Graveyard Ceremony Commemorates When U.S., Russia Were the Closest of Allies   

February 12, 2020 9:55 AM
Russian students listen to a Russian naval officer in the Annapolis National Cemetery, Md. USNI News Photo

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – In the back corner of a cemetery, just down the road from the U.S. Naval Academy, is the grave of Nikolay Demidoff. He was a Russian sailor who died during a little-remembered episode more than 150 years ago when Russia was one of the only friends Washington had.

Last week, a contingent from the Embassy of the Russian Federation, including diplomats, representatives of the Russian Defense Ministry and Russian schoolchildren, gathered near Demidoff’s grave to commemorate an incident when Russia was one of the few European powers rooting for President Abraham Lincoln and the preservation of the Union.

In 1864, most of Europe had taken a position of neutrality during the Civil War but harbored sympathies for the Confederacy. Industrial powers such a Great Britain and France relied on cotton from the South, and there were fears they would join in military support of the rebels.

Russian naval officers

Demidoff had been sent to the United States as a sailor in one of the two squadrons Tsar Alexander II dispatched to demonstrate Russia’s support for the Union. Russia had forged a strong relationship with America over the preceding decades and became the first country to be granted most-favored-nation status in 1832. One squadron was sent to San Francisco, while the squadron carrying Demidoff arrived in New York in September 1863 before moving down to Hampton Roads, Va. On Jan. 29, 1864, steam corvette Variag and steam clipper Almaz sailed up the Severn River and anchored near the yard of U.S. Naval Academy.

At the time, Annapolis was considered so vulnerable to Confederate raids that the Naval Academy had been moved further north to Newport, R.I. Even “Old Ironsides” was not deemed safe. USS Constitution, which was then being used by the Academy as a training ship, was towed to Rhode Island to prevent it from being captured.

Russian sailors in 1863

A week after the ships’ arrival, a few of the sailors ventured into town. Demidoff and a shipmate entered a saloon for a drink, but the bartender refused to serve them anything stronger than cider. Accounts vary as to why they were denied the hard liquor they wanted, but the sailors became angry. After a heated argument that carried over to a brawl in a nearby restaurant where the sailors attacked the proprietor, Demidoff was shot to death.

Fearing the death of a Russian sailor on U.S. soil would jeopardize his relationship with then-capitol St. Petersburg, Lincoln asked to be kept apprised of the incident investigation conducted by a committee appointed by the Maryland legislature. The proprietor of the restaurant who pulled the trigger was arrested but released on bail. Meanwhile, Demidoff was given an elaborate funeral at the Naval Academy chapel. U.S. Navy and Army officers joined the Russians, filling the chapel to capacity. A large procession including a full brass band, Russian Marines and citizens of Annapolis escorted Demidoff’s walnut coffin to the cemetery. The Russians seemed satisfied with the handling of the investigation as well as the regard given to Demidoff during the memorial service.

The Russian squadrons stayed in American waters until that spring, when they started to return home. Russia had been trying to suppress an uprising in Poland and was concerned Great Britain would intercede on the side of the Poles. By visiting the United States during the winter, the Russians could keep ships in warm water ports and attack British commercial shipping in the event of war. There would also be the potential of forming an alliance with the United States if the Royal Navy attempted any blockade on behalf of the Confederacy. Ultimately, Britain chose not to get involved in either conflict.

The presence of Russian ships in Union-held ports may have also deterred Confederate attacks. Although some contemporary observers were suspicious of Russia’s intentions, Alexander II’s gesture was mostly well-received and generated an optimistic outlook at the time.

Russian officer places Russian Federation flag and Russian Navy ensign on the grave of Nikolay Demidoff

At a reception held in Boston for the departing squadron, the city’s mayor remarked the Russians had brought them “the kindly sentiment of international brotherhood: and has given us the opportunity for the formation of those personal intimate relations with its accomplished officers, which will strengthen the ties already existing between the two nations, and will have no inconsiderable influence in promoting the prosperity of both countries.”

Russia’s role in the Civil War has largely been forgotten, which is why it was significant the Russian Embassy contingent visited the Annapolis cemetery last week. After a Russian historian recounted the events leading up to the death of Demidoff, Russian naval attaché Capt. Sergei Sadchikov saluted the final resting place of the fallen sailor. Then in total silence, one by one the schoolchildren placed a flower by Demidoff’s headstone.

Demidoff is not the only sailor from the Russian Navy buried in Annapolis. In an ornate marble and bronze sarcophagus in the crypt below the U.S. Naval Academy chapel lies John Paul Jones, the “Father of the American Navy.” Jones had found himself unemployed following the American Revolutionary War, so he joined to Russian Navy where he became Rear Adm. Pavel de Zhones, fighting in the Russo-Turkish War.

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