The Crimean War (1853-1856) stemmed from Russia’s threat to multiple European interests with its pressure of Turkey. After demanding Russian evacuation of the Danubian Principalities, British and French forces laid siege to the city of Sevastopol in 1854. The campaign lasted for a full year, with the Battle of Balaclava and its “Charge of the Light Brigade” among its famous skirmishes. Facing mounting losses and increased resistance from Austria, Russia agreed to the terms of the 1856 Treaty of Paris. Remembered in part for Florence Nightingale’s work for the wounded, the Crimean War reshaped Europe’s power structure.

The Crimean War was a result of Russian pressure on Turkey; this threatened British commercial and strategic interests in the Middle East and India. France, having provoked the crisis for prestige purposes, used the war to cement an alliance with Britain and to reassert its military power.

Anglo-French forces secured Istanbul before attacking Russia in the Black Sea, the Baltic, the Arctic, and the Pacific, supported by a maritime blockade. In September 1854 the allies landed in the Crimea, planning to destroy Sevastopol and the Russian Fleet in six weeks before withdrawing to Turkey. After victory on the River Alma, they hesitated; the Russians then reinforced the city and attacked the allied flank at the battles of Balaklava and the Inkerman. After a terrible winter, the allies cut Russian logistics by occupying the Sea of Azov; then, using superior sea-based logistics, they forced the Russians out of Sevastopol, which fell on September 8–9, 1855.

In the Baltic, also a major theater, the allies captured the Åland fortress of Bomarsund in 1854, and destroyed Sveaborg, the Helsinki dockyard, in 1855. These operations detained 200,000 Russian troops in the theater. The British prepared to destroy Cronstadt and St. Petersburg in 1856, using armored warships, steam gunboats, and mortar vessels.

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Forced to accept defeat, Russia sought peace in January 1856. It had lost 500,000 troops, mostly to disease, malnutrition, and exposure; its economy was ruined, and its primitive industries were incapable of producing modern weapons. Allied war aims were limited to securing Turkey, although for reasons of prestige Napoleon III wanted a European conference to secure his dynasty.

The Peace of Paris, signed on March 30, 1856, preserved Ottoman rule in Turkey until 1914, crippled Russia, facilitated the unification of Germany, and revealed the power of Britain and the importance of sea power in global conflict. It had a major influence on the conduct of the American Civil War. The use of the term Crimean and a fascination with striking events such as “the Charge of the Light Brigade,” have obscured the scale and significance of the conflict.

A. D. Lambert

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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