Eyewitness 1863: Czar had to confront his own insurrection

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Abraham Lincoln was not the only world leader dealing with the potential break-up of his country in 1863.

In January of that year Alexander II, the Russian czar, faced a rebellion in Polish-speaking areas of his empire. Fighting soon spread to portions of what are now Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Although international stories usually received little space in local newspapers, Joseph P. Barr, the editor of The Pittsburgh Post, printed two reports on the European violence on March 18.

Barr may have had multiple motives in printing news from Warsaw. The Post was the city's Democratic newspaper, opposing the Lincoln administration and favoring negotiations and accommodation with the South as the best way to end the Civil War.

The report in the Post included no editorial commentary drawing parallels between the efforts of the Eastern European revolutionaries to break free of Russian dominance and the Confederates' fight to leave the Union. Barr, nevertheless, could leave it to his readers to make the connections. Picked up from a French newspaper called the "L'Opinion nationale," the story shows "the determined spirit which animates the insurgents." It also offered evidence of "atrocities committed by Russian troops."

The author of the report was said to be Polish-Lithuanian poet Adam Mickiewicz, "whose patriotic songs are now sung by the insurgents." That would have been a neat trick. Mickiewicz had taken part in earlier rebellions against Russia, and he had been exiled. He died in what is now Istanbul, Turkey, in 1855.

Whoever was the author of the Post's story, he offered a defense of the rebels' tactics. Outnumbered and outgunned by Alexander's armies, the revolutionaries turned to guerrilla attacks. Russian troops found themselves facing irregular forces that included very young fighters.

"Many Russians and foreign officers do not understand by what an amount of living despair we are animated," the writer of the alleged letter from Warsaw said. "[They] become indignant and disgusted at seeing children hardly eight years old discharge revolvers at Russian soldiers, and they never think of the towns and village which our tyrants have reduced to cinders."

Fighting was brutal. "The wounds of the Russians are mortal when the terrible scythes of the peasants reach them," according to the writer. "The hospitals are full, the soldiers exasperated, and the Cossacks avenge themselves by killing all whom they come across."

That same edition of the Post printed a second dispatch, attributed to the Berlin correspondent of the London Daily News. It said that peasants were joining nobility in the fight. Polish and Lithuanian farmers both "join the ranks of the insurgents [and] everywhere give them help, shelter and information about the movements of the enemy," the report said. "The nobles likewise, fight and spare no means to support the insurgents."

Whatever the early successes, the rebellion against the czar, like the Confederates' secession, ended badly. By 1864 the insurgency had been crushed, and hundreds of its leaders were jailed. Many were hanged for treason.

The rebellion had a long-lasting effect in Russia's Lithuanian-speaking areas. At the urging of his ministers, Czar Alexander approved a "press ban," which lasted until 1904, that forbade the printing of Lithuanian books in the Latin alphabet. It was part of a broader effort to separate the borderlands of the Russian empire from Western influences.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.


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