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Who Were the Carpetbaggers?

By M. Dee Dubroff
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term, carpetbagger, has changed over the years, particularly since 1900. Originally, carpetbaggers referred to a group of Northerners who moved to the South during the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War in the United States, which lasted from 1865 to 1877. Derogatory in meaning, the word, carpetbaggers, alluded to the low-priced, makeshift luggage of the post-Civil war days, which was fashioned from old carpets. The word carpetbagger has settled into modern usage to denote any outsider who attempts to gain political office or economic advantage.

During their heyday, the carpetbaggers formed a coalition in the Republican Party joined with the Freedman’s Bureau, which was composed of free slaves, and the Scalawags who were Southern whites. This gave them some control over the legislature of the southern states, and they were very successful in seizing control of the southern railroad system. The carpetbaggers’ vision was for a new South that, through education, would rise from its ashes under the promising embrace of industrial capitalism.

Many carpetbaggers were Union army veterans from middle class origins. They were on the whole, well educated and many held prominent positions in their previous northern communities such as lawyers, businessmen and newspaper editors. Carpetbaggers invested their savings in leasing or purchasing plantations and became large landowners, despite the fact that they decried the evils of the plantation system. Many too were lured southwards because of press reports that fortunes could be made from raising cotton.

In some ways, carpetbaggers were like the imperialists of the early twentieth century who were determined to “lift the white man’s burden”. There is no question of their genuine, reforming spirit, and many among them were former abolitionists, missionaries and teachers. But they were also an arrogant lot. Carpetbaggers saw themselves as the saviors of the south’s regeneration whose people they knew, whether they were black or white, were lacking in initiative and self-discipline. They had the answer, the only solution for the war-torn South.

Some carpetbaggers were exploitative and dishonest, and unfortunately, that fact stained the reputation of many who were not. The word carpetbagger strikes a derogatory chord even years after its general usage has changed. Some modern politicians have been accused of being carpetbaggers, notably Hilary Clinton and even Bobby Kennedy when he ran for the Senate.

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Discussion Comments
By anon294658 — On Oct 02, 2012

How do carpetbaggers affect us today?

By amypollick — On Aug 30, 2011

As a native Southerner and history buff, I found this article interesting. I'm glad the author mentioned carpetbaggers could be arrogant. This, in fact, was one of their hallmark qualities. Education was one thing. However, they often assumed that every Southern person they met was abysmally ignorant, uneducated and desperately in need of assistance that only someone from north of the Mason-Dixon Line could provide. Sadly, this paradigm still exists, to a certain degree. There's a reason a popular bumper sticker reads, "I don't care how they do it up North!" Rather than meeting Southerners where they were, the carpetbaggers often informed a people wounded and sore from a costly conflict, that they were backward savages who were basically evil for participating in the Civil War.

The bitter animosity came from this attitude, as well as the widely held (and sadly too often well-founded) belief that the carpetbagger was coming to reap profit from the South's misfortune. Certainly, a number of them went back North with their carpetbags much plumper than when they left.

The other disgrace is the shameful advantage so many carpetbaggers took of former slaves. Knowing these people were largely illiterate and had never lived independently, instead of teaching them useful life skills (like reading and writing), they often turned these people into puppet politicians and stripped them of every dime they had. Don't kid yourselves: the Yankees frequently despised black people and looked upon them as lower life forms. However, their ignorance served the carpetbaggers well when they needed votes and political clout. Their actions toward former slaves were despicable.

The favorable view history has taken of carpetbaggers proves the old adage that history is written by the winners. While it romanticizes slavery, a reading of "Gone With the Wind" might be helpful in understanding exactly how the carpetbaggers operated in the everyday life of the Reconstruction-era South.

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