To Secede or Not to Secede…That Was the Question

DURATION: One or two sessions, one for an introduction to the issues confronting Tennesseans during the Civil War and the decision to secede and one for a debate



As the likelihood of the Civil War grew apparent in to people of the United States, Tennessee’s decision concerning session was far less clear. Many in Tennessee felt that secession was the only option, while others felt that this decision was treason and unquestionably wrong. This debate almost divided the state and left many conflicted over the decision.

Guiding Questions: 

  • How did Tennesseans feel about the Civil War and secession?

Objectives:  Students will 

  • Students will understand the causes of the Civil War.
  • Student will investigate the different viewpoints of Tennesseans concerning the war.


  • Students will debate secession using historically factual argument.
  • Students will be able to argue for or against an assigned view point


1.      Show the students a chart of slave populations in Tennessee (see materials)
Ask the students if they think geographic location might affect a Tennessean’s opinion on succession.
Many people in East Tennessee remained loyal to the Union.  Support for the Confederacy was strong in Middle and West Tennessee.  Many slaves hoped that a Union victory would bring them freedom.  East Tennessee’s loyalty to the Union came from its terrain and traditions.  Because of the soil in that part of the state, East Tennessee landholders did not grow crops like cotton and tobacco that were labor-intensive.  Therefore they did not need slaves as much as landholders in other parts of the state. 
2.      Discuss the different viewpoints of Tennesseans on the Civil War using the following links:
3.      Assign each student a viewpoint on secession by allowing them to draw (out of a container) a slip of paper that assigns a stance.
4.      Allow students to use the information from the links (whether online or in a print out) to determine why they have a certain viewpoint, whether for or against the war.                       Example: One argument to fight for the Confederacy was to “protect property.”
5.      With the teacher as a moderator, divide the room into for and against the war. Possibly, frame the debate as state convention to decide if Tennessee will secede with the students as delegates.
6.      Allow students to volunteer to express their opinion using facts from the introduction, discussion and online research.
7.      After the debate, have students write a short response to be turn in to the instructor describing their feelings on the lesson. Offer a few guiding questions:
Was it difficult to argue for an opinion that they did not agree with?
Do they view the Civil War and Tennessee’s involvement differently now?

Have students


.spi.2. determine how the issue of slavery caused political and economic tensions between government policy and people's beliefs (i.e., abolitionists, plantation owners, state's rights, central government, Loyalists).
read and interpret a passage about a political or economic issue which individuals may respond to with contrasting views (i.e., state taxes, federal taxes, slavery, Bill of Rights).
Recognize the impact of individual and group decisions.
a. Analyze a particular event to identify reasons individuals might respond to it in different ways 4.6.02 Understand how groups can impact change at the local, state, and national level.
a. Explain how group and institutional influences such as religious beliefs, laws, and peer pressure, on people, events, and elements of culture.
b. Identify and describe examples of tension between a group's belief system and the government's policies and laws.