Historians routinely rate Abraham Lincoln our greatest president, a secular saint who could do no wrong. But like most politicians, he did what was politically expedient. Such was the case involving the Polish insurrection of 1863 against Russia.
Lincoln, of course, was president during the American Civil War and one area of importance to him was that of foreign relations. Regarding countries that mattered, Britain and France favored the South, and Russia was considered a staunch supporter of the North. These alliances were critical, for if any one of those countries overtly supported the Confederacy with supplies and money the Union might be doomed.
In Europe at the time, Britain and France were aligned against Russia and the latter enjoyed excellent relations with the U.S., a far cry from the 1830s when Russia was excoriated by the American press and public for its treatment of the Polish insurrectionists. In the 1860s Russia was looked upon by Americans as comparable to the U.S., largely because Czar Alexander II was considered to be a liberal reformer. He had freed the Russian serfs in 1861 (but not Polish serfs) and made other progressive reforms. Both countries were also thought of as vibrant, expanding empires.
Like the United States, Russia was a collection of many states under a central government, albeit with a repressive undemocratic government. When the Poles in 1863 began an uprising with the goal of gaining independence from their Russian occupiers, comparison to the southern U.S. states seeking independence from their central government were inevitable.
In the North, newspapers praised the czar for his reforms, and when the 1863 rising began, they mostly criticized the Poles, calling their revolution a blunder without chance of success, and sometimes citing the Poles as the equals of the Southern Confederate traitors. Whereas in the 1830s the Poles were gallant freedom fighters, they were now seen as troublemakers wanting to break apart the Russian union, just as the Confederates sought the tearing up of the American union. American unionists did not support secession of Poland from Russia, lest they be judged hypocrites for opposing American southern secession. So the Poles were abandoned in the process.
In the South, President Lincoln was likened to Czar Alexander. Just as the czar was oppressing and attacking the freedom loving Poles wanting to establish independence and self-rule, so was “Czar Abraham” drawing the sword against the Southerners for seeking their own country.
The Lincoln administration made no pronouncement regarding the Polish insurrection either for or against. It could not risk turning Russia into a supporter of the South and it favored the anti-British, anti-French stance of the czar.
The American ambassador to Russia, Cassius Clay, was an outright Russophile who favored the czar’s suppression of “reactionary, Catholic and despotic Poland.” American officials cited their historic policy of neutrality in not getting involved in European affairs, as well as the fact that nearly seventy years after Poland had disappeared from the map, Russia’s treatment of Poles was considered an internal matter and no business of the U.S. government.
While the Poles were fighting and dying for their freedom, and a good number of Polish immigrants were fighting for the Union cause in America, a Russian navy fleet came to New York in September 1863 and shortly afterward visited San Francisco.
New Yorkers’ welcome for the Russians was jubilant and the press was giddy with pro-Russian sentiments. There was a parade and a ball was thrown for the Russian officers. In December, a Russian warship anchored off Alexandria, Va. A banquet aboard ship was attended by cabinet members and Mrs. Lincoln, who toasted the czar in place of President Lincoln, who was ill in Washington. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote, “God bless the Russians.” A reception for the Russians was also held at the White House in December at which the president was present. During this time, a Polish sailor who was serving on one of the Russian vessels jumped ship, was hunted down by Americans, returned to the Russians and hanged.
Could not have President Lincoln made a muted statement about Russia’s harsh treatment of the Poles, or at least stood up for the Poles in private? He did neither. The Poles did not rate highly for him. In the game of international chess, they were expendable pawns.
The Russians needed American support to counter British and French moves in Europe as much as America needed Russian support to counter British and French support for the Confederacy. That Abraham Lincoln could not bother himself with a few official words of sympathy for the Poles, even behind the scenes, seems to stand as a blot on his revered character, and one that should be noted by Polish Americans.
Concerning the fate of America, the Polish Insurrection of 1863 diverted the attention of the British and French from aiding the Confederacy to opposing the Russian atrocities against the Poles. From the suffering of our Polish forefathers come some of the seeds of the Union victory over the Confederates.
I recommend this book about Polish history written by Adam Zamoyski and entitled: The Polish Way: A Thousand-Year History of the Poles and Their Culture
Eyewitness Travel Guide to Poland (Eyewitness Travel Guides) by Teresa Czerniewics-Umer, Malgorzata Omilanowska, Jerzy S. Majewski, DK Travel Writers