Almost half a million Virginians, nearly one-third of the entire population of the state, lived in slavery in 1860. More enslaved people and more owners of slaves lived in Virginia than in any other state. A large majority of Virginia's enslaved people worked on farms and plantations, and most of them resided east of the Blue Ridge. The counties between the mountains and Chesapeake Bay, where tobacco cultivation retained prime economic importance, had the highest concentrations of enslaved people in the state. South of the Rappahannock River, about half of the region's population lived in slavery. In about a dozen counties the enslaved portion of the total population was between 60 percent and 70 percent, and in two counties, Nottoway and Amelia, the number rose to between 70 and 75 percent. Of all of the regional differences within the United States, the most important were between the states where slavery was legal and of greatest economic importance and the states where slavery was not legal. Likewise, within Virginia the very uneven distribution of the enslaved population created distinct regional differences that influenced how people reacted to the secession crisis when it erupted at the end of 1860.
In one way or another, many white Virginians were deeply invested in the economy of slave labor, using enslaved people either to work on their farms and plantations or as cooks or household servants.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, many residents of the free states who were avid proponents of free labor became increasingly critical of the institution of slavery and wished to forbid its expansion. At the same time many Southern slave owners began defending slavery as a positive institution that civilized and Christianized the enslaved people and enriched the nation as a whole.