Prologue Magazine

Guarding the Railroad, Taming the Cossacks

The U.S. Army in Russia, 1918–1920

Winter 2002, Vol. 34, No. 4

By Gibson Bell Smith


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American troops parade in Vladivostok, August 1918.

William S. Graves was pleased as summer 1918 began. He had just been promoted to major general and assigned command of the U.S. Army's Eighth Division, which would soon go to France to fight the Germans in the Great War. On August 2, however, Graves got a specially coded message at Camp Fremont in California, ordering him to a meeting in Kansas City.

The next evening, he was met at the Kansas City train station by Secretary of War Newton Baker, who informed Graves that his career was taking a new turn.

President Woodrow Wilson had decided that the United States, still at war in Europe, must intervene in another part of the world to protect its investments. It had nearly a billion dollars' worth of American guns and equipment strewn along a segment of the Trans-Siberian Railway between Vladivostok and Nikolsk.

Wilson had approved the dispatch of eight thousand men to Siberia—that cold, forbidding part of Russia—and he had chosen Graves as their commander. There, Graves would engage not in the kind of structured combat he had expected in Europe but in a wily contest of nerves, with Cossacks, Bolshevik guerrilla forces, and even Japanese army troops looking to bring Siberia into Japan's sphere of influence. At the same time, the American North Russian Expeditionary Force arrived in Archangel.

It would be the first, and only, time American troops were on Russian soil.

Graves and his men would face off against not German military leaders schooled in combat much the way he had been at West Point, but with the likes of Grigori Semenoff, a Cossack leader, or ataman, of a surly band of marauders whose sole joy in life was to rape, plunder, and steal among the local populations of the Trans-Baikal region of Siberia. On the Trans-Baikal Railway, one of the major links of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Cossacks routinely commandeered railway cars and locomotives.

Wilson's decision and Graves's unexpected adventure were coming at a time when much of the world was in turmoil.

The World War was still raging in Europe and would not end until the Armistice in November 1918. Civil war was still under way in Russia even though the Bolsheviks had ousted Alexander Kerensky in November 1917, a few months after the Mensheviks had deposed the tsar that spring. There did not appear to the Allies to be a legitimate government with whom they could do business. The Allies viewed the Czech Legion and even some White Russian and Cossack forces as levers to winning the war against Germany and Austria by creating diversions in western Russia at Archangel and in eastern Siberia. They hoped this activity would cause the Central Powers to divert forces from the Western Front back to Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the Red Army in Russia was still fighting for its life on at least four fronts.

When Baker met Graves in Kansas City, he handed him an envelope that contained the aide memoire, the reasons for sending American soldiers to innermost Russia:

  • To facilitate the safe exit of the forty-thousand-man Czech Legion from Russia. The Legion had helped clear the Trans-Siberian Railway of Bolsheviks in the spring of 1918 and were the main fighting force in Siberia sympathetic to the Allied cause. (The Bolsheviks had made a separate peace with Germany and therefore could not be trusted.)
  • To guard the nearly one billion dollars' worth of American military equipment stored at Vladivostok and Murmansk.
  • To help the Russians organize their new government.

"This contains the policy of the United States in Russia which you are to follow," Baker said as he handed over the envelope. "Watch your step; you will be walking on eggs loaded with dynamite. God bless you and good-bye."

Reasons for Intervention

President Woodrow Wilson's motivation for sending troops to Siberia stemmed from the same desires that drove him to try to impose the Paris Peace Treaty on Europe: the promotion of democracy and self-determination. But first and foremost, he wanted to protect the billion-dollar investment of American guns and equipment along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Vast quantities of supplies had been sent when America believed that Russia was capable of fighting and winning against the Central Powers in the spring of 1917.

The Menshevik Revolution, which overthrew the tsar in February and March 1917, raised Wilson's hopes for democratizing Russia and implanting capitalism there. Under Alexander Kerensky's regime, the first wave of American technicians arrived to revamp and run the vast Trans-Siberian Railway. The European allies, in concert with Kerensky, agreed to establish the American-run Russian Railway Service. Beginning in November 1917, the United States provided Russia with three hundred locomotives and more than ten thousand railway cars. Bad weather and an unfavorable political climate delayed the final entry of the Russian Railway Service Corps until March 1918, when they entered Siberia from the Manchurian city of Harbin.

In addition to the supplies and the presence of Americans attempting to fix and develop Russia's railway service, Wilson also considered the Czech Legion. The Legion had been formed early in 1918 from Czech and Slovak prisoners of war in Russia, sympathetic Russian Slavs, and deserters from the Austro-Hungarian army. Beginning in March 1918, forty thousand soldiers fought with the Legion for the Allied cause. When the Bolsheviks pulled out of the war, they agreed to let the Czech Legion leave Russia. President Wilson wanted the world to know that the United States supported the safe return of the Czech Legion to its newly formed homeland.

In March 1918, the Legion moved steadily eastward along the Trans-Siberian Railway. When the Bolsheviks tried to disarm the Czechoslovaks, the soldiers of the Legion hid their weapons, and relations between the two groups frayed.

In May 1918 the Red Guard arrested several Czechoslovaks after a confrontation between legionaries and German prisoners of war at Chelyabinsk Station. A Czech had been killed, and his comrades retaliated by lynching a prisoner. The legionaries forcibly released the prisoners and took over the town. In a valiant effort to fight their way back to their homeland, the Czech Legion smashed its way both east and west, toppling just about every Soviet government in the far eastern part of Russia and Siberia.

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In 1918, the Czech Legion moved eastward along the Trans-Siberian Railway in armored cars, fighting their way to Vladvostok, from where they hoped to sail for home. (111-SC-75877)

This dramatic turn of events brought the fate of the Czech Legion to the attention of Wilson and ultimately led to the American intervention in Siberia.1 In June 1918, Wilson received a number of diplomatic visits directly related to the Allied demand for intervention in Russia. Both the French and British military missions to Russia sent representatives to persuade him to send American troops to Siberia. The War Department had been studying the issue for some time, but they were hardly as sanguine as the French and British wished. The Europeans sought at least thirty thousand American troops in Siberia to go in alongside some sixty thousand Japanese. The Allies stressed the need to deprive the Germans of access to the billions of dollars' worth of assets that lay strewn about the Siberian landscape. The bulk of the effort was to persuade the Czechs to remain in Siberia as a serious counterweight to the Germans. The Allies hoped that by keeping pressure on the Red Army, they could prevent an alliance between the Bolsheviks and the Central Powers, which they feared might allow Germany and Austria to shift valuable men and material to the Western Front.

Finally on July 6, 1918, Wilson decided to intervene in Siberia. The mandate for eight thousand American troops and seventy thousand Japanese troops gave the rationale of protecting the supplies and communications (the Trans-Siberian Railway) and aiding the Czech Legion in its quest to return home.2

The Japanese had landed the first contingents of more than seventy thousand soldiers in June and July and consolidated their control of the Chinese Eastern Railway and much of northern Manchuria near Semenoff's headquarters in Chita. Japanese designs on Manchuria and Siberian economic resources required that no stable government be permitted to develop. To keep the region unsettled, the Japanese could gain leverage in the area by fomenting trouble via Cossack bandits. From the outset, the Japanese cultivated Semenoff and likeminded Cossacks, and lavish gifts and money found their way to Chita and to strongholds of other atamans in eastern Siberia.

Although General Graves did not arrive in Siberia until September 4, 1918, some American troops had arrived as early as August 15, 1918, and quickly took up guard duty along segments of the railway between Vladivostok and Nikolsk in the north.

Gregori Semenoff

Ataman Gregori Semenoff had made a name for himself during World War I while serving in Poland; he received numerous decorations for valor from the tsarist regime. In the nineteenth century, armies of the Russian tsar had driven the Cossacks out of their homelands in the Crimea and steppes of Central Asia. Cut adrift, Cossack bands pledged unbending loyalty to strong figures like Grigori Semenoff.

Upon the overthrow of the tsar, Alexander Kerensky, head of the Provisional Government, still felt that he needed Semenoff's military skills and transferred him to the Trans-Baikal region in central Siberia. Soon afterward, the Bolshevik revolution swept eastward out of European Russia into Siberia and followed the towns along the Trans-Siberian railroad all the way to Vladivostok. Only one month after the capture of Vladivostok and all of Siberia by Bolshevik forces, Semenoff narrowly escaped capture by the Red Army. He quickly turned to organizing his "Special Manchurian Detachment" to recapture the Trans-Baikal region from the Bolsheviks.

One of Semenoff's foremost admirers was an American intelligence officer, Maj. David P. Barrows, who was on loan in Manchuria and Siberia from the U.S. Army intelligence office in the Philippines. In April of 1918, Barrows accompanied Semenoff on his campaign against Red Army units operating in and around Manchuli, Manchuria. In an attachment to his report on the successful Semenoff campaign, Barrows summarized his opinion of Semenoff, in part:

While always cool, he undoubtedly has a passionate disposition and capable of intense anger and fixed resentment. He had three and one half years of fighting in Europe and many stories are told in his camp as to his prowess. So far as I can judge, he is completely independent of the influence of those around him and other Russian leaders with whom he has relations. His personality easily dominates. His feelings toward the Bolsheviki and the prisoners who have joined their ranks is very strong. He detests their undoing of Russia. . . . He is devoting his life to their destruction and after that to the resumption of the warfare against the Central Powers. He is capable of great severity toward his enemies and toward the disobedient in his own ranks.3

Confrontation on the Railway

While Barrows thus treated Semenoff as something of a potential savior for Siberia and the whole Russian nation, other Americans in April 1918 did not view Semenoff with such optimism. James G. Bailey, secretary to the American embassy at Petrograd, disagreed with Barrows that Semenoff had the impartial, energetic leadership qualities to rally Russians against the Central Powers. Bailey felt that Semenoff, backed by the French, the British, and probably the Japanese, was doing more to mobilize the Red Armies in defense of the motherland than a tsarist or Menshevik army could.4

Only a few months later, General Graves and his staff were to join the chorus of opposition to Semenoff.

Semenoff's successful technique consisted of using the element of surprise to overwhelm consistently larger Red forces, rapidly disarming opposition forces, and placing all prisoners in locked box cars to be shipped into the heart of Siberia and certain death. Despite the infusion of many new Mongolian, Japanese, Chinese, and White Russian volunteers into his detachment, Semenoff remained largely stymied in his efforts to free his beloved Chita and the surrounding Trans-Baikal from Bolshevik control. Ironically, it was the Czech Legion that was pivotal in wresting the area from Red Army control in August 1918. Semenoff and others quickly took advantage of the political vacuum left behind.5

The Czechs had spent six months and nine thousand casualties to try to secure their safe exit from Russia by seizing almost the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Now that they had delivered the promised route to the west along the Trans-Siberian, the promised Allied help was not forthcoming, and they became disillusioned.6

Semenoff had also been busy playing off the Allies against each other. In 1917, Kerensky's government had dispatched Semenoff to raise an all-Cossack Army to fight Germany on the eastern front. When Russian money dried up in 1918, Semenoff turned to the British and Japanese to bankroll his raids and support his extravagant lifestyle. His special Manchurian detachment consisted of 556 officers, civil officials, Mongols, and Chinese. At first, he extracted ten thousand pounds sterling a month from the British, but they quickly grew tired of him as Semenoff would not submit to the British efforts to train and organize his motley force. Semenoff had much more success in meeting Japanese needs as he declared that his goals were nonpolitical and that his main concern was "restoring order" in eastern Siberia, a goal that would play into Japanese hands.7 He greatly aided Japan's goal in the area, which was to keep Siberians politically destabilized and disunited.8

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Ataman Gregori Semenoff and Maj. Gen. William S. Graves met in late September 1918.

When General Graves arrived in Vladivostok on September 3, 1918, he turned his attention to guarding the military stores in Vladivostok and in depots along the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The first meeting between Graves and Semenoff took place in late September in Vladivostok. Although the tone of the meeting was civil, Graves claimed that the ataman was not only in the pay of the Japanese but that he could not have lasted a week in Siberia without the "protection of the Japanese."9 In October, Graves went to visit the Twenty-seventh Infantry, which was guarding the major railway station of Habarovsk. While there, he met the other main Cossack ataman, Ivan Kalmikoff. The main difference between Kalmikoff and Semenoff was that the former chose to kill, maim and rape his victims directly. Semenoff used subordinates to do his dirty work.10

By the time of Graves's arrival in Vladivostok, Semenoff's connections with the Japanese had ripened into a firm but unstated alliance. Nonetheless, Semenoff tried to obtain better artillery pieces and airplanes from the Americans. Graves, who viewed his mission as upholding American neutrality regarding the various factions in Siberia, refused. But he had to acknowledge that Semenoff was a major force to be reckoned with because he controlled the strategic rail link along the Trans-Baikal Railway from Lake Baikal City to Chita.11

The end of World War I in Europe in November 1918 would have a profound effect on conditions in Siberia, but it brought no immediate change for Graves's AEF Siberia. The American forces would stay put because President Wilson wanted to wait until after the Paris peace conference before deciding which of several Russian governments to recognize and whether to withdraw the AEF Siberia from Vladivostok.12

Meanwhile, Semenoff dispatched an agent to Washington to see if he could arrange political asylum and immigration to the United States for his boss. Upon learning of the visit, General Graves had a real chuckle. Graves noted that the requirements for legal immigration to the United States stated that an individual seeking asylum need be mentally sound, morally clean, and physically fit. "If Semenoff was 'morally clean' then I never saw a human being who was not morally clean," wrote Graves.13

With the Armistice in November 1918, the threat to peace and stability in Siberia no longer came from the Red Army but from the Japanese and their Cossack allies. The emphasis now for American policymakers (both civil and military) was to open up the railways. The War Department ordered Graves to ensure the opening of the Trans-Siberian and Chinese Eastern Railways to all commercial and passenger traffic. The military was to provide the guards to keep order, and the civilian technicians of the Russian Railway Service Corps were to come in and operate and upgrade the actual tracks, repair shops, and rolling stock. The corps was set up as a private organization staffed by American railway personnel. Semenoff and his Japanese allies, however, spent the next year and a half frustrating Allied efforts to unify and improve Siberian railway operations.

Despite his competence as a military leader, General Graves was no match for Semenoff and the Japanese. First, he was undermanned, with a mere eight-thousand-man force against the Japanese and Cossack combined forces of more than seventy thousand in eastern Siberia. Second, Graves labored under insufficient instructions from home; the aide memoire did not outline how Graves was to cope with hostile allies and railway bandits. Finally, Graves himself was his own worst enemy, being consumed with a passion for strict political neutrality.

Graves's penchant for strict neutrality got him into trouble with both the press at home and abroad and with various political factions in eastern Siberia who counted on America to take a stand—either for or against bolshevism. This Graves would not do. Furthermore, the War Department cut Graves's credibility even lower by announcing in late September 1918 that he was not to send any American troops westward beyond Lake Baikal. This order delivered a cruel blow to the Czechs and their morale in fighting the Red Army in the Urals and buoyed the hopes of Semenoff and his allies.14

The next crisis in Siberian intrigues was Ataman Semenoff's refusal to recognize the new government of Adm. Alexander Kolchak in Omsk. The "Government of All the Russias" was formed on the heels of a coup d'état on November 18, 1918. In the end, because of Semenoff's financial and military backing from Japan, the admiral had to acknowledge and accept the ataman's regime at Chita as an unfortunate, yet potent reality.15

Japanese actions on Semenoff's behalf caused acting Secretary of State Frank Polk to protest vehemently: "The Government of the United States believes that the present policy of Japan is fraught with possibility of dangerous consequences for Russia. . . . It is not to be understood that this Government desires to support Admiral Kolchak as against General Semenoff, but merely its purpose is to see that loyal Russians be allowed to manage their own affairs."16 Polk did not spell out exactly who would constitute a "loyal" Russian, but it became quite obvious to all that Japan and America would no longer see eye to eye in Siberian affairs after this confrontation between Kolchak and Semenoff. Where Semenoff was concerned, both sides drew farther and farther apart.

Meanwhile, conditions along the Trans-Baikal Railway sector continued to worsen. Railroad shop men at the Chita roundhouse pummeled one of Semenoff's secret service men who had infiltrated their ranks. Semenoff's men retaliated with their usual ferocity. Mechanical difficulties erupted along the railway, which caused delays of up to two weeks for westbound traffic. As a result, sentiment grew for the American-run Russian Railway Service Corps to take charge of the management and operation of the Trans-Siberia Railway system in toto.17

Barrows's intelligence assistant at Chita, Capt. F. F. Meere, gathered considerable information concerning Semenoff's miscarriages of justice after Barrows's departure. He discovered that Semenoff's men took two badly needed locomotives and turned them into armored cars for Semenoff's personal use. Meere's British counterpart reported that forty-eight freight trains were tied up at one station for lack of locomotives. There was wholesale theft of train cars as well as overcharging and double charging for a variety of services in stations under Semenoff's control from Harbin to Chita.18

In early 1919, the Allies discussed how to impose tighter control over the Trans-Siberian Railway to relieve local merchants, station personnel, and railway workers from the constant harassment by Semenoff and his ilk. An agreement, the Inter-Allied Railway Agreement, was finally ironed out in April 1919.

As a result of the agreement, two companies of America's Twenty-seventh Infantry Regiment under Col. Charles Morrow were assigned to guard a section of the Trans-Baikal from Mysovaya to Verkhne-Udinsk. When Morrow and his troops arrived at the eastern Baikal town of Verkhne-Udinsk in May 1919, they found that Semenoff's men had busied themselves with seizing locomotives for the ataman's personal use out of the general stock of the railway. The Cossacks also made every attempt to block or slow traffic headed toward Vladivostok.

The Japanese were fully sworn parties to the railway agreement and had agreed to restrain the depredations of Semenoff and his men. Instead, they tolerated further disruptions by the ataman and seemed to fully endorse them. Japan did not hide its imperial aspirations in the region. It fully intended to follow up the gains of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1906, in which they had won major concessions in Manchuria from the Russians, especially Port Arthur and Dauria, as well as the acquisition of the Sakhalin Islands. The Japanese viewed these as stepping stones to full exploitation of vast resources of Siberia. Wilson, on the other hand, wished to maintain the Open Door in Siberia for the extension of American business interests into the region and the preservation of the territorial integrity of Russia.19

Shortly after the Inter-Allied Railway Agreement was signed, General Graves issued the following "Proclamation to the Russian People":

The Russian people are notified and advised that in the performance of such duty, the sole object and purpose of the armed forces of the United States of America, on guard between the railroad points above stated, is to protect the railroad and railway property and insure the operation of passenger and freight trains through such sector without obstruction or interruption. Our aim is to be of real assistance to all Russia in protecting necessary traffic movements within the sectors on the railroads in Siberia assigned to us. . . . Cooperation is requested and warning given to all persons, whomsoever, that interference with traffic will not be tolerated.20

The four sectors awarded to American forces were between Vladivostok and Nikolsk-Ussuri, between Ugolnaya and the Suchan Mines, between Spasskoe and Ussuri, and between Verkhne-Udinsk and Mysovaya (on the Trans-Baikal Railway). The last sector was Colonel Morrow's, and Graves felt confident that the colonel would not tolerate any interference from Semenoff. Graves also asserted that the railway in this sector could not be fully operative without the elimination of Semenoff. Colonel Morrow spent the month of May brushing up on background reading to prepare for his upcoming confrontation with Semenoff.21

Semenoff and his men tried to drive the Americans out by harassment and intimidation. Some of his henchmen, for instance, tried to seize the private coach of one of the American railway inspectors when it stopped to refuel in Chita. In another incident, Semenoff's marauders tried to attack three American servicemen at Verkhne-Udinsk before being subdued by American military police.22

In a cablegram to Graves, Morrow stated that he would meet force with force in any showdown with Semenoff. The Japanese claimed that they would remain neutral. The first showdown occurred between Morrow and Semenoff on June 8, 1919. Semenoff and Morrow each had about two thousand men in the vicinity of Verkhne-Udinsk. The Japanese, with thirty-five hundred men in the same general locale, held the balance of power. Semenoff threatened to move against the Americans. Ultimatum met ultimatum, but finally Semenoff caved in when the Japanese withdrew their support from him. They escorted Semenoff's armored car out of harm's way to a less volatile location, Beresovka, which was a town devoid of American troops.23

In spite of the timely Japanese intervention on behalf of Morrow's troops, Semenoff continued to stir up trouble. Even after the car was removed, he claimed that instead of helping preserve order along the Trans-Baikal Railway, American forces were committing "disorderly and indecent acts" toward the peaceful population of Verkhne-Udinsk. Semenoff promised that he would remove the threat of the armored cars if Americans would cease and desist from this type of behaviour. He also accused Graves and Morrow of aiding and abetting the Bolsheviks. He gave Morrow until 5 o'clock on the afternoon of June 9 to guarantee improved behavior or he, Semenoff, would send troops to Verkhne-Udinsk and force the Americans to leave.24 Morrow waited out the deadline, and Semenoff backed down without making further provocation.

Morrow let this barb against American morals and neutrality pass without giving it the dignity of a reply. Morrow instead retorted that the population and officials of Verkhne-Udinsk endorsed the American position by approving the removal of Semenoff's armored car. This first crisis between Semenoff and the Americans ended in a verbal standoff and passed without any bloodshed.25

For the moment, the Americans won their point, and the armored cars disappeared. Both Kolchak and the Japanese got the point across to Semenoff that he needed to back away from the brink of open war with the Americans. This imposed self-restraint lasted barely a week before Semenoff once again sent an armored car hurtling toward Verkhne-Udinsk without Morrow's permission.

During both June and July Semenoff persisted in maltreating railway workers and officials. Simultaneously, executions of suspected political opponents of Semenoff proceeded apace. The ataman's reign of terror received full coverage in American intelligence reporting:

Semenoff's armored cars exist (1) for the purpose of terrorizing railroad officials and forcing compliance along the railroad with the demands of Semenoff. . . . (2) cars exist for the purpose of graft, extortion of double duties, and preventing Kolchak's officers and soldiers from proceeding to the front, either as organizations or as individuals, (3) to prevent mutiny among his own troops, (4) to spread terror of Semenoff and Semenoff's officers throughout the entire country surrounding the railroad where their crews rob and plunder and murder at will. . . . It is a whipping car, a place of torture. The crew whip without trial, forms of law, or sentence; whip at the caprice of their privates and corporals.  . . As long as they continue to operate in the American sector, the Americans are powerless against them. . . . These armored cars must go or the American Command in this sector is useless.26

Semenoff and his other Cossack allies, including Kalmikoff, then combined forces to launch a propaganda war against the Americans in the newspapers of Chita, Habarovsk, and Vladivostok. Charges of misconduct centered on claims of American drunkenness and debauchery. They included Graves in their accusation that the Americans openly sided with and aided the Bolsheviks while deriding White Russians. So widespread were these propaganda efforts that Graves began to expect outright hostilities between the Americans and the Cossacks. With the exception of Kalmikoff's murder of several American soldiers in an isolated incident, the battles remained mostly verbal.27

The origins of the second major showdown between the AEFS and Semenoff were partly financial. Semenoff was rapidly going broke as a result of profligate spending on his mistress. He had in fact squandered more than fifty million rubles on rare jewelry, perfumes, and clothing for her.28 When the United States sent aid to Kolchak's government, Semenoff saw an opportunity to divert supplies to his own use.

American officials long debated the question of whether to recognize the Kolchak regime in Omsk as the legitimate Russian government in Siberia. The primary stumbling block for them was Semenoff's lawlessness and the Kolchak regime's seeming inability or unwillingness to halt his depredations. Graves often repeated this theme in his despatches to the War Department:

As long as Semenoff sits astride the Siberian Railway we are in danger of complications. His record as a thief and murderer justifies a demand that he be eliminated. His elimination can only be accomplished by pressure on Japan and by refusal of assistance to the Omsk Government as long as he is permitted to terrorize the people and forcibly take what he likes.29

By October 1919, the United States began to look more favorably upon the Kolchak regime. It began to appear to American policymakers that Kolchak was the only viable alternative to a Siberia ruled by Japan or to the complete Communist takeover of the region. Semenoff still had a stranglehold on the crucial railways through the Trans-Baikal. Yet the Red Army was steadily decimating White Army remnants facing it in Western Siberia; even Omsk itself was now threatened. In response, the United States finally agreed to furnish Kolchak with fifteen thousand much-needed rifles. At the same time, Semenoff intimated that he was finally ready to break with the Japanese in return for American financial and material support. Graves gave these entreaties no consideration, probably suspecting that Semenoff had new tricks up his sleeve.30

Graves sent the shipment of rifles for Kolchak's government, leaving Vladivostok on October 14, 1919, under an especially heavy guard and placed the command of the operation in the hands of 1st Lt. Albert E. Ryan with several companies of the Thirty-first Infantry Regiment. When the train reached Chita early on the morning of October 24, 1919, no one was surprised to find Semenoff's armored cars moving in to surround the American shipment. Semenoff delivered another one of his truculent ultimatums. This time he demanded the fifteen thousand rifles in return for the removal of his armored cars.

Upon hearing of this new outrage, Colonel Morrow put all the American troops in the Trans-Baikal sector on alert. He then telegraphed Semenoff and insisted that Kolchak should be allowed to mediate the dispute. Both Ryan and Morrow refused to back down when facing Semenoff's bullying tactics. Their persistence finally paid off in the Ataman's conciliatory reply: "Dear Colonel, we understand each other, I see. Don't worry I shake your hand."31

Ryan's ordnance train was then permitted to depart from Chita unharmed on the afternoon of October 25, 1919. The incident proved again that Semenoff's bluff and bluster had only nuisance value so long as Graves and the AEFS maintained their ground and the Japanese kept a restraining hand on the ataman's activities.32

By January 1920, both Omsk and Irkutsk had fallen to the Red Army as both Kolchak and the Czech Legion's strength were spent. The Czechs, in fact, had come full circle and delivered Kolchak to his Red executioners in Irkutsk in return for their own safe removal from Siberia. In the waning moments of the Kolchak regime, Semenoff had received his commission as commander-in-chief of all Russian forces in eastern Siberia. With Kolchak's death, this was a hollow trophy. Rather than pursue the Bolsheviks aggressively, Semenoff chose to continue his dissolute lifestyle at Chita until the bitter end. His only threats were leveled against the retreating Czech legionaries as well as the stray elements of White Russian and American forces still in the Trans-Baikal. He even threatened to blow up the forty-odd railway tunnels that skirted Lake Baikal to block the evacuation of the remaining non-Communist forces in the area.

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Maj. Gen. William S. Graves (Commanding General Allied Expeditionary Force - Siberia; seated, center) and staff, Vladivostok, November 23, 1918.

Semenoff's control over his own disparate band deteriorated so greatly that men in his armored cars were seen looting, raping, and killing anything that moved along the Trans-Baikal. On January 10, 1920, marauders in one such car, the Destroyer, attacked and then killed the station master at Verkhne-Udinsk and then moved on to Posolskaya. At Posolskaya, the Destroyer fired haphazardly into an American troop car, killing two soldiers and wounding several others. Colonel Morrow quickly had the Destroyer subdued and its men incarcerated. He later had to release the culprits as General Graves ordered all American units to return to Vladivostok to regroup and prepare for embarkation to return home.33

The departure of the AEFS from the Siberian scene in March 1920 spelled the end of the struggle between Graves, Semenoff, and the Japanese for control of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Semenoff soon fled to Manchuria. The Japanese took over complete control of eastern Siberia and created a puppet state, the Far Eastern Republic, which lasted until 1922. The Communists ultimately triumphed in this area as well. Japanese forces left Siberia to wait for another day.

Ataman Semenoff applied for and was denied asylum in the United States. The U.S. Senate turned him down after extensive hearings revealed some of the atrocities he had committed while ruler of the Trans-Baikal. Semenoff spent the majority of the 1920s and 1930s in Japan.

He managed to remain hidden for some time until 1946, when Stalin's henchmen caught up with him and put him before a firing squad.

General Graves returned to the United States in 1920 and received the Distinguished Service Medal for his service in Siberia. Afterwards, he held command positions in the Philippine Islands, New York, Chicago, and the Panama Canal Zone. After serving on the jury in the court-martial of Gen. Billy Mitchell in 1925, he retired from the army in 1928 and died in 1940—the central figure in a most unusual chapter of the history of the United States Army.

Gibson Bell Smith is an archivist specializing in modern military records, Textual Archives Services Division, National Archives and Records Administration. He has been with the National Archives since 1971 and has written several articles on diplomatic history and a book on U.S. Marine Commandant Gen. Thomas Holcomb.


1 The aide memoire, dated July 17, 1918, by Secretary of State Robert Lansing outlines the three reasons for American intervention, including the rescue of the Czech Legion; the text appears in the U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1918, Russia II (1932), p. 288 (hereinafter cited as FRUS 1918: Russia II). For a careful analysis of the reasons for American intervention, see Betty M. Unterberger, America's Siberian Expedition, 1918–20, A Study of National Policy (1956). An excellent account of the Czech Legion's central role and the major intervention by the Japanese appears in Richard Goldhurst, The Midnight War: The American Intervention in Russia, 1918–20 (1978).

2 Norman E. Saul, War and Revolution: The United States and Russia, 1914–21 (2001), pp. 286–290.

3 Maj. David Barrows, intelligence officer on detail to Siberia, "Memorandum for General Evans: Advance of Ataman Semenoff's Forces, April 20th to May 5th" (appendix A), Peking, May 9, 1918, appears in the Military Intelligence Division file # 2070-505, box 815—Military Intelligence Division Correspondence, 1917–41, microfilmed as Correspondence of the Military Intelligence Division Relating to General, Political, Economic, and Military Conditions in Russia and the Soviet Union, 1917–1941 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1443), roll 3, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, Record Group (RG) 165, National Archives at College Park (NACP), College Park, MD.

4 James G. Bailey to Lansing, Harbin, Apr. 24, 1918, 861.00/1921, Records of the Department of States Relating to Internal Affairs of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1910–1929 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M316), roll 13, General Records of the Department of States, RG 59, NACP.

5 David Footman, Ataman Semenov (1955), pp. 1–33. This paper uses the spelling "Semenoff," which is used in the documents of the AEF Siberia at the National Archives. David Barrows had several notable intelligence studies on Semenoff during the period from April to October 1918; some of these are contained in file 095 Semenoff, box 29, General Correspondence of Intelligence Officers, AEF Siberia, Records of U.S. Army Overseas Operations and Commands, 1898–1942, RG 395, NACP.

6 Goldhurst, The Midnight War, pp. 117–120. For a detailed contemporary study of the Czech question, see Laurence Packard's "The Czechoslovaks in Russia, August 1914 . . . to . . . February 1919," Apr. 15, 1919, Vladivostok, AEFS 21-23.7, in Historical Files of the American Expeditonary Forces in Siberia, 1918–1920 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M917), roll 1, RG 395, NACP.

7 Goldhurst, The Midnight War, pp. 80–81.

8 Ibid, pp. 8–82.

9 William S. Graves, America's Siberian Adventure, 1918–20 (1931), p. 86.

10 Ibid, pp. 90–91.

11 Vice Consul General Edward Thomas to Consul General Ernest Harris, "Political Conditions in Chita up to Dec. 15, 1918," 861.00/4345, M316, roll 21; David Barrows memo for General Graves, "Interview Between Ambassador Morris and Ataman Semenoff," Sept. 24, 1918, Vladivostok, AEFS 21-21.3, M917, roll 1.

12 Goldhurst, The Midnight War, p. 179.

13 Graves, America's Siberian Adventure, p. 105; the general notes that upon learning of Semenoff's intentions to seek asylum, the consul general at Vladivostok, Ernest Harris, quickly sent a dispatch to the State Department to alert them of Semenoff's true character.

14 Maj. Gen. Peter Harris, the Adjutant General, to William S. Graves, Washington, Sept. 27, 1918, cable 26, Cablegrams of the AEF Siberia, RG 395, NACP.

15 Peter Fleming, The Fate of Admiral Kolchak (1936), p. 111. For a clear account of the Kolchak coup, see Graves, America's Siberian Adventure, pp. 175–177; David Barrows, "Intelligence Summary," Nov. 22, 1918, AEFS 21.-33.5, M917, roll 4; Graves, cable to the Adjutant General (AGWAR), Vladivostok, Nov. 25, 1918, cable 82, Cablegrams of the AEF Siberia, RG 395, NACP. Barrows even traveled to Chita to talk with Semenoff based on fears that war would break out between the two factions; see Barrows, "Operations Report of the Intelligence Section," Vladivostok, Jan. 10, 1919, AEFS, M917, roll 4; and "Operations Report of the Intelligence Section, Jan. 1–June 30, 1919," by Barrows's successor, Lt. Col. Richard L. Eichelberger, AEFS 21.-21.3, M917, roll 1. It was noted that American spies were infiltrated into the detachments of both Semenoff and Kalmikoff to keep track of their illicit activities.

16 Frank Polk to Roland Morris, Washington, Dec. 18, 1918, 861.00/3430, M316, roll 18.

17 Col. George Emerson to Graves, Harbin, Manchuria, Dec. 28, 1918, AEFS War Diary, Dec. 30, 1918, and Lt. Col. David Barrows, Intelligence Summary, AEFS War Diary, Jan. 8, 1919, M917, roll 4. The War Diary of the AEF Siberia is a daily compilation of events and activities of the command in Siberia.

18 Capt. F. F. Meere to Barrows, Vladivostok, Feb. 10, 1919, AEFS War Diary, Feb. 13, 1919, M917, roll 4.

19 Minutes of the Meeting of the Inter-Allied Railway Committee, May 9 and 13, 1919, box 1129, Records of the U.S. Railway Commission to Russia, Records of International Conferences, Commissions, and Expositions, RG 43, NACP. Also see Unterberger, America's Siberian Expedition, pp. 117–121

20 Graves, "Proclamation . . . ," AEFS 21-7, M917, roll 1. The proclamation is dated April 21, 1919.

21 Harris to Lansing, Chita, May 10, 1919, 861.00/4524, M316, roll 21; Graves to AGWAR, Vladivostok, June 12, 1919, cable 320, Cablegrams of the AEF Siberia, RG 395, NACP.

22 Col. Charles Morrow's testimony on April 12, 1922 before the U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Education and Labor, Deportation of Gregorie Semenoff: Hearings Relative to Deportation of Undesirable Aliens, 67th Cong., 2nd sess. (1922), p. 12; 1st Lt. J. L. Davidson to R. L. Eichelbergeer, Chita, May 25, 1919, AEFS War Diary, May 26, 1919, M917, roll 6.

23 American Minister to Russia Paul Reinsch to Lansing, Irkutsk, June 18, 1919, 861.00/4715, M316, roll 22; Morrow to Graves, June 9, 1919, Verkhne-Udinsk, AEFS War Diary, June 10, 1919, M917, roll 6.

24 Semenoff to Morrow, Chita, June 9, 1919, AEFS War Diary, June 11, 1919, M917, roll 6.

25 Lt. Col. Richard L. Eichelberger, "Verkhne-Udinsk," Intelligence Summary, ibid.

26 1st Lt. J. S. Davidson to Eichelberger, Chita, June 30, 1919, ibid.; and "Extract of Report from Intelligence Officer at Verkhnew-Udinsk," Intelligence Summary, AEFS War Diary, July 23, 1919, M917, roll 7.

27 Semenoff to Morrow, Chita, June 9, 1919, AEFS War Diary, June 11, 1919, M917, roll 6; Lt.Col. Eichelberger, Intelligence Summary, AEFS War Diary, Sept. 14, 1919, M917, roll 7.

28 John A. Cook, "Interview With Mr. Braude," AEFS War Diary, Oct. 13, 1919, M917, roll 8.

29 Graves to AGWAR, Vladivostok, July 15, 1919, cable 360, Cablegrams of the AEF Siberia, RG 395, NACP. Unterberger, America's Siberian Expedition, pp. 133 - 164, gives a very penetrating explanation of America's failure to recognize the Kolchak government and the internal squabbles among Wilson, the State Department, and the War Department.

30 Graves to AGWAR, Vladivostok, Oct. 14, 1919, cable 506, and Graves to AGWAR, Vladivostok, Sept. 28, 1919, cable 483, Cablegrams of the AEF Siberia, RG 395, NACP.

31 1st Lt. Albert E. Ryan, 31st Infantry, "Intelligence Report on the Journey of a Russian Ordnance Train to Irkutsk, " Nov. 16, 1919, AEFS 21-20.7, M917, roll 1, which also includes the major cablegrams exchanged between Morrow and Semenoff. Graves's version of the incident came in testimony before the Senate Education and Labor Committee, Deportation of Semenoff . . . Hearings, p. 2.

32 Lt. Ryan, "Intelligence Report," Nov. 16, 1919, AEFS 21-20.7, M917, roll 1.

33 Graves, "Final Report of the A.E.F. in Siberia," Washington, May 26, 1920, 21-33.6, M917, roll 10, and Harris Jenkins to Lansing, Peking, Jan. 14, 1920, 861.00/6157, M316, roll 27.


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