Officials at Vance House Museum are holding their first Statesville Civil War Living History Day on Saturday. It’s an event the group is hoping will become an annual one.
The Vance House was the temporary dwelling of Zebulon Vance, who served as both the both the 37th and 43rd Governor of North Carolina.
Vance in Statesville
In a story about Vance, the city of Statesville would figure prominently.
While it wouldn’t be accurate to call Statesville the capital of North Carolina in the months following the end of the Civil War, it is true that the state’s sitting governor – Vance – did live here during and after the fall of North Carolina to the Union.
Vance and his family moved – fled, according to some historians – to Iredell’s county seat when Union troops occupied Raleigh. Vance was eventually placed under house arrest in Statesville before being transported to Washington.
The young and, by most accounts, charismatic Vance was the Tar Heel State’s top executive for four years (that is, two two-year terms) on either side of the Civil War.
By the time Vance had retreated to Statesville in 1865 – after depositing state documents in several locations en route – he was barely 35 and was into his third year as governor. Vance also served in the North Carolina General Assembly, to which he was elected at the age of 24 and served in the U.S. House of Representatives prior to accepting an officer’s commission in the Confederate Army.
Though not specifically charged with a crime at the time, Vance served about a month and a half in a Washington D.C. prison.
After his parole from prison, Vance began a law practice in Charlotte, which again resulted in his return to Statesville as the attorney of accused killer Tom Dula, who became known in lore and song as Tom Dooley. Vance had apparently become convinced of Dula’s innocence and agreed to represent him pro bono.
Among the court actions taken by Vance for Dula was to have the trial moved from Wilkes County – where his girlfriend Laura Foster had been killed – to Iredell and, therefore, to Statesville. Despite Vance’s legal work, Dula was found guilty and hanged in Statesville near what is now called Depot Hill.
Vance was eventually pardoned by President Andrew Johnson of charges stemming from any role he may have played in the Southern states’ succession from the Union. He would go on to be elected to another term as governor and then, by members of the General Assembly, to the U.S. Senate.
But Statesville also shows up in other reports about the final days of the Civil War, most poignantly in two different episodes of what came to be known as Stoneman’s Raids.
They were headed by Union cavalry officer George Stoneman and largely involved destroying things like trains and their tracks and ammunition operations – such as an iron foundry in Salisbury – and otherwise reeking havoc.
Vance House Museum Vice President Harry Watt said one such raid on Statesville resulted in Stoneman’s men being turned away at the door of what is now Mitchell Community College.
“It was a women’s college then,” Watt said. “And the head of the college told them they were not getting in.”
Another time, when word was passed about a Stoneman’s Raid of Salisbury, Staetsville residents hit the rooftops of the highest buildings in the city.
“They were downtown along Center Street,” Watt said. “They could see fires from the warehouses burning in Salisbury and they wondered if they were going to be next.”
While it was Stoneman’s men who arrested Vance and escorted him to Washington, Stoneman and Vance had a lot in common. Both were governors – Stoneman served as California’s 15th governor – both were Democrats and both died of natural causes in 1894, within five months of each other.
The Living History Day begins at 8 a.m. Saturday at Statesville’s Main Square. Activities will also be held at the Old Courthouse (Iredell County Government Center); Broad Street Methodist Church and the Sharpe House and the Vance House Museum. For more information, contact Watt at 704-880-3067.