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, one of the most reluctant and conflicted Confederate states, William Faulkner’s admonition — “The past is never dead; it’s not even past” — rings as 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, near Raleigh, is still using an apologia for slavery in history class. And just this month, Charlotte leaders are debating whether a Confederate flag should continue to fly over Confederate graves in a city-owned cemetery.
Civil War scholar Gordon B. McKinney’s new biography, Zeb Vance: North Carolina’s Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 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, a history professor at Berea College in Kentucky who helped edit volumes of Vance’s papers, saw a need for a new accounting, one “that places [Vance] in the context of historians’ rapidly changing perceptions of the American South,” as he writes in the book’s introduction.
That context, he notes, includes an acknowledgment of “the role that race played in shaping the United States during the latter part of the nineteenth century.” 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 slavery and the Union could be preserved. But as the Civil War started, he promptly took up arms, volunteering to lead a regiment of Confederate troops.
Aided by a military-minded lieutenant commander, Vance performed more or less admirably in two brief but intense battles. But in 1862, shortly after the war started, he returned to politics. At the tender age of 32, Vance was elected governor of a state engaged in war. Throughout the conflict, he earned a reputation as a committed Confederate nationalist who was nonetheless an uneasy partner in the Confederacy.
Vance’s constituents, he knew, were far from unanimous in their support for war. Indeed, throughout North Carolina, resistance to conscription and desertions were widespread. On the Eastern shore, the federal government held key ports. In the Piedmont, many whites who didn’t own slaves were not invested in the conflict, and some chose to actively resist Confederate authority.
And in Vance’s home territory, the mountains to the west, large sectors of the population were in open rebellion against the rebel nation.
In an 1864 letter to a friend, Vance confided that “the great popular heart is not now, and never has been in this war. It was a revolution of the Politicians; not the People.”
Staunch racist, reluctant Confederate
As Vance struggled to keep his own state together, he repeatedly butted heads with Confederate authorities. In one letter quoted by McKinney, the governor upbraided 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 Pharaoh 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. Along the way, he proved to be one of the most nettlesome state leaders to join the Confederate cause, and it’s clear that some of the war’s excesses sickened him.
Still, Vance weathered the war relatively well, considering the fact that he fought on the losing side. Fate seemed to favor him, even when the Confederacy crumbled. After the war, Vance suffered a brief stint in federal prison before returning to politics.
The post-war Vance became a passionate advocate of respect and tolerance for American Jews, but he remained a steadfast opponent of freedom for North Carolina’s black population. During Reconstruction, his political party made common cause with the new Ku Klux Klan, even while Vance denounced the group as a “secret society.” Like most post-war white leaders in North Carolina, he 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 N.C. governorship.
When Vance died in 1894, his coffin made a remarkable tour that testified to his prominence in North Carolina through some of the state’s most tumultuous years. McKinney opens his book with a series of poignant snapshots from the route the train bearing his body made from Washington to Raleigh, from Raleigh to Asheville. Here in the town that now hoists a granite obelisk dedicated to Vance into the sky, some 10,000 people — including a contingent of Vance’s former slaves — joined the funeral march to Riverside Cemetery.
With vignettes like these, 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 part of a history that can’t — and shouldn’t — rest.
[Mountain Xpress contributing writer Jon Elliston is based in Asheville.]