Dagestan, Memory and the Civil War: What? There Were Other Wars Fought During the 1860s?

One topic in my Civil War & Reconstruction course is to discuss how and where the war is still “fought” today? Examples can often include the challenges faced due to segregation’s legacy, southern “flagger” rights and differences relating to the memory and interpretation of the war. But luckily, the Civil War is not fought today with bullets. The fact the South did not take to the hills and wage a prolonged guerrilla style war is rare for a people who fought for their way of life. A brief historical investigation into the current events of Russia can help place the American Civil War in a global perspective, both historically and modern-day.dagestan map


Dagestan general, Shamil (left), and his sons in 1859.

Recent suicide bombers in Russia appear to have their origins in the Caucasus region which includes the Russian province of Dagestan. Chechnya, a neighbor to Dagestan, is perhaps better known for its fight against Russia for independence since the 1990s. But Dagestan keeps popping up in the news. If you recall, one of the Boston Marathon bombers allegedly spent time in both of these volatile provinces prior to that terrorist attack.

This conflict goes back centuries but a turning point occurred just as the United States was entering its Civil War. Russia fought Chechnya and Dagestan in the Caucasian Wars between 1818-1864 to solidify trade routes to Southwest Asia. For centuries the Muslim natives of this region resisted Russian attempts at empire. Iman Shamil, “a legendary military strategist”, and an Dagestan army of over 40,000 soldiers fought a 200,000 Russian force but were ultimately forced to surrender in 1859. As a result, Dagestan was forced into the Russian empire and has fought for its independence ever since.


Battle of Valerik River, 1840.

One interesting aspect of the Caucasian Wars to investigate deeper is how they are remembered by Russians and others. Mikhail Lermontov, a famous Russian poet and veteran of these wars, wrote in his poem, Valerik, that the conquered foes were “lawless people” dedicated to “blood vengeance.” I have read other sources that indicate that this written memory has influenced Russian attitudes of Chechnya and Dagestan to the present. But other nations appear to have viewed the Caucasians differently. For example, a New York Times article from 1854 calls for the Western Powers to “recognize the independence of the Caucasus” and even referred to Shamil as “enlightened.” A 1853 New York Times article shows a less altruistic cause for American support of this conflict. “War, pestilence, and famine abroad are eminently tributary to (American) success… Our concern in the (Caucasus) question is, in fact, intimate.” There was even direct influence on the Civil War itself. One Cossack officer who fought for the Russians became a Captain of Kentucky cavalry in 1861.

From what I can figure, Lermontov did not intend his poetry to vilify Caucasians but rather show the barbarities of war similar to the American author, Ambrose Bierce’s literary writing of his Civil War experiences. These two authors could make for an interesting classroom comparison of nineteenth century warfare.

Potential questions for high school students to tackle:

  1. What insight can the Caucasian Wars and other nineteenth century foreign wars provide to the study of the American Civil War?
  2. How does the use of terror (suicide bombings) influence world opinion of Caucasian efforts for independence compared to nineteenth century efforts?
  3. In 1860, would the United States support for the war differ regionally between the North and South?
  4. Do historical memory of past events help form modern-day perspectives?
  5. If the South would not have won their way of life back during Reconstruction, would they have fought on generations later like we see today in Dagestan?

Note: Please feel free to write in any suggestions or revisions when it comes to this connection in history. I am by no means an expert in Russian history and hope to learn more.


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