In 1860 Virginia was the most populous of all the slave states and, with almost half a million enslaved people, had the highest number of residents living in slavery. Virginia also had probably the most varied geography, the most diversified economy, and the third-largest land area of any slave state. Virginia may have been the most important state in the slave South, but with its long Ohio River border it was also a midwestern state, and it was the largest and one of the most important states in the mid-Atlantic region. Virginia bordered four slave states (Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Maryland) and two free states (Ohio and Pennsylvania). In many ways Virginia differed fundamentally in its economic and social characteristics from the slave states in the lower South, where plantation agriculture was more widespread and important. In 1860 it was not clear what white men and women in Virginia would do if a Republican presidential candidate who was opposed to slavery won the election in November that year.
The distinctive commercial and cultural environments in Virginia disposed people in the state's different regions to view their lives as Virginians in different ways and also to perceive their local, regional, and national identities differently.
Transportation networks profoundly influenced how people in different parts of Virginia lived and how they interacted with people who lived in other states or countries. White Virginians in many parts of the state shared as much culturally and socially with residents of nearby free states to the north and west as with the slave states of the lower South.