Zeb Vance: North Carolina's Civil War Governor and Gilded Age Political Leader

By Gordon B. McKinney | Go to book overview

9 BUILDING A STRONG NORTH CAROLINA

Because the Confederate government failed, scholars have long sought to discover the reasons for its failure. This understandable impulse has led them to look for developments that appear to have weakened the Confederate cause. Both works of scholarship that deal with the government in Richmond and studies of events at the state level often share this common goal. Zeb had to cope with two of the major sources of internal weakness cited by many scholars: local opposition to Confederate authority and controversies involving differences in policy between states and the Confederate government. While both of these factors did weaken the Confederate war effort to some extent, the fact remains that the government of Confederate North Carolina functioned effectively throughout most of Zeb's gubernatorial tenure. That it did lends considerable credibility to Gary Gallagher's argument that military defeat, rather than the collapse of authority on the home front, doomed the incipient Southern nation.1

Zeb's administration did much more than merely maintain a strong state government, however. In the first year of the war, his predecessors had failed to put the state on a proper war footing, and Zeb inherited a state government unable to perform many of the most basic activities required of it. In part, this failure was structural. The state constitution had been framed in the heat of the revolt against Great Britain, and thus it was designed to limit executive authority. Until the 1830s, in fact, the governor was elected by the state legislature and had no independent political base of his own. Even in the 1860s the governor had no veto power, a limitation that further eroded whatever leverage he might have had with the state assembly. A veteran scholar of the state concluded that "the governor actually had very little power at all, as he was required to seek the advice and consent of his Council regarding any matter of importance."2 Moreover, both Governor John W. Ellis and his successor Henry T. Clark served such short terms that little could be accomplished during their administrations.

By the summer of 1862, when Zeb was about to assume his duties as governor, North Carolina's soldiers were the worst provisioned in the Confederate army. This was not a failure of the state government alone. When

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