Image credit: Editorial cartoon by James Albert Wales, 1880.

Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Perennial Classics, 1988. p. 294-295:

Even in [Southern] states with black majorities, however, Southern Republicanism had to attract white support. And “carpetbaggers” (migrants from the North) and “scalawags” (native Southerners who cast their lot politically with the freedmen) found themselves subjected to a torrent of abuse by their Democratic opponents, an odium that persisted in the morality play of traditional Reconstruction historiography.

Political, regional, and class prejudices combined to produce the image of the carpetbagger as a member of “the lowest class” of the Northern population. Able to pack “all his earthly belongings” in his carpetbag, he supposedly journeyed south after the passage of the Reconstruction Act “to fatten on our misfortunes,” in the process poisoning the allegedly harmonious race relations of 1865-68. In fact, far from the dregs of Northern society, carpetbaggers tended to be well educated and middle class in origin. Not a few had been lawyers, businessmen, newspaper editors, and other pillars of Northern communities. The majority (including fifty-two of the sixty who served in Congress during Reconstruction) were veterans of the Union Army, and their ranks also included teachers, Freedmen’s Bureau agents, and men who had invested tens of thousands of dollars in cotton plantations. Nearly all had come South before 1867, when blacks lacked the franchise and the prospect of office appeared remote. Illinois-born Henry C. Warmoth, Louisiana’s first Republican governor, plunged into politics almost from the moment he arrived in Louisiana with the army in 1864, but most carpetbaggers did not move South seeking political position.

A majority of the members of Congress, one [carpetbagger] pointed out in 1871, represented states other than those of their birth, but only Northern-born Southern Republicans bore the “opprobrious epithet” “carpetbagger.”

Ted Tunnell, Crucible of Reconstruction: War, Radicalism and Race in Louisiana, 1862-1877. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1984. p.137-138:

Henry Clay Warmoth and Asa S. Mansfield, then, represented merely the most recent of a long line of Yankee migrants … Combined with Germans and Irishmen, such migrants largely dominated the earlier stages of Reconstruction in [Louisiana]. The size of the Northern migration in the Civil War era is a matter of some conjecture. John T. Trowbridge in 1866 estimated that 50,000 Northerners had settled in Louisiana since the fall of New Orleans during the war. Two years later a Northern editor in Vicksburg judeged that 10,000 Union veterans resided in neighboring Mississippi. Most recently, Lawrence N. Powell has surmised that between 20,000 and 50,000 Northerners took up planting in the entire South during and after the war. Such hard evidence that exists suggests that such figures are greatly inflated. According to the census, the Northern-born population of Louisiana grew steadily throughout the antebellum period, and it fell for the first time during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Numbering 14,202 in 1860, it declined to 11,523 in 1870, and by 1880 had dropped to 9.974. Even allowing that many or most Yankees who moved South in the 1860s returned North before the 1870 census, figures in the range of 20,000 or more–even for the entire region–appears excessive. More likely, 1,500 or so Yankees located in Louisiana in the 1860s and perhaps five times that number in the Southern states.


Nowhere, though, are numbers more misleading than in Louisiana. The Federal occupation attracted more Northerners than in other Southern states and allowed the Yankees to entrench themselves, politically and economically, to an extent impossible in states like Texas, Alabama, and Georgia…. The dominance of the newcomers in Louisiana Reconstruction was no myth.

The hegemony of the Northerners rested on a number of factors. To begin with, by 1868 scalawags in Louisiana were not significantly more numerous than carpetbaggers; the two groups combined probably numbered no more than 800 or 900 men; the scalawag-carpetbag vote seldom, if ever, exceeded 2,500 ballots. The real question is why blacks did not play a larger role in the state. P.B.S. Pinchback provided an answer. At one point during the debates on the constitution, where the perennial subject of race war arose, the militant Dr. Cromwell threatened angrily that blacks intended to have their rights, through revolution and blood if necessary: “We will rule until the last one of us goes down forever.” Pinchback jumped to his feet and deplored these intemperate remarks. Blacks in America, he stated bluntly, “could get no rights the whites did not see fit to give them”; this talk of race war was “all humbug.” Pinchback developed his point more fully in a subsequent encounter. “In this country,” he warned, “there are thirty white men to one black man; therefore it ill becomes the colored men to make violent and intemperate demands. Let them ask for justice, and for nothing more. . . . Any one can  see the suicidal policy of arraying the black man against the white.” That winter when a supporter attempted to nominate Pinchback for governor, he declined, warning against any Negro standing for office. This attitude partly explains Warmoth’s victory over the free Negro Dumas for the governor’s nomination: Too many black leaders like Pinchback feared that a black governor would fuel the fires of racism North and South. One secret of carpetbag power in Louisiana, in other words, was that blacks expediently deferred to white leadership. (p. 145)


The scapegoating of Radicals as thieves, one and all, served an important end, of course: that of justifying the deeper corruption of violence. The Knights of the White Camellia, the White League, and their kin crippled democracy in the state and the region for nearly a century. Armies of thieves could not have equaled their damage. (p. 175)

murder of LA

From the Library of Congress summary: “President Ulysses S. Grant and Congress turned a blind eye to the disputed 1872 election of carpetbagger William P. Kellogg as governor of Louisiana. In this scene Kellogg holds up the heart which he has just extracted from the body of the female figure of Louisiana, who is held stretched across an altar by two freedmen. Enthroned behind the altar sits Grant, holding a sword. His attorney general, George H. Williams, the winged demon perched behind him, directs his hand. At left three other leering officials watch the operation, while at right women representing various states look on in obvious distress. South Carolina, kneeling closest to the altar, is in chains.” (1871)

Tunnell, Edge of the Sword: The Ordeal of Carpetbagger Marshall H. Twitchell in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. p. 3-4:

Surely, our popular culture is full of myths, stereotypes, and misinformation. What is the harm? Does the quibbling over carpetbaggers make any real difference–except to a few professors? My answer is, yes, it does matter. What millions of people believe about the past influences their understanding of the present, hence their conduct. For three-quarters of a century, as Don Carter writes in his book on the Scottsboro case, the “dark ages” of Negro-carpetbag rule were “the alpha and omega of Southerners’ attempts to justify their treatment of the Negro”–of lynching, segregation, and economic serfdom. The carpetbagger images in Gone with the Wind go hand in hand with films’ offensive, racist images of blacks. Most of the blacks depicted on screen are stereotypical “darkies,” slow-witted, passive, and loyal to their white masters. (Malcolm X wanted to “crawl under the rug” when he first saw the film as a teenager.) Uppidity blacks, those who aspire to a loftier station in life than house servant or field hand, are the ones depicted in the company of greedy carpetbaggers.

Although caricatured, Gone with the Wind‘s linkage of black aspirations and carpetbaggers is rooted in fact. The carpetbagger stereotype did not evolve over decades in stories told by bards, to be transformed into literary epic by Thomas Dixon and Margaret Mitchell. Instead, the carpetbagger stereotype sprang to life full blown with the advent of Radical Reconstruction. Which is to say: at the exact moment black men began to vote and hold office, at the exact moment southern state constitutions began to guarantee African Americans some of the same rights that whites enjoyed, southern politicians and editors created the carpetbagger image as a counter-Reconstruction symbol. The carpetbagger image is more a creation of disinformation, than of legend.



About the Author

Derek Bridges

Derek Bridges lives in New Orleans, trading in words and pictures. A carpetbagger of long standing, he grew up in the top right corner of IL and later went to college in the middle cornfield part. He has also lived in MS and FL, for educational purposes only, and was diasporized for a time in TX.

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