Early Life & Political Career

Born in the Reems Creek Valley on May 13, 1830, Zebulon Vance became one of the most famous and controversial politicians in North Carolina history.

Vance grew up at his family’s drover stand in Lapland, now Marshall, although he began boarding for school at age six.  When home from school, Zebulon and his siblings—three brothers and four sisters—spent much of their time in the care of Venus, a woman enslaved by the Vances.

In the summer of 1844 Zebulon’s father, David Vance Jr., died suddenly.  As Robert Vance remembers, Zebulon was still at Washington College in Tennessee when “he received news of the prostration of his father…and he got home just in time to see him die.”  David’s death altered the Vance family’s life.  Mira Baird Vance had to sell much of her husband’s property to raise the capital needed to cover his bank loans.  Once she settled those debts, she moved her family to Asheville, bringing seven enslaved women and children to work in her new household.

Portraits of a man and a woman
Harriette Newell Espy & Zebulon Vance.

Though by no means poor, Mira could not spare the money to send Zebulon back to school.  Determined to become a lawyer, Zebulon applied for a loan from an old family friend, David Swain—the former governor of North Carolina and current president of the University of North Carolina.  With Swain’s support, Zebulon traveled to Chapel Hill in 1851 to begin his studies.  At this time, Zebulon also began a courtship with Harriette Newell Espy, a young woman from Morganton.  The couple exchanged over 100 letters during Zebulon’s term at the University of North Carolina, sharing ideas and planning their future.  Once Zeb had passed the bar and set up his law practice, the couple were married from Hattie’s home at Quaker Meadows in August 1853.

The young couple settled in Asheville, establishing a household that Zebulon jokingly referred to as “an extensive plantation consisting of a 5 acre lot.”  This household relied on the labor of enslaved people.  By 1860, six people were enslaved by Zebulon and Hattie Vance.  Based on research,   we know that Isaac, Julia, Hannah, Marion, and two unnamed children worked in the garden, cooked the meals, cleaned the house, did the laundry, and helped raise the Vances’ children.  Between 1854 and 1862, Hattie gave birth to five sons:  Robert Espy Vance, Charles Vance, David Vance, Zebulon Vance, and Thomas Vance.  Young Espy died in infancy, but the other four boys lived to grow into adulthood.

Handwritten slave census
1860 Slave Schedule from Asheville.

Zebulon Vance enjoyed moderate success as a lawyer in Asheville, but his real passion was politics.  After participating enthusiastically in political campaigns and canvasing for Whig presidential candidate Winfield Scott in 1852, Zebulon began contemplating his own run for office.  He ran as a Whig candidate for the NC Senate and won, taking up his seat in December of 1854.  However, when seeking reelection two years later, Vance lost to competitor David Coleman.

What is the Whig party? The Whig party formed in the 1830s and was made up of opponents of Andrew Jackson and his Democratic Party. In North Carolina, Whigs advocated policies that often benefitted the western part of the state. Democrats, on the other hand, tended to side with the agricultural concerns of the wealthy slave owners in the east. As Zebulon Vance explained, “I was raised in the Whig faith, and taught to revere the names of Clay, Webster, and other great leaders of that party.” During the 1850s, the Whig party collapsed over the issue of slavery. Unwilling to join the Democrats, Vance campaigned as a member of the Know-Nothing party in the 1858 congressional election. Know-Nothings opposed the larger influx of immigrants coming into the country during this period. Learn more about the Whig party in North Carolina here.

In 1858, Vance had the opportunity to return to a more active role in politics.  He campaigned for an open seat in the US Congress and won, travelling to Washington D.C. to be sworn in on December 7.  Though a junior member of the House of Representatives, Zebulon used his time on the floor to show support for the Union while championing the South’s pro-slavery stance.  As the secession crisis loomed,  Vance gave a speech that made his position clear.  Standing in the House on March 16, 1860, Vance stated:

“What, then, is best and right to be done with our slaves?  Plainly and unequivocally, common sense says keep the slave where he is now—in servitude.  The interest of the slave himself imperatively demands it.  The interest of the master, of the United States, of the world, nay, of humanity itself, says, keep the slave in his bondage…”

As he later stated, Vance believed that “the general welfare and prosperity of our country, the very foundation of our society, of our fortunes, and, to a greater or lesser extent, the personal safety of our people, combine to make us defend [slavery] to the last extremity.”  His speech was a warning.  While Vance still clung to the defense of the Union, he was telling his fellow senators that the “Yankees” could only push southerners so far before they took extreme action to defend their “right” to enslave people.  After the attack on Fort Sumter and Abraham Lincoln’s call for southern troops to aid in putting down the rebellion, Vance chose the South, secession, and slavery.

Zebulon Vance & the Civil War

Returning home briefly to muster a group of local men, Vance set out quickly for Raleigh in the company of the “Rough and Ready Guards.” In August 1861, Vance became Colonel of the Twenty-Sixth Regiment of North Carolina Volunteers. Vance and his new troops headed for the coast where federal forces were concentrating their attacks. The Twenty-Sixth

A grouping of portraits of Civil War soldiers
Officers of the 26th North Carolina.

Zebulon Vance is pictured top center.

Regiment fought in many skirmishes as the Union troops, commanded by General Burnside, captured coastal towns and confederate defenses along the Outer Banks. The regiment fought in the Battle of New Bern in March 1862, and though the city was lost, newspaper reports spoke highly of Vance and the Twenty-Sixth Regiment’s bravery. Vance welcomed this praise, which contributed to his new goal of running for governor of North Carolina.

Vance remained with his troops throughout the summer of 1862 as the battle for governor waged in the newspapers. As the press had dubbed Vance a “war hero” after the Battle of New Bern, he proved a popular candidate, ultimately winning the election in a landslide. On September 8, 1862, Zebulon Vance became the governor of North Carolina. His experience in the Confederate army, his political ambitions, and his pride in North Carolina shaped his policies while in office.  After taking office, Vance worked to improve the lives of soldiers and their families at home.  He created a saltworks, increased the number of textile mills, and proposed a welfare system. These actions frequently brought Vance into conflict with the Confederate government, but they also led to his reelection in 1864.

Zebulon Vance’s final months in office were overshadowed by the steady advance of federal forces throughout North Carolina. General Sherman’s army marched north from South Carolina while Union troops captured Wilmington in the east. In April, the Confederacy collapsed. With both armies surrounding Raleigh, Vance signed a letter to Sherman requesting “a suspension of hostilities.” He then traveled to Statesville where Hattie and their sons were staying at the end of the war. On the morning of his 35th birthday, Zebulon Vance was arrested and taken under guard to Washington, D.C.

Vance’s arrest and imprisonment left Hattie alone with the children and facing extreme stress. Though she sent several letters to Zeb reporting her good health at the end of May, Hattie nearly died after suffering a hemorrhage in her lung. Vance had been struggling to gain parole on his own merit, but President Johnson was sympathetic to Hattie’s illness. On July 6, Johnson granted Vance parole so that he could return to his family, and within a week Vance was back in Statesville where Hattie was recovering.

Journey Back to Politics

Though Zeb was with his family once more, he was deeply unhappy. Without a pardon, Vance could not run for office and could only participate in politics from the sidelines. The loss of the political spotlight led Vance into a depression and led him to contemplate relocation from North Carolina. In February of 1865, he suffered a stroke that left him temporarily paralyzed and eventually caused “the muscles of the left cheek and eye to occasionally jerk and twitch, so that he was at times nervous…” With his and Hattie’s fragile health in mind, Vance chose to move the family to Charlotte, where he set up a law practice with Clement Dowd and R.D. Johnson.

Portrait of a young Zebulon Vance
Zebulon Vance, ca. 1870s.

While practicing law in Charlotte, Vance famously defended Tom Dula during his high-profile murder trial. The Wilkes County native and former Confederate soldier was accused of stabbing his girlfriend Laura Foster to death in 1866. Though Vance appealed the guilty verdict for his client, Dula was hanged on May 1, 1868. The story of Foster’s murder and Dula’s trial were immortalized in the famous ballad “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley.”

Click here to listen to the Kingston Trio’s version of "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley."

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. As Section III states, “No person shall…hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any state, who, having previously taken an oath…to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof….” Vance particularly resented this limitation when the same amendment granted African American men, whom he viewed as inferior, legal citizenship and full political rights. With his strongly held belief in white supremacy, Vance naturally gravitated away from the Republican party of Lincoln and gave his support to Conservatives. Using his considerable political clout, Vance began campaigning on behalf of Conservative politicians within the state, using extremely racist dialogue to gain supporters.

During this time, the Ku Klux Klan arose as a terrorist organization, resorting to violence and murder to rig local elections throughout the state. The Klan’s violence, supported by the Conservative party, intensified in advance of the 1870 election. Vance capitalized on the tension created by the Klan in the mountain region to help the Conservatives sweep the western counties. With these victories, Vance’s party took a majority of seats in the legislature.

After the Conservative party victories in 1870, Vance fought even harder against his restriction from political power. Both within the western region and the state as a whole, Zeb’s popularity was questionable. Many conservatives lauded him, and memories of his support of the state during the Civil War influenced his reputation positively. However, his antagonistic tactics and betrayals of supporters and members of his own party—now calling itself the North Carolina Democratic Party—led others to despise him. In 1875, Vance was included in the amnesty bill signed into law by President Grant. Finally able to hold office, Vance began a tense battle with Augustus Merrimon over North Carolina’s open US Senate seat. In a hotly contested bid for the party’s nomination, Merrimon ultimately won the majority.

During this period, Vance also gained national notoriety for his public speaking skills. He made many public addresses, including his famous speech, “The Scattered Nation,” which is a lengthy history of the Jewish people and an argument against antisemitism toward middle class Jews. However, within this fairly progressive speech, Vance utilizes strong language against African Americans. Toward the end of the address, Vance claims that, in contrast to the Jews, the “African negro” had “contributed nothing to…the civilization of mankind.” He also found it ridiculous that “laws and partisan courts alike have been used to force him [African American men] into an equality with those whom he could not equal,” while “Jews, educated and respectable men, descendants of those from whom we derive our civilization” were seen as “unworthy of the association of men.” This flawed logic did not seem amiss to Vance or his predominantly white audiences, and he continued to earn income by delivering the address across the nation. However, Vance continued to keep his eye on politics, always looking for a way to return to the spotlight. His chance came with the 1876 gubernatorial election.

Third Term as Governor & The Western North Carolina Railroad

More than a decade after holding his last political office, Zebulon Vance returned triumphant to the governorship of North Carolina in 1877. Vance and the Democrats ran another racist campaign, and Vance constantly had to defend his actions during the Civil War. However, a majority of North Carolinians still preferred Vance to his Republican opponent, Thomas Settle Jr.

Vintage postcard depicting African American prisoners working on railroad tracks
Postcard depicting African American convict 

laborers working on the WNC Railroad.

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.

Nearly all of the 558 convicts laboring to construct the Western North Carolina Railroad were African American men. Many of them were arrested under the state’s vagrancy laws, which allowed the arrest and imprisonment of the unemployed. After Reconstruction, local governments utilized vagrancy laws, as well as other tactics, to target the African American population. Racism often made it difficult for the formerly enslaved to find fair wages, and any period of unemployment could lead to incarceration. Vance, his government, and the railroad company capitalized on the oppressive laws, and their drive to complete the project quickly led to a large loss of life. "Swannanoa Tunnel," a hammer song sung by the men working on the railroad, shares this story through music. The song is both a lament and a work song, sung to keep the rhythm of the hammer as the prisoners labored. Though "Swannanoa Tunnel" was popularized by white folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford in the 1930s , its origins are rooted in the suffering of hundreds of African American men in the western North Carolina mountains. Click here to listen to a 1939 recording of Will "Shorty" Love performing "Swannanoa Tunnel." 

Personal Tragedy & Political Victory

Though Vance was triumphant in his quest to regain political office, he still had not attained his desired seat in the US Senate. By 1878, he was poised to gain the coveted position. However, tragedy struck the Vance family with the deaths of Mira Vance in April and Hattie Vance in November of 1878. After losing his mother and his beloved wife in less than a year, Vance found it difficult to “face the world which” lay before him. His election as senator on January 21, 1879 likely distracted Vance from some of his grief.

After resigning as governor, the new senator for North Carolina took his seat in Washington on March 4. During his time in the Senate, Vance was a leading figure in the Democratic party. On the national stage, he debated against the influence of northern industry in tariff law. And 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 African Americans.

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.

Portrait of a woman
Portrait of Florence Steele Martin

While in Washington, Vance found time to focus on more than just politics. Early in 1880 he met Florence Steele Martin, a wealthy widow from Louisville, Kentucky. Vance was instantly smitten, and by June the couple had married. They moved into a house in the Capitol, but Vance also began constructing an estate in Black Mountain, North Carolina. In order to raise the necessary funds, Vance sold parcels of Mira Vance’s land around what is now Pack Square in Asheville. He also received significant financial assistance from his new wife. Zeb and Florence moved into the home, called Gombroon, in 1887. As Vance’s health began to decline in the last years of his life, the couple spent more and more time there.

Vance’s Death & Legacy

In 1889, inflammation in Zebulon Vance’s eye led to its surgical removal. His slow recovery from this operation marked the beginning of his decline, both physically and politically. His final years in office, including his election for a third term as senator, were marked by a constant battle with the Farmer’s Alliance. This political organization of farmers caused trouble for the Democratic party, dividing members along class lines. The Alliance sought to improve economic circumstances for American farmers, but their goals—the creation of an income tax, nationalization and regulation of the railroads, a lowering of the tariff, government oversight of debt and loans, and currency based on silver coinage—ran counter to the Democrats’ economic policies and priorities. Small farmers and their allies split from the Democrats and gave their support to Alliance-approved candidates. Though Vance sympathized with white, southern farmers, his role as a Democratic Party leader kept him in opposition of their policies. Acting against hostility from the Farmers Alliance, Democratic politicians like Zebulon Vance had to work much harder to gain or retain political office during election years.

Portrait of an older Zebulon Vance
Portrait of Zebulon Vance

Though Vance overcame these struggles with the Farmers Alliance to win the 1890 election, his health never recovered. From 1890-1894, he continued to deteriorate. By April of 1894, the senator could no longer walk. After suffering a stroke on April 14, Vance slipped into a coma and died.

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. The train stopped at numerous cities and towns along the way. The journey ended in Asheville, where additional funeral services took place in the First Presbyterian Church. Afterwards, veterans from the Rough and Ready Guard led a procession of 710 carriages to Riverside Cemetery, where Vance was buried. Nearly ten thousand mourners attended the proceedings.

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. These traits also allowed him to remain popular with many of his constituents and supporters throughout his lifetime. In 1881, local legislators named a county after Vance, an honor typically only received after death. After Vance passed away, North Carolinians immediately began planning monuments and memorials to “the War Governor of the South.” The Vance Monument Association laid the cornerstone for the Vance Monument in Pack Square on December 22, 1897. By 1900, the state government had erected a large statue of Vance on the Capital grounds; and in 1916, he became the first North Carolinian chosen to be honored in the statuary hall in the US Capitol. 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.

Visit the Vance Birthplace and learn more about life on a mountain plantation. Hear the stories of the enslaved men, women, and children whose forced labor provided wealth and status for members of the Vance family—and discover why Zebulon Vance fought to maintain the institution that provided his lifestyle.