Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

To Secede or Not to Secede?

Civil War Era

Susan McHale, Jessica Hightower | Published: November 17th, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 8th
  • Subject Subject Social Studies
  • Course Course U.S. History
  • Time Frame Time Frame 1-2 class period(s)
  • Duration More 60 minutes


Students will look at two accounts from opposing sides of the Civil War in order to analyze how Abraham Lincoln’s election fueled the decision to join the war effort. To demonstrate their understanding of the readings, students will use the writing strategy, RAFT (Role Audience Format Topic), where they will take on the role of the two individuals text messaging each other their reasons for being supporters of one side or the other.

Essential Question(s)

What justifications for secession are acceptable?



Students watch a brief film clip outlining why Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the presidential election of 1860 drove the country into a Civil War.


Students use the Why-Lighting strategy to review two letters from opposing sides of the Civil War; one from a Union supporter and one from a Confederate supporter. Students dissect the letters in order to determine each author’s viewpoint


Students create a RAFT (Role Audience Format Topic), where they take on the role of each individual from the letters and create their own letters of the two talking to each other about why they believe in their cause.


Students look at a hypothetical map depicting what the United States would look like if all the secessionist movements proposed in US history been successful and discuss how these possible secessions could have shaped the present day and will write a short response on what justifies an acceptable secession.


Students are evaluated through their RAFT and their written response.



Students will watch the “Civil War Election of 1860” video, which outlines the main issues surrounding the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

Discuss with students the issues that have been introduced in the video clip. Ask students why some of the issues mentioned would inspire the South to secede.


Inform students that they will now read letters from opposing sides of the issue in order to have a better grasp of the public sentiment surrounding Lincoln’s election. Have students employ the analytical reading strategy Why-Lighting while reading the letters. Pair students with a partner and pass out letters. You can also assign the links and have students use technology to read the letters. If using technology, have students write down the author's reason's for supporting secession or not for each letter.

You can also assign the links to each letter and have students use technology to read both letters. If using technology, have students write down the author's reason's for supporting secession or opposing secession for each letter.


Have student pairs review each letter. Each partner is to take one of the letters and compose and write a RAFT. A RAFT is a writing that includes a role, audience, format, topic or theme. In this way, both letters are represented. A rubric is provided for the RAFT. Please go over the rubric expectations prior to the activity.

After reading, ask students in each pair to discuss whether or not they feel the reasons listed in the letters were justifications enough for secession to happen. Have the pairs of students share out their view and evidence until all different views are shared. Ask: Was Lincoln the main problem? Discuss responses as a class.

Using the information from each letter, each student should compose a RAFT (Role Audience Format Topic) that shows their understanding of their selected side of the argument.

  1. The role is one of the two individuals from the letters.

  2. The audience is the letter is being sent to the other person-- either Cochran or Ballou.

  3. The format is a formal letter.

  4. The topic is their reasoning for being supporters of their cause. This should be in their own words, not just repeating what they have read.

  5. Instruct students that they are to use evidence from the primary sources when writing their RAFT


Have students view the map The United States that Could’ve Been. Ask students what they notice. Student Responses May Include: It looks like a map of the UnitedStates, but it’s not right, there’s way too many states.

Inform students that this is a map that shows what the United States would look like if all of the proposed secession movements had actually happened. Question students on how the United States would function differently if this were what the United States looked like today. Would their lives be any different? Have the class discuss.

Have students respond to the following prompt. Based on the map of the United States that could’ve been, is secession always the most beneficial move? When is secession acceptable? When is it not? What would be an acceptable justification for secession? Students will need to make sure to have their claim, evidence, and reasoning.

Have students write a short summary paragraph that answers the essential question: What justifications for secession are acceptable?


The RAFT assignment and the summary paragraph will serve as the assessments.