powers that the Union was not exhausted, escalating the costs of military involvement.

The British was also worried about their holdings in Canada. This territory was not well protected and was inaccessible from northern routes (not through U.S.) during the winter months.

Distractions in the European theatre also were an important factor. First the war in Poland threatened to escalate tensions between Russia and the United Kingdom. The Russian fleet was deployed to San Francisco and New York during the winter months of that conflict. According to one of the cited historians, Russians were ordered to defend these Union ports in case of attack (including by the Confederacy).

The Danish War of 1864 also made the British and French focus on the consequences of German unification. During this time the Civil War was at its close.

The author also cites examples of how the British and French deliberated direct involvement in the conflict. These can learned most efficiently by referencing his article.

The important point to take away is that the web of alliances is always evolving and that this process never ends. Russia serves as a good example. This “natural enemy” of the 20th (and 21st?) centuries was a deciding factor in our political unity as one nation during the Civil War.


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