Vance: North Carolina's Renowned Political Leader - TribPapers
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Vance: North Carolina’s Renowned Political Leader

Photo by Clint Parker

Reems Creek – Driving on Merrimon Ave near Reems Creek Road, you come to a historical marker that reads, “ZEBULON B. VANCE 1830-1894: Civil War governor. He led state, 1862-65, 1877-79; U.S. Senator, 1879-94. Colonel, 26th N.C. Regiment, 1861-62. Birthplace 6 miles N.E.”

Mention of the Civil War, Confederates, and slavery is enough to get you tarred and feathered anymore, but the Civil War was an important part of American history and Vance played an integral part in the state during that time.

Vance, a prominent figure in North Carolina’s political history, was a man of many accomplishments, leaving a lasting impact on the state and beyond. From a young age, Vance’s journey to political prominence began, culminating in him becoming one of the most revered leaders the state has ever produced.

Born on May 13, 1830, at the family’s homestead along neslted along Reems Creek in Buncombe, Vance was born to David Vance II and Mira Margaret Baird Vance. His early education was largely provided by his mother, who continued to support his learning in Asheville after his father’s passing in 1844. In 1851, Vance enrolled at the University of North Carolina, where he immersed himself in the study of law.

Vance’s political ambitions were evident from the outset of his career. Just a few months after establishing his legal office in Asheville in early 1852, he was elected as the solicitor for Buncombe County. With a keen eye on politics, he used his courtroom appearances to build a wide reputation and connect with influential figures.

In 1854, Vance entered state politics, utilizing his charisma, oratory skills, and sharp mountain wit to secure a seat in the Senate, defeating his opponent, Daniel Reynolds. He parted ways with the Democratic Party, associating it with sectionalism, and aligned himself with the declining Whig Party, further asserting his political stance.

Vance’s time in Congress, from 1858 to 1861, saw him advocating strongly for maintaining the Union. Although he opposed secession, events such as the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call to arms eventually led him to side with his state and region.

When the Civil War erupted, Vance declined a nomination for the Confederate Congress and instead raised his own company, the Rough and Ready Guards, becoming their captain. His military career progressed, and he was eventually elected as the colonel of the Twenty-Sixth Regiment.

Vance’s political inclinations remained evident despite his military responsibilities, often drawing criticism for intertwining politics with his official duties. As the war raged on, the Conservative Party, a loosely organized opposition group, selected Vance as their candidate in the 1862 gubernatorial contest against Democrat William Johnston. Vance emerged victorious, with over 32,000 votes, thanks to his immense popularity.

Throughout his time as governor, Vance supported the Confederacy fervently, but he was not afraid to voice his dissent when he felt that the central government’s consolidation efforts were harming North Carolinians. He became a staunch advocate for states’ rights, particularly in matters concerning civil laws and judicial procedures.

Vance faced numerous challenges as governor, dealing with the hardships caused by the war, including scarcity of goods, high prices, and currency depreciation. However, his resourcefulness led him to turn to blockade running to provide supplies for the state. Despite some discontent within the population, his efforts on behalf of the people earned him widespread support, and he was re-elected by a substantial margin in 1864.

With the Confederacy crumbling, Vance’s efforts to lift morale and pass laws to aid the cause proved futile. As Union troops neared the state capital, Vance moved military supplies and official records to the west before departing Raleigh. He was later arrested in his home in Statesville on May 13, 1865, and held in Old Capitol Prison in Washington until July 6.

After the war, Vance relocated his law practice to Charlotte, but political disabilities hindered him from taking the United States Senate seat to which he was elected in 1870. Eventually, these restrictions were lifted, and Vance played a key role in developing the Conservative Party, which eventually evolved into the Democratic Party.

In 1876, Vance ran for and won the governorship in a notable campaign against Thomas Settle Jr. During his tenure. Significant progress was made in various areas, including railroad construction, education, and agriculture, ushering North Carolina into the era of the New South.

Vance’s political career continued when he entered the United States Senate in 1879, where he focused on reconciliation and healing the wounds caused by the war. Throughout his tenure, he provided insights into Southern motivations and feelings while encouraging a forward-looking approach.

Zebulon Baird Vance passed away on April 14, 1894, during his time in office. He was laid to rest in Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery. Vance had a family of four sons from his first marriage to Harriette (Hattie) Espy, who passed away in 1878. He later married Florence Steele Martin.

Zebulon Baird Vance’s legacy endures as one of North Carolina’s most influential and beloved political leaders, whose impact on the state’s history remains immeasurable. His journey from a young county solicitor to a revered United States Senator left an indelible mark on the annals of North Carolina politics.