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Identifying the events and differences between northern and southern states that divided Virginians and led to secession, war, and the creation on West Virginia.



  • In this lesson, students will begin to understand conflicts that developed between the northern and southern states in the years following the American Revolution and how these conflicts led to the Civil War. Discuss why Virginia seceded from the Union and how West Virginia became a state.

  • Explain to students that many differences existed between northern and southern states. The economy in the northern part of the United States was industrialized, while in the southern part it was agricultural and relied on slave labor.

  • Discuss that northern states wanted the new states created out of the western territory to be “free states,” while the southern states wanted them to be “slave states.”

  • Create a KWL chart about the Civil War. Fill in what the students know and what they want to know about the Civil War.

  • Discuss the meaning of a civil war.

  • Define Civil War vocabulary: civil, economy, industrialized, abolition, campaigned, secession, slave state, and free state. Put the words and definitions on sentence strips to display in the classroom.

  • Explain that between the American Revolution and 1860, Virginia and the United States changed with new inventions. The Northern economy moved from agricultural to industrial, whereas, the Southern economy remained agricultural and relied on slave labor. Virginia plantation owners, along with those in other southern states, wanted to retain their slaves, because they depended on slave labor to grow tobacco. The northern states did not depend on slave labor.

  • Show a map or picture of the United States at the time of the Civil War, and identify free states and slave states (Civil War Era2.pdf). Give students an outline map of the United States and have them color slave states gray and free states blue. Tell them at the beginning of the Civil War, West Virginia did not exist, but by the end of the Civil War, West Virginia had become its own state. The area known as West Virginia today did not depend on slave labor when it was still part of Virginia, so it split from Virginia and joined the Union as a free state.

  • Have students go to the following Web site to research the Civil War with graphic organizers. Content information is available at:

  • Show a video or read a book about slave life and the Underground Railroad.

  • Ask, “What do you think slaves wanted most?” (freedom). Remind students how slaves were divided during the Revolutionary War. A few were able to get their freedom by fighting in the war, but most remained in slavery.

  • Introduce Gabriel Prosser. Provide the following background information. On 30 August 1800, a tremendous storm dropped heavy rain on central Virginia, swelling creeks and turning Richmond's dirt streets into quagmires.  The storm aborted one of the most extensive slave plots in American history, a conspiracy known to hundreds of slaves throughout central Virginia.  A charismatic blacksmith named Gabriel, who was owned by Thomas Prosser, of Henrico County, planned to enter Richmond with force, capture the Capitol and the Virginia State Armory, and hold Governor James Monroe hostage to bargain for freedom for Virginia's slaves.  The intensity of the storm delayed the conspirators' planned gathering, and a few nervous slaves told their masters of the plot.  The arrests of the conspirators, including Gabriel, led to trials in Richmond, Petersburg, Norfolk, and several surrounding counties. See The Library of Virginia Web site for additional information at http://www.lva.virginia.gov/exhibits/deathliberty/gabriel/index.htm.

  • Explain that Gabriel's Conspiracy had an immediate impact on American politics and Virginia law and society.  The planned rebellion was widely reported in American newspapers, and, during the 1800 presidential campaign, the Federalists cited the event as a consequence of the Democratic-Republicans' support of the French Revolution and ultra democratic ideals.

  • Discuss that reactions to these events contributed to the growing debate about slavery and its role in American society. White Virginia authors used both Gabriel's proposed and Nat Turner's successful rebellions as background events in novels such as The Old Dominion, Judith, and Their Shadows Before to perpetuate their belief that slavery was ultimately benign, that slaves were loyal, and that literacy, uncontrolled religion, and outside influences all threatened the stability of Virginia society. In contrast, black Virginians immortalized the story of Gabriel in song and tale, occasionally blending Gabriel with other revolutionaries, such as Denmark Vesey of South Carolina and Nat Turner, and black writers such as Martin Delany (Blake, 1858) and Arna Bontemps (Black Thunder, 1936) used the stories of these slave revolutionaries to emphasize themes of struggle and liberation.

  • Identify Nat Turner. Show a picture and explain that he was a slave who led a revolt against plantation owners in Virginia. Nat Turner was born in 1800 in Southampton County. In 1831, he and his fellow slaves killed many slave-owning families. This was considered one of the most serious revolts. He was captured, convicted of murder, and hanged. Visit the following Web site:

  • Introduce Harriet Tubman. Tell students that she was an abolitionist and that she had been a slave who escaped to freedom. State that she helped others escape via the Underground Railroad. Explain that the Underground Railroad was a route that slaves took to escape to freedom. Abolitionists along the way who were both black and white helped the slaves. Discuss the secrecy and codes that were used during the time of the Underground Railroad. Have the students write a paragraph or letter pretending they either were planning an escape or had already escaped, and ask them to share their entries. Use the following Web sites for additional resources:

  • Identify John Brown. Show a picture, and explain that he was an abolitionist who led a raid on the United States armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Explain that he was trying to start a slave rebellion but that he was unsuccessful. He was captured and hanged for his actions. Learn about John Brown from the following Web sites:

  • Use a map of Virginia before 1863 from An Atlas of Virginia. Explain that conflict grew between the eastern counties of Virginia that relied on slavery and western counties that favored abolition of slavery. The disagreement between the two regions of the state led to the formation of West Virginia. In 1863, the U.S. government recognized the 50 former western Virginia counties as the new state of West Virginia.

  • Hold a North and South Debate. Divide students into teams (North and South) and have them prepare to debate the following questions:
    1. Why should Virginia secede?
    2. Why shouldn't they?
    3. Why was it such a difficult decision (discussed from both sides)?
    4. What issues divided each side?
    5. How can the South make a profit and make a living without slave labor?
    6. What will become of the slaves if they are freed?
    7. How can the South continue to treat fellow humans with such injustice (beatings, no education, no freedom)? How can one human own another?
    8. If the North was successful in become industrialized, why can't the South?
    Students should be guided into issues regarding: geography, racial tensions, economics, representation in Congress (or the lack of representation), government control, agriculture versus industrialized economy, and new territories (slave or free).

  • Write a persuasive paragraph. Discuss issues concerning the creation of West Virginia and have students write a persuasive paragraph.

  • Create a Venn diagram on agricultural society (southern plantations) versus industrial society (the North).

  • Have students write a paragraph from the point of view of a slave or slave owner.



Produced by Prince William County Public Schools in collaboration with
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Updated on August 11, 2008.