Unionism versus Secessionism in Virginia,
November 1860-April 1861

Students will work in groups to analyze newspaper opinion articles from Augusta County, Virginia, during the debate over whether Virginia should secede from the Union.

Instructional Objectives
Materials, Equipment, and Student Background Required
Historical Background
Follow-up, Extension, and Assessment

Instructional Objectives

National History Standards
  • Standards in Historical Thinking 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation
    Students should be able to
    • B. compare and contrast differing sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions by identifying likenesses and differences.
    • D. consider multiple perspectives of various peoples in the past by demonstrating their differing motives, beliefs, interests, hopes, and fears.
    • I. evaluate major debates among historians concerning alternative interpretations of the past.
  • Standards in Historical Thinking 4: Historical Research Capabilities
    Students should be able to
    • A. formulate historical questions from encounters with historical documents.
    • C. interrogate historical data by uncovering the social, political, and economic context in which it was created; testing the data source for its credibility, authority, authenticity, internal consistency and completeness; and detecting and evaluating bias, distortion, and propaganda by omission, suppression, or invention of facts.
  • Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction
    • 1A. Students should demonstrate understanding of how the North and South differed and how politics and ideologies led to the Civil War by. . . charting the secession of the southern states, explaining the process and reasons for secession, and. . . evaluating the importance of slavery as a principle cause of the conflict.
Virginia Standards of Learning
  • C/T8.4 The student will use search strategies to retrieve electronic information.
  • 11.7 Students will develop skills in historical analysis, including the ability to analyze documents, records, and data, formulate historical questions and defend findings based on inquiry and interpretation, and communicate findings orally, in brief analytical essays, and in a comprehensive paper.
  • 11.6 Students will analyze the causes and effects of major events of the Civil War and Reconstruction, including slavery, States' Rights Doctrine, . . . secession.

National Council for the Social Studies

  • II. Time, Continuity, and Change
    • a. Students will systematically employ processes of critical historical inquiry to reconstruct and reinterpret the past, such as using a variety of sources and checking their credibility, validating and weighing evidence for claims, and searching for causality.

Materials, setting, and student background required

This lesson is designed for the traditional, non-computer classroom, although teachers may choose to have students use the newspaper transcription browser on the sectional crisis to find their own articles to read and interpret.

Print and copy the following in advance (if you conducting this class in a traditional, non-computer classroom.)

  • Student Worksheet One: This worksheet contains two articles from the Staunton Spectator. One, from January 22, 1861, is a long poem titled "God Save Our Noble Union," and the other, from March 19, 1861, prints a report from Georgia discussing the problems that secession has caused.
  • Student Worksheet Two: This worksheet contains an article from the Staunton Spectator, April 2, 1861, offering two main arguments against secession.
  • Student Worksheet Three: This worksheet contains an article from the Republican Vindicator, January 4,1861, that blames the North for the secession crisis. It does not address the Virginia secession issue directly, but it is a good indicator of Democratic Party sentiment in the county.

Students should know the basic facts regarding the presidential election of 1860, the secession of the Lower South states, and situation of the Upper South states in the months preceding the firing on Sumter.

Historical Background

Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election of 1861 by carrying all states of the North and Northwest. Not one slaveholding state, however, went for Lincoln. Within six weeks of Lincoln's election, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi,Louisiana, and Texas passed secession ordinances and joined to form the Confederate States of America.

During this period, the people of the Upper South states of Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, Arkansas, and Kentucky debated their future, and leaders in Washington engaged in a futile pursuit of a compromise that would prevent the secession of the border states and bring the already seceded states back into the union.

Virginia's electoral votes had been won by Constitutional Union candidate John Bell, and Bell had an especially strong showing in Augusta County. After Lincoln's election, Augusta's political leaders urged moderation, and at Virginia's convention on secession, Augusta's delegates resisted moves to join the seceded states. There was an important qualification to Augusta County's unionism, however. Most leaders, although calling for Virginia to remain in the Union, insisted that secession was legal and that the federal government must not use force against the seceded states. Furthermore, some Augusta politicians argued that Virginia should stay in the union only on the condition of specific federal concessions to southern demands.

In light of Augusta's tenuous unionism, then, Lincoln's April 1861 decision to fortify U.S. Fort Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor was enormously important. Even more significant would be Lincoln's call for troops to put down the rebellion after Confederate cannons fired on Sumter.


Brief students on background material (up to March 1861) as necessary.

Put students into three groups, and give each group a number (1-3). Divide groups into sub-groups until there are no more than three students per group. Distribute articles.

When groups have completed their tasks, have students re-assemble as an entire class to go over their worksheets together and discuss their findings.

Suggested questions for whole-class discussion:

  • What difference do you see between the rhetoric of the Republican Vindicator (the Democratic Party paper) and the Staunton Spectator (the Whig, or Opposition, paper)?
  • How do the accounts of conditions in the seceded states differ in the two papers?
  • You are president Lincoln. You want to prevent Virginia from seceding, since Virginia borders Washington DC, contains important rail links to the West, good farmland, and a large population. You have received a wire that unless Fort Sumter is reinforced, the commander there will have to hand the fort over to the Confederate government. However, the Confederate government has declared that any attempt by the federal government to re-supply the fort would be considered an act of war. What should Lincoln do, in light of the sentiment in Augusta County, Virginia?
  • As you know, Lincoln did send ships to resupply the fort, provoking Confederate fire in the process. Lincoln responded to the attack on Fort Sumter by calling for troops to put down the rebellion. Within days of Lincoln's order, delegates at Virginia's convention on secession voted overhelmingly to secede. Based on what you have learned today, which was more important in Virginia's decision to secede? The resupply of Sumter or Lincoln's call for troops?
  • What do your findings suggest about the interpretation that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War?
  • What might have happened if Lincoln had NOT called for troops to "put down the rebellion?"

Follow-up, Assessment, and Extensions

Optional student homework assignments:

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