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Letter from Zebulon Vance to William Graham, January 2, 1864


Letter from Zebulon Vance to William Graham, January 2, 1864


The letter from Zebulon Vance, Governor of North Carolina during the Civil War, was sent to former Governor and prominent citizen, William Graham.  The letter was contained in a book by famed North Carolina historian Cornelia Spencer, who published the letter in her book, The Last Ninety Day of the War in North Carolina (1866). The letter and the surrounding text discussed the peace movement that occurred in North Carolina during the war, led by Raleigh citizen and owner of the Raleigh North Carolina Standard newspaper, William W. Holden. In the letter, Vance wrote of how serious the peace movement was in North Carolina, as Holden and others planned to hold a meeting in May 1864 to take North Carolina back to the Union. Vance did not agree with Holden’s cause, as he believed the war was necessary, and “that liberty and independence can only be gathered of blood and misery.” Although Vance was against the movement to end the war, it was clear within North Carolina there was a respectable amount of citizens that wanted the war over. General William Sherman, and his men in the Union Army, believed because of people like Holden and others discussed in the letter, that they would greet a North Carolina population excited to see the Union Army, and face little resistance. The above image is of Governor Zebulon Vance.  


Zebulon B. Vance


Letter from Zebulon Vance to William Graham, January 2, 1864, in The Last Ninety Days of the War in North Carolina, edited by Cornelia Spencer (New York, NY: Watchman Publishing Company, 1866), 124-126.




Tim Justice




Raleigh, North Carolina
Wake County, North Carolina

Original Format



Raleigh, January 2, 1864.

My Dear Sir: The final plunge which I have been dreading and avoiding—that is to separate me from a large number of my political friends, is about to be made. It is now a fixed policy of Mr. Holden and others to call a convention in May to take North-Carolina back to the United States, and the agitation has already begun. Resolutions advocating this course were prepared a few days ago in the Standard office, and sent to Johnson county to be passed at a public meeting next week; and a series of meetings are to be held all over the State.

For any cause now existing, or likely to exist, I can never consent to this course.

Never. But should it be inevitable, and I be unable to prevent it, as I have no right to suppose I could, believing that it would be ruinous alike to the State and the Confederacy, producing war and devastation at home, and that it would steep the name of North-Carolina in infamy, and make her memory a reproach among the nations, it is my determination quietly to retire to the army and find a death which will enable my children to say that their father was not consenting to their degradation. This may sound a little wild and romantic—to use no stronger expression—but it is for your eye only. I feel, sir, in many respects, as a son toward you; and when the many acts of kindness I have received at your hands are remembered, and the parental interest you have always manifested for my welfare, the feeling is not unnatural. I therefore approach you frankly in this matter.

I will not present the arguments against the proposed proceeding. There is something to be said on both sides. We are sadly pushed to the wall by the enemy on every side, it is true. That can be answered by military men and a reference to history. Many people have been worse off, infinitely, and yet triumphed. Our finances and other material resources are not in worse condition than were those of our fathers in 1780-’81, though repudiation is inevitable. Almost every argument against the chances of our success can be answered but one: that is the cries of women and little children for bread! Of all others, that is the hardest for a man of humane sentiments to meet, especially when the sufferers rejoin to your appeals to their patriotism, “You, Governor, have plenty; your children have never felt want.” Still, no great political or moral blessing ever has been or can be attained without suffering. Such is our moral constitution, that liberty and independence can only be gathered of blood and misery, sustained and fostered by devoted patriotism and heroic manhood. This requires a deep hold on the popular heart; and whether our people are willing to pay this price for Southern independence, I am somewhat inclined to doubt. But, sir, in tracing the sad story of the backing down, the self-imposed degradation of a great people, the historian shall not say it was due to the weakness of their Governor, and that Saul was consenting unto their death! Neither do I desire, for the sake of a sentiment, to involve others in a ruin which they might avoid by following more ignoble counsels. As God liveth, there is nothing which I would not do or dare for the people who so far beyond my deserts have honored me. But in resisting this attempt to lead them back, humbled and degraded, to the arms of their enemies, who have slaughtered their sons, outraged their daughters, and wasted their fields with fire, and lay them bound at the feet of a master who promises them only life, provided they will swear to uphold his administration, and surrender to the hangman those whom they themselves placed in the position which constitutes their crime—in resisting this, I say, I feel that I am serving them truly, worthily.

In approaching this, the crisis of North-Carolina's fate, certainly of my own career, I could think of no one to whom I could more appropriately go for advice than yourself for the reasons before stated. If you can say any thing to throw light on my path, or enable me to avoid the rocks before me, I shall be thankful. My great anxiety now, as I can scarcely hope to avert the contemplated action of the State, is to prevent civil war, and to preserve life and property as far as may be possible. With due consideration on the part of public men, which I fear is not to be looked for, this might be avoided. It shall be my aim, under God, at all events.

All the circumstances considered, do you think I ought again to be a candidate? It is a long time to the election, it is true, but the issue will be upon the country by spring. My inclination is to take the stump early, and spend all my time and strength in trying to warm and harmonize the people.

Believe me, my dear sir, yours sincerely,

Z. B. Vance.


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Zebulon B. Vance, Letter from Zebulon Vance to William Graham, January 2, 1864, Civil War Era NC, accessed May 21, 2024,