The Acquisition Of Alaska

It was on this day in 1867 that the United States of America formally took possession of the territory of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands from Imperial Russia. United States Secretary of State, William Seward, had negotiated the purchase in March of that year, and with much political arm-twisting, Seward successfully convinced the Senate to approve the purchase by the barest of margins: one vote.

The purchase was a bargain: more than 600,000 square miles of territory were acquired for a mere $7,200,000.00, which works out to that famed “two cents an acre” which most of learned about in grade school. Many of us also learned that this transaction was roundly derided as “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox,” and that detractors predicted the creation of new posts such as “Secretary of Polar Bears.” And there is some truth to these notions. But it seems that most of these criticisms were from the Anti-Johnson Administration press of the day, and that a small majority of Americans in 1867 felt that the acquisition of more territory was a good thing for the United States, especially territory which bordered upon and hemmed in Canada, since the United States was having tense relations with Great Britain at the time.

In the perfect backward vision of the past 144 years, Seward’s decision to pursue and complete the purchase of Alaska certainly proves to have been far-sighted and beneficial: in the late 1890s gold was discovered in the territory, and by the early 20th century a thriving fishery industry was well established, and later an oil bonaza was developed. Furthermore, with the collapse of Imperial Russia in 1917 and the rise of the Soviet Union, the fact that the United States owned Alaska was an immensely important security bulwark for the United States and Canada. Imagine, at the height of the Cold War, if the Soviet Union had bases, missiles, and troops massed on the North American continent! How different things would have been. So, as I say, in retrospect, Seward’s purchase was one of the most important strategic acquisitions that the United States has ever made.

But we know that Seward had no idea that the Soviet Union would arise, and we can be sure he knew nothing of gold strikes and other material resources that would be discovered. So the question remains: why did Seward urge the United States, which had less than two years before emerged from the terrible and costly crucible of Civil War, to spend millions on a distant, marginal territory? What was his reasoning? What was his motivation?

The answer is actually surprisingly simple and rather prosaic: Seward was repaying a political debt, an ancient if uninspiring motive. The United States owed Russia for its support during the Civil War.

When the states of the American South united into the Confederate states of America in 1861, nearly every major European power immediately recognized the government of the rebellious states. In part, the European states were giving the United States a taste of its own policies: the U.S. had long had a policy of recognizing revolutionary states, much to the annoyance of Spain which lost almost all of her New World colonies through revolution by 1861, and so the recognition of the Confederate government was simply a repayment in kind.

But, too, in the global politics of the mid-nineteenth century, a strong United States represented a real rival to the power and influence of Great Britain and France, the two Superpowers of the age. The United States had declared with its Monroe Doctrine in 1823 that it intended to dominate the Americas, and it had risen to a predominant position in the Pacific Rim trade with the opening of Japan in 1856. Both Great Britain and France were uneasy with the power of the upstart nation, and both Great Britain and France would have liked to see the United States split and weakened.

Imperial Russia, on the other hand, had been defeated by an Anglo-French coalition in the Crimean war in the 1850’s and was still smarting from this humiliation and its burdens. Too, the young Czar Alexander II unexpectedly proved to be the greatest reformer in more than 400 years of Romanov rule. Alexander II reformed the decrepit state bureaucracy, revamped the military, sponsored legislation permitting modern corporations for the improvement of the nation’s infrastructure, and he consolidated and reduced Russia’s far-flung and expensive empire. Notably, he abolished Russia’s ancient institution of Serfdom.

Russia’s peasants were the last in Europe to receive the legal abolition of serfdom, a status equivalent to slavery. Alexander II undertook this bold, modernizing step almost singlehandedly in early 1861. Because of this liberation, some historians have explained Alexander’s diplomatic position as being motivated by a love of liberty and a hatred of slavery, but this seems unlikely. There is not the time nor the space here to properly analyse Alexander II’s long and eventful reign, but suffice it to say that his abolition of serfdom notwithstanding, Alexander II was probably not motivated by a hatred of slavery. Despite his progressive initiatives, Alexander II also maintained many of his predecessors’ oppressive policies.

Alexander’s strong support for the United States arose from both a desire to thwart his former adversaries, France and Great Britain, and a real and pressing need to develop an ally with usable ports. Since France and Great Britain were at odds with the United States due to their support of the Confederacy, Russia found a natural ally in Lincoln’s government: the enemies of my enemies are my friends.

In January of 1863, widespread famine in Russia’s Polish possessions led to open revolt. The first six month of 1863 held the potential for destabilizing the balance of power within Europe, and the specter of War loomed. It looked as if Great Britain and France might again be required to take up arms against Russia. And a weakened Russia would alter the balance between France and Great Britain. It was a delicate season.

Russia, for her part, needed an ally with ice-free ports for her fleets in case war broke out. Great Britain vastly dominated the seas, with France a distant second. Russia’s navy would have easily been blockaded in the Baltic and Vladivostok. Therefore, Alexander II ordered his fleets into American ports. The Baltic fleet arrived in New York Harbor on September 11th 1863 and was greeted with festivities and parades. This congregation of Naval power would help avoid overt British action against the Union. President Lincoln hosted the officers of the fleet at a White House banquet, and the Russian sailors were so moved by the appalling conditions of lower Manhattan’s tenement dwellers that they raised $5,000.00 for their relief! An interesting footnote is that a young Lieutenant, recently graduated from the Imperial Russian Naval Academy, passed his long, idle hours on duty with the fleet by writing his first symphony. The experience convinced him that his first love was music, and so Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov resigned his commision when the fleet returned to Russia in 1865.

In early 1862, both France and Great Britain had dispatched warships to San Francisco Bay, and there they remained throughout the American conflict, a potential threat if either France or Great Britain decided to openly involve itself in the Civil War. Most of the Union’s much-needed gold supply flowed through San Francisco Bay. The appearance of Imperial Russia’s Pacific Fleet in San Francisco in early October of 1863 served to eliminate this threat. To this day, San Francisco honors the memory of the Russian sailors who fought a great fire that broke out in downtown San Francisco on October 23, 1863, and thus saved the city. The Russians overwintered at Mare Island, and there are graves of Russian sailors there today. These gravesites have been the source of a fair amount of controversy in the past year or so: the Russian consulate in San Francisco replaced the 19th Century headstones which simply read “Russian Sailor” with new, strikingly white marble crosses with individual’s names. Unfortunately, these new monuments were not authorized by the historic site and they do not harmonize with the existing, antique headstones on the other graves. The matter is still being debated at this time, with preservation purists and Russian patriots at loggerheads. It is to be hoped that peaceful compromise will be worked out among former allies.

After 1863, the tide of the American Civil War turned decisively – though not speedily – in favor of the Union, and Great Britain abandoned all thought of intervention. Louis Napoleon still hoped to do something until almost the very end, because he had his own little adventure in Mexico under way. Things settled down in Russia, and her fleets returned home from New York in early 1865, and from Mare Island later that year. Though the fleets never had to fire a shot in support of the United States, their presence was a great help in deterring foreign intervention on behalf of the Confederacy, and so materially contributed to the preservation of the Union.

In 1866, Czar Alexander II decided to divest the Russian Empire of its costly and sparsely inhabited overseas possessions. He decided it was time to call in a favor, and so approached Seward about a possible purchase of Alaska. Seward, wanting to be sure that the United States would never be seen as ungrateful, decided to honor the Czar’s offer. Thus was “Seward’s Folly” – a possible boondoggle, an extravagance for a country still burdened by the titanic debts incurred in four years of nationwide war, a political payback – transacted. And by having the character to repay a favor, the United States gained incalcuably.

Happy Alaska Day!!!

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

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