When Sarah Low casually mentioned a visiting "Russian Fleet" in a letter home (19 December 1863, Washington DC to NH), it sent me down a deep dark research rabbit hole... And now, after this week's spate of non-stop US-Russia "Summit" news, it all seems an eerily timely lesson from the past.
Russian President Putin recently claimed, "Russia has never interfered with US internal affairs." Well then, all I can do is ask the question...:
What were Russian imperial warships doing in US harbors along BOTH coasts during the US Civil War?
SOURCE = photographic evidence: "Deck view of Russian frigate "Osliaba," harbor of Alexandria, Va." (1863) [LOC.gov]
- In 1863, Russia faced a rebellion in occupied Polish territory.
- Britain supported the Polish rebellion -- and at the same time was considering supporting the Southern rebellion in the US Civil War.
- Russia needed a safe place for her Atlantic squadron, out of the reach of British & French navies -- so the ships went to New York.
- Russia's Pacific squadron also took up position in San Francisco bay as a neutral guard against Confederate raids.
- The US government used the visiting squadrons to scare Britain & France away from supporting the South (and to depress the South as well).
I'm not sure what to make of THIS breathless account over at "Russia Beyond," except to say the pictures are pretty cool.
But hey -- talk about breathless -- what really captures my imagination here is the 21 November 1863 edition of Harper's:
SOURCE = The Russian Ball--In the Supper Room, from Harper's Weekly, November 21, 1863 (Smithsonian) (Drawing by Winslow Homer... Woops, somebody dropped a glove!)
Check out this swirling centerfold -- the dance floor was reportedly 850 SQUARE YARDS, and they sold 2,000 tickets!:
SOURCE = Civil War Harper's Weekly, November 21, 1863 (p.744-45) [SonOfTheSouth.net] (Another Winslow Homer gem. What motion! Best viewed fullscreen w/ a waltz playing!)
That 21 Nov. 1863 edition of Harper's is worth perusing. Among other things, it asks whether such a ball is "so very sensible a thing" while Union soldiers are suffering & dying out in the field:
Should this number of Harper's Weekly fall into the hands of some poor wounded fellow at Chattanooga, or some half-starved Union prisoner at Richmond, the contrast between his own condition and that of the scented and perfumed dancers who figure in the ball picture may not improve his temper. "They are fiddling while I am dying," is the remark which would not unnaturally occur to him, and it would leave a bitter taste behind.
Nonetheless, the writer imagines the dancers protesting thus:
"...our Russian Ball had a political significance, and may render good aid to the Union cause."
What possible "aid" could be rendered by hosting & twirling the officers of the Russian Imperial Fleet docked at New York Harbor? It's a matter of playing these great powers off against each other through these high-class play dates:
London was courteous to [Russian Czar] Nicholas [at a previous dance there], and New York is courteous to the Russian admiral. London may have had reason; New York certainly has. For Russia as a power has been positively friendly to us in our trouble. Has Cousin John [i.e. John Bull, i.e. England], as a power, been so? Let him be reasonable. We have given the Japanese Princes, the Prince of Wales, and the Russian officers a pretty ball. ... May we never be compelled to give either of them any other kind of ball than the Terpsichorean*! [p.738]
[*Psst -- "Terpsichorean" refers to Terpsichore, the muse of dancing. The writer obviously prefers dancing to lobbing cannon balls. Threat of violence via classical allusion -- very classy indeed.]
So apparently if England & France think they see Russia lending military support to the Union side, they'll be less likely to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy. And with that in mind, check out this timely cartoon from the back page:
CAPTION: "JOHN BULL [England] and LOUIS NAPOLEON [France] descry upon the horizon a cloud about the size (and shape) of two Big Men's hands, and are frightened nearly out of their boots by the phenomenon."
Yep, that's Europe gnashing its teeth under the spectre of US-Russian collusion.
And when I say the rabbit hole was deep, here's what I mean:
The OTHER main subject of the 21 November Harper's is partisan warfare between Union soldiers and pro-confederate irregulars (who did NOT obey the established rules of "civilized warfare"). Check out these chilling images that bracket the images of 2,000 New York dancers:
So there's some serious Civil War spectacle for you in a single issue of Harper's -- Imperial Terpsichorean twirlings b/w bloodhound fangs on patriotic throats.
Go ahead, follow some of those links -- you'll see -- the rabbit hole goes on & on.
Meanwhile, back to work on these comics...