Tuesday History: Zebulon Vance in the aftermath of the Civil War

WAR TIME GOVERNOR: After the Civil War ended, Zebulon B. Vance was arrested and held for several months in a Washington, D.C., facility. He would eventually be paroled and sent back to North Carolina. In 1867 he was pardoned. In 1870 he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, North Carolina

On May 9, 1865, the Civil War came to its official end. In this undated letter following the South’s surrender, Gov. Zebulon B. Vance writes his longtime friend and Buncombe native, John Evans Brown, who was living in Sydney, Australia. The opening page of the correspondence is missing. Excerpts from the remainder of the letter will form the basis of the  next two Tuesday History installments.

Thanks as always to Pack Memorial Library’s Special Collections, North Carolina Room for its assistance. 

Zebulon B. Vance wrote John Evans Brown: 

Of course I cannot give you much criticism upon the war, or the causes of our failure; nor can I attempt to do justice to the heroism of our troops or of the great men developed by the contest. This is the business of the historian, and when he traces the lives which are to render immortal the deeds of this revolution, if truth and candor guide his pen, neither our Generals nor our soldiers will be found inferior to any who have fought and bled within a century.

When all of our troops had laid down their arms, then was immediately seen the results which I had prophecied [sic]. Slavery was declared abolished — two thousand million of property gone from the South at one blow, leaving four million freed vagabonds among us — outnumbering in several states the whites — to hang as an incubus upon us and reenact from time to time, the horrors of Hayte [Haiti] and St. Domingo [Saint-Domingue]. This alone was a blow from which the South will not with reasonable industry recover in one hundred years.

Then too the states have been reduced to the condition of territory, then Executive and Judicial (and all other) officers appointed by the Federal Government and are denied all law except that of the military. Our currency of course is gone and with it went the Banks and bonds of the states, and with them went to ruin thousands of widows, orphans and helpless persons whose funds were invested therein.

Then Railroads destroyed, towns and villages burned to ashes, fields and farms laid desolate, home and homestead, palaces and cabins only marked to the owners eye by the blackened chimneys looming out on the landscape like the mile marks on the great highway of desolation as it swept over the blooming plains and happy valleys of our once prosperous land!

The stock all driven off and destroyed, mills and agricultural implements specially ruined; many wealthy farmers making with their own hands a small and scanty crop with old artillery horses turned out by the troops to die.

This is but a faint picture of the ruin of the country which ten years ago you left, blooming like the garden of Eden, abounding in plenty and filled with a population whose condition was the praise and the envy of all the earth! Alas, alas! To travel from New Bern to Buncombe now would cause you many tears John, unless your heart is harder than I think it is.

But thank God — though wretchedness and poverty doth abound, yet charity and brotherly love doth much more abound. A feeling of common suffering has united the hearts of our people and they help one another. Our people do not uselessly repine over their ruined hopes. They have gone to work with amazing alacrity and spirit.

Major Generals, Brigadiers, Congressmen, and high functionaries hold the plough and sweat for their bread. A fair crop was the reward of last season’s labor, and there will hardly be any suffering for next year except among the negroes, who forsaking their old masters have mostly flocked into towns in search of their freedom, where they are dying and will die by the thousands…

Next week, we will conclude Vance’s letter to Brown. 


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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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46 thoughts on “Tuesday History: Zebulon Vance in the aftermath of the Civil War

  1. MMH

    Interesting…so after the Civil Wah we know that the Democrat Party came into formation.

    Did you ever wonder WHY our public schools NEVER teach any history of the Democrat Party itself ?

    That great question was asked by D’Nesh D’Souza in the blockbuster movie ‘Hillary’s America’ , which also
    details their earliest EVILS against America including how/why they formed the KKK and murdered THOUSANDS of black republicans. He covers it quite well in the movie! Don’t miss it !

    • Phil Williams

      The Democratic Party of the 19th Century is nothing like that of the mid-20th Century forward….and for that matter, neither is the Republican Party. The Jeffersonian Democrats were originally called “Democratic Republicans” who interpreted the word “Liberal” quite differently – they promoted small central government with the biggest burden of governing upon the States. The major opposing party was the Federalist Party which supported strong central government. The “GOP” came into being right before the Civil War, and Abe Lincoln was the first Republican President – they were considered “Radicals” and the party was mainly formed from former members of the defunct Whig and Free Soil parties. Republican Theodore Roosevelt was a reformer and was known as “The Trust-Buster” – splitting off from the main Republican Party in 1912 to form the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party. The big changes in the parties could be said to have started around World War One with Woodrow Wilson – the National Income Tax, the US entry into WWI, the League of Nations – and by the 1930’s the Democrats were the party of FDR. Social programs, massive public works projects, anti-isolationism, etc….and they were becoming known as the party of “the Little Guy”, whereas the Republicans came to represent Wall Street and Old Money.

      By the end of World War Two, Harry Truman’s initial concentration on Civil Rights, integration of the Armed Forces, etc., alienated many Southern Democrats who represented the conservative element in the South – the party being a stronghold of the status quo since the Civil War. These folks split off and were called “Dixiecrats”, many of whom – including Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, – joined the Republican Party. A few, such as Alabama’s George Wallace, Georgia’s Richard Russell and Mississippi’s James Eastland still called themselves Democrats, but held very conservative views all around, and were strongly pro-segregation and anti-Civil Rights.

      So the (National) Democratic and Republican parties of today bear little to no resemblance to the original organizations. American History is not as straightforward and simple as folks would like for it to be – and because most younger folks have absolutely no interest in it, they believe what they hear – including the angry and vengeful remarks often directed at long-deceased former confederates like Governor Vance.

      • Don

        thank you Phil. So very refreshing to read a reasoned, well written, knowledgeable response…. might this for once silence the hoard of know-nothing trolls that frequent -I’m being kind- the MtnX comments. And let’s not forget the Know Nothing Party of the 1850…. the nativism party that nominated the former president Millard Fillmore in 1856 in hopes of ridding our nation of the hordes of German and Irish Catholics that started coming in droves to the US in the 1840’s. From Wikipedia….. “….the movement strove to curb immigration and naturalization but met with little success. Membership was limited to Protestant men.” Funny how history repeats itself, oui?

        • Phil Williams

          Oh Lord, Don, I went round and round with one dude awhile back on the subject of the Vance Monument – can’t figure if it is young people who know everything or older people who should know better. They completely dismiss the idea of historical context and get so caught up in emotions….and it is like talking to a coal bucket – they apparently don’t read anything you write – just enough to see that it doesn’t fit their ideas and they keep beating that modernist/revisionist drum…Anyhow, thanks for the kind words!

          • The Real World

            “They completely dismiss the idea of historical context and get so caught up in emotions” —- yes, yes, yes Phil.

            I’ve been encountering this with both young and old since moving to this town over 3 years ago. It’s not exclusive behavior to AVL, of course, but there seems to be a big piggyback effect here. Just people piling on, feeling self-righteous and utterly illuminated. BUT, if you ask questions about their views — what you get back are the exact platitudes and quotes from the blowhards on TV. That’s it!

            It’s clear that plenty aren’t engaging in much critical thinking….. they’re just knee-jerk emoting and emulating.

  2. Phil Williams

    Real World – To paraphrase Ebenezer Scrooge “If I could work my will…” I would take every one of these passionate howler monkeys on here and plug them right into the times that they holler loudest about – the Antebellum South, Nazi Germany prior to World War Two, etc. – and not as a person of those times, but as the enlightened, critical-thinking, morally superior being that they claim to be. Then I’d like to see who among them would stand up and do the right thing – and who among them would keep quiet and do their best to blend in and not rock the boat – a bit of a pun intended, wondering how the one who calls himself “Boatrocker” would fare…..I am sure it would be very interesting to see how long their exacting standards would hold up.

    • boatrocker

      Phil, you do realize that you just described the best part of the 1983 “Twilight Zone: The Movie”.

      The skit where the angry racist guy wakes up from a never ending nightmare as a Jew in 1940’s France, a black guy in Antebellum South and a Vietnamese guy during the war. Dan Akroyd does such a fine job too with ‘Wanna see something reaaaalllly scary?’.

      I call it the ‘How does it feel now?’ syndrome.

      By Clapton, I so do miss Hanke.

      • Phil Williams

        Yes, that was the late Vic Morrow, who was tragically killed during the Vietnam sequence of that movie along with 2 child actors. I was thinking of that very movie when I made my earlier comment….

        • boatrocker

          Would you agree that MMH’s assertion is William Shatner (from the original series) or Johnathan Lithgow from the movie as the guy who sees a monster on the airplane wing that nobody else can see?

          I watched that movie again last night and re-discovered why I loved seeing it in the movie theater as a younger lad.

          • Phil Williams

            Not certain where MMH went to school, but he’s bound to be seeing gremlins nowadays – I learned a good deal of US History (including the history of the 2 major political parties) in Jr. High, High School and College – but admittedly a good deal on my own as History has been one of my lifelong hobbies. I like just about anything with William Shatner in it – he was a hoot in Boston Legal…

  3. hauntedheadnc

    “When all of our troops had laid down their arms, then was immediately seen the results which I had prophecied [sic]. Slavery was declared abolished — two thousand million of property gone from the South at one blow, leaving four million freed vagabonds among us — outnumbering in several states the whites — to hang as an incubus upon us and reenact from time to time, the horrors of Hayte [Haiti] and St. Domingo [Saint-Domingue]. This alone was a blow from which the South will not with reasonable industry recover in one hundred years.”

    Goodness gracious! Why, reading that you’d almost think that the Civil War had something to do with maintaining the institution of slavery!

    (Especially the part about how dangerous black male sexuality can be.)

    • Peter Robbins

      At least he didn’t call them “howler monkeys.” Back then, folks had manners.

      • Phil Williams

        Oh – you are that fellow who don’t like the Vance Monument or treacly homilies, but who thinks those emotion-laden gestures are the answer! I don’t think I actually called any particular person a howler monkey – kind of threw the term out there. But, of course, if anyone identifies with it and wishes to announce the fact to all and sundry, well, that is of course their privilege.

        My hat is off to you in that you do appear to use your actual name instead of hiding behind a nom de plume, but yes, I would love to see you magically transported to Asheville in about 1860 and be able to observe what you did. Would you do your best to blend in? Would you do your best to move to a remote area and try to survive as some kind of hermit? Would you try and locate some Unionists and offer your services? Would you openly criticize slavery and secession and try to convince the locals of how wrong they were?

        Following your convictions might be easier if you were a stranger from the future – but many things are easier in theory – particularly if it is a theory that will never be tested.

        If you want thing erasing all traces of Zeb Vance from North Carolina, you’d have an expensive and lengthy task ahead of you – and you might as well work on removing lots of other monuments, memorials and markers, and changing most of the county and city names, many street names, names of mountains, etc – because most of these things in the South were named for prominent people who owned slaves or at least benefited from slave labor or the slave trade. If you’re set on doing it, might as well do it thoroughly and consistently…..

        • Peter Robbins

          You called a whole group of people “monkeys.” In a racially sensitive setting. For all and sundry to hear.

          • Phil Williams

            Mr. R, the operative word is intended to be “howler” rather than “monkey” – and I think you know that. I suspect that you are intentionally reading racial connotations into a statement where there are none – of course, that seems to be your standard operating procedure.

          • Phil Williams

            “Howl, howl, howl, howl! Oh, you are men of stones.
            Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
            That heaven’s vault should crack.”
            (from “King Lear” Act V, Scene III, by William Shakespeare)

          • Phil Williams

            BTW Sir- YOU were the first one to introduce race into this exchange – so it is quite interesting to see the first thing that jumped into YOUR mind when the term “howler monkeys” was used! I don’t know what your race is, but so far it has been my experience that 100% of the folks who have engaged in a howling match with me on this subject turned out to be Caucasian adherents of Historical Revisionism when I finally got to see them!

          • Phil Williams

            Yep, read it, know who Professor Mullen is, and I disagree with him. He is entitled to his opinion and while I can understand and empathize with his viewpoint to a degree, I still do not agree with everything he says.

          • Phil Williams

            I would add that I have never engaged Dr. Mullen on this subject – please read my earlier comment carefully – and if I did, I am almost certain that, while he might be adamant in his views, he would doubtless be a gentleman and a professional in discussing them.

          • Peter Robbins

            So you did know the context was racially sensitive (as if the contents of the Vance letter themselves were not a clue). Got it.

          • Phil Williams

            Sir, I believe that you are purposely putting a racial spin on a term that was used to describe the written equivalent of shrill, emotional chatter. I don’t think you innocently assumed that the term “howler monkey” was being used in a racial context – you are not that obtuse or stupid. On the other hand, you seem to think that you can use it to hint that I am a racist – apparently in an effort to provoke me into a passionate, defensive outburst.

            I will not gratify you by doing this, but I must observe that your concept of “racial sensitivity” appears to be a mite racist in a couple of different ways. First, you automatically applied the racial motif to the term, thereby saying that, since the Vance letter contained some comments on race, then the word “monkey” must be relevant to that. Second, your apparent notion that certain words must be stricken from any conversation in which race is concerned, regardless of how the word was used, implies that you don’t feel certain races have the emotional maturity or reading comprehension skills to keep from being offended.

          • Peter Robbins

            Nonsense. You called fellow human beings “howler monkeys.” A six-year-old knows not to do that. And you used the term “monkey” in what you knew (or should have known) was a racially sensitive context. Those are facts. Whether you did so intentionally or thoughtlessly is something only you know. I take you at your word that no more than ordinary (but still completely unacceptable) disrespect was intended. Whether you behaved appropriately is something readers and moderators will have to judge for themselves. I say those actions reflect bad manners, and your subsequent comments have done nothing to change my mind. Perhaps you should limit your future commentary to the Vance letter itself — the exclusive topic of the article on which you have been dumping this prodigious spate of verbiage.

          • Phil Williams

            Well, I swear I can’t figure you out feller…I don’t know your race, religion, age, where you came from, etc….But you do seem to take yourself mighty seriously, and appear to be wound up tighter’n a 8-day clock, though and I think perhaps you need a drink – perhaps several. I know I am going to go have one now… And I expect you WILL have the last word, so the best that I can hope for is that you might someday emulate Rumpelstiltskin and stomp yourself thru the floor in a fit of self-righteous fury! That would be a sight to behold….Perhaps next time I’ll just refer to them as “howlers” or “caterwaulers” so as not to upset you so much. By all means, howl on!

          • Peter Robbins

            No need to get testy. Just follow the advice teachers give first-graders: Don’t be little. See? Already you can’t get it out of your head.

          • The Real World

            Peter – your assertion here is an prime example of what is very, very wrong with much present-day behavior. The idea that you have the right to infer another persons intent is utterly not the case. You don’t.

            Where are YOUR manners?

          • Peter Robbins

            Real World: As I said before, I think it is bad manners to call people derogatory names in any circumstances, and I think it is particularly bad manners to use the term “howler monkeys” to collectively describe critics of a racially problematic monument in the center of town. In many contexts, the word “monkey” has especially offensive connotations, whether the speaker intends to be quite that obnoxious or not. So one should be cautious about employing it. That is just common sense. Any issue – and especially one as emotion-laded as the Vance monument – warrants more careful and disciplined language, and those who breach those standards will get no sympathy from me merely because the elephant in the room has been identified to their apparent discomfort. The best course for such miscreants would be to admit to an unfortunate instance of questionable judgment, pledge to do better in the future, and move on. That concludes my modest contribution to this overlong portion of the comment thread.

          • Phil Williams

            Real World – Peter’s mind is made up and he done found him a supposedly offensive word to get hold of and wave around and do some self-righteous howling about while ignoring other points in the conversation. Everything is about perceived insult and what you can read into things (if your thoughts trend a certain way).

            I still would love to see Peter transported to the bad old days and see how he’d behave – and whether he’d keep his superior, condescending tone. Most folks kept to manners back then because certain things might get you either horsewhipped or invited to a duel – ie Preston Brooks and Charles Sumner or Waightsill Avery and Samuel Fleming or Andrew Jackson and Charles Dickinson. A lot of things were different back then for better or for worse.

            Oh and I have also observed an almost invariable tendency in Peter….He said earlier that his remarks were concluded, but I will bet you five dollars that he’ll respond to this comment – he has an apparent need to get in the last word!

    • Peter Robbins

      Upon reflection, maybe I was too harsh on our modern-day commenters. I doubt anyone in this debased era of internet trolls will ever again match the patrician demeanor of a Zebulon Vance. Indeed, who among us can read the second paragraph of that letter and fail to be moved by the image of the great man falling defeated to his knees and weeping at the senseless loss of so much capital investment? Oh, the humanity. Two thousand million dollars worth, to be exact. And maybe a few transaction costs here and there, but who’s going to quibble at an emotional time like that? Not Zeb Vance! The man truly was the conscience of his time and the scourge of incubi everywhere.

      Say, I have an idea: Let’s inscribe that quote on his monument so that future generations can be as inspired as we are by its beauty, historical context and accounting precision. That would silence even the howliest monkey-critic, don’t you think?

  4. Phil Williams

    Sigh…..As you see, it is like I said earlier. Some folks are pretty well entrenched in their notions and judgments…. Ah well, it is at least comforting to know that there are a few fixed points in a rapidly changing age, and that some folks and their arguments are fairly predictable. Just seems they’d find something substantive to howl about.

    While a few might appreciate the emotion laden gesture of demolishing an historical structure, I would guess a lot more would like to see the expense and effort related to said gesture being spent to improve their lives in the present day.

    Do Mr. Robbins and those who think like him really, really think that the monument on Pack Square was erected (by a staunch Unionist New Yorker by way of Michigan) to celebrate Vance’s birth into a slave-owning family or his 19th century ideas about slavery, states rights, etc??

    I don’t know where Mr. Robbins is from geographically, but I would say some local people might agree – perhaps we should tear it down and erase the name of Vance from the memory of North Carolina – because if he hadn’t served Asheville and WNC as he did, then Asheville might have simply declined and vanished or been absorbed like dozens of small southern towns, and the drum beaters and howler monkeys and hairy toes might never have come here to create things to howl about in the first place!

  5. Peter Robbins

    Don’t be that way. I was just trying to imagine how a contemporary like Mark Twain might have addressed the thoughtful observations in the Vance letter. You know, for historical context. He was from a slave state and all. Mine was a poor imitation, I’ll grant you, but I think I should receive fair wages for at least engaging the enterprise with earnest enthusiasm.

    But back to the topic: How do you like my inscription idea? If you’re willing to greenlight it, I promise to nominate you to chair the petition committee. I’m afraid my hairy knuckles and screechy intonations might alienate potential supporters.

    • Phil Williams

      Don’t worry mate – there is no danger of you being mistaken for Mark Twain on any of your comments on this subject that I have seen. You are plenty enthusiastic and appear to be fully convinced of your own sincerity. I cannot speak with any eyewitness accuracy about your hairy knuckles – but the screechy intonations have been fairly consistent throughout our previous conversations, so I hope you may pardon me if I incorrectly took you for a howler monkey…..

      • Peter Robbins

        I’d pardon you, but I fear you’d express the same gratitude that Zeb Vance showed for his. At least in the parts of the letter printed so far.

        • Phil Williams

          I fear you are probably correct…my gratitude for your pardon would be necessarily tempered by my suspicions about your sincerity….

          • Peter Robbins

            Oh, believe me, I’m sincere. You have my permission to call people as many names as you can lay tongue to. It humanizes your austere rationality. Watch out for the moderators, though. Some of them don’t have my sense of humor.

  6. Don

    Let me get this straight… this Peter Robbins (a well known Mtx troll… ugh) infers because it suits him and his well that howlers -clearly meant to describe HIS lot- becomes howler monkeys… and from there on out (his last six comments) Phil Williams undoubtedly used this term? Insane…. nothing short of insane. Inane too…. sigh.

    • Peter Robbins

      I didn’t infer anything. Maybe you did. I simply pointed out that one shouldn’t toss around childish insults, especially without due regard for the context in which they might land. But you do have a point, Don. Avoidance of name-calling and sensitivity to other people’s feelings may be ideas too radical for our current state of historical development. Would that we could go back in time, as some suggest, and settle this the traditional way. You know, up to Duel Hill. (It’s not on the map, but local history buffs can tell you where it is. See you fellers in the Twilight Zone).

      • Peter Robbins

        You’re right. I’d light out for the territories like Mark Twain.

        • Peter Robbins

          Oh, you moderator, you. You took out the previous post that made my last one funny. Scatological content removed, it (not unreasonably) questioned my firearm abilities.

  7. boatrocker

    Every time there is a well written article utilizing primary sources about NC history, I do declare I get the vapors! Yes, the vapors for reading our 2 resident ‘experts’ on the subject of local history.

    I’m half expecting them to lean for a well deserved Internet kiss after all this back and forth that has nothing to do with the original article other than who is the bigger apologist or revisionist for playing the tired and true parlor game ‘If I could go back in time’.

    I haven’t had this much fun since attending an after hours rave party at the Zeb Vance Birthplace and watching two UNCA cheerleaders in opposing Union and Rebel garb wrestle in a vat of Duke’s mayonnaise! That, my friends, is entertainment.

    Keep it up with the local history utilizing primary sources!

  8. Taylor Jessee

    I got lost driving near the Vance homestead in Weaverville and saw a street that shocked me. Four or so small homes, all with rebel flags flying everywhere. It looked like a compound of sorts, very unnerving.

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