Zeb Vance: North Carolina’s Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader

By Gordon B. McKinney

University of North Carolina Press, 496 pp., $45.00

The history of the Civil War, it seems, will never rest. Even after 140 years, it’s still clawing out of its grave, going back to battle and haunting the country’s collective memory. In North Carolina, which was one of the most reluctant and conflicted Confederate states, Faulkner’s admonition–“The past is never dead; it’s not even past”–rings true as ever. Witness the present-day internal strife in the N.C. Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, for example, or the recent news that Cary Christian School is still using an apologia for slavery in history classes.

Zeb Vance, Berea College history professor Gordon B. McKinney’s new biography of North Carolina’s pre-eminent Civil War-era politician, is replete with reminders of why our state still hasn’t found its peace with that long-ago war. In Vance’s life, McKinney finds a fitting foundation for telling some of North Carolina’s most bitter and contested history.

Born and raised in the Asheville area, Vance attended college in Chapel Hill and went on to serve as a state legislator, congressional representative, governor, senator and then governor again. His story has been told in some detail by previous biographers, but McKinney saw a need for a new accounting, one “that places [Vance] in the context of historians’ rapidly changing perceptions of the American South.” That context includes an acknowledgment of “the role that race played in shaping the United States during the latter part of the nineteenth century,” McKinney writes. And it is on the issue of race, in particular, that McKinney demystifies Vance’s personal and public history.

Like his parents, Vance owned a small number of slaves. And while he’s often remembered as a progressive leader, at least for his times, McKinney makes it clear that Vance was “an avowed racist who used the racism of other whites for personal advantage and political purposes.” In March of 1860, for example, Vance rose before the House of Representatives to argue that blacks were genetically inferior and to rail against the idea of race-mixing. “Even the mind of a fanatic recoils in disgust and loathing from the prospect of intermingling the quick and jealous blood of the European with the putrid stream of African barbarism,” he said.

Still, Vance was among the last North Carolina leaders to throw his hat in with the secessionists, hoping that both slavery and the Union could be preserved. Shortly after the Civil War started, the 32-year-old Vance was elected governor, and throughout the conflict he earned a reputation as a committed Confederate nationalist who was nonetheless an uneasy partner in the Confederacy. His constituents, he knew, were far from unanimous in their support for war, and he repeatedly and famously butted heads with Confederate authorities.

In one letter quoted by McKinney, Vance laid into Richmond officials for allowing rebel soldiers to forage freely in parts of North Carolina, where the soldiers cleaned out some communities’ food supplies. “If God Almighty had yet in store another plague worse than all the others which he intended to let loose on the Egyptians in case Pharoah still hardened his heart,” he wrote, “I am sure it must have been a regiment or so of half-armed, half-disciplined Confederate cavalry.” As the war wore on, Vance lodged similarly strident complaints about Confederate encroachments on the state’s economic independence and the civil liberties of North Carolina’s white population.

After the war, Vance suffered a brief stint in federal prison before returning to politics. During Reconstruction, he made common cause with the new Ku Klux Klan and, like most white leaders in North Carolina, labored to deny political and social rights to former slaves. Along the way, he stayed popular with the state’s white population, winning election to the U.S. Senate and then, again, to the state governorship.

McKinney paints a colorful and nuanced picture of Vance as both a product and shaper of his times–a complicated man who managed to ride through political turmoil and war and emerge with his principles intact. That some of those principles were grounded in the virulent racism and unholy institutions that drove this country to war within itself is all the more reason to revisit–and tell the truth about–his story. It’s a history that can’t–and shouldn’t–rest.