In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Crimean War, 1853–1856

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Origins and Diplomacy
  • Black Sea Theater
  • The Crimean Campaign
  • The Baltic Theater
  • The White Sea and Pacific
  • Economic Warfare
  • Diplomacy and the Termination of War
  • Consequences
  • Art, Literature, and the Human Experience
  • Online Sources

Military History Crimean War, 1853–1856
Andrew Lambert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0228


The Crimean War (1853–1856) transformed the “Eastern question”—the future of the declining Ottoman Turkish Empire—into a conflict involving three European great powers, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, while the other great powers, Austria and Prussia along with the United States, were diplomatically engaged. The war also affected the interests of Sweden-Norway, Denmark, Piedmont-Sardinia, Greece, Japan, and China. While it was a limited war, the nature and scale of Russia’s defeat exposed the inability of a preindustrial empire with a servile population to compete with technologically advanced industrial nation-states, supported by powerful economic and industrial sectors and inclusive politics. The military campaign in Crimea dominates most narratives, reflecting the scale of casualties rather than strategic significance. Sevastopol was destroyed to prevent Russia from launching an amphibious assault on Istanbul and the Bosphorus Strait. The war was waged all round the Black Sea, the Baltic, and the White Sea and on the Pacific coast of Imperial Russia, striking Russian naval bases and seagoing trade: Anglo-French troops were never deployed more than a day’s march from the coast and depended entirely on sea-based logistics as well as naval gunfire support,. Outside Crimea allied casualties were minimal—a reality that avoided sensationalist newspaper coverage but distorted perceptions of the conflict. After the fall of Sevastopol in September 1855, the British mobilized a massive sea-based force to threaten St. Petersburg, the Imperial Russian capital, at a time when economic warfare had rendered Russia structurally bankrupt. Moderate allied peace terms secured the support of neutral Austria, which demanded that Russia accept them. Russia accepted defeat, before launching a major transformation of the empire, the economy, and communication and transport systems. The Ottoman Empire survived for another fifty years, while France promoted a new European system that favored the principle of nationalities. Britain celebrated victory by reviewing the fleet built to attack St. Petersburg, a public statement of deterrence. Piedmont-Sardinia joined the war to secure a seat at the peace conference, where it advanced the cause of a united Italy. In Britain military and administrative failures raised questions about the role of the aristocracy in war and government. The conflict affected popular culture in Britain and France, creating new ideas of heroism, notably that of nurses following the high-profile work of Florence Nightingale. The impact of this conflict on the tactics, strategy and weapons, and facial hair styles of the American Civil War (1861–65) has never been fully appreciated.

General Overviews

The historiography of the conflict reflects a wide range of approaches, from the classic texts on the military and diplomatic history of the great powers, to regional studies, cultural responses, and medical advances. Studies focusing on national perspectives have emphasized the divergent interests of scholarly communities. Even so, Crimean literature has yet to escape the confined paradigm of a Crimean conflict, restricting the coverage to diplomatic history or to the campaign around Sevastopol, while occasionally referencing the wider war. Baumgart 1999 is typical, as a major diplomatic history that undervalues the connection of policy, strategy, and operations. Battesti 1997 sets the war in the context of the expanding French navy and the oceanic ambitions of the Bonaparte regime. Lambert 2011 focuses on high-level decision making. Since the end of the twentieth century these largely self-contained literatures have been drawn together, in Gouttman 2003, Badem 2010, Rath 2015, and Badem 2022 (see Anthologies), which have, respectively, provided the long overdue French assessment of the conflict, the Ottoman core, the wider global dimensions of the conflict, and a strikingly broad survey of contemporary scholarship, shifting the focus from fighting in Crimea to a far wider set of questions The emergence of this new version of the war reached a turning point with Tate 2019, an inclusive baseline for future studies of a complex and multidimensional global conflict. Russian scholarship is still dominated by older interpretations, notably those set out in Tarle 1950, a defiantly nationalist work. Russian historians have worked with other scholars, but it remains to be seen how far this process will develop. Krivopalov in Badem 2022 (see Anthologies) reflects this emerging scholarship. Too much effort has been devoted to retelling the Crimean battles and bloodshed from the Russian perspective, a useful, but hardly enlightening process. Curtiss 1979 remains the standard academic account of Russia’s war, while Fletcher and Ishchenko 2004 persists in the old opinion that Crimea “was certainly the most important theatre of war where the military decision was to be forced.” Such judgments assume that the Anglo-French forces were seeking a decisive battle to win the war, when their strategy was asymmetric, limited, and, above all, peripheral. Sevastopol was a naval base, not the capital of Russia. This was a limited war and was always going to end in a negotiation. Ultimately, the Russian leadership accepted limited defeat rather than risk the stability of a bankrupt empire.

  • Badem, Candan. The Ottoman Crimean War (1853–1856). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004182059.i-432

    A major archival study that emphasizes the centrality of the Ottoman regime to the war and the Black Sea theater. For too long the Ottoman regime has been denied agency in the conflict—a reason to fight, that is, rather than being an independent actor. The Ottomans had two borders with Russia, in the Balkans and the Caucasus, with vital territory in dispute in both regions, while Turkey had no interest in invading or occupying Crimea.

  • Badem, Candan, ed. The Routledge Handbook of the Crimean War. Routledge: Abingdon, 2022.

    The most important multi-author work on the conflict, with thirty-one separate contributions covering all aspects of the conflict, from diplomacy and grand strategy to social life, neutrality and cultural outputs. A landmark in modern scholarship.

  • Battesti, Michele. “Chapter 2: la Guerre de Crimée.” In La marine de Napoléon III: Une politique naval. 2 vols, 69–159. Paris: Service Historique de la Marine, 1997.

    Provides the most up-to-date account of French naval operations.

  • Baumgart, Winfried. The Crimean War, 1853–1856. London: Arnold, 1999.

    A standard text by a leading historian and essential for wartime diplomacy, especially that of the neutral German courts, but occasionally at sea when dealing with the war beyond Crimea. Professor Sir Hew Strachan’s preface provides a more up-to-date interpretation of the conflict.

  • Curtiss, John Shelton. Russia’s Crimean War. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1979.

    A sympathetic and well-researched assessment of the Russian perspective, influenced by older works, notably that of Tarle.

  • Fletcher, Ian, and Natalia Ishchenko. The Crimean War: A Clash of Empires. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, 2004.

    A reexamination of the war that remains focused on the Crimean campaign.

  • Gouttman, Alain. La guerre de Crimée, 1853–1856: La première guerre moderne. Paris: Édition Perrin, 2003.

    Overturns long-standing French disinterest in the Imperial Russian regime, demonstrating that it is necessary to take the Second Empire seriously to understand the decision to intervene in the holy places crisis and the conflict.

  • Krivopalov, Alexey. “Russia’s Military Strategy and Lessons of the War.” In The Routledge Handbook of the Crimean War. Edited by Candan Badem, 34–55. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2022.

    Krivopalov emphasizes the limits of Russian power, and development of strategies to minimize risk and losses, with strong forces deployed in the Black Sea and Baltic Theatres, while diplomacy minimized the risk of the German powers intervening.

  • Lambert, Andrew. The Crimean War: British Grand Strategy against Russia, 1853–56. 2d ed. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

    Highlights the critical role of the Baltic in British grand strategy, countering Russian pressure on Turkey by an asymmetric threat to St. Petersburg. Examines British diplomatic, strategic, and operational decision making from the perspective of cabinet ministers and senior commanders, stressing the central role of the Baltic in British policy and the interdependence of the two main theaters.

  • Rath, Andrew C. The Crimean War in Imperial Context, 1854–1856. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137544537

    Brings together all four theaters of the war and stresses the significance of East Asia, including the opening of Japan, along with the Russian seizure of the Amur River basin from China, the last act of the conflict and one with important contemporary resonance.

  • Tarle, Yevgeny Viktorovich. Krymskaia voina (The Crimean War) (in Russian). 2 vols. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Akedmiii, 1950.

    Although it is dated and affected by Cold War politics, this remains an essential baseline book for studies of the Russian conflict. See Curtiss 1979 and Rath 2015 in this list for examples.

  • Tate, Trudie. A Short History of the Crimean War. London: I. B. Tauris, 2019.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781788316347

    An ambitious and inclusive text that will shape teaching and research in the field going forward. It marks a clear break with older traditions of a war confined to Crimea, fought by armies, and engaging the attention of a fairly limited audience—largely defined by the charge of the Light Brigade, administrative incompetence, the nursing initiative of Florence Nightingale, and the galloping verse of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

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