Zebulon Baird Vance was born in the Reems Creek valley of Buncombe County, North Carolina on May 13, 1830. He was the third of eight children of David and Mira Baird Vance. During the American Revolution, his grandfather, Col. David Vance, served with Washington's Army during the winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge and fought at Germantown, Brandywine, and the Battle of Monmouth. His uncle, Dr. Robert Brank Vance, was a congressman from 1824 to 1826, and Vance's father was a captain during the War of 1812.
The family lived in the house Col. David Vance had built in the 1790s on the location of the Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace State Historic Site. Vance was sent to Washington College in East Tennessee when he was about twelve, but at fourteen, he had to leave school and come home when his father died. When he turned twenty-one, he wrote to former governor Swain, who was at that time president of the University at Chapel Hill, and asked for a loan so he could enter Law School. Governor Swain arranged for a $300 loan from the University and, following his studies, Vance was granted his county court license in Raleigh in late 1851. The next year he went to Asheville and began to practice law.
Vance first entered politics at the age of twenty-four as the Whig candidate for a seat in the State House of Commons. He won that election against an opponent twice his age. Vance was a highly skilled public speaker. His humor and oratorical skills resulted in a remarkable success rate in elections. In his whole career, he was only defeated once at the polls, in 1856, when David Coleman beat him in a race for state senator from Buncombe County. He bounced back in 1858 and won his first congressional seat, to which he was re-elected in 1860. At age 28, Vance was the youngest member of Congress and one of the strongest Southern supporters of the Union. In March 1861, however, when indications were that the North Carolina legislature was going to vote for secession, Vance resigned his seat and came home.
Vance raised a company known as the "Rough and Ready Guards" that soon became part of the Fourteenth Regiment, North Carolina Troops. Subsequently, Vance was elected colonel of the Twenty-sixth North Carolina. Colonel Vance led his men in the field for thirteen months and the regiment distinguished themselves at the Battle of New Bern in March 1862 and at Richmond in July of that same year.
Vance became the "soldier's candidate" for North Carolina governor, and he easily won the post with a majority which included the vote of every man in his regiment. He took office in September 1862 and was re-elected in 1864. While the new governor was a Southerner, he was a North Carolinian first. Vance found himself in conflict several times with the Confederate government in Richmond. He was an ardent supporter of states' rights, and some of his independent actions did not find favor in Richmond. In particular, there was disagreement over his policy of exporting North Carolina cotton abroad by way of blockade runner ships and using the material received in exchange for the benefit of North Carolinians, both civilian and military. Because of this policy, North Carolina was the only Confederate state to equip and clothe its own regiments. Much of the blockade runner supplies were shared with the rest of the Confederacy. General Longstreet's Army, for example, received 12,000 uniforms from North Carolina after the Battle of Chickamauga.
Of all of Governor Vance's policies, the most remarkable was his insistence, in the midst of the devastation and confusion of war, upon the maintenance of the rule of law. North Carolina courts continued to function during the war, and North Carolina stands alone as the only state which never suspended the writ of habeas corpus. In May 1865, Vance was arrested and taken into custody by federal troops. He spent time as a prisoner in the Old Capital Prison in the District of Columbia. At the end of 1865, Vance was paroled and sent home. He went to Charlotte and resumed practicing law. He also began a new career on the lecture circuit and used the monies earned to maintain his family and satisfy old debts.
In 1870, Vance won one of the North Carolina seats in the U.S. Senate, but, still being under parole, was not allowed to serve. Six years later, he defeated Thomas Settle and was voted into his third term as North Carolina's governor. During this third term, the remaining federal troops left North Carolina. Also during this term, Vance proposed plans to the legislature for increased educational facilities and teacher training throughout the state. This third term was a short one, for in 1878 Governor Vance became U.S. Senator Vance, an office he held until his death on April 14, 1894.
Zebulon Vance was married twice. He was first married in 1853 to Harriet Espy. Two years after his first wife's death in 1878, he was married in 1880 to Florence Steele Martin. Vance was the father of four sons by his first marriage.