Lesson Plan: Election of 1860 – Dividing Virginia




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Lesson Plan: Election of 1860 – Dividing Virginia



Understanding Objective:

Virginia was divided on the election of 1860.


Investigative Question:

  • Who were the major candidates and what were the issues in the election of 1860?

  • How were attitudes or opinions in Richmond, Alexandria, and Winchester different?

  • How were regional differences reflected in the election returns?


Primary Sources:

  • “The Day the Battle Has Arrived”

  • “To the Polls! To the Polls”

  • “Excitement at Fairfax Courthouse”


Standards Addressed:

Virginia Standards of Learning

USI.1 The student will develop skills for historical and geographical analysis, including the ability to

  1. identify and interpret primary and secondary source documents to increase understanding of events and life in United States history to 1877;

  2. make connections between the past and the present;

e) evaluate and discuss issues orally and in writing.
USI.9 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the causes, major events, and effects of the Civil War by

  1. explaining how the issues of states’ rights and slavery increased sectional tensions.


VUS.1 The student will demonstrate skills for historical and geographical analysis, including the ability to

a) identify, analyze, and interpret primary and secondary source documents.
VUS.7 The student will demonstrate knowledge of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era and its importance as a major turning point in American history by

  1. identifying the major events and the roles of key leaders of the Civil War Era, with emphasis on Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass.


Background Information:
When the voting concluded on November 6, 1860, for the 1860 United States presidential election, Abraham Lincoln had received more popular votes than any of the other candidates and had won a majority of the electoral votes. In Virginia, it was the closest presidential election in history. Constitutional Union candidate John Bell very narrowly won the state's fifteen electoral votes. He received 74,701 votes, as reported in the Richmond Daily Enquirer of December 24, 1860; John C. Breckinridge received 74,379; Stephen A. Douglas received 16,292; and Abraham Lincoln received 1,929.
John Bell, a former United States senator from Tennessee, was the Union Party's presidential candidate and Edward Everett, a former U.S. senator from Massachusetts, its vice presidential nominee. The Constitutional Union Party adopted only one plank for its platform stressing the primacy of the Constitution, the Union, and enforcement of laws, but did not specify how to achieve its goal of preserving the Union and stood for little but calmer heads and a compromise.

Bell carried Tennessee and Kentucky and eked out a victory in Virginia, where he narrowly won the state's fifteen electoral votes, defeating Breckinridge by 322 votes. 


The Democratic Party split in two in 1860. John C. Breckinridge, vice president of the United States, became the presidential nominee of the faction sometimes referred to as the Southern Democrats. The party advocated the expansion of slavery into the territories and strong enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The party's platform further affirmed the obligation of the federal government to protect the rights of slaveholders in the states and territories. The platform also called for the annexation of Cuba and the construction of a transcontinental railroad.
A Kentucky native, Breckinridge believed that slavery should be constitutionally protected and that Southern states had the right to secede. His running mate, Joseph Lane, represented the Oregon Territory in the United States House of Representatives and also approved of the expansion of slavery into the territories. Breckinridge and Lane won most of the slave states, but finished a close second in Virginia.
The group sometimes described as the Northern Democrats chose Stephen A. Douglas, a United States senator from Illinois. Douglas proposed a policy of popular sovereignty to allow voters in a territory to decide whether slavery would be legal there. Although the party platform affirmed the right of the Supreme Court of the United States to determine Congress's constitutional power over slavery in the territories, Southerners feared that popular sovereignty would result in antislavery legislation in territories or new states. The platform also called for the acquisition of Cuba and a transcontinental railroad.
Douglas and his vice presidential candidate, Herschel V. Johnson, formerly governor of Georgia, received almost 30 percent of the popular vote in 1860, but won electoral votes only in Missouri and New Jersey and placed a distant third in Virginia.
Organized in the mid-1850s to oppose the expansion of slavery, the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois, as its presidential candidate in 1860. The party platform denounced Southern threats to leave the Union and the Democratic Party's efforts to protect slavery as a constitutional right. The Republican Party strongly opposed the expansion of slavery into territories and demanded that Kansas be admitted to the Union as a free state, but it promised to safeguard the institution in the states where it already existed. The platform denounced proposals to reopen the African slave trade, supported safeguards for the rights of immigrants, and advocated construction of a transcontinental railroad and other internal improvements.
Lincoln and vice presidential candidate Hannibal Hamlin, a United States senator from Maine, received the highest number of popular votes and won the electoral votes in every free state, with the exception of New Jersey, where Lincoln split electors with Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. Sometimes described as not having received any votes in Virginia, Lincoln performed competitively in the northwestern part of the state and picked up scattered votes in the Shenandoah County, the upper Potomac valley, and the city of Portsmouth.
Length of Activity:

Variable, this lesson can be taught in full, requiring about 70 minutes, or in part, requiring about 30 minutes.


Materials Needed:

Student Handout 1: Presidential Candidates Worksheet & Info Sheets

Student Handout 2: Regional data

Student Handout 3: “The Day of the Battle Has Arrived” & “To the Polls! To the Polls!”

Student Handout 4: “Excitement at Fairfax Courthouse”
* All handouts can be downloaded with the PDF version of this lesson plan.
Teacher Actions:


  1. Introduction / Review of the candidates and issues

    1. As a whole class or individually, complete the table for the major candidates in the election of 1860 (Student Handout 1).

  2. Data

    1. Using the data on Richmond, Alexandria, and Winchester (Student Handout 2) predict which presidential candidate will win in November 1860. Have students justify their reasoning using the provided data. Once students have made their predictions, have them enter the actual winners in each locality (Richmond: Breckinridge, Winchester: Bell, Alexandria: Bell).

  3. 3. Document Analysis

    1. Have students read “The Day of Battle has Arrived” and “To the Polls! To the Polls!” (Student Handout 3).

    2. As they read, ask students to highlight or underline each occurrence of the words “union” and “disunion.”

    3. Have students answer the following questions.

      1. How does the author view the Union? List words that the author uses to support your answer.

      2. What place does Virginia have in the Union according to each author?

      3. How will a vote for each author’s favored candidate affect the future of the Union?

    4. As a class discuss:

      1. Was your prediction of each region’s presidential support accurate?

      2. Do you think voters in Richmond or Winchester were looking to secede in November 1860?

  4. Assessment

    1. Have students read “Excitement at Fairfax Court House” (Student Handout 4).

    2. Have half of the students write a response to this episode that might be published in the Richmond Enquirer. Have the other half write a response for the Winchester Republican.

    3. Pair students together, one from each paper, and ask them to share their accounts. Have them discuss the differences they see. Discuss these differences as a class.

    4. Help focus the discussion on the growing divisions within the state after Lincoln’s election.






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Election of 1860 – Dividing Virginia






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