Carpetbaggers in the United States were Northerners who moved to the South during Reconstruction, between 1865 and 1877. They formed a coalition with Freedmen (freed slaves), and Scalawags (Southern whites) in the Republican Party, which in turn controlled ex-Confederate states for varying periods, 1867–1877.
“Carpetbagger” was a term originated to describe the luggage a stranger was carrying. People who moved South needed luggage quickly and at an affordable price. Carpetbags were made out old carpets that still had some wear left and sold for one to two dollars at a dry goods store.
The term was mostly considered insulting, suggesting an exploiter who moves to an area with no plans to stay. Although the term is still an insult in common usage, in histories and reference works it is now used without derogatory intent. 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. White teachers went to teach newly freed African-American children who were prohibited by law from learning to read or attending school. The Northerners who went to live in the South participated in the politics of introducing rail travel where it had not previously existed. 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.
Self interest and exploitation
While some Northerners went South with reformist impulses after the United States was restored at the end of the Civil War, not all Northerners who went South were reformers.
Some were representatives of the Freedmen’s Bureau and other agencies of Reconstruction; some were humanitarians with the intent to help black people; yet some were adventurers who hoped to benefit themselves by questionable methods. Those carpetbaggers who were unscrupulous came to manipulate the black vote and in some cases to establish dishonest governments. The Carpetbaggers were especially successful in taking control of Southern railroads, abetted by state legislatures. In 1870, Northerners controlled 21 percent of the South’s railroads (by mileage); 19 percent of the directors were Carpetbaggers. By 1890, they controlled 88 percent of the mileage and 47 percent 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 States 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 carpet bagging 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.
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 (bribes) 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 learn you for an accomplished Rascal. This is in reference to the taxes that are rung from the laboring class of people. Without a speedy reformation I will have to resign my post.”
The leading carpetbag politician in South Carolina was Daniel Henry Chamberlain, a New Englander 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.
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, from Helena, Arkansas, in 1862. Back in Ohio in February 1865, he joined the Forty-second Colored Infantry at Columbus. 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 Phillips, Crittenden, Monroe, and St. Francis 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.
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 to 21 percent of district court judges were carpetbaggers, along with about 10 percent 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 percent 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.
“Carpetbagger” is in common use when a politician runs for office in a place to which he previously had no connection. In 1964, Robert Kennedy moved to New York to run for the Senate and deflected the carpetbagger image with humor, opening one speech with, “My fellow New Yorkites!” In 2000, critics attacked Hillary Clinton as a “carpetbagger” when she moved to New York to run for the Senate. Both Kennedy and Clinton were elected. Many Southerners consider George W. Bush to be a carpetbagger in that he was born in Connecticut and educated at Andover and Yale, but aggressively cultivates an image as a Texan. In 2004, Republican Alan Keyes was called a carpetbagger when he moved to Illinois only one month before the election for Senator, which he lost to Illinoisan Barack Obama.
Carpetbagging was used in Britain in the late 1990s during the wave of flotations of building societies, the term indicating members of the public who join mutual societies with the hope of making a quick profit from the conversion. Investors in these mutuals would receive shares in the new public companies, usually distributed at a flat rate, thus equally benefiting small and large investors, and providing a broad incentive for members to vote for conversion-advocating leadership candidates. The word was first used in this context in early 1997, by the chief executive of The Woolwich Building Society, who announced the society’s conversion with rules removing the most recent new savers’ entitlement to potential windfalls and stated in a media interview, “I have no qualms about disenfranchising carpetbaggers.” The chief executive was subsequently removed from office in disgrace after it was widely reported that he was receiving unauthorized benefits from the society’s gardeners.
In the 2005 general election, Respect MP George Galloway was accused of being a carpetbagger by Labour’s Constitutional Affairs Minister David Lammy during an interview with Jeremy Paxman. Galloway, who hails from Scotland, stood for election in London’s Bethnal Green and Bow constituency on an anti-war platform. It was suggested that he targeted this constituency because of its largely Muslim population, pushing the issue of war in Iraq for his own gain while ignoring the basic concerns facing this area, one of the UK’s poorest constituencies. His response was that his old constituency had been dissolved and that it is perfectly reasonable for a new party to stand its best known candidate in the area it has the strongest support.