In United States history, carpetbaggers were Northerners who moved to the South during Reconstruction to take up new business, reform or political opportunities. They were allied politically with Freedmen (freed slaves), and Scalawags (Southern whites) in the Republican Party, which in turn controlled ex-Confederate states for varying periods between 1867 and 1877.
"Carpetbaggers" was coined from the carpet bags used as inexpensive luggage. It was originally a derogatory term, suggesting an exploiter who brings no new resources and probably does not plan to stay. The term is now standard and is used without derogatory intent by historians and reference works. Since 1900 the term has also been used to describe outsiders attempting to gain political office or economic advantage, especially in areas (thematically or geographically) to which they previously had no connection.
Beginning in 1862, thousands of Northern abolitionists and other reformers moved to areas in the South where secession by the Confederates states had failed. Many schoolteachers and religious missionaries arrived in the South, and some of them were sponsored by northern churches. Many were abolitionists who sought to continue the struggle for racial equality; many of these became employees of the federal Freedmen's Bureau, which started operations in 1865 to assist the newly freed people and also white refugees. The bureau established public schools in rural areas of the South where public schools had not previously existed. Other Northerners who went to live in the South participated in the politics of introducing rail travel where it had not previously existed.
Hundreds of white women moved South, many to teach newly freed African-American children who, for the period their families were held in bondage, were prohibited by law from learning to read or attending school.
A large majority of Carpetbaggers joined the Republican Party coalition in southern states, along with Freedmen, free blacks, and Scalawags (native white southerners). The Republican coalition controlled every state (except Virginia) for a while; they were all overthrown by conservative-Democratic coalitions of Redeemers in 1870-77.
In 1866 between 10,000 and 15,000 of the most prominent Confederate leaders had been disenfranchised by Congress (the exact number is unknown). Carpetbaggers often filled the political vacuum and were elected to local, state and national office. Many of them represented railroad and industrial interests and used political power to help those economic interests.
Foner concludes that, "As Republican leaders increasingly came under the sway of Northern railroad men and industrialists, the Republican Party would abandon its commitment to the rights of African-Americans, acquiescing in the overthrow of Reconstruction and the imposition of segregation."
Many carpetbaggers were businessmen who purchased or leased plantations and became wealthy landowners, hiring Freedmen to do the labor. Most were former Union soldiers eager to invest their savings in this promising new frontier, and civilians lured south by press reports of "the fabulous sums of money to be made in the South in raising cotton." The investors were warmly received. However, Foner also notes that "joined with the quest for profit, however, was a reforming spirit, a vision of themselves as agents of sectional reconciliation and the South's "economic regeneration." Accustomed to viewing Southerners—black and white—as devoid of economic initiative and self-discipline, they believed that only "Northern capital and energy" could bring "the blessings of a free labor system to the region."
Carpetbaggers tended to be well educated and middle class in origin. Some 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.
Leading "black carpetbaggers" believed the interests of capital and labor identical and the freedmen entitled to little more than an "honest chance in the race of life."
Many Carpetbaggers and Scalawags shared a modernizing vision of upgrading the Southern economy and society, one that would replace the inefficient Southern plantation regime with railroads, factories, and more efficient farming. They actively promoted public schooling and created numerous colleges and universities. The Carpetbaggers were especially successful in taking control of Southern railroads, abetted by state legislatures. In 1870, Northerners controlled 21% of the South's railroads (by mileage); 19% of the directors were Carpetbaggers. By 1890, they controlled 88% of the mileage and 47% of the directors were Carpetbaggers.
Union General Adelbert Ames, a native of Massachusetts was the appointed military governor and had himself elected as Republican governor of Mississippi. Ames tried unsuccessfully to ensure equal rights for black Mississippians. His battles with the Scalawags and African Americans ripped apart his party.
The "Black and Tan" (biracial) constitutional convention in Mississippi in 1868 included 29 Scalawags, 17 blacks and 24 Carpetbaggers, nearly all of whom were veterans of the Union army. They include four who had lived in the South before the war, two of whom had served in the Confederate Army. Among the more prominent were General Beroth B. Eggleston, a native of New York who had enlisted as a private in an Ohio regiment; Colonel A. T. Morgan, of the Second Wisconsin Volunteers; General W. S. Barry, former commander of a Colored regiment raised in Kentucky; an Illinois general and lawyer who graduated from Knox College; Major W. H. Gibbs, of the Fifteenth Illinois infantry; Judge W. B. Cunningham, of Pennsylvania; and Captain E. J. Castello, of the Seventh Missouri infantry. These were among the founders of the Republican party in Mississippi and were prominent in the politics of the state until 1875, but nearly all left Mississippi in 1875-76.
Albert T. Morgan, the carpetbagging Republican sheriff of Yazoo, Mississippi, received a brief flurry of national attention when insurgent whites took over the county government and forced him to flee. He later wrote Yazoo; Or, on the Picket Line of Freedom in the South (1884).
On November 6, 1875, Hiram Revels, a Mississippi Republican and the first African American U.S. Senator, wrote a letter to President Ulysses S. Grant that was widely reprinted. Revels denounced Ames and the Carpetbaggers for manipulating the Black vote for personal benefit, and for keeping alive wartime hatreds:
- Since reconstruction, the masses of my people have been, as it were, enslaved in mind by unprincipled adventurers, who, caring nothing for country, were willing to stoop to anything no matter how infamous, to secure power to themselves, and perpetuate it..... My people have been told by these schemers, when men have been placed on the ticket who were notoriously corrupt and dishonest, that they must vote for them; that the salvation of the party depended upon it; that the man who scratched a ticket was not a Republican. This is only one of the many means these unprincipled demagogues have devised to perpetuate the intellectual bondage of my people.... The bitterness and hate created by the late civil strife has, in my opinion, been obliterated in this state, except perhaps in some localities, and would have long since been entirely obliterated, were it not for some unprincipled men who would keep alive the bitterness of the past, and inculcate a hatred between the races, in order that they may aggrandize themselves by office, and its emoluments, to control my people, the effect of which is to degrade them.
Corruption was a powerful charge for Democrats in North Carolina, notes historian Paul Escott, "because its truth was apparent." For example, General Milton S. Littlefield, dubbed the "Prince of Carpetbaggers," bought votes in the legislature "to support grandiose and fraudulent railroad schemes." Escott concludes that some Democrats were involved, but Republicans "bore the main responsibility for the issue of $28 million in state bonds for railroads and the accompanying corruption. This sum, enormous for the time, aroused great concern." Foner says Littlefield disbursed $200,000 to win support in the legislature for state money for his railroads, and Democrats as well as Republicans were guilty. North Carolina Democrats condemned the legislature's "depraved villains, who take bribes every day;" one local Republican officeholder complained, "I deeply regret the course of some of our friends in the Legislature as well as out of it in regard to financial matters, it is very embarrassing indeed."
Extravagance and corruption were inflating taxes and the costs of government in a state that had always favored low expenditure, Escott points out. "Some money went to very worthy causes—the 1869 legislature, for example, passed a school law that began the rebuilding and expansion of the state's public schools. But far too much was wrongly or unwisely spent," primarily to aid the Republican Party leadership. A Republican county commissioner in Alamance eloquently denounced the situation: "Men are placed in power who instead of carrying out their duties . . . form a kind of school for to graduate Rascals. Yes if you will give them a few dollars they will liern you for an accomplished Rascal. This is in reference to the taxes that are rung from the labouring class of people. With out a speedy reformation I will have to resign my post."
- Albion W. Tourgée, formerly of Ohio and a friend of President James A. Garfield, was a lawyer and judge in North Carolina. He once claimed that "Jesus Christ was a carpetbagger." Tourgée later wrote A Fool's Errand, a largely autobiographical novel about an idealistic carpetbagger who is persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina.
The leading carpetbag politician in South Carolina was Daniel Henry Chamberlain, a New England Yankee who was an officer in a predominantly black regiment. He served as South Carolina's attorney general from 1868 to 1872 and as Republican governor from 1874 to 1877, losing his office as a result of the Compromise of 1877. In South Carolina, Chamberlain was a strong supporter of Negro rights, but he later became a white supremacist, a result of his conversion to states' rights, laissez-faire, and evolution. By 1896, liberty meant the right to save oneself from the rising tide of equality. Chamberlain justified white supremacy by arguing that, in evolutionary terms, the Negro obviously belonged to an inferior social order.
Charles Stearns, also from Massachusetts, wrote an account of his own carpetbagging in South Carolina: The Black Man of the South, and the Rebels: Or, the Characteristics of the Former and the Recent Outrages of the Latter (1873).
Francis L. Cardozo, a black minister from New Haven, Connecticut, served as a delegate to South Carolina's Constitutional Convention (1868); he made eloquent speeches advocating that the plantations be broken up and distributed among the freedmen.
Henry C. Warmoth, the Republican governor of Louisiana from 1868 to 1874, represents a decidedly less idealistic strand of carpetbagging. As governor, Warmoth was plagued by accusations of corruption that continued long after his death. He supported voting rights for blacks, and at the same time, he used his position as governor to trade in state bonds for his own personal benefit. The newspaper company he owned also had a contract with the state government. Warmoth remained in Louisiana after Reconstruction, and died in 1931 at age 89.
George E. Spencer was a prominent U.S. Senator. His 1872 Senate reelection campaign in Alabama opened him to allegations of "political betrayal of colleagues; manipulation of Federal patronage; embezzlement of public funds; purchase of votes; and intimidation of voters by the presence of Federal troops." He was a major speculator in a distressed financial paper.
Tunis Campbell, a black New York businessman, was hired in 1863 by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to help former slaves in Port Royal, South Carolina. When the Civil War ended, Campbell was assigned to the Sea Islands of Georgia, where he engaged in an apparently successful land reform program for the benefit of the freedmen. He eventually became vice-chair of the Georgia Republican Party, a state senator, and the head of an African-American militia which he hoped to use against the Ku Klux Klan.
William Hines Furbush, born a slave in Kentucky in 1839, left Ohio, where he received an education, for Helena, Arkansas, in 1862. Back in Ohio in February 1865, he joined the Forty-second Colored Infantry. After the war, Furbush migrated to Liberia through the American Colonization Society. He returned to Ohio after 18 months and had moved back to Arkansas by 1870. Furbush was elected to two terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives, 1873-74 (Phillips County) and 1879-80 (Lee County).
In 1873, following the passage of the state's civil rights law, Furbush—with three other black leaders, including the bill's primary sponsor, state Senator Richard A. Dawson—sued a Little Rock barkeeper for refusing the group service. The suit resulted in the only successful Reconstruction prosecution under the state's civil rights law. In the legislature, he worked to create a new county, Lee, from portions of neighboring counties.
Following the end of his 1873 legislative term, he was appointed sheriff by Republican Governor Elisha Baxter. Furbush won reelection as sheriff twice and served from 1873 to 1878. During his term, he adopted a policy of "fusion," a post-Reconstruction power-sharing compromise between Democrats and Republicans. Furbush was originally elected as a Republican but switched to the Democratic Party at the end of his time in the sheriff's office. In 1878, he was again elected to the Arkansas House. His election is noteworthy because he was elected as a black Democrat in an election season notorious for the intimidation of black and Republican voters in black majority eastern Arkansas. Furbush is the first known black Democrat elected to the Arkansas General Assembly.
In March 1879, he left Arkansas for Colorado, where he worked as an assayer and barber. In Bonanza, Colorado, he avoided a lynch mob after shooting and killing a town constable. In his trial he was acquitted of murder. He returned to Little Rock, Arkansas, by 1888, following another stay in Ohio. In 1889, he and E. A. Fulton, a fellow black Democrat, announced plans for the National Democrat, a party weekly that was supposed to attract black voters to the Democratic Party. After failing to get black voters in the Democratic Party and with the passage Arkansas's 1891 Election Law that disenfranchised many black voters in the state, Furbush left Arkansas. He traveled to South Carolina and Georgia. His last stop was in October 1901 at Marion, Indiana's National Home for Disabled Veterans. 
Carpetbaggers were least visible in Texas. Republicans were in power from 1867 to January 1874. Only one state official and one justice of the state supreme court was a carpetbagger. About 13%-21% of district court judges were carpetbaggers, along with about 10% of the delegates who wrote the "radical" constitution of 1869. Of the 142 men who served in the 12th legislature, only 12 to 29 were carpetbaggers. At the county level they included about 10% of the commissioners, county judges, and sheriffs.
New Yorker George T. Ruby, was sent by the Freedmen's Bureau to Galveston, Texas, where he settled. As a Texas state senator, Ruby was instrumental in various economic development schemes and in efforts to organize African-American dockworkers into the Labor Union of Colored Men. When Reconstruction ended, Ruby became a leader of the Exoduster movement, which encouraged Southern blacks to homestead in Kansas.
The Dunning school of American historians (1900-1950) viewed carpetbaggers unfavorably, arguing that they degraded the political and business culture. The revisionist school in the 1930s called them stooges of Northern business interests. After 1960, the neoabolitionist school emphasized their moral courage and downplays their corruption or links to railroads.
- Those Terrible Carpetbaggers by Richard Nelson Current. Oxford University Press.1988
- The Scalawag in Alabama Politics. 1865-1881 by Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins. University of Alabama Press. 1991.
- Those Terrible Carpetbaggers by Richard Nelson Current. Oxford University Press.1988
- Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom - Williams, Heather Andrea, University of North Carolina Press, 2006
- The Nation, July 27, 2000, http://ericfoner.com/articles/072700nation.html
- Foner 1988 pp 137, 194
- Foner 1988 pp 137
- Foner 1988 pp 294-295
- Foner 1988 pp 289
- Klein 1968 p 269
- Garner (1902); Harris (1979)
- Garner 187-88
- full text in Garner pp. 399-400
- Escott 160
- Foner 387
- Escott 160
- Escott 160
- Simkins and Woody. (1932)
- Simkins and Woody. (1932)
- Foner (1968)
- Woolfolk (1966); Foner (1968) p 295
- Foner (1968)
- Wintory 2004
- Foner Freedom's Lawmakers" p. 79; Wintory 2004, 2006; Daniel Phillips Upham; Gov. Powell Clayton
- Campbell (1994)
- Campbell (1994)