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The Road to War (1846 - 1860) lesson plan


Referred to by various authors as “the impending crisis” (Brinkley), “the gathering tempest” (Murrin, et al), or as the “road to war” (Williams), events of the 1850s came quickly, in staccato fashion, and propelled the United States into disunity. This lesson will enable the student to explore in depth the events leading to Mississippi’s secession and, ultimately, to war. Encourage students to consider these questions:

What is the author’s opinion concerning the “real” reason for Mississippi’s secession?

Does the author offer ample evidence to justify his position?

Are there incidences of “sectionalism”in the United States today?

Has there been another decade in American history as tumultuous as the 1850s?


Mississippi Studies Framework: Competencies 1 and 3.


Grades 4 (with modifications) through 12.


Mississippi History Now article, “The Road to War”

Mississippi History/Studies textbooks

Paper for sentence strips

Maps detailing the U.S. acquisition of territory from the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the Missouri Compromise, the Mexican Cession territories, and slave and free territories according to the Compromise of 1850 (students can work with one set of maps in a group or each student can be provided a set, if they are not available in text).

“A Declaration of the Immediate causes which induce and justify the Secession of Mississippi from the Federal Union, January 9, 1861.” (Document linked to Mississippi History Now article.)


Students will:

review the meaning of the term “sectionalism” and relate it to the northern and southern regions of the United States in the 1850s;

report the attitudes/beliefs of most pre-Civil War Mississippians regarding slavery;

demonstrate the significance of the “balance” between free and slave states in the U.S. Senate;

diagram the major components of events which led to Mississippi’s secession from the Union;

analyze these same events to determine the “sectional” response to each one;

arrange, in the correct chronological order, events which led Mississippi down the road to war;

identify major personalities of the period by determining their position on these events;

examine the author’s position on the cause for Mississippi’s secession and compare it with the reasons stated in the primary document, “A Declaration of the Immediate causes...”


Have students consider the word balance. Let them brainstorm how the word is associated with sports, diet, trade, power, checkbook, etc. Read the following incident aloud and ask how it could be connected to “balance.”

“Two days after the speech, Brooks walked into the Senate chamber, and began beating Sumner with a heavy cane. His legs trapped beneath the desk bolted to the floor, Sumner wrenched it loose as he stood up to try to defend himself, where-upon Brooks clubbed him so ferociously that Sumner slumped forward, bloody and unconscious....The caning of Sumner was the worst of several instances of North-South violence or threatened violence on the floor of Congress in the l850s, pre-saging the violence on the battlefields of the 1860s.” LIBERTY EQUALITY POWER, page 495.

(May 1856 -- S. C. Representative Preston Brooks caned Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate after Sumner made his famous “Crime against Kansas” speech. In the speech, Sumner harshly criticized many members of Congress, including Brooks’ uncle, South Carolina’s Andrew P. Butler.)

Some students will probably identify this as associated with the pre-Civil War “balance” of free and slave states in the U.S. Senate. Let students discuss this further if they wish. Tell them that the unit will help them understand the issues behind the caning. Inform them that they will be keeping a LEARNING LOG in which to record what they have learned about this period prior to the Civil War. (You may wish to have students illustrate the log and turn it in for a grade at the end of the unit.)



Students will write their own definition of the term “sectionalism” and will compare/contrast their definition with a partner. If necessary, students will rewrite their definitions following a class discussion to clarify the meaning of the term. Teacher will lead brainstorming activity to show the differences between the northern and southern regions of the United States. Students will put this information in chart form in their LEARNING LOGS.


Students should read the first section of the Mississippi History NOW article. In their LOGS, have them record at least four attitudes/beliefs towards slavery that were shared by most Mississippians. Have them determine the author’s position on the cause of Mississippi’s secession.


Divide the class into two equal groups of students representing the “free” and “slave” states in the U.S. Senate in the 1840s. (Students may wish to make themselves name cards to display on their desks; one might be Senator Smith, Georgia. Remind them that each state has two senators.) Using two “extra” students, demonstrate what would happen if an additional free state were admitted to the Union. To further illustrate the significance of the “balance” (or imbalance), teacher may wish to “propose” a bill on which the Senate can vote. Once students understand the concept, they will write a brief paragraph in their LOGS explaining what was done in the activity and what they learned.


Use historical maps (or map transparencies) for students to realize the acquisition of new lands by the United States in 1803. Ask them to remember how these areas became states under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787: formation of territories, minimum population of 60,000, submitting constitution, etc.) Ask students to speculate on the formation of “slave” and “free” states in the area. Discuss with them the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and its relevance to the “balance” issue. Help students to “see” how the number of free and slave states changed slightly through 1845, when Texas became the 15th slave state. Iowa and Wisconsin entered the Union as free states in 1846 and 1848, respectively, thus, bringing the balance to 15/15.


Lead students to focus on lands acquired by the Mexican Cession. Let them speculate how the lands would be divided into states and whether they would be “free” or “slave.” (Remind students to look at location, climate, growing season, etc., as well as the discovery of gold in California which swelled the population.) In small groups, students will share their “speculations” and will discuss reasons for the growing North/South tension after the American-Mexican War. Have students record in their LEARNING LOGS what they have learned about the relationship between the acquisition of new lands and the “balance” issue.


Divide the class into groups and have each group prepare a graphic (s) showing the major aspects of each of the following significant events which led to Mississippi’s secession from the Union: American- Mexican War (Mexican Cession); Compromise of 1850; Kansas-Nebraska Act; Dred Scott Decision, John Brown’s Raid; 1860 Presidential Election. Each group will make a class presentation at which time the students will add the information to their LOGS. (Teacher may wish to use a rubric with the presentations ? encourage students to be creative in their graphic depictions of each event.)


Students will now prepare a “SO WHAT?” chart in their LOGS. In Column # 1, they should list each of the six events listed in # 6. Column # 2 should be titled SO WHAT??The Southern Response. The third column is SO WHAT??The Northern Response. In small groups, students will record the responses of both sections of the country to each event. Upon completion of the activity, each group may wish to send a SO WHAT SPY from their group to another to again check the accuracy of their findings.


Using either the Mississippi History Now Timeline or text, students will arrange in correct chronological order in their LOGS, the following events: American-Mexican War, Compromise of 1850, Kansas-Nebraska Act, Dred Scott Decision, John Brown’s Raid, Presidential Election of 1860, Mississippi’s State Convention January 1861, and Mississippi’s secession. These are the events which led Mississippi into the war.


Teacher (or student groups) will prepare several sets of sentence strips on which the “events“ leading to war have been written. In groups, or with a partner, have the students work together to put the sentence strips in the correct order and to explain the relationship between and among the events. For additional practice, distribute one set of the strips randomly to individual students in the classroom and have them move to the front of the room in the correct order of occurrence.


Teacher may wish to develop a chronological order quiz for students at this point.


Teacher will prepare an adequate number of small cards (one for each student) on which have been printed one of these personalities: John A. Quitman, Henry S. Foote, Stephen Douglas, John J. Pettus, Jefferson Davis. Also add to the card one of the events leading to war. An example would look like this: John A. Quitman----Kansas-Nebraska Act. After each student “draws” a card, assign them to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper regarding their position on the issue. Give students time to share their letters, either in large or small group discussions, and to learn from each other. This activity should reinforce their understanding of the northern and southern positions.


Have students revisit the first paragraphs of the Mississippi History Now article to remind them of the author’s belief in what caused Mississippi’s secession, and ultimately, the Civil War. Using a scale like this one,
AGREE_______DISAGREE, students will determine if the author produced sufficient evidence to support his position. Ask students to read “A Declaration of the Immediate causes which induce and justify the Secession of Mississippi from the Federal Union,” to examine the actual wording used by Mississippians to explain their secession. Challenge them to find words/phrases that support the position of the author of the article.


Ask students to imagine having lived in the decade of the 1850s. Have them share their thoughts and feelings about the time. Encourage them to discuss current examples of “sectionalism.” Ask them to tell their parents /grandparents/guardians what they have learned about this turbulent time in American history and to question them regarding other comparable periods in the United States. If possible, provide a time for students to share their findings. Finally, ask students to think of the period just after secession. Have them discuss the possible opinions and attitudes of both Northerners and Southerners as to what might happen next.



Participation in class activities/group work


LEARNING LOGS (or separate entries)


Group presentation


Chronological order quiz


Letter to Editor



Students may wish to research an important historical figure of the time and present a biographical sketch.


A group of students might be challenged to design and defend a plan to prevent secession.


Students could write and produce the “EVENING NEWS” focusing on the “events” leading to war.


Students may be interested in reading the ordinance of secession (see document linked to article) to examine the wording used by the writers.


A display of political cartoons regarding the events of the lesson could be designed and drawn by students.


Teacher may wish to show the 20-minute video, “Civil War: 1820-1860: Background Issues,” from Mississippi History On Loan, Museum Division, Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Available to Mississippi public and private schools. Complete a loan form (call audiovisual coordinator at 601-961-4724 to request one) and mail to: Mississippi History On Loan, Manship House Museum, 420 East Fortification Street, Jackson, MS 39202-2340.


Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation, The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2000.

Murrin, John M., et al. Liberty Equality Power, Harcourt College Publishers, 2002.

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