Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Why do people think Zeb Vance was in the Klan?

A couple of months ago, I was reading a new biography on a North Carolina Confederate general. In this book, the author claimed that North Carolina Governor Zebulon Baird Vance was a member of the Klan, eventually elected to "Grand Dragon" of the Realm of North Carolina. That kind of took me aback, and led me to dig a little further.

Most of the entries I found are like this one from Invisible Empire: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan, 1866-1871, by Stanley Fitzgerald Horn in 1969: "Ex-Governor Zebulon Baird Vance was generally supposed to be the Grand Dragon of the Realm; and the testimony of the confessed Ku Klux was to the effect that within the Klan Vance was generally looked upon as the chief of state." (194) Horn, however, gives us no source for his vague notion regarding Vance's involvement. It is quite possible that Horn got his idea about Vance's involvement from a 1924 book by Susan Lawrence Davis. She writes in Authentic History Ku Klux Klan, 1865-1877 that "The Ku Klux Klan, led by Zebulon B. Vance, Grand Dragon of the Realm of North Carolina, succeeded in driving from their soil the 'carpet-bagger' and all other kinds of invaders, and impeached W. W. Holden from the office of Governor." (236) Once again, no documentation. But the words "Realm of North Carolina" appear in all three works. I dug a little further, but I found no reference to Vance and the Klan prior to 1926. I did finds lots of references to Vance being in the Klan referencing Davis or Horn.

Maybe this all stems from a letter that appears in the Testimony Taken by the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States, Volume 2 (1872). Thomas A. Hope, from Lincoln County in an affidavit, stated that he had "frequently heard it talked among the members that Z. B. Vance was the chief of the State; do not know this of my own knowledge, have only heard it talked of." (400) This was the only mention of Vance I could find. Vance was not called to testify.

So what do the Vance biographers say about the matter? Dowd, published in 1897, is silent on the matter. Weinstein's Zebulon B. Vance and The Scattered Nation makes no mention. Cooper's Zeb Vance: Leader in War and Peace makes no mention.

Gordon McKinney in his 2004 biography on Vance, does discuss Reconstruction-era Klan violence and Zeb Vance. In 1870, when word arrived in Raleigh of outrages committed in Orange County, Vance issued this statement: "I opposed the Ku Klux from the start[.] Refusing to have anything to do with such an organization on the grounds that it was a secret society... I not only refused to approve of it but made a speech in a certain county against such organizations." (287-288)

I checked several other sources, and looked for references to Vance in various US Congressional documents related to the Klan, but I could never find Vance's name. It is interesting to note that Milton Ready, a retired UNC-Asheville history professor, came to the conclusion in an article in 2015 in MountainXpress, that Vance "loathed the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, condemning its members as cowards and 'ruffians,' its intimidating methods as unlawful."

Maybe, just maybe, it is time to stop putting Vance in the Klan since he was probably never involved with it in the first place.


David Hurley said...

Thanks for this research. Very informative... especially with the current climate in Asheville about the monument.

Unknown said...

I wondered about it. One of the reasons for removing his various monuments was him being important in the Klan but he does not strike me as the type.

Wade Sokolosky said...

I’m chuckling right now because as I read your blog I’m also listening to an audio of Douglas Southall Freeman giving a speech on critiquing sources. Great job my friend.

RBLamb said...

Late to the party, but I enjoyed your analysis. Susan Lawrence Davis is an interesting source==ends up she "borrowed" heavily from a fictional romance novel for her non-fiction history. She also was caught twice impersonating a medical professional (getting arrested once) and sued Margaret Mitchell over GWTW be she had previously written a novel about the Civil War. Did you notice that her book was self-published and poorly reviewed in its day? As a historian turned librarian, I am interested as to which modern book repeated this info. Not going to say their entire book in bogus, but it does make one wonder....