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Johnny E. Balsved


The interim war years (1850-1864):

Between Lilliputian Rebellion and War
among Great Powers

Peace had hardly been won and order reinstated in the duchies before Denmark once again embarked on a political course that inevitably would result in yet another encounter, but this time with a far mightier enemy.

Following the peace treaty in 1850, Prussia and Austria had guaranteed a free Schleswig-Holstein. Nevertheless, forces in Denmark were clamoring for a future Danish border along the Eider river, i.e. a kingdom including Schleswig.

The navy underwent a drastic renewal throughout this period as steam replaced sails. At all times the navy had an edge on developments, but when it came to ground forces the military preparations, that were a must when embarking on such a bold foreign policy, were inadequate.

By Johnny E. Balsved/translated by Ulla Kayser

Helstaten Danmark og Hertugdømmerne

The Kingdom of Denmark
and the Duchies.
(Map from: Historical Center Dybbøl Banke's archive)

The Three-year war had not solved the decisive question of the future of Schleswig and Holstein.

The peace between Denmark and the German Union in 1850 merely meant that the decision had been postponed to a more opportune moment.

The following years were characterized by ongoing Danish-German strife about future of the duchies.

The German Union desired a united Schleswig-Holstein, while the Danes demanded a Danish border along the Eider River, i.e. that Schleswig remained part of the Kingdom of Denmark.

War in the Crimea breaks out

However, unrest was brewing in Europe and by late 1853 dark clouds were gathering when an armed conflict between Russia on the one side and France, England and the Kingdom of Sardinia on the other side seemed inevitable.

The risk that Denmark could be involved in this conflict was imminent not least because of the country's geographical location as the gate to the Baltic Sea.

The biggest threat to Denmark was that Prussia and Austria should enter the conflict on the side of Russia and thus pose a direct threat to Denmark. However, in the autumn of 1853 Denmark succeeded in gaining the acceptance from all parties that the country would stay neutral in a potential conflict.

The small and antiquated fortress on the island of Christiansoe suddenly attained a vital, strategic importance as the Danish fortress that was located closest to the Russian Baltic coast. Part of the Danish navy was fitted out for war in order to be capable of enforce Danish neutrality if necessary.

Denmark managed to remain neutral during the war of 1854-1856, despite that the German Union, which Denmark was a member of thanks to Holstein, and later France tried to make Denmark abandon neutrality and chose side in the conflict.

Apparently Danish neutrality was a success and Denmark succeeded in staying out of the conflict. But it was not ten years in the future before Denmark had to pay the price for not choosing side.

The Sound Toll is abolished

Denmark had demanded Sound toll from ships passing through the Sound or the Great Belt Since the year 1429. It was an excise that helped line the coffers of Danish state, but its payment greatly that irritated the nations that had to pay it.

Back in 1848, the US had presented a proposal to the Danish government that entailed exemption from payment of the Sound Toll for American ships against a fair monetary compensation. However, the American proposal did not result in any accord.

On 14 April 1855, the US announced that as of the next year, the nation would no longer pay the Sound Toll to the Danish authorities. It was inconceivable that Denmark would enter into an armed conflict with the Americans in order to enforce the right to demand Sound Toll.

During the autumn of 1855 a conference was called in Copenhagen with the purpose of discussing the abolishment of the Sound Toll against a suitable compensation to Denmark.

Initially England was against the Danish proposal, but during the autumn of 1856 the British changed their minds and on 14 March 1857 a treaty on the abolishment of the Sound Toll was signed.

As at 1 April 1857 the Sound Toll lapsed after having existed for more than 400 years.

Greenland is "rediscovered"

The brig ØRNEN was one of the vessels that went far.
(Drawing from archives of the Royal Danish Naval Museum)

In 1859, the brig ØRNEN (The EAGLE) was sent to Iceland and Greenland and it thus became the first Danish war vessel to visit Greenland since the frigate BLAAHEJREN (The BLUE HERON) came by in 1736.

Now the ØRNEN was not unfamiliar with long expeditions, already back in 1843-44 it sailed to South America and in the following years it went on expeditions to the Mediterranean and the coast of Guinea, while serving regularly as station-vessel at the Danish West Indies.

The navy’s first iron-clad vessel

In the years following the peace treaty of 1850, the work on modernising the navy continued and in the 14 years between the two Slevig wars developments were heavily influenced by the shift from sail to steam.

Weapon developments, however, also influenced the new types of vessels. Here the experience from sea battles during the American Civil War influenced innovation..

As early as 1862, the navy took receipt of the iron-clad schooners ABSALON and ESBERN SNARE, which both were built in England. In the autumn of 1863 the iron-clad battery ROLF KRAKE arrived having been built in Scotland.

The iron-clad battery ROLF KRAKE.

Denmark's last ship-of-the-line, DANNEBROG, launched in 1850, was also "wrecked" in the years 1862-1864 and turned into an iron-clad vessel. Moreover, the navy received three new screw frigates NIELS JUEL, JYLLAND and SJÆLLAND and a number of screw corvettes, gun-boats etc.

On the road to war again

"Denmark to the Eider Rivers" was the slogan characterising everyday life in Denmark after the peace in 1850, greatly to the irritation of the population in the duchies, not least in Holstein. Following a change of government in 1860, the Eider policy became very pronounced.

When Denmark in late 1863 decided to draft a common constitution for the Kingdom of Denmark and the duchy of Schleswig it was tantamount to a declaration of war against the German Union (Prussia and Austria) which had guaranteed a united Schleswig-Holstein.

The Danes were fully convinced that the western powers would side with the Danish cause, but none of the former had forgotten the Danes' standpoint during the Crimean war when the Danish government had been very unsympathetic towards the heads of the English and French navies.

Hence, Denmark was very much alone when Prussia and Austria on 16 January 1864 presented Denmark with an ultimatum: "Abandon the common constitution or face the consequences".

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Danmarks Søkrigshistorie, by Kay Jungersen, Published by the Naval Academy, Centraltrykkeriet, Copenhagen, 1945.


Dansk Udenrigspolitiks Historie, Vol. 3 - Fra Helstat til Nationalstat, by Claus Bjørn and Carsten Due-Nielsen, Editors: Carsten Due-Nielsen, Ole Feldbæk and Nikolaj Petersen, Gyldendals Leksikon, Copenhagen 2003 (ISBN-7789-91-4)


Flåden gennem 450 år, edited by Commander s.g. R. Steen Steensen, Martins Forlag, 2. udgave, Copenhagen, 1970 (ISBN87-566-0009-7)


Håndbog i Nordens Søkrigshistorie, by Lieutenant Cai baron Schaffalitzky de Muckadell, Copenhagen 1911


Vor Flaade i Fortid og Nutid, vol. I and II, by Halfdan Barfod, Nordiske Landes Bogforlag, Fredericia, 1942


Vor Sømagts Historie, by O. Eidem and O. Lütken, Det Nordiske forlag, Copenhagen, 1905.

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This page was first published: February 24, 2004

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