In the world of politics, an ability to deal with crisis whether generated by yourself or others can truly define the value of an individual seeking to serve his or her constituents or using political office as a way to move up in the political spectrum. These dilemmas can serve to highlight a hidden quality that voters did not know about their elected official, or uncover a character flaw that had to this point remained hidden. In many ways, we are defined by crisis, or how we deal with stresses that was not accounted for during our daily lives. For politicians, they have to find a way to continue to perform their duties and remain viable to voters during times of extreme stress.
North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance was facing just such an issue in April 1865. His beloved Tar Heel state was currently being occupied by two opposing armies maneuvering to find an advantage to either to attack or avoid combat as the last representative of a dying government. Governor Vance faced the prospect that his support for the Confederacy was now coming home to roost with the appearance of Union field armies occupying the Capitol City, and the vaunted Confederate Army of Northern Virginia disappearing from the military landscape. North Carolina state government was now operating from wagons trying to move westward in the throng of people consisting of refugees and soldiers in active service or recently paroled soldiers trying to obtain food and transportation home. The Confederate government, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was also in the Old North State trying to continue the dream of a separate government, even though that government had lost its capitol and one of its principal field armies. Death was at the Confederacy’s door, and North Carolina was going to be one of the witnesses at the funeral.
The initial terms of surrender offered by Union Major General William T. Sherman gave Governor Vance hope that he could remain as governor, and state government could return back to its seat in Raleigh, North Carolina. Events soon started to unfold with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and the rejection of General Sherman’s terms of surrender by the United States government. Governor Vance had hoped that he could be a part of the ongoing surrender negotiations between General Sherman and Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, but he soon became irrelevant in the national events being playing out in North Carolina. Vance’s political enemies were now reenergized to come after him, and to show him as a traitor. The Confederate government was looking for Vance’s support to continue the fight for independence, and the Confederate officers were simply ignoring Vance’s pleas.
State Treasurer Jonathan Worth was assigned by Governor Vance to move the records of the State Archives westward and out of harm’s way from the advance of Union troops. The destruction of the State Capitol in South Carolina played a large role in the fear that the same destruction was going to be repeated in North Carolina. With the rejection of the initial terms of surrender, the commencement of hostilities was a real possibility, and the State Archives was situated in active combat area. On April 25th, Worth wrote to Governor Vance to ask “…what can I do with the State archives must I move west or remain where I am?” Due to earlier assurances, Governor Vance felt that he could call upon General Sherman for assistance to save the records of the state. Confederate officials, such as Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, saw Governor Vance as a hindrance to their efforts to secure an armistice, and refused to provide any assistance. In addition, Confederate soldiers were taking the opportunity to sack supply depots in piedmont North Carolina to obtain clothing and food, and there was a real concern that the State Archives might be destroyed by these lawless bands of soldiers. On April 27th, Governor Vance wrote General Sherman to ask if the records (and state government itself) can “…be returned to their usual place of deposit in the Capitol at Raleigh for your safe-guard…” Unfortunately for Vance, General Sherman was leaving North Carolina for Savannah, Georgia, and he would have to await an answer from the commander of the Union Army of the Ohio, Major General John M. Schofield.