Secession!

Examines Virginia’s secession through the eyes of James Thomas Petty, a young Virginian living in Washington D.C. at the time.

Dates and Eras 1861
Themes Leaders, Secession, Slavery, Soldiers
Grades 5–7
Standards VS.1, VS.7, VS.8, USI.1, USI.8, USI.9;
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.4,
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.3,
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.5

Historical Context

Abraham Lincoln won the hotly contested 1860 presidential election. Throughout the campaign, the sectional division within the country was on full display. Lincoln did not carry a single southern state, and he failed to capture a majority of the popular vote. However, his victory in the electoral college was clear.

Although he promised to leave slavery alone where it existed, many Southerners insisted that Lincoln and the Republicans would work to end slavery. A little over a month later, South Carolina seceded from the United States, claiming an “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.” They were followed by six other states—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.

Virginians had to decide what to do. Should they follow the states in the Deep South and secede, or should they stay in the Union?

On February 13, 1861, one hundred fifty-two delegates met in Richmond for the Virginia Convention of 1861. On April 4, the convention voted 90 to 45 against secession. However, the Convention continued to meet. When Fort Sumter fell and Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers on April 15, feelings changed. A day later, the Virginia Convention went into secret session. On April 17, the Virginia Convention voted again, this time 88 to 55 in favor of secession.

Suggested Questions

1. What are Petty’s feelings concerning Virginia’s secession?
2. Explain why or why not you think these feelings were typical of most Virginians.
3. How does Petty convey his message through his word choice in his diary?
4. Explain why the language used reflects the atmosphere of the time period. Give examples.
5. Throughout the diary, why do you think Petty’s entries involving succession were so vague?

Suggested Activities

1. Have students write a descriptive paragraph about Thomas Petty based upon what they learned from his diary.

2. Have students read excerpts from the diary of Horatio Nelson Taft in the Library of Congress. Then, have them compare and contrast Taft’s observations with Petty’s.

3. Have students read Lincoln’s Call for 75,000 Troops. After, have the students evaluate the keywords in Lincoln’s speech describing his political stance and how this affected the secession of Virginia.

4. Distribute to students the page of “Opinions on Virginia’s secession.” Have students view these letters online. Depending upon the level of your students and the time available, you may wish to have students view a limited number of letters from the sheet. Have students record the following information about each letter: Who wrote the letter? Where did the person who wrote the letter live? When was the letter written? Is the writer for or against secession? Why? Record two statements of interest. Reassemble the class and discuss the various opinions of people concerning secession. Did Lincoln’s call for volunteers seem to influence people? Do opinions seem to vary based on where people lived? Are there letters from places that are no longer in Virginia?