Carpetbaggers and scalawags may sound like the stuff of pirate-themed fairytales, horned beasts riding alongside unicorns and narwhals, but they are, in fact, fairly recent members of Southern history. To many former Confederates, carpetbaggers and scalawags were an even more foreboding threat than any mythologized creature. Tales circulated in the years following the Civil War of ne’er-do-well and malicious Yankees, or worse, traitors, who abused the already beaten-down Southerners and exploited their weakness for profit.
The post-war South was indubitably a land of change; with an irreconcilable past and a shaky future, Southerners found themselves in a new climate that necessitated a plea for help. Directly after the end of the war, President Andrew Johnson instituted a series of mollifying policies in regard to the recently rebellious South, much to the chagrin of more passionate Union supporters. But in 1866 a shift in power occurred and the Radical Republicans assumed the driver’s seat: with the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, what would come to be known as the period of “Radical Reconstruction” began.
At first the floundering South lauded the arrival of Northern migrants. Even the most dedicated Confederates realized that, after all, without some form of Northern capital and investment, their infinitely indebted society was doomed to failure. But as time passed and those Northerners gained more and more Southern land and political influence, the tides turned, and those who were once perceived as saviors became the scourge of the South.
The term “carpetbagger” generally refers to a traveller who arrives in his new home with nothing to his name but his single carpetbag, intent on taking advantage of his new surroundings, even to the disadvantage of former residents. In the eyes of Southern loyalists, the Yankee arrivals were just that, parasites bent on feeding from the weakened blood of their former enemies. Though most of these “carpetbaggers” were actually middle-class citizens, former Union soldiers, teachers, or merchants, Southerners generally perceived them as low-class opportunists. In truth, many of the carpetbaggers who made their way South were originally innocent reformers whose mission was to assist the South through her Reconstruction and help her move toward sectional reconciliation. Many Northerners viewed the South as inferior and sent cultural missionaries in order to integrate their neighbors into their superior society. But upon arrival, even the most tender-hearted reformer couldn’t help but take advantage of the situation, scooping up grand plantations at near-avaricious prices. And as they gained land, carpetbaggers gained power, climbing the political ladder and establishing themselves as important members of new Southern society.
Though formerly successful Southerns looked down on carpetbaggers, they positively glowered at their more repugnant cousins, scalawags. Scalawags were viewed as the traitors of the South, Southerners who turned against their brothers in order to support the Northern cause. These white, Southern Republicans were mostly non-slaveholding farmers prior to the war who, according to Confederates, gloated about the shift in power and fattened upon the disadvantage of their former superiors. Though they claimed to support the Union and Northern attitudes, most scalawags still maintained anti-black sentiments and supported their northern neighbors only to prevent members of the old gentry from regaining command.
Regardless of their intentions, carpetbaggers and scalawags used an imbalance of power and wealth to their advantage during the Reconstruction. Though the former aristocracy of the South was far from flawless, the new regime made few strides toward reconstructing the South into a fairer, more just home.