No Cold War Here: Russia and America Before the Civil War

A recent article in The Economist states, “But few, even in the 1850s, would have thought Russia and the West would still be contesting the same small peninsula a century and a half later. If history does not repeat itself, it has a strange way of rhyming.” The current crisis in Crimea has spurred me on to read histories of the Crimean War (1853-1856) to better understand that conflict which comes up anecdotally in Civil War discussions. I think that quotes like the one above mislead modern observers to believe that the United States was firmly allied with the West, then led by Britain, against Russia. When in fact, the geo-politics of the 1850s were not as clear as they appear to stand today between East and West. These blurred distinctions of the 1850s can help to explain foreign diplomacy during the Civil War and America’s rise in global influence after that war concluded.

On paper, the US was a daunting adversary to many European leaders in the 1850s.

On paper, the US was a daunting adversary to many European leaders in the 1850s.

The United States maintained cordial relationships with England and France during the 1850s but a mutual distrust was ever present. By 1848 America was a nation that stretched across North America and its democratic foundations stood as beacons of hope for many during that year’s European Revolutions. England, the Superpower of the its day, and France, under Napoleon III, kept a weary eye on America’s growth potential but focused on the immediacy of Russian expansion into Eastern Europe and the Balkan Peninsula. In 1853, Western Europe  united to stop Russian efforts to take advantage of the weakened Ottoman Empire. Perhaps most interesting is the affinity the United States had towards Russia during this decade.

Like Russia, America also hoped to expand beyond its borders and focused their efforts into the Caribbean and Pacific regions (Adm. Perry forced Japan to open its harbors in 1854). One historian states that “self interest saw a natural alliance” between both Russia and the United States because they both understood France and England would view their growth as challenges to Western European global hegemony. Despite its declared neutrality, America had an active role in Russia during the 1850s. American businessmen like Samuel Colt toured the nation and mechanical and industrial experts trained Russian engineers to advance their railroad and iron smelting capabilities. Captain George B. McClellan ventured to Crimea as a neutral military observer and marveled at the Russian military’s defenses at Sebastopol. The American Ambassador to Russia, Thomas Seymour, was quite fond of Russian leaders despite their autocratic ways. For example, he described the Grand Duke Constantine to be “nearer the American character than any public monarch I have met since I came to Europe.” Overall, Seymour wrote to the American Secretary of State, William M. Marcy:

“Russia is not the barbarous nation which her late adversaries have represented her to be.” 

Most insightful, given recent events, are Seymour’s observations regarding Russia’s claim to Crimea :

I have “no idea that there is any class of men among them who would not be willing to give up Sebastopol and the Crimea, anymore than we should be willing to give up California.”

America’s strong alliances with Western Europe in the 20th and 21st centuries cloud this era when the cross Atlantic nations maintained fairly adversarial relationships. For example, in 1855 initial discussions to sell Alaska were held between Russia and the United States ended because American leaders feared Britain’s reaction to this expansion. In 1856, Russia helped finalize a trade treaty between Persia and America after its previous agreements were (allegedly) sabotaged by England. Four years after the Crimean War, when the South seceded from the Union, Russia was virtually alone in Europe with its solid stand against the recognition of the Confederacy. In part, they maintained animosity towards Western Europe’s success during the Crimean War but perhaps most importantly, Russia also viewed the United States as a strong future ally to counter balance England and France. It is telling to consider that in 1867, just two years after the Civil War concluded, Russia sold Alaska to a much stronger and confident United States than what it had been in the 1850s.


Not everyone supported the purchase of Alaska.

It is interesting to look how international roles and norms have changed since the 1850s. America now wears the cape as global Superpower and is leading Britain and Western Europe to prevent Russian from taking any more land beyond its recent Crimean re-acquisition. Here is current Secretary of State, John Kerry’s response to recent events which illustrates the way America currently views Russia:

“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text… Its an incredible act of aggression…They’re [G-8 Nations] prepared to put sanctions in place, they’re prepared to isolate Russia economically…”


I think this research (see Works Consulted below) raises some interesting questions. Is Russia behaving in a “19th century manner” or are they obtaining land that they have considered as much a part of Russia as we consider California a part of the US? Did the Civil War begin America’s ascendancy to a world power and how much did Russia help grow America, its future adversary, on the global stage? What do you think?

 Works Consulted:

“Case History—Alaska.” Congressional Record, 1956.

Dvoichenko-Markov, Eufrosina. “Americans in the Crimean War.” Russian Review. 13.2 (1954): 137-145. Print.

Jones, Horace Perry. “Southern Interests in the Crimean War.” Journal of Slavic Military Studies.                                25.1(2012): 35-52. Print.

Tyrner-Tyrnauer, A.R. Lincoln and the Emperors. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1962. Print.




2 thoughts on “No Cold War Here: Russia and America Before the Civil War

  1. I think Russia is obtaining land that they have considered part of Russia. Like some other European countries are where Russians were first from. I think the civil war did start America’s ascendancy. It started their ascendancy because other countries saw how much power we could have in the later years. Russia helped America grow because gave us many goods that we needed and helped us later also.

  2. Rhys Davies per 8
    Russia is not randomly attacking countries, but trying to regain territories that they have always thought of as a part of Russia. This is not what John Kerry was describing. The period of time after the Civil War greatly increased the military power and international influence of the US. The demand for war-related products increased our manufacturing and assembly infrastructure. It also increased our ability to communication quickly over long distances. Russia helped our early growth as a military power by supporting us in treaties, selling us Alaska, and generally allying with us against England and France.

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