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Who is Zebulon Vance?

This week let’s look at one of the dominant characters in our upcoming summer musical, “Bushwhackers” – Zebulon Vance. It’s his birthday this month after all.


Our play is not about him, but he’s a key player in it and, historically, one of North Carolina’s most controversial and interesting characters.

He was born May 13, 1830, in Marshall, NC (then called Venus), not far from Asheville and Mount Mitchell—the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi at 6,883 feet. It’s a tiny town, by the way – under 1,000 people, so I imagine they’re very proud of being Mr. Vance’s homies.


Vance wears three hats during our show: Congressman, colonel of the 26th NC and governor of the state. That’s pretty remarkable when you consider that Bushwhackers covers only 1861-1866.


Not covered in our play? That he was the lawyer for Jim Doola (pronounced “Dooley.” Ring any bells?) who was hanged for the murder of Laura Foster after the war. He was forcibly removed from office as governor, served about a year in a federal prison for his Confederate duties. He served as governor again when our state was back in the union – twice. Forcibly removed again in 1879, he won the post back in 1862. He also served in congress and the US senate during his lifetime.


He was one of a big family—four sons and four daughters, mostly raised by Venus, a family slave. His father died when he was 14 and the family struggled to make ends meet, his mother moving them to Asheville along with a company of seven slaves to the Vance household running.


He married Harriet Espy, raised four boys (and lost another in infancy), and lived on what he described as “an extensive plantation consisting of a five-acre lot.” By the war’s outbreak he owned six slaves.


Trained as a lawyer, he fell into politics early. After a term in the state senate, he won a seat in 1858 in the US Congress. As secession rhetoric heated up, he announced opposition to it – though he believed it was constitutional. He also made his position on slavery clear: Plainly and unequivocally, common sense says keep the slave where he is now—in servitude.  The interest of the slave himself imperatively demands it.  The interest of the master, of the United States, of the world, nay, of humanity itself, says, keep the slave in his bondage…”


He changed his mind on secession only after President Lincoln called on the state to provide soldiers to fight the rebellion, declaring he would not fight brothers in the South.


He raised his own company, the Rough and Ready Guards, and in August 1861 became colonel of the 26th North Carolina. Our play’s protagonists, Keith and Malinda Blalock briefly joined that regiment (Malinda disguising herself as Keith’s brother).  The regiment fought bravely, though defeated, at the Battle of New Bern in March, 1862. The state’s governor had died and the debate over who would replace him. The ambitious Vance was declared a war hero which It was a boon for him: he handily won election in 1862. His hard work to improve the lives of North Carolinians made him popular enough to win re-election in 1864.


Being a good governor, however, could not save the war and in April, 1865, North Carolina became the season of the Southern army’s final collapse. His 35th birthday arrived on May 13, 1865, and the Union celebrated by arresting and jailing him. He was not there long: his wife Hattie became sick and President Johnson paroled him to be with her on July 6.


Vance was disqualified from serving in office until he received amnesty from President Grant

in 1875. Still, he worked hard in politics, stressing white supremacy and taking advantage of the terrors of the Ku Klux Klan to build his party’s strength in the state.


Curiously, he also gave a famous speech called “The Scattered Nation” in which he decried antisemitism. Not so curiously, he also pointed out his belief that, unlike Jews, Negroes had contributed nothing to the nation or mankind and he offered his resentment that the Amendments had declared them the equals of whites.


Vance would continue a long political career that bounced from successful to tragic – as would his personal life. He would die in Washington DC, where he closed out his political career as a US Senator, on April 14, 1894.

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