The monumental toppling of Zeb Vance

Milton Ready Courtesy photo


Frankly, I miss the presence of Zebulon Vance’s granite obelisk, a poignant local landmark on Pack Square for over a century. Whether you’re looking for governors, senators, members of Congress or artists and writers, Western North Carolina really doesn’t have a great many famous Dead White Men or Women or anyone. As a historian, my short list of notables would include Vance, Jeter Pritchard, Robert Reynolds, Wilma Dykeman, David Swain, Thomas Clingman, Frances Goodrich, Floyd McKissick, Lillian “Brother Exum” Clement and one or two others. You can have your own list, but it likely won’t be more than two hands’ worth. The mountains have seldom been important in state and regional affairs.

Moreover, I wish Pack Square hadn’t been historically cleansed by removing such a visible reminder of its past. Instead, perhaps Asheville and Buncombe County should follow the British model of “retaining and explaining” controversial monuments and statuary. Sasha Mitchell of the African American Heritage Commission got it right when she suggested that the monument should be contextualized, not removed.

We live in a time framed by fake news, misinformation, digital tomfoolery, sanitized narratives of the past and outright lies, whereby our history is a bitterly contested, a long-smoldering fire now inflamed by the toppling of monuments like Vance’s. Typically, granite statuary can’t be substantially altered. It either goes or stays. History, however, is far more malleable and can be readily changed.

A messy moral mixture

Look closely at the rich and powerful people who founded and promoted the Vance Monument Association in 1896. Led by George W. Pack, who had recently moved to Asheville from Cleveland, they included Sen. Mathew S. Quay of Pennsylvania, Sen. Blair Lee of Maryland and businessman James Logan of Massachusetts.  Along with Pack’s hefty $2,000 contribution, they raised all but perhaps $200 of the monument’s $3,326 cost. Old Asheville royalty like Thomas Patton and J.E. Rankin were essentially figureheads on the association’s board, and most mountaineers were indifferent. Those who have the money and power to erect monuments like Vance’s often see them as tools to obscure the real facts of history, in itself a source of misinformation.

Buried with the Vance Monument, you will find buried within it a copper box containing, among other items, a Bible, a muster roll of Vance’s Rough and Ready Guards, an honor roll from the local schools, newly minted U.S. coins and current issues of local newspapers including The Colored Enterprise. Together, these artifacts constitute a microcosm of Asheville’s history. Designed by Richard Sharp Smith, supervising architect of Biltmore Estate, the obelisk was said to be a scaled-down version of Washington’s in the nation’s capital.

Yet perhaps most intriguing is the list of groups that have been involved with Vance’s monument. They include the African American Heritage Commission, Jewish organizations and philanthropic groups like B’nai B’rith, the N.C. Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, American Legion and the Society for the Historical Preservation of the 26th North Carolina Troops. Together, they illustrate the complicated story of Vance’s life and times. This messy moral mixture included owning slaves and being a Confederate hero, Civil War governor, white supremacist politician and passionate libertarian who, like the late Sen. Sam Irvin Jr., promoted First Amendment rights, especially that of religion. In 2003, local author Steve Rasmussen open-mindedly suggested that the monument should be kept as a “cornerstone for Asheville’s remarkably diverse political views.” Some of those beliefs are downright repellent, yet taken together, they reflect a historical tolerance that is subject to attacks from the right or the left.

Culture wars

Vance’s now hidden blocks of stone still symbolize the monumental divide in America today. Whether the focus is on statues of Dead White Men, Black Lives Matter protests, vaccine mandates or gay rights, all of them represent a continuing cultural war that is a sustained assault on postwar modernism. Since the end of World War II, and most notably during the 1960s, there has been a push to create a society that is more democratic, equal, inclusive and welfare oriented. One of the larger truths in this ongoing “war” is that conservatives are winning, inasmuch as they have “captured” and held “hostage” accounts and narratives of America’s heritage and history, while liberals have yet to fashion a sympathetic alternate narrative. An affirming yet critical appraisal of our heritage and history is both necessary and long overdue.

Retired UNC Asheville history professor Milton Ready lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina.


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45 thoughts on “The monumental toppling of Zeb Vance

  1. Donald O Funderud sr

    Dr. Ready is spot on and an interesting article.
    The divide is great and most likely to continue for along time. Case in point, if one travels through the state of West Virginia, one of the features one sees is, Robert Byrd freeway, interchange, applalachian highway(US19) to I-79N. One needs to look at history of a certain group of which he belonged,supported, and involved. One national party wants history removed from all such groups, but yet nothing
    has been done to remove any and all of his names. The Vance Monument could have remained ,one name removed and put other historical names that made Asheville famous.
    Look at the waste of money ,time to where we’re at now. Inefficient leadership controls our city government.

  2. Peter Robbins

    According to an exhaustive empirical study, informational placards (of the type favored by historians like Professor Ready here) do not “contextualize” infamous monuments any better than spray paint – and taggers do a better job of getting to the point. See htps://

  3. Voirdire

    thanks for this… very well put. What happened in Pack Square to the Vance Monument was a knee jerk reaction at best …at worst ….well, only history will tell.

    • gapple

      it was a progressive leftist democrat shake down in an attempt to quell the blm/antifa anti america movement.

  4. therealduckie

    “fake news, misinformation, digital tomfoolery, sanitized narratives of the past and outright lies” do not exist, except in the minds of folks who mistakenly believe their “heritage” is being attacked. The truth is much more opaque: Those who controlled the narrative are now being contested and it angers them. They are mad their own history is being questioned.

    Good. Let’s discuss it openly and stop pretending race, color, creed, etc do not exist and we’re some perfect utopian society where nothing is ever wrong. Hard talks need to be had. Walking on eggshells and avoiding our past is not healthy.

    The Civil War was not about “State’s Rights. It was about slavery. The southern soldiers of that war are not heroes.

    Cancel Culture does not exist. You’re thinking of Accountability for our actions. Something Reagan preached, often.

    The sooner the right accepts that their voices have been heard and heard and heard for hundreds of years, the sooner we can get on with giving OTHER folks a voice they have rightfully deserved. Voices that have been quashed through time in order to dilute history. Whites had their history and still do. Nothing is being taken away by giving a voice and focus to black, brown, indigenous and other lives.

    “Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It’s not pie.” Inequality occurs when some people or groups of people fall above the equality line and others fall below it. Finally, today, the field is leveling and important voices are being uplifted.

    Good. Let that continue.

    • Robert Brown

      Over 94% of Confederate soldiers did not own slaves or come from families who did. Would you leave your home and family to go and fight in a shooting war against One might if his/her community’s small businesses had all been put out of commission by Amazon’s importation and distribution of competing goods from overseas.

      The Confederate States of America seceded from the Union in accordance with the U. S. Constitution. President Lincoln sent federal troops to Charleston days before war was declared and in violation of our Constitution. I will agree that a portion of the reason for the War Between the States involved slavery, but calling the conflict a civil war is not based in fact. The South never intended to conquer the North. It only wanted to be allowed to trade and exist as an equal to its northern neighbors.
      The Vance Monument should be restored and replaced. Interpret it as you wish. Those of us who wish to honor and celebrate our Confederate ancestors will not be deterred or defeated. Asheville is nothing but a cesspool of liberal detritus. If you don’t believe so, just go downtown to Pack Square on any given weekend and witness for yourself what goes on.

      • Peter Robbins

        I admire the candor in this comment. As Robert Brown correctly states, the purpose of the Vance Monument was to “honor and celebrate” the man, not to brood about painful memories or to carry on some sort of healing dialogue with future generations. That’s one reason people found the monument so incurably obnoxious. Mr. Brown’s head is in the wrong place, but his vision is clear.

      • Jason Williams

        Civics class has been a while ago, but I must have missed the part of the Constitution where it allowed states to succeed.

      • therealduckie

        Where does one begin?

        1st, it does not matter how many owned slaves. Everyone supporting slavery was culpable.

        2nd, your amazon analogy makes zero sense. Are you pushing a new theory that the south seceded because of capitalism? That’s a new one.

        3rd, you’re right, it’s not a civil war. It was The Civil War.

        Finally, Daughters of the Confederacy are racists who only put those racists on pedestals in major southern cities to venerate their heroes. And they did so only about 100 years ago, not right after The Civil War. It’s not like the statues have historical importance. They’re just markers. No state agency is required to keep them, let alone keep them up– i.e. fix them when they break, clean them when they are spray painted, or even mow the lawns or do the shrubbery next to them. DotC should have been responsible for that. DotC was responsible for their erection. All the money came from DotC. All the planning was from DotC. Let DotC come get their statues and do with them as they wish. They do not belong on public land.

        • gapple

          does that include the people who hunted down the bodies in Africa and sold them to British and NE ship owners?

  5. El Gordito

    Mr. Ready might feel differently about the Vance Monument had his ancestors been owned, bred, overworked and sold by Mr. Vance. Personally I prefer the German model of “we don’t need any statues of Hitler or monuments glorifying the Nazi party.” Get over your monument. Slavery is a stain on this nation’s soul. Anyone who thought it was okay to own another person is / was morally bankrupt no matter how many times they went to church. Just because other people were doing it doesn’t excuse it or make it right in any context.

  6. MV

    This country was built upon slavery and theft. The original settlers declared independence from England largely because they wished to continue owning slaves and steal an entire country from its rightful owners and build a capitalist free market society. They succeeded in doing so, and many who try to erase the past without explaining it are just pushing truths under the rug. Why are there no calls to rename the city of Asheville (named for a slaveholder) or the many towns around our country named for famed slaveholder and author of the U.S. Constitution, Thomas Jefferson? I personally would have left the monument in place and used those tax dollars to improve the lives of our Black citizens who live here right now.

  7. Shultz!

    Wow! Am I the only one who saw the photo and thought “Holy Moly – Oliver Wendell Douglass (Eddie Albert) is back from the grave!” Spittin’ image, I swear.

  8. North Asheville

    Missing here is consideration that we have destroyed a piece of art/architecture by one of Asheville’s most distinguished architects, Richard Sharpe Smith. The work itself did not represent Vance; it was not a statue of him. Without any plaques referring to Vance, the obelisk is an ancient symbol of eternity and immortality and a connection between the heavens and the earth. So easy to repurpose the monument to pay tribute to Richard Sharpe Smith. Why did the City rush to destroy it, like the Taliban destroying art work that did not fit their ideology?

    • Peter Robbins

      I’m not an expert on this, but I think state law prohibits alterations to monuments but permits demolition if a monument poses a danger to the public. The city construed perpetual vandalism as a danger. Feel free to correct me if that’s wrong, but it appears that a repurposing project would have required an amendment to state law, the prospect of which was doubtful.

      • North Asheville

        The state law you are referring to appears to apply only to state-owned monuments (NC General Statutes – 100). However, this issue appears to be dead. Not sure why Mountain X, which has given the matter extensive coverage, is bringing it up again. My only point was that in removing an honor to Vance, the city lost a chance to honor Richard Sharp Smith.

        • Peter Robbins

          Gotcha. As I recall, the statute is a mess that no one really understands, but that’s ancient history now. I agree that if renaming the monument had been a viable option, Richard Sharp Smith would have been a great choice.

    • Robert McGee

      Yes…or why not commission a local Black artist descended from slaves to create a new work of art for our city? Perhaps a complementary piece to open thoughtful healing dialogue and/or to encourage a living breathing conversation about our city’s (and country’s) complicated past? I’d rather spend money on creating rather than destroying. At the very least, I’d rather our squandered tax dollars do something more tangible, like provide down payment assistance for area citizens trying to purchase homes.

      • kw

        Great idea! I have no idea what kind of fool would give you a thumbs down for that.

        • WNC

          It’s hard to remember all the grants, funds etc. that have been spent on the square over the past 25-30 years. I guess all that money was wasted and now the next 3 million of tax payer money will really hit the spot.

          • Peter Robbins

            That money exceeds thirtyfold the cost of demolishing the Vance Monument. And it’s not taxpayer money. It comes from a private foundation, which you would know if you read the link.

        • Robert McGee

          Thanks for sharing that link. I meant taking those types of actions to commence inclusive conversations before tearing something down and potentially widening the divide.

          • Peter Robbins

            You’re welcome for the link. Here’s something I’ve been wondering: The Mellon Foundation’s Monuments Project was created in 2020, which is the time when the movement to tear down Confederate monuments was picking up steam around the country. I don’t know this for a fact, but the tenor of its website suggests that the project’s management probably was in sympathy with the goals of that movement. Asheville was the smallest city to receive a grant. Could the attention it received from the Vance controversy have given it a leg up in the competition with other cities? I don’t know, but it’s possible. If so, the demolition starts to look like a great investment — about $100,000 turned into $3 million in two years. What kind of return do your investments get?

    • Shultz!

      Meh – sometimes people spawn a loser – this was one of them. It was a corny thing.

  9. RG

    From an earlier Watchdog article…
    “That’s not a discussion I want anything to do with. I have no interest in that at all,” said DeWayne Barton, founder and chief executive of Hood Huggers International in Asheville, an organization dedicated to strengthening systematically marginalized neighborhoods in the region. “A monument, a street name, a flag, none of that means anything to me. Nothing. What matters is, what are we going to do about now, right now, about the current physical brutality against the Black community?”

    • Peter Robbins

      Okay. Now that the Vance Monument is torn down, I’ve got some free time. What should I be doing to combat police brutality and why haven’t you already done it?

  10. Peter Robbins

    One last side note: Contrary to Professor Ready’s claim, Zebulon Vance long ago ceased to be regarded as a champion of religious toleration. His much touted speech on the subject – “The Scattered Nation” – is so riddled with racism that it is an embarrassment today even to the Jewish recipients of his putative “support.” See

  11. Voirdire

    Judging historical figures views vis a vis more enlightened modern views ( …hopefully anyway) isn’t history, it’s revisionism …and self serving. Just saying.

    • Peter Robbins

      No, that’s not revisionism. It’s called presentism. And there’s nothing wrong with it if what you’re doing is deciding — in the present — what monuments to keep around because they reflect community values and what to discard because they don’t. Just saying.

    • Peter Robbins

      In any event, the City of Asheville, as was discussed above, now has been awarded a $3 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to transform the commemorative landscape of Pack Square (including the space formerly occupied by the Vance Monument) so as to “more completely and accurately represent the multiplicity and complexity of American stories.” If anyone, bless his heart, thinks that Lady Clio (the Greek muse of history) insists on including the stories of white supremacists in the project, he’ll have a chance to make his case. Any volunteers? Don’t be shy.

  12. Voirdire

    right, anyone who doesn’t completely agree with the removal of the Vance Monument is unequivocally a white supremacist. And right again, the Woke and their “presentism” ..and let’s not forget to include their oft used “cancel culture” ( …in the case of Vance, cancelled). I have a feeling this is one culture war where there will be no winners …but best of luck with it though.

    • Peter Robbins

      Wrong again. Vance was unequivocally a white supremacist. I have no opinion about the people who miss seeing his monument in the center of downtown Asheville. They might have all sorts of reasons for their positions. But thanks to the Mellon Foundation grant, any people who miss his monument now will have their chance to argue that it should be rebuilt good as new, so as to contribute to (what they think is) a vital element of the multiplicity of local stories. Three million dollars buys a lot of nostalgia.

    • Peter Robbins

      The “stories” to which I was referring, of course, are the historical stories that will be represented in the renovated Pack Square. It’s perfectly possible for someone to want the historical story of a white supremacist to be told without being a white supremacist himself. Don’t you yourself fit that description?

  13. Voirdire

    and oh, when the US Civil War governor of North Carolina -and later US Senator from North Carolina after the war- is now singled out and cast ( ..and indeed now caste) as a frothing racial supremacist and traitor to his country …when 98% plus of the white citizens of his state held the exact same views as him during and after the war …well, that’s historical revisionism plain and simple. As for the monument, it meant absolutely nothing at the point it was brought down… sorry to disappoint you… just another windmill to tilt at’ll will find more though I’m quite sure. My vote is for the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials in Washington DC …and oh, the Washington Monument …the biggest windmill of all. …and I know, Abraham Lincoln??? …his singular goal was to preserve the Union at all costs ..the abolition of slavery was one of those costs. Check out Lincoln’s well documented racial views in regard to African Americans… not so pretty nor enlightened.. as weren’t 95% plus of his white constituents. ( …he/ Lincoln did abhor the institution of slavery… no doubt about that and also well documented) Anyway, honestly, this is a history you’ll never erase… better to embrace it in all its complexity and move on with it …you know, forward towards a brighter future for all.

    • Peter Robbins

      I know I’ll regret this, but let me add one more thing. I’m not trying to erase history. What we are talking about here is the use of scarce public space for commemorative and celebratory purposes. I have no problem with the Vance infamy living forever.

  14. Peter Robbins

    You’re really missing the point now. Vance was not some Archie Bunker who merely held bigoted opinions privately. He devoted his political career to advancing white supremacy and turning his racial animus into public policy — both during the Civil War and after. Lincoln and Washington, to be sure, had their problems with racist attitudes, but they never took up arms against their country in support of slavery and they never fought against civil rights after enslaved people were emancipated, at least not that I know of. The fact that their monuments remain standing after Vance’s was torn down should tell you that you are drawing a false equivalence. Each public figure should be judged on the facts of his own career and his own times. And then we must determine whether that person represents the present-day values of the community or whether it’s time for a change. For myself, I’m comfortable with Lincoln and Washington, even if some people may not be.

  15. MV

    Many still seem to miss the larger point that when we simply topple monuments without having the important (messy, difficult, open, honest) community conversations, often what we’re doing is adding more divisiveness in the name of diversity, equity, reparations, woke-ism, whatever. One group knocks down a monument, the other group attacks voting rights, affirmative action, reproductive rights, etc. Meanwhile, whatever financial windfall the monument removal has brought to our city is still not being used to address crime, mental illness, infrastructure, salaries for teachers and police officers, or the stabbing of dogs at pickle ball courts. While I think that slavery, the Holocaust and what white settlers did to the Native Americans are three of the greatest most horrific travesties of all time, we must remember that in the time of Zebulon Vance, owning another human was a legally protected and common practice–not unlike our present moment in time where corporations can and do pay employees far below a living wage. Many (including myself) would like to think we would have been abolitionists guiding strangers to freedom had we lived in the past, but who really knows?

    • Peter Robbins

      There’s a book about North Carolina in the public library, too. It has a picture of Zebulon Vance in it, but nobody is demanding that it be banned. Please, please don’t tell “MV” or we’ll never hear the end of his merciless ribbing.

  16. Peter Robbins

    I’m still trying to figure out what “issue” in this post you think is “complex and layered in nuance.” Here’s the biography of David Lowry Swain: He apparently had initial misgivings about secession (as did Zebulon Vance), but ultimately participated in the Confederacy (to a much lesser degree than Vance). After the Civil War, he assisted in Reconstruction (which Vance, to put it mildly, did not do). If you think it offends anyone that the art museum is holding an educational event about his life, you’re, well, you’re not in the best frame of mind to comment on this thread, let alone to sit in judgment on other people’s rationality.

  17. joelharder

    When you lose the legal argument, you can try one last effort to get a historian to appeal to the heart. IMHO: the train left the station.

    The social movement to alter the city needs to be embraced. We’re going to be adding bike paths, new roads, electronic charging stations for cars, a train station, etc. as money is being thrown on the table for modernization.

    Representative Chuck Edwards wants the Department of Defense to evaluate Asheville for a potential military site. We’re in the deep end.

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