Asheville Archives: The three burials of Zebulon Vance

THIRD TIME'S A CHARM: Zebulon Vance died on April 14, 1894. For a brief six weeks, his remains lay peacefully inside Riverside Cemetery. But by early June, a dispute among surviving family members resulted in his remains being exhumed and relocated before eventually being returned to his original resting place. Photo by Thomas Calder

If you live in Buncombe County, you’re probably familiar with the controversies surrounding the legacy of former North Carolina governor and outspoken white supremacist Zebulon Vance and the recent decision to remove the Vance Monument in downtown Asheville. But how familiar are you with the dispute surrounding Vance’s final resting place in Riverside Cemetery?

The controversy began shortly after his April 14, 1894, death, when The Asheville Daily Citizen reported in its June 7, 1894, edition that Vance’s second wife, Florence Steele Martin Vance, had removed the former North Carolina governor’s body from its original plot “to the spot on the highest part of Riverside cemetery.”

At the time, Florence had visions of a monument to her late husband placed at the site of his new burial (as opposed to its eventual 1898 placement in Pack Square). The problem, however, was Zebulon’s grown children claimed no foreknowledge of their stepmother’s plans and disapproved of her actions.

On June 11, 1894, The Asheville Daily Citizen informed its readers that the former governor’s son Charles N. Vance had had his father’s body once again disinterred and relocated to its original plot. Furthermore, the paper reported, “Special officers Sam and Howell have been guarding the grave day and night[.]”

Included in the article was a letter Charles wrote to the public, condemning his stepmother’s decision and decrying “the opening of the casket … for what purpose we do not know.”

Charles continued:

“This violation of a sacred obligation was to me so revolting that I felt that it was my imperative duty to the memory of my dead father to replace the remains in the original place. This has been done and I trust and pray they may there remain in peace. Sad as has been this duty it was rendered necessary by the promise I repeatedly made my father. It is also humiliating and mortifying to me that all this has occurred and this publication made necessary, but I see no escape from it.”

Part of Charles’ promise to his late father was to bury Zebulon next to Harriette Vance — Charles’ mother and Zebulon’s first wife, who died in 1878. Interestingly, because Harriette’s death occurred before the 1885 development of Riverside Cemetery, her body remained interred at a separate site, although a plot for her remains had been purchased at Riverside Cemetery.

In yet another strange twist, Charles did not realize at the time of his June 11 letter that his mother had not yet been relocated to Riverside — a point Florence raised in her own letter, first published on June 17, 1894, by The Observer in Raleigh (and subsequently reprinted in the June 18, 1894, edition of The Asheville Daily Citizen).

In her missive, Florence defended her actions, claiming she’d received permission from her late husband’s surviving siblings to relocate his body. She also asserted that Zebulon “often expressed his determination to leave his [first] wife where she was buried, in the Presbyterian church, as he thought she would have preferred.”

At the end of her letter to the paper, Florence declared:

“I shall most certainly not disturb his rest again, or appeal to the law for what I supposed all civilized people conceded — the right of a man’s wife to have her husband properly buried. The unsuitableness of the present place is apparent.”

Enraged by his stepmother’s claims, Charles penned a response, printed in the June 22, 1894, edition of The Asheville Daily Citizen. In it he refuted her claims and reasserted his own, with a particular emphasis on his father’s final wishes.

“The remains of my mother have never been removed to the family plot in Riverside cemetery at Asheville, but my father had so frequently talked with me about it that I was confident it had been done,” he wrote, explaining his earlier confusion. “My mother’s remains will be placed by his side at the first convenient opportunity.”

Noting his displeasure in the ongoing public dispute, Charles added, “I hope my father’s friends throughout the State will understand and appreciate my position in this, to me, most unhappy controversy, and pardon the earnestness and filial affection which impel to me strive to carry out his wishes and often expressed desire.”

According to Joshua Darty, director of the Riverside Cemetery, Harriette’s remains were relocated to the plot adjacent to Zebulon, shortly thereafter.

Charles died in 1922, joining the family plot. Two years later, Florence departed as well. She, too, is interred at Riverside Cemetery, albeit inside the Martin family plot.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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6 thoughts on “Asheville Archives: The three burials of Zebulon Vance

    • Roger

      In a satirical slant to recent developments regarding those activists involved, it might have been beneficial to the “cancel culture” movement had the reactionary members of city council donated the money earmarked for the removal of the Vance monument to the Marxist co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Cullors, so she could have made downpayment on another million-dollar mansion; then repurposed the obelisk to remind us of gullible citizens who put their faith in fraudulent individuals who take the money and run. Instead of putting the money where her mouth “was,” Crooked Cullors ran (it is recently reported that she has resigned from the foundation over reports that she had pocketed millions of dollars while ignoring the mothers of sons lost to reckless police action that resulted in needless brutality and senseless death). The next political cycle is just around the corner; perhaps it’s time to remove reactionaries from their seats at Council and elect Councilwoman Kilgore as Mayor. I imagine this statement speaks for thousands who view Ms. Kilgore as a leader who would let Vance rest in his grave at Riverside and get on with the business of doing what is right for the future of Asheville.

  1. Voirdire

    I’m thinking that all the headstones of all confederate veterans , errr…. “traitors”, as well as their most ardent supporters… i.e. their deceased families/relatives et al should be removed from Riverside Cemetery. Furthermore, I believe any living relatives they have remaining here in North Carolina be required to sign an oath of remorseful allegiance to the Union …. or they should be exiled immediately to one of our finer states to the north of the Mason-Dixon line …where they just might acquire a veneer of yankee grace. Any questions?

    • Rl

      How ridiculous, not to mention disrespectful and expensive. How far do you people want to go? You have already caused more division and made Asheville a laughingstock when it once was a lovely place to live and visit.
      Allow the dead to Rest In Peace and remember they fought as they were instructed.
      If they must go- so must many street name, parks, buildings of both races. Enough is enough.

      • James

        “Fought as they were instructed?” You mean “”Just following orders…” Where have we herd that “defense” for killing before? And I can see you don’t care that the people they killed were American troops. We don’t honor the 9/11 hijackers or Timothy McVeigh so why are we honoring these people who killed Americans?

        • Rl

          Your Timothy McVeigh story is a farce to fool the American public and the so called 9/11 deal was a set up by inside sources so put that aside.

          Found an interesting little article:
          Confederate soldiers, sailors, and Marines that fought in the Civil war were made U.S. Veterans by an act of Congress in in 1957, U.S. Public Law 85-425, Sec 410, Approved 23 May, 1958. This made all Confederate Army/ Navy/ Marine Veterans equal to U.S. Veterans. Additionally, under U.S. Public Law 810, Approved by the 17th Congress on 26 Feb 1929 the War Department was directed to erect headstones and recognize Confederate grave sites as U.S. War dead grave sites. Just for the record the last Confederate veteran died in 1958. So, in essence, when you remove a Confederate statue, monument or headstone, you are in fact, removing a statue, monument or head stone of a U.S. VETERAN.

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