Carpetbaggers & Scalawags in the Reconstruction

Key Facts & Summary

  • Persons travelling from the north to the south after the civil war, to help the blacks and profit from the reconstruction were called Carpetbaggers.
  • The white southerners working with the northern republicans during the reconstruction were called scalawags.
  • The two terms were used in criticism by white southerners opposing the reconstruction.


Carpetbaggers arrived at the south during and after the civil war. The move was based on speculative and commercial opportunities as a result of the reconstruction but also, a desire to help the south, particularly blacks, during the reconstruction.

Other southerners supported the Republican government, convinced that the simplest way to bring the reconstruction to an end, is through the proper implementation of the Reconstruction Acts. They were called scalawags. Both the scalawags and the carpetbaggers were criticised by southerners for their stance during the period.

The reconstruction

Following the assassination of Lincoln at the end of the Civil War in 1865, Lincoln successor Andrew Johnson proposed reconstruction policies. The policies offered by Johnson affirmed his belief in the principle of unionism, citing that the war did not relinquish the right of southern states to govern themselves. The southern states were given a free hand over their affairs, and as a result, many passed the black codes from 1865 to 1866 that undermined the liberty of the freed blacks.


The southerners were required to pay off the war debts, observe the thirteenth amendment and swear loyalty to the union. The oppressive black codes angered a lot of the northerners and especially Congress. In early 1866 Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Civil Rights bill for Johnson’s assent. The Freedmen bill was meant to extend the tenure of the bureau that had been established as a temporary organ, through earlier legislation. The Civil Right bill sought to provide for equality among all persons born in the United States including African Americans. Johnson vetoed the bills, causing a permanent rift between himself and Congress.

Congress took firm control over the reconstruction by passing the Reconstruction Act of 1867 against Johnson position over the issue. The Act divided the south into districts under military rule. The law also provided for the reestablishment of southern governments on the principle of universal male suffrage. The states were also required to ratify the fourteenth amendment which granted equal protection of former slaves. Congress also ratified the 15 amendments in 1870 that provide constitutional protection of the right to vote for former slaves.

The southern governments established by the south during the reconstruction entailed African Americans, the so-called carpetbaggers and the scalawags, who took control of the region.

The Carpetbaggers

The carpetbaggers were northerners who arrived in the south with their belongings packed in carpetbags. Majority of the carpetbaggers were initially union soldiers or employees of the Freedmen bureau while others were teachers, merchants and journalists. They took part in the reconstruction of the south, together with the African Americans and the scalawags.


They purchased land, or took out leases or entered into partnerships with the struggling plantation owners in bids to profit from cotton. At first, they were welcomed, as southerners appreciated the northern capital and investment in their region. Later, they were the object of ridicule and scorn as many southerners began to see them as low-class opportunistic newcomers who attempt to benefit from the misfortune of the war.

Other carpetbaggers saw themselves as reformers and wanted to influence the south to become like the north, which the majority perceived to be more progressive. However, some carpetbaggers were corrupt opportunists seek to benefit from the war as claimed by the southerners.

The Scalawags

Scalawag was a demeaning reference to the Republican-supporting white southerners. Originally, the term was used in reference to livestock with little value but later came to refer to persons thought of as worthless. They attended a radical reconstruction era legislatures as delegates. There were established plantation owners in the south, who stood against the Confederacy and were vocal in support of the civil rights of African Americans.


A majority were former Whigs conservatives who saw the Republican party as succeeding from the Whig party. They were non-slave (but still racists) owning farmers, merchants and artisans and maintained the loyalty to the Union during the Civil War. In the antebellum years, many were Congressmen, judges and local officials.

The scalawags were thought to be traitors and therefore were held in much more disdain than the carpetbaggers. They had diverse backgrounds and motives, but all agreed that the reconstruction Acts were progressive and beneficial to the south. They were keen on ensuring that the rebels of the south did not control the regional politics and united with the carpetbaggers and African Americans for political expediency.

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