Vance was inaugurated on September 8, 1862. From the very beginning he fought a constant battle to maintain a balance between his support for the Confederacy and his duty to attend to the needs of his state. This struggle manifested itself through several contentious issues including conscription and exemptions from it, blockade running, real or perceived slights to North Carolina both in the military and in the Confederate government, and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus by the Confederate government. Furthermore, in the midst of war, Vance was forced to deal with a peace movement and reelection campaign.
Conscription proved to be one of the most troublesome issues in the Confederacy and placed Vance in conflict with the Richmond government in numerous cases. For example, conscription laws exempted certain persons from service, including some state officials. Vance's disagreement with the central government focused on who should decide which state officials were necessary to the operation of the state government and therefore, should be exempt.
Vance's interpretation of who should be exempt was much more liberal than Confederate officials would have liked. Vance likely shielded more men from conscription than any other southern governor. Still, Vance worked diligently to enforce conscription laws and apprehend deserters. Later in the war, he relaxed his standards of exempting state officials and agreed to allow the Home Guard to serve outside of North Carolina's borders in an effort to shore up the vastly depleted Confederate forces. After the war, Vance acknowledged the detrimental role of conscription to the war effort.
"It was, perhaps the severest blow the Confederacy ever received, as it did more than anything else to alienate the affections of the common people, without whose support it could not live for a day. It was only regarded as a confession that the new government was not able to depend on the voluntary support of the people, with which it so triumphantly started out…" (War Governor of the South by Joe Mobley, p. 53)
One of Vance's greatest successes as governor was his initiation of state-sponsored blockade running. The state-owned blockade runner Advance made eight successful runs between Bermuda and Wilmington between July 1863 and August 1864. The state also owned 25% interest in four other blockade runners owned by Alexander Collie and Company of England. Through skillful management, blockade running contributed to North Carolina's soldiers likely being the best equipped in the army. Vance did more than any other southern governor to bring supplies into the Confederacy from Europe.
But even this endeavor brought him into conflict with the Confederate administration in Richmond. A prime example of this conflict occurred in January 1864 when the Confederate government tried to claim one-third of the space on the private vessel Don, then docked at Wilmington. Don was one of the vessels jointly owned by Alexander Collie and Company, and the state of North Carolina. Vance's argument, both in the case of the Don and in general, was that the Confederacy did not have its own system of blockade running and that by effectively reducing the profits of the owners through strict regulation, the government was reducing the incentive of owners to participate in the trade.
Furthermore, Vance blamed the Confederate Navy for the capture of the state-owned blockade runner Advance in September 1864, claiming that the cruisers CSS Chickamauga and CSS Tallahassee had impounded the state's anthracite coal, leaving the inferior bituminous coal for use by the blockade runners. The thick black smoke given off by this inferior coal made it easier to spot the blockade runner and enabled its capture by Federal naval forces. This claim later proved untrue, as the Advance was captured prior to the navy's impounding of coal. Vance tried to convince Pres. Jefferson Davis to convert the two cruisers to blockade runners, but Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory declined and continued using the vessels to harass northern commerce.
If Vance felt unappreciated for his efforts to bring supplies into the Confederacy, he and many other North Carolinians certainly felt slighted by the lack of opportunity for the state's military leaders. Though the Old North State supplied more troops to the Confederate war effort than any other state, few of the state's officers were selected for leadership positions within the army. The selection of officers from other states to lead North Carolina troops and to operate within the bounds of the state only added to the tension. Aside from these slights on the field of battle, Vance became agitated with Confederate appointments of outsiders to certain posts within the state. The Confederate medical director at Raleigh was from Maryland and a South Carolinian was appointed to oversee the Salisbury Prison. Particularly vexing to Vance was the appointment of Col. Thomas P. August, a Virginian, to oversee the conscription of soldiers in North Carolina.
Because the term of governor was only two years, Vance faced a reelection campaign in 1864, which was made more difficult by the emergence of a peace movement within the state. The peace movement was led by former Vance supporter turned political opponent, William W. Holden. Supporters of the peace movement wanted North Carolina to try and negotiate a separate peace with the Federal government, something that Vance refused to view as an option. In order to carry the election Vance knew that he would have to demonstrate his support for the Confederacy to keep the conservatives happy, while showing peace movement supporters that he was not submissive to the Richmond government. This was the greatest challenge of Vance's tenure as governor, played out in his campaign for reelection.
Vance highlighted a number of issues in order to placate both sides of the political spectrum. For the conservatives, he emphasized his cooperation with Confederate policies on conscription and dealing with deserters, support for the war effort, and overall concern for North Carolina's troops in the field. To defuse the peace movement, he cited his repeated disagreements with the Richmond administration on suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, his defense of North Carolina citizens against Confederate impressment of supplies, and his pre-war anti-secessionist views. Always a masterful politician, Vance successfully appealed to both factions and was reelected by a wide margin.
Soon after his reelection, Vance began to sense that the days of the Confederacy were numbered. In a letter to his friend David Swain he said,
"….I have always believed, that the great popular heart is not now, and never has been in this war. It was a revolution of the Politicians; not the People." (Zeb Vance by Gordon McKinney, p. 234)
Still, he tried to keep the state running as efficiently as possible. All of his power and influence were exerted in an effort to continue contributing to the Confederacy. He continued trying to round up deserters, arranging for provisions and supplies to be transported to the army, and continuing normal governmental functions. These efforts were halted only once it was clear that the Federal army was advancing on the state. Vance's final task was to ensure that all of the state's papers were moved for safekeeping in advance of the arrival of enemy troops. Through it all, he was determined not to undermine the Confederacy, for he was concerned about maintaining his credibility and personal honor as well as that of the State of North Carolina.
By April 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman's army was on Raleigh's doorstep. After numerous meetings with a variety of Confederate officials in Greensboro and Charlotte, Vance was released of all further service to the Confederacy by Pres. Jefferson Davis and told to tend to the needs of his state. Because of the uncertain status of state officials, Vance went to Statesville on May 4, where he was reunited with his wife and children. Ten days later, he was arrested by Federal forces and taken to prison in Washington, D.C. On July 6, Pres. Andrew Johnson paroled Vance and he was allowed to return to Statesville. From there he could be only a spectator, not a participant, in the state's political transformation.
President Johnson relaxed the terms of Vance's parole later in 1865 and, by February 1866, Vance and his family had moved to Charlotte where he opened a law practice with Clement Dowd and R.D. Johnson. It was from his new home in Charlotte that Vance would resurrect his political career during the years of Reconstruction.
Zebulon Vance despised Republican Reconstruction politics in North Carolina and longed for the ability to help defeat them. Until he received a pardon for his actions as war governor, he could not actively participate in politics. Instead, he continued to practice law in Charlotte and, despite a minor stroke in 1866, traveled around the state giving speeches. He sided with the state's conservative Democrats, who opposed the equality of freedmen, and supported the attempts to seize power from ruling Republicans. In 1871, the legislature finally gained enough conservative members to impeach and remove from office Gov. William Woods Holden, Zeb's old ally-turned-foe.
In 1876, after being pardoned, Vance ran for governor against Republican Thomas Settle, Jr. In a close election, Vance won his third term as governor of North Carolina by only 14,000 of the 233,000 votes cast. Perhaps even more important, however, the Democrats won control of the legislature, thereby bringing about an end to Republican rule. In 1877, reconstruction was over in North Carolina, and Zebulon B. Vance became the state's "redeemer" governor. For Republicans and, especially African Americans who had briefly been allowed to take their place in North Carolina politics, there would be nothing "redeeming" about the years that followed.
Vance did not serve the entire four years of his last term as governor. The General Assembly elected him to the United States Senate in 1878. He was reelected in 1884 and 1890 and served until he died in 1894.