north carolina highway historical marker program
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      During his lifetime, Zebulon Baird Vance (1830-1894) held multiple political offices, including Buncombe County solicitor, state legislator, United States congressman, North Carolina governor, and United States senator. Today, Vance remains one of North Carolina’s most controversial figures. While he used his political power to improve life for many North Carolinians, he also fought uncompromisingly to deny rights to African American citizens.
Born on May 13, 1830 on the Vance family plantation along Reems Creek in Buncombe County, Vance was the son of David Vance II and Mira Margaret Baird Vance. After his father’s death in 1844, Vance’s mother moved her family and seven enslaved women and children to Asheville. Determined to become a lawyer, Vance entered the University of North Carolina in 1851 to pursue the study of law. While in Chapel Hill, Vance conducted a courtship by letter with Harriette “Hattie” Espy, whom he would marry in 1853.

Vance served in Congress from 1858 to 1861. Though he strongly advocated maintenance of the Union, he also championed the South’s pro-slavery stance. He spoke against the act of secession because he thought it unwise and dangerous, but he never denied the legal right of a state to secede nor changed his view of slavery. With the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call to arms, Vance faced a choice of loyalty. In order to defend the institution of slavery, he cast his lot with North Carolina and the South.

Vance refused to be nominated as a candidate for the Confederate Congress; instead he raised a company, the Rough and Ready Guards, of which he was the captain. He was elected colonel of the Twenty-Sixth Regiment in 1861 and saw action in eastern North Carolina and Virginia. Still, politics was never far from Vance’s mind, and he was criticized frequently for mingling politics with his official duties.

Anti-administration opponents had established a loosely knit organization called the Conservative Party, and they picked the popular colonel to head the 1862 gubernatorial contest against Democrat William Johnston. The campaign was fought in the press, and with the full support and vitriolic pen of William W. Holden, editor of the North Carolina Standard, Vance was elected by an overwhelming majority.

Vance diligently supported the Confederacy and made every effort to keep North Carolina loyal. However, when the consolidation tendencies of the central government created hardships for North Carolinians and endangered its citizens, he took exception and complained bitterly; consequently, he quarreled frequently with President Jefferson Davis. Having abandoned his old Whig nationalism when the South seceded, Vance became a staunch defender of states’ rights, particularly regarding civil laws and judicial procedure.

On the home front, Vance had to deal with a flood of problems caused by the war: scarcity of goods and clothing, high prices, currency depreciation, and sinking morale. To address these challenges, he turned to the practice of blockade running to provide needed supplies for both troops and civilians; he organized and established supply depots in the counties to distribute goods; and he offered sympathy and assurances to the people to boost spirits. These actions frequently brought Vance into conflict with the Confederate government, but they also led to his reelection in 1864.

However, with the fall of Fort Fisher and Wilmington in January 1865, even Vance could not lift morale or persuade the legislature to pass laws to help the dying Confederacy. As Gen. William T. Sherman moved his Federal troops closer to Raleigh, Vance began moving military supplies and official records to the west on April 10. Two days later, he left the capital, and on May 13, 1865, Vance was arrested at his home in Statesville. He traveled under guard to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, where he remained until gaining parole on July 6.

In 1867, President Johnson officially pardoned Zebulon Vance. However, Vance was still unable to vote or hold office due to the restrictions imposed by the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868. Granted amnesty in 1875 by President Grant, Vance began actively seeking political office. He ran for governor successfully in 1876 in a notable campaign against Thomas Settle. Upon taking office on January 1, 1877, Vance began enacting his long-held plans for the state. He prioritized education and agricultural reform, and—most significantly for western North Carolina—Vance was eager to bring the railroad to his home region through any means necessary.

Early in his term, Vance spoke in favor of convict labor and promised that the tracks would be laid into Asheville within the year. This push for speed led to extreme abuses of the convicted laborers working in harsh conditions to construct the railroad. Workers received almost no time off and worked through extreme winter weather on only seven cents worth of food. Throughout the entire construction project, at least 125 convict laborers died as a direct result of ill-treatment, the danger of the work, and the harsh punishments doled out by guards.

In 1879, with two years remaining in his term, Vance left the governor's office for a seat in the United States Senate. During his time as senator, Vance was a leading figure in the Democratic party. Working against a Republican majority for much of his tenure, Vance opposed President William McKinley’s protective tariff, fought the expansion of the Internal Revenue Service, and spoke against reforms aimed at dealing with the rampant political corruption characteristic of the late nineteenth century. As race often proved to be the chief political issue at home in North Carolina, he consistently appealed to the racial fears of white southerners and supported policies linked to the disenfranchisement of Black Americans.

Zebulon Vance died in office on April 14, 1894. A funeral service was held in the Senate Chamber in Washington, D.C, followed by a funeral train of family members, congressmen, and senators who transported Vance’s body to North Carolina. He was buried in Riverside Cemetery in Asheville.

From a plantation tucked in the Reems Creek Valley to the senate chamber of the US Capitol, Zebulon Vance strove to be lauded, celebrated, and remembered. His ambition, quick wit, and oratory skills helped propel him from the state’s highest peaks to its highest political offices. However, throughout his career, public opinion ranged widely concerning Vance’s beliefs, abilities, and general demeanor; and today, over 100 years after his death, Vance is still a contested individual.

References:
Frontis W. Johnston, “Zebulon Baird Vance: A Personality Sketch.” North Carolina Historical Review, XXX (April 1953): 178-190
Gordon B. McKinney, Zeb Vance: North Carolina’s Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader (2004)
Joe A. Mobley, “War Governor of the South”: North Carolina’s Zeb Vance in the Confederacy (2005)
Zebulon Baird Vance Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh Zebulon Baird Vance Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Alexander Kelly McClure, Famous American Statesmen & Orators, Past and Present: With Biographical Sketches and Their Famous Orations, Volume VI (1902).
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