Jaime Amanda Martinez: Zeb Vance, Ken Cuccinelli, and Chris Christie: Governors as Bellwethers

Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South, by Jaime Amanda MartinezWe welcome a guest post today from Jaime Amanda Martinez, author of Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South. Under policies instituted by the Confederacy, white Virginians and North Carolinians surrendered control over portions of their slave populations to state authorities, military officials, and the national government to defend their new nation. State and local officials cooperated with the Confederate War Department and Engineer Bureau, as well as individual generals, to ensure a supply of slave labor on fortifications. Using the implementation of this policy in the Upper South as a window into the workings of the Confederacy, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South provides a social and political history of slave impressment. Martinez challenges the assumption that the conduct of the program, and the resistance it engendered, was an indication of weakness and highlights instead how the strong governments of the states contributed to the war effort.

In the following post, Martinez considers the 2013 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia by looking back to another time when a state gubernatorial contest—North Carolina, 1864—proved to be the bellwether for a subsequent national election.

In the summer and fall of 2013 (at least prior to the shutdown) the political pundits, finding themselves bereft of national elections to debate, focused a great deal of attention on two gubernatorial races. Admittedly, these two elections would have made national news under any conditions: Virginia is a populous swing state, while New Jersey’s incumbent governor Chris Christie is a recurring figure in “will-he-or-won’t-he” conversations about future presidential candidates. But in the absence of Congressional midterms or some comparable marker of national sentiment, the elections in Virginia and New Jersey have been touted as indicators of where the Republican Party, and indeed the entire country, will head in 2014 and beyond.

The North Carolina governor’s race in 1864 served a similar role. Though often overshadowed in discussions of Civil War politics by the U.S. presidential election of 1864, the North Carolina race, which pitted incumbent Zebulon Baird Vance against newspaper editor William W. Holden, tells an equally important story about shifting political winds. And because 1864 counted as an “off” year in Confederate politics, the contest between Vance and Holden garnered a lot of attention. 1863 had been a big election year for the Confederacy, bringing huge turnover in Congress, a popular new governor in Virginia (William “Extra Billy” Smith), and an easy reelection for perennial Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown. But in 1864, North Carolina stood largely alone to represent the sentiments of southern voters.

The difference between the two candidates was stark. Vance, the incumbent, had served as a colonel in the Confederate army before his election in 1862; as governor, he had effectively marshaled the state’s resources in support of the Confederacy while also demanding that Confederate authorities respect North Carolina’s efforts to feed and protect itself. Holden, editor of Raleigh’s North Carolina Standard, had helped propel Vance to the governorship in 1862 and been a strong supporter of his initial policies. By 1864, however, Holden was convinced that the Confederacy was doomed to defeat, and he called on North Carolinians to pursue peace at all costs—even if that meant seceding from the Confederacy and returning to the Union.

Confederate officials in Richmond thus kept one eye trained north and the other south in the summer of 1864. The very thing they hoped to see in Washington—a population clearly turned against the war effort—could have spelled disaster in Raleigh. They had some reason to be concerned: of the eight new members North Carolinians sent to the House in 1863, two were peace advocates, while many of the others had been vocal critics of the Conscription Act. Could Vance convince North Carolinians that he could continue to fight for their interests while they continued to fight for Confederate independence?

As it turns out, he could, largely by continuing on the path he had already established. As the election approached, Vance used draft exemptions, military details, and an expanded militia to keep as many grain farmers as possible within the state; he also suspended calls for slave impressment that would have taken up to ten percent of the state’s male slaves out of the fields and put them to work on fortifications. President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War James A. Seddon helped by either turning a blind eye to Vance’s efforts or even actively abetting them, knowing that qualified support from Vance was better than no support at all from Holden. Meanwhile, Vance’s advocates in the press predicted a dire future if North Carolinians followed Holden back to the Union: subjugation, emancipation, and then the destruction of all they held dear. Vance won handily.

As Vance wrote in a letter to his Virginia colleague Governor Smith, his reelection demonstrated that North Carolinians, despite exhaustion and devastation, continued to support the Confederate war effort. Of course, the results of the 1864 U.S. presidential election showed that the Union population was also willing to make further sacrifices in pursuit of victory. But for Vance, Davis, and leaders throughout the Confederacy, North Carolinians’ resolve to keep fighting was a crucial bellwether of Confederate popular sentiment. If Lincoln’s reelection indicated that they would have to keep fighting to win their independence, Vance’s reelection showed them that the voters would support that approach.

It is unlikely the results of the 2013 gubernatorial elections will provide such a clear signal. As of mid-October, most observers are predicting an easy win for Christie and a narrow defeat for Cuccinelli, who faces constant criticism from within the Republican Party. But his ultraconservative faction clearly is not going to disappear from the national political scene. If governors’ elections are bellwethers, in 2013 as in 1864, they definitely forecast tough battles to come.

Jaime Amanda Martinez is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Her book, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South, will be published in December 2013.