Unflinching Leader

  • By Philip Gerard

Poor leadership challenges the Confederacy from the outset of the war, but soon afterward, North Carolina has a bold and inspiring defender in Zebulon Baird Vance.
(Volume 1, Part 3)

Gov Zebulon B Vance 700

This new war — which Gen. Robert E. Lee is already calling a civil war — quickly produces fools and giants. The fools often wear the uniforms of Union generals, other times the high hats of politicians. Some of the giants have legendary, even biblical names, names worthy of the cataclysm over which they will preside. For victory, the North will look to such men as Joshua, Ulysses, Tecumseh, and, of course, Father Abraham. The South will entrust its deliverance to the likes of Jefferson, Judah, Jubal, Raphael, and a host of more prosaic Johns, Thomases, Jameses, Georges, and Roberts. One of the Roberts, affectionately known as Bobby, or even Granny, will become a lion of the battlefield.

Others will earn colorful nicknames that bespeak the affection and admiration of their comrades: Stonewall, Fighting Joe, Lothario, Gloomy Pete.

One fact becomes clear almost from the start: against a succession of timid, unimaginative, untalented, unlucky Union commanders, the Confederate Army fields a cadre of brilliant, resourceful, aggressive commanders; meanwhile, the Confederate government in Richmond, Virginia, drafts mediocre men of limited vision and combative personalities to fill its ranks.

The result is a series of astonishing victories on the battlefield accompanied by a confused muddle of policies that seriously impair the army’s ability to be fed, supplied, and deployed, meanwhile turning popular sentiment in North Carolina against the Confederate government in Richmond. For the duration of the war, North Carolina will not only fight the Yankees; it will fight Richmond — with speeches, newspaper editorials, impassioned letters, court rulings, and legislative decrees, and sometimes in a literal clash of arms.

Ill-equipped for war

At the outbreak of war in the Old North State, weak leadership is quite a literal term. The governor who presides over the Secession Convention, John W. Ellis, suffers from consumption. His health deteriorates until, in his final months, he oversees the government from a sickbed. The son of a plantation owner from Salisbury, he is a defender of slavery. But knowing how divided the state is on the question of secession, he has been reticent to express public support for a total break from the Union. Privately, in January 1861, he writes to Gov. Joseph E. Brown of Georgia, which has just seceded: “I trust that this event is the beginning of a future of prosperity, peace and happiness for the people of Georgia, and my earnest desire is that North Carolina will unite her destinies, by a formal act, as they are now in fact united with the Seceding States.”

When President Lincoln requests 75,000 troops from North Carolina to help put down the rebellion, Ellis refuses to send them.

Ellis lives to convene the Secession Convention in Raleigh later that spring, but by summer, he is failing fast. He vacates the governor’s office to Acting Gov. Henry T. Clark, the speaker of the State Senate, and tries one last remedy. He makes the difficult journey north to the public tuberculosis facility in Red Sulphur Springs, Virginia, but he is too far gone to be helped by mineral springs. He dies there on July 7, 1861. He is just 41 years old.

Now, North Carolina is plunging into a war — not just ill-equipped and badly prepared, but effectively leaderless.

Clark, another scion of the plantation class from Edgecombe County, succeeds formally to the governor’s office. Clark is a proficient administrator. He sets in motion the machinery for moving troops by railroad to the front in Virginia. He establishes saltworks to provide the army with the precious food preservative. He builds a gunpowder mill, establishes trading connections across the Atlantic, and authorizes the first and only Confederate prison in North Carolina in Salisbury.

Thanks to his efforts — including a special arrangement with the CSA Quartermaster Corps that the state will provide its own uniforms in exchange for funds — North Carolina troops are among the best clothed and equipped in the Confederate Army.

But he is overwhelmed by circumstances, not really cut out for the treacherous political landscape that comes with the war. As the troops head north to Virginia, they leave the northeastern coast unprotected, and soon the Yankees have taken Hatteras Inlet, New Bern, and other coastal territory. Politicians across the state, egged on by newspapers such as the North Carolina Standard, are in an uproar.

Ousted governor

On every hand are radicals of all stripes, including armed Unionists who will try to foil every effort to support the war. And the Confederate government in Richmond quickly proves to be inflexible and authoritarian. It institutes a draft and sends squadrons of conscription agents into North Carolina to round up men between the ages of 16 and 35. The upper age limit will be raised again, to 45, and by war’s end, the Confederacy will forcefully conscript men as old as 50.

There is a loophole: An eligible man may buy his way out of the army by hiring a substitute, but the price can be as high as $3,000 — a cost only the wealthy plantation class can afford to pay. For North Carolinians, this lends a galling irony to the war: The small plantation class lobbied loudest for secession in order to protect their economic interests and now are able to use the very money gotten from the proceeds of their slaves’ labor to sit out the fighting in safety.

Throughout the Confederacy, the equivalent of 60 regiments of rich Southern men buy their way out of the war they worked so hard to bring about. Meanwhile, the Old North State supplies a quarter of all the men conscripted into the Confederate Army, enough to fill 21 regiments of 1,000 men each.

Richmond issues one after another Draconian pronouncement and seems deaf to requests from North Carolina. It automatically prolongs all militia enlistments from six months or a year to a full three years. Clark goes along, does his best to please Richmond, but as much as many hate Washington, they begin to hate Richmond even more. Jefferson Davis and his cronies act with disdain toward North Carolina and will not detail troops to defend its vulnerable coast. They commandeer all the troops, all the resources, for the defense of Virginia.

A special election is called for August 1862, and Clark isn’t even nominated.

North Carolina’s giant

The man who will replace Clark doesn’t campaign for the office. He is propelled to a landslide victory by the relentless support of two newspapermen, William W. Holden of the Standard and Edward Hale of The Fayetteville Observer. Holden in particular has been a savage critic of the administration in Richmond and its treatment of North Carolinians — and of Governor Clark’s perceived complicity. The campaign takes place within the pages of the newspapers, and Zebulon B. Vance’s margin is almost 3 to 1, by far the largest mandate in the state’s history. At last, North Carolina has found its giant: Zebulon Baird Vance.

He is in fact a physically formidable man, six feet tall and 230 pounds. He is handsome, easily recognizable by his thick mustache and shock of long, unruly hair swept back from his forehead. He is known as a spellbinding orator, a practical joker, a canny politician, and a stubborn fighter.

He is outraged by the policy allowing wealthy planters to hire substitutes to fight on their behalf, deriding the practice as “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

Vance comes from a political family in the mountains, not from the eastern plantation class — his ancestral roots are in Ulster, Scotland, and Germany. Trained as a lawyer, he gravitated toward politics practically before he finished his schooling. In his early 20s, voters elected him to a series of local offices. He is popular and likable.

But he is by no means a simple man. He believes in the inferiority of blacks: “We are opposed to negro equality. To prevent this, we are willing to spare the last man, down to the point where women and children begin to suffer.” Yet he remains an ardent Unionist. He writes to a friend in the State Legislature, urging him to move slowly: “We have everything to gain and nothing on earth to lose by delay, but by too hasty action we may take a fatal step that we never can retrace — may lose a heritage that we can never recover though we seek it earnestly and with tears.”

In 1860 in Raleigh, he ridicules the claim of two secessionist congressmen that an independent South would enjoy the protection of England — a protection, Vance says, “our forefathers waged a seven-years war to escape.”

Yet, he favors a secession convention, arguing that the people have the right and responsibility to make this momentous decision, and “after such mature and decent deliberation as becomes a great people about to do a great act, if they choose to undo the work of their wise and heroic ancestors, if they choose to invite carnage to saturate their soil and desolation to waste their fields, they cannot say their public servants precipitated them into it!”

By age 30, when war breaks out, he is serving his second term in the United States Congress, actually canvassing his native state on behalf of the Union. He will recall the watershed moment when his allegiance to the Union faltered: “I was addressing a large and excited crowd, large numbers of whom were armed, and literally had my arm extended upward in pleading for peace and the Union of our fathers, when the telegraphic news was announced of the firing on Sumter and the President’s call for 75,000 volunteers. When my hand came down from that impassioned gesticulation, it fell slowly and sadly by the side of a Secessionist.”

Off to war

Two weeks before North Carolina formally secedes, Vance raises a company of Buncombe County men in Asheville, The Rough and Ready Guards, and, now a captain, leads them off to war. In the confusing scramble to align volunteer regiments into a cohesive army, Vance’s cohort is renamed Company F of the 14th North Carolina Regiment. Encamped near Statesville, he writes to his wife, Hattie, “I am quite well but in rather low spirits at the way things are managed in Raleigh. I see a pretty determined purpose there to carry on affairs under a strict party regimen; none but Locos and Secessionists will be appointed to the Offices: the old Union men will be made to take back seats and do most of the hard work and make bricks with straw. So be it. I am prepared to serve my country in spite of the small men who control its destinies — but many persons are disgusted. Companies are disbanding.”

In June 1861, resplendent in new uniforms, his regiment goes to Suffolk, Virginia, part of the defensive perimeter around Norfolk. By August, Vance is a colonel commanding the 26th North Carolina Regiment stationed at Fort Macon on Beaufort Inlet. Roanoke Island falls to the Yankees in February, forcing a retreat.

It’s not until March 1862 that Vance leads his troops into battle. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, with 11,000 troops, is pushing down the Neuse River toward New Bern. For more than five hours, Vance’s troops hold off an attacking enemy that outnumbers them 4 to 1.

They hold the extreme right flank for a full hour after the rest of the Confederate line has buckled and retreated, and they are the last to leave the field to regroup in Kinston.

Vance describes, breathlessly, the thrill of first action in a letter to his wife: “Balls struck all around me, men were hit right at my feet — My men fought gloriously — the first fire was especially magnificent — It was a dark foggy morning and the men were situated in small half-moon redans, they fired by company beginning on the left, and the blaze at the muzzle of the guns was bright and glorious — Many of the Yankees tumbled over & the rest toddled back into the woods — For five hours, the roar of the small arms was uninterrupted, fierce and deafening.”

Their retreat across Bryce’s Creek takes as long as the battle. In typical heroic fashion, Vance swims 75 yards across the swollen creek to procure boats for his men. It’s a deep creek with a strong current, and three of the men who follow him across drown. Then follows a forced march 35 miles to Kinston.

In an after-action letter to his commander, Brig. Gen. Lawrence O’Bryan Branch, Vance underplays his own valor: “I cannot conclude this report without mentioning in terms of the highest praise the spirit of determination and power of endurance evinced by the troops during the hardships and sufferings of our march. Drenched with rain, blistered feet, without sleep, many sick and wounded, almost naked, they toiled on through the day and all the weary watches of the night without murmuring, cheerfully and with subordination, evincing most thoroughly those high qualities in adversity which military men learn to value still more than courage upon the field.”

Zebulon Vance, the Unionist, is now a bona fide Confederate war hero.

Shared burden

Later, at Malvern Hill outside Richmond, Vance leads his men into the withering fire of Yankee guns. The charge is valiant but futile, the kind of charge that will soon become all too familiar: a slaughter of onrushing, exposed lines of men by cannons and massed musket fire entrenched behind earthworks. Vance’s courage is beyond question now, his unflinching leadership a settled fact. He makes it to within a stone’s throw of the cannon’s mouth before being forced back.

When the newspapers begin clamoring for his nomination for governor, Vance cagily replies in a letter to The Fayetteville Observer, “If, therefore, my fellow-citizens believe that I could serve the great Cause better as Governor than I am now doing, and should see proper to confer this responsibility upon me without solicitation on my part, I should not feel at liberty to decline it, however conscious of my own unworthiness.”

At his inauguration, his old regimental band, the Johnny Rebs, performs “Governor Vance’s Inauguration March.” Vance delivers his inaugural address with all the charismatic vigor his listeners have come to expect. It is an oddly hopeful moment, a short lull amid the opening shock of war. Vance’s wife, Hattie, has just delivered their fifth child, a son named Thomas Malvern. But Vance’s speech, uncharacteristically short, is for once lacking his celebrated humor. There are no laugh lines. He admonishes his audience, “To prosecute this war with success, there is quite as much for our people as for our soldiers to do.”

They applaud heartily a truth that has yet to manifest itself in all its terrible majesty.

Visit

Vance Birthplace
911 Reems Creek Road
Weaverville, N.C. 28787
(828) 645-6706
nchistoricsites.org/vance
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Selected Sources

The author is indebted to the following sources: The Papers of Zebulon Baird Vance, Volume I: 1843-1862, edited by Frontis W. Johnston, and The Papers of Zebulon Baird Vance, Volume II: 1863, edited by Joe A. Mobley, both from The Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1963 and 1995; Legal Aspects of Conscription and Exemption in North Carolina 1861-1865 by Memory F. Mitchell, UNC Press, 1965; Zeb Vance, by Gordon B. McKinney, UNC Press, 2004; Silk Flags and Cold Steel by William R. Trotter, John F. Blair, 1988; and Zebulon B. Vance and “The Scattered Nation,” edited by Maurice A. Weinstein, The Wildacres Press, 1995.

Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

To view all stories from Our State‘s Civil War Series, visit http://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series

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