The Coming of the Civil War in Virginia

Lesson 3: A Divided Nation: A Divided State

Time Estimated: 3 days



Students will:

  1. Read primary source letters from the mid 1800s written by Virginians to find different feelings about secession.
  2. Identify the differences between northern and southern states that were also differences between the eastern and western sections of Virginia.
  3. Research and debate the reasons Virginia should or should not divide into two states.




  • Vocabulary word strips (civil, economy, industrialized, abolition, campaigned, secession, slave state, free state)
  • Review worksheet
  • Projected computer with Internet access
  • Virginia(Harcourt) Social Studies text or similar text used in class
  • Copies of Thompson and Branner letters (modern spelling variant) from “The Valley of the Shadow”
  • List of group “jobs” (reader, recorder, reporter, observer)
  • Worksheet “Guidelines for Analyzing Letters”
  • General Assembly cards (place cards on folded index cards) 2 each: Eastern Counties, Western Counties, James City, Frederick County, Chesterfield County, Augusta County, Northampton County, Rockbridge County, Hanover County, Botetourt County, Patrick County, Jefferson County, Elizabeth City. On the back put one of two options:
    • Virginia’s economy depends on slave labor, so Virginia must secede with other southern states
    • Not all of Virginia is dependant on slaves, so Virginia cannot secede with other southern states
  • Paper, pencil, drawing materials
  • Virginia General Assembly Debate activity




1st day

  1. Hook: Project picture from Valley of the Shadow of Harper’s Ferry. Also ask students to turn to page 87 in text (Harcourt: Virginia — drawing of a plantation, or other plantation drawing from classroom text). First, ask which is a primary source document (Harper’s Ferry) and which is a secondary source (drawing of plantation). Then ask them to tell you what each image tells them about Virginia in 1850. (Draw responses, acknowledging all as good, but emphasizing
    • parts of the state looked very different
    • plantations needed slaves and the South was for slavery, but the North was against it;
    • the hilly areas like Harper’s Ferry were not good for plantations, thus slaves were not as important;
    • John Brown tried to raid the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry to get weapons for the slaves, but he was caught and hanged)
  2. Give students the day’s objective: Identify the differences between northern and southern states that divided Virginians (in the 1850s)
  3. Explain that much of what they learned in the days before will help them make the connections you want them to make today.
  4. Review the pre-Civil War vocabulary works introduced earlier: civil, economy, industrialized, abolition, campaigned, secession, slave state, free state.
  5. Distribute the review worksheet and allow them to work in mixed ability partners to complete. Set a fast time limit (3 minutes).
    • Note: I try to arrange my student seating so that I can quickly assign pairs and groups that mix abilities. If you do not do this, make a list of your slower learners. Ask them to stand and each select a partner from those who are seated.
  6. Quickly go over worksheet to see that all have correct answers.
    • Note: Final paragraph of worksheet concludes the differences you are seeking.
    • Note: I often rotate student “teachers” to check such assignments.
  7. Do quick review of what are primary source materials. Ask students to help you generate a list of what those can be: (pictures, drawings, newspapers, maps, artifacts, documents, LETTERS)
  8. Review Timeline posted in classroom, focus on Nat Turner’s Rebellion, John Brown’s Raid, as events that began to divide the nation.
  9. Explain that you are going to give out two letters. Explain where they came from, how they were collected, etc. Further explain that you want them to work in groups of four. You will give them a guideline sheet that will help them understand the letter. Each person in the group will have a job. List the jobs: (reader reads the letters out loud for the group, recorder completes the guideline sheet and writes down what the group says about the letters, reporter tells the class what the group said, observer tells the class how well the group worked). Their task is to decide if the person writing each letter thinks that there should be secession (Virginia and other slave states SHOULD secede) or not! Their reports will begin the class session tomorrow!
  10. Wrap up: After giving a two-minute warning for groups to finish, stop students and ask for an assessment of how well working as a group helped them understand the letters. Use a quick show of fingers from 1-5, 1 meaning the lowest (did not help me at all), 5 meaning the highest (helped me a lot)

2nd day

  1. Hook: Read a few sentences of the letters. Do a quick review of the last several days lessons, the objective of yesterday which remains today.
  2. Discuss any problems the groups had with the assignment. Ask observers for a quick report on how well the groups worked.
  3. Let reporters report out for each group. Keep a running tab for each letter.
  4. Class discusses the results. Did everyone agree? What were the clues?
  5. Further discussion with how these feelings may be the same with other Virginians. Where would there be more people wanting secession; where would there be more opposing secession. Using a physical map, indicate where those would be (try to show in flatter land more suitable for planting slavery would be important so they may want to secede; in hilly, mountainous areas of the West with no big plantation areas there would be less need for slaves and more feelings against secession.
  6. Using a standard student basal text, read about Lincoln’s election, Virginia’s first votes on secession, and the firing on Ft. Sumter.
  7. Distribute the primary source of the Virginia Convention on secession. Discuss the counties, how they probably voted, and the final vote on secession. Explain that this led to another decision, because many in the western part of the state no longer wanted to be a part of Virginia.
  8. Introduce the Virginia General Assembly Debate activity and distribute cards. Explain that the General Assembly debate will be held the next class period.

3rd day

  1. Have classroom set up with two sides. In this case, eastern county representatives on one side, western counties on the other. As was the case, have more eastern county representatives. Put folded index cards with the names of counties on each set of desks to represent the members. You take the role of speaker of the house with a gavel and a podium at the front of the room. Should you have a “special” student (specific IEP, new to the class, etc.), they can serve as “Sergeant at Arms.” If not, select a student for this task (they love it), but collect their speaking points. Review the rules of the General Assembly (have on chart or transparency if needed):
    • No one can talk until they are recognized by the Speaker.
    • They must address you, the Speaker of the House.
    • They must limit their remarks to one minute each time they are recognized.
    • Anyone speaking out of turn or breaking the rules will be removed from the meeting room by the sergeant at arms.
  2. Open the session (the class) by explaining today’s scheduled business is to debate whether or not the western counties of Virginia should secede from Virginia and form their own state. Each representative will have one minute to speak. You will alternate speakers from different counties. After all have spoken, you will recognize anyone with additional comments.
  3. Let them have a lively debate. KEEP A NOTE PAD ON THE SIDE TO ASSESS THEIR PARTICIPATION. A simple check for adequate preparation; check minus for less than average participation, check plus for preparation above expectations, nothing marked for no participation, will allow you to covert to A=check plus; B=check; C=check minus but did have something prepared and did try; D=check minus, was obviously not prepared but did participate; F=had nothing prepared, did not participate.
  4. Based on the debate, carry on a discussion with predictions as to what they think happened next.
  5. Culminating Assessment: See Virginia General Assembly Debate activity



  1. The lessons are differentiated by using both visual and auditory modes whenever possible, reaching students with different learning styles.
  2. Pairing and grouping students of mixed abilities and assigning “roles” that draw on different strengths and abilities allows each student to assume a job that he/she can do with success.
  3. The assessment which can be done as a participant in the debate or observer with a written or conferenced report gives an option to the weaker or challenged speaker/writer.