Meeting of Boat and Berg: Understanding the Place of Slavery in the Civil War

Valerie Protopapas

     All of us know—or think we know—about many matters especially with regard to popular history. Frequently our knowledge is the result of oft-repeated truisms that reflect more the opinions of the reporter than the facts of the matter. Therefore, if we are wise, when we are about to have our beliefs challenged, we will at least try to recognize the “wobble” in our own “mental lens” through which we view the matter under discussion. If we do not, we often disregard facts that challenge—or embrace myths that validate our own viewpoints. Until we recognize what constitutes fact and what opinion, we are not only at a disadvantage in a debate, but we may never come to know the truth. Nowhere is the issue of “preconceived” knowledge more flagrant and ubiquitous than in that period of history known as the American “Civil War.” And, frankly, no more forceful attitudes exist in this matter than those surrounding the issue of slavery and the part it played in that great tragedy. But I would like to challenge those beliefs and notions through the use of an allegory.

     Who does not recognize the name and know the story of the mighty British liner Titanic? And, if asked, how many know what it was that sank that great ship? On April 14th, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank within hours killing over 2,000 people. It is a disaster which still haunts the minds of men, very much as does the great disaster we call—erroneously—the American Civil War. And just as in the matter of that war, the cause of that sinking is far more complex than a piece of ice carried on an ocean current into the Great Circle Route used by Atlantic shipping. To begin with, the berg did not seek out the Titanic. Unlike the German U-boat that only three years later sent another great British liner to the bottom, Titanic’s nemesis was a mere creation of nature without means or motive to render any ill in and of itself. Yet, the meeting of boat and berg on that black April night was both the end and the beginning of events that in the end, dwarfed both participants.

     Those who are familiar with the story of the Titanic know that there were numerous events and circumstances—many of which were insignificant at the time—that led to the disaster. Whether it was the high-carbon steel used in the hull which became brittle in cold water (the Atlantic that night was 28 degrees) or the hubris that had developed among those sailing these new leviathans (Captain Smith had said several years earlier that he could not imagine any situation in which a modern ocean liner could sink!) or physical events that were unique to that night (the North Atlantic was flat calm without any swell which  ordinarily would have identified the presence of an iceberg to the lookouts long before any contact), all combined to produce that “night to remember.” Yet, when most people are asked “who or what was to blame,” the vast majority identify the iceberg. Indeed, the name and thing that was Titanic and a piece of frozen water that soon melted back into the sea are irrevocably linked in history to the point at which most people will accept no other answer. What happened to the Titanic? She struck and ice berg and sank.

     And just as the accepted answer to the question “what sank the Titanic” is “an iceberg,” so, too, the accepted answer to the question of “what caused the Civil War” is “slavery”—or at least it is today. Historians in the past did not hold that opinion. Matters of ongoing sectional conflict, religion, culture, politics and economics were at times variously considered as leading to the breakup of the Union in 1861. Of course, slavery was a part of all these issues—but not the fundamental or primary issue, much less the only issue which led to war. In fact, that particular claim can be laid to rest immediately with the consideration of two circumstances, one at the beginning and the other almost at the end of the war. The first was the introduction of the original 13th Amendment called the Corwin Amendment after Ohio Republican Thomas Corwin which was submitted on March 2nd, 1861 to the Congress in an attempt to forestall the secession of the Cotton States threatened after the election of Abraham Lincoln. The Amendment forbade any attempts to amend the Constitution to empower the Congress to “abolish or interfere” with the “domestic institutions” of the states, including “persons held to labor or service” (a direct reference to slavery). The proposed amendment was submitted to the state legislatures without a deadline so as to make its passage easier. If the States of the South had wished only to preserve slavery, the Corwin Amendment—which had already been passed by at least one “non-Southern” state and signed by outgoing President Buchanan—would have given those States all the protection required for them to remain in the Union.

     The second situation is even more telling. In the Hampton Roads conference held between the leaders of the United States and the Confederate States almost at the end of the war, President Lincoln offered to restore the Southern states into the Union as quickly as possible knowing that had they been so restored, they could have voted down any proposed Constitutional Amendment ending slavery! In other words, Lincoln wanted the Union restored and to achieve that end, he offered to the states in supposed rebellion an immediate return to their prior place absent any loss of power, a situation that would have permitted them to prevent the adoption of the 13th Amendment. If slavery were the fundamental reason for both secession and war, as the South was almost at the end of her ability to resist federal might, why bargain away that hard won victory? The answer is simple: slavery was not the cause of the war and its end or continued existence was of less importance to Lincoln and his government than was the restoration of the Union and the continued growth of power of both the American empire and its central government.

     If the paths of the Titanic and that iceberg had not crossed on April 14th and that great ship had gone on to arrive safely in New York, we cannot know what would have happened anymore than we can know what would have happened had the Southern states accepted Corwin and remained in the Union. Would slavery still be with us today? Absolutely not! That institution—at least in the New World—was fading away by that time. Even Brazil ended slavery of its own accord in May of 1888 not too many years after the adoption of the second 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution—and it did so without war or internal conflict. Whatever else we may or may not know, we can know this: both the iceberg and chattel slavery were intrinsically involved in these two great human tragedies, but neither was the cause of either.