U.S. History: Civil War-Geographic Politics—The Road to Secession in Tennessee

Visitors to the State of Tennessee in the 1960s were probably puzzled at the state border signs that read, “Welcome to the Three States of Tennessee.” Yet, no assertion could better describe the state’s unique geographical qualities. Predestined by forces of nature to be divided, intrastate sectionalism was present from the initial settlement of the region in the early 1760s. Throughout the state’s history, geography and geology played a crucial role in the political and cultural climate. No greater example of this exists than during the American Civil War. Tennesseans’ loyalties were sharply divided along geographic lines. With its unique position as the gateway to the entire Western Confederacy, Tennessee found itself the prime battleground of the West. Tennessee was the last state to secede from the Union, although the vote to do so was not unanimous. Although the government in Nashville was Confederate and over 100,000 men joined the ranks of the Confederate Provisional Army, about 50,000 Tennesseans volunteered to fight for the Federal Army. One might question why a state that seceded still supplied volunteers to the Union Army in such a large number. The answer can be derived from a study of the state’s variegated terrain and the geographic isolationism of Eastern Tennessee. This lesson will explore how Tennessee’s unique geography affected how the three grand divisions of the state viewed slavery, secession, and the Civil War. Students will examine topographical maps, letters, photographs, and newspaper transcripts in order to understand how politics, policy, and the Civil War were shaped by the state’s variegated terrain.

Standards & Objectives

Learning objectives: 

Students will:

  • Examine and understand the geographic features of a topographical map.
  • Compare each of the three Grand Divisions of Tennessee to determine the geographic characteristics of each section.
  • Identify the six major geographic regions of the state.

Understand how physical terrain can impact:
Human Geography
Politics and Policy
State Sectionalism

Essential and guiding questions: 

How and why did Tennessee’s physical geography affect the cultural and political environment of its people during the years leading up to the national secession crisis of 1860-61?
How did Tennessee’s unique geography lend itself to an intrastate conflict over secession and the coming Civil War? Moreover, what geographic, economic, and cultural characteristics contributed to East Tennessee’s Unionism? 

Lesson Variations

Blooms taxonomy level: 
Extension suggestions: 

As an additional assignment, provide each student with the entire pamphlet by Herman Bokum. Using a physical map of the United States, ask the students to find all the locations discussed in the text. For students who enjoy writing, ask them to select one person that is discussed in the pamphlet and write a short biography regarding their association to Tennessee history, politics, and the secession crisis of 1860-61. The map used in this lesson can be evaluated using the “25 Things to Ask Your Primary Source” tool. 

Helpful Hints

Primary Sources from the Library of Congress:

  • A preliminary agricultural map of Tennessee based on the distribution of geological formations. [1896]
  • Bokum, H. [1863]. Testimony of an East Tennessee Refugee. [pg. 3-6].