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.”
“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.