The Crimean War: When America and Russia Were Friends

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On Oct. 16, 1853, the Ottoman Empire declared war on the Russian Empire. France, the U.K., and Piedmont-Sardinia, the wealthiest polity on the Italian peninsula, quickly joined the Ottomans in their war against Russia. (This weekend’s “Top 10” is a global history of the Crimean War, so stay tuned!)

The United States stayed neutral during the war, but it was hardly inactive. The press and the general public were particularly pro-Russian, though there were exceptions (to be discussed below). Washington sent food and material goods to Russia and helped the Imperial Navy by building its warships in New York’s massive shipyards. American doctors flocked to Crimea, where most of the world’s press focused its attention, in order to help the overwhelmed medical establishment of the Russian Empire.

America’s relationship to Russia had been mostly nonexistent in 1853 (with the notable exception of American engineers essentially building Russia’s railroad system in the 1840s). While Alexis de Tocqueville had made his famous 1835 prediction about America and Russia one day competing with each other for global dominance, in 1853 the two transcontinental polities were still figuring out how to govern their vast, newly-acquired territories. So their lack of a relationship had less to do with perceived antagonisms and more to do with a lack of personnel resources.

The two future superpower rivals had more in common than mere future greatness, though. Both were expanding rapidly, gobbling up huge swaths of territory at the expense of isolated polities like the Khiva Khanate and the Sioux confederacy, and hapless autocracies like Mexico and the Ottoman Empire. Russia and the United States also shared common foes - France and the U.K. - due mostly to the fact that American and Russian expansion was beginning to step on French and British toes. Both empires - one democratic, the other autocratic - also had looming labor crises that overshadowed everything they did in international affairs: slavery and serfdom.

The reaction of the American press to the British and French invasion of Crimea was not entirely pro-Russian, of course. In fact, the press was split largely along regional (or sectional) lines: New England’s press mostly supported the United Kingdom while the Southern and Western press supported Russia, just like during the lead up to the War of 1812. The sectional divisions were similar in another way, too; there were calls, once again, for the New England states to secede from the republic and join the British Empire. Not everybody in New England supported the British, especially shipbuilders who profited handsomely from their dealings with the Russian Imperial Navy.

American support for the Russians during the Crimean War bore fruit roughly 10 years later, when the United States descended into madness and fought a civil war. The Russians, who had recently abolished serfdom, sent warships to Northern ports, partly to show support for the Union’s anti-slavery cause and partly to avoid being bottled up in the Black Sea by British warships were London to intervene in the American war. The arrival of Russian warships to American ports helped bolster Union morale, and sent a warning to France and the United Kingdom that if either decided to intervene in the American conflict, they would have to also deal with the Russians.

Russian and American support for each may have culminated just two years after the American Civil War, when Washington purchased Alaska from Russia. The Russians, still smarting from their defeat in the Crimean War, knew that they would not be able to defend their American territories from a British attack, so they began to search for a buyer. The Americans made perfect sense, not least because an American purchase would give the Russians a buffer zone between their Siberian territory and London’s North American Arctic territory (now known as Canada). Two years after the American Civil War, in 1867, Washington - broke and bloodied - bought Alaska from the Russians. The purchase removed Russia as a player on the North American continent and padded its coffers, which were in even more dire straits than those of the Americans.

After the purchase, the two countries drifted apart. Slavery and serfdom had both been abolished, but the struggle for liberty in both societies had only just begun.


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