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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,061


This is the grave of Zebulon Vance.

Born in 1830 in Reems Creek, North Carolina, Vance grew up in a wealthy slave-owning family, with his parents owning up to 18 humans. This was not so common in the upcountry near the mountains. In fact, the Civil War divides of the South largely fell on geographical lines, with greater opposition to secession in areas with more mountains because the plantation elite was much weaker here. But there were still elites in this part of the country and that included the Vance family. He started attending Washington College in Tennessee when he was only 12, but his father’s death brought instability to the family (my guess is massive debt that led to slave sales and thus downward mobility for the white elite) and he came home. Having to make his own way, he eventually ended up attending the University of North Carolina and then actually wrote to the school’s president asking for a loan to attend law school. The school was open to that, Vance was a good lawyer, and by 1853, he had his own practice in Asheville.

As a member of the southern elite, now rising again, Vance happily committed treason in defense of slavery in 1861. He was initially a captain in one unit but by the summer was elected by the troops as the colonel of the 26th North Carolina Infantry. He led the troops briefly in a couple of battles, but he was a lot more interested in politics. In the fall of 1862, he ran for governor. Now Vance had interesting politics for a Confederate. See, there was lots of talk about “states’ rights” before the Civil War. Once the Civil War began, the Davis government and most Confederate leaders immediately lost interest in this idea. For them, all that mattered was protecting slavery, which is why the discussion of states’ rights over slavery as a cause for the war makes no sense. But there were a few people who really did adopt this idea of states’ rights as a dominant feature of governance. Vance was one of them. He was completely fine with treason in defense of slavery, although by the time he ran for governor, he made alliances with the state’s unionists for his run. What he didn’t like was the centralizing tendencies of the Davis government, such as requisitioning supplies or forcing states to participate in the draft. So he resisted.

Now, this is just classic Confederate ridiculousness. That attempted nation was always hampered by its internal contradictions. It had an elite that claimed it needed to be an independent nation in order to protect slavery but it then refused to engage in even the slightest personal economic sacrifice to do so, both largely refusing to even turn cotton plantations into food or other needed supplies for the duration of the war, and not loaning their slaves to the war effort. So it was the ultimate rich man’s war and poor man’s fight. And then there was the Vance side of this which also refused to do what was necessary to see the war through, in his case by taking the lies of Confederate rhetoric seriously. In the end, North Carolina certainly contributed its share of soldiers to treason in defense of slavery, but Vance, along with the governor of Georgia, was a huge pain in Richmond’s ass over this issue. Vance would simply pardon anyone from the draft who wanted to be pardoned and could make a reasonable case for doing so, such as being the breadwinner of his family on the farm. Interestingly, Vance was the only governor to keep his states having basic rights such as habeas corpus during the war, which also infuriated Davis who wanted complete control over the population. Vance went so far as to investigate George Pickett‘s mass execution of 22 deserters, men to which Vance expressed great sympathy.

Vance infuriated Jefferson Davis in other ways too. The Anaconda Plan really did seriously cut into Confederate supplies, both imports and exports. So the government in Richmond wanted to control what did get through and spread it to the states and the military. Vance wasn’t having it. His position was that what came through North Carolina belonged to that state first and they were going to take their cut before moving the rest on to Richmond. For however much Davis hated Vance, the voters of North Carolina like him just fine and he was reelected in 1864, though naturally he was evicted from office by the U.S. military when treason was finally crushed the next year.

At the end of the war, Vance was arrested by Union forces like most southern politicians. Alas, like the rest of them he did not personally suffer from his treason. Andrew Johnson pardoned him two months later. In the aftermath, Vance started a law practice in Charlotte, at that time not nearly the dominant town in North Carolina it is today. He represented a guy named Tom Dula on a murder case, which became one of those iconic Appalachian murder ballads under “Tom Dula” or “Tom Dooley” or other versions. You’ve probably heard some of them, from really bad versions by awful bands like The Kingston Trio to very good versions by Doc Watson and other folk artists. The neo-Confederates were as horrible as the Confederates were because they were the same people, but in 1870, the state legislature tried to send Vance to the U.S. Senate, but he could not serve as he was a leading Confederate politician as in the 14th Amendment, they were banned from serving in federal office. But in 1876, Vance returned to the statehouse as governor. He continued to be a modernization type, focusing on building educational institutions in the state, which was pretty common at this time, what with the New South focus on industrial development in full swing.

Interestingly during these years, Vance also took on an unusually public defense of Jews in the United States. He was a big believer in religious freedom, if not other types of freedom. So he frequently gave speeches on this topic and repeatedly noted that Jews had every right to worship as they wanted and were just as good of Americans as any other people. I guess everyone has something good about them. Well, maybe not Donald Trump. But most people. On the other hand, there’s long been rumors that Vance was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, though this remains more speculation than fact. But in that first Klan, there wouldn’t have been much of a conflict between being a white supremacist paramilitary on one side and pro-Jewish on the other. It just wasn’t that much of an issue in the South at that time, unlike the revival of the KKK in 1915 that was explicitly and often violently anti-Semitic. In any case, whether Vance was a member of the KKK or not (and it’s more likely that he was not), he still certainly did nothing to fight the Klan when he was governor and supported their basic principles and actions. So it hardly matters whether he personally put on a robe or not.

In 1879, the state legislature again sent Vance to the U.S. Senate. But in the 14th Amendment, there was an exception to the banning of leading Confederate officials stating that a 2/3 majority of Congress could make exceptions. By 1879, almost no one cared about Black rights anymore in either party and so there was no real fight against letting traitors back into power. Vance served two terms in the Senate as a Democrat, of course. He was very much a Grover Cleveland Democrat, someone who was very pro-business and extremely anti-Farmers Alliance, which had a significant appeal in rural North Carolina. He voted against the high tariffs of the Republican Party like most Democrats, but otherwise was about as pro-business as they were. Of course he also opposed civil service reform, as patronage was the way of the world for a guy like Vance.

Vance died in 1894, still in the Senate. He was 63 years old.

Zebulon Vance is buried in Riverside Cemetery, Asheville, North Carolina.

If you would like this series to visit other Confederate governors, and what a group of guys they are, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Willis Ellis is in Salisbury, North Carolina and Thomas Watts is in Montgomery. Alabama. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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