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Cartoon suggesting President Rutherford B. Hayes supported removal of carpetbaggers from the Southern States during Reconstruction (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1877.)

In United States history, carpetbaggers were Northerners who moved to the South during Reconstruction to take up new business, reform or political opportunities. More generally the term refers to the political faction of the Republican Party in the South controlled by the new arrivals. 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 were in power on average 3 or 4 years except in South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida, where their rule was especially corrupt and lasted about 10 years. They were never in control of Virginia or Tennessee.

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. Thus in 2000 Hillary Clinton was called a carpetbagger when she ran for the U.S. senate seat in New York, a state in which she had never lived.[1] Likewise in 1966 Robert Kennedy was called a carpetbagger when he ran for the New York senate seat. Elizabeth Dole had long been absent from North Carolina when she ran for the Senate in 2002 and was elected; the carpetbagger charge was revived in 2008, as she rarely visited the state as Senator, and she was defeated.


"Carpetbagger" as a term was first used during the Reconstruction Period following the American Civil War. Coming down from the northern states were a large number of people who sought to help rebuild the shattered South, yet many of them took advantage of the situation to engage in exploitation and theft. About 1868 the word "carpetbagger" - suggesting an exploiter who brings no new resources and probably does not plan to stay - was coined as an epithet against these people, who were identified from the satchels in which they carried all of their possessions; the satchels were made from inexpensive carpeting. The term is now standard and is used without derogatory intent by historians and reference works.

Reform impulse

Many carpetbaggers were reformers, especially those with strong connections to evangelical Protestant churches. Many went as missionaries and school teachers.[2] 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 blacks. The Bureau established public schools in much of the region. The motivation was the belief that literacy was the key to overthrowing ignorance and inefficiency.[3]

Economic motives

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.[4] 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.".[5] The idea was that "free labor" and "free enterprise" would unleash the economic potential of the South, even as cotton prices were falling and most southern banks had closed.

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.[6]

Leading black Carpetbaggers believed the interests of capital and labor identical and that Freedmen needed little more than an "honest chance in the race of life" to prosper.[7]

Most 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.


Railroads were especially needed. The southern transportation system had been largely destroyed by the war, and given the large distances only a rail system could build the economic potential. Southern state governments were eager for the investment, and often guaranteed railroad bonds.

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.[8]


A cartoon threatening that the KKK will lynch scalawags (left) and carpetbaggers (right) on March 4, 1869, the day President Grant takes office. Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Independent Monitor, September 1, 1868. A full-scale scholarly history analyzes the cartoonː Guy W. Hubbs, Searching for Freedom after the Civil War: Klansman, Carpetbagger, Scalawag, and Freedman (2015).[9]

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 about 10,000 to 15,000 of the most prominent Confederate leaders were 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.

By 1870 or even earlier the Scalawags were at odds with the Carpetbaggers inside the Republican coalition, and were increasingly forced out. Blacks, meanwhile, were tiring of white Carpetbagger leadership and demanding more offices for themselves. The result was deep, bitter internal splits inside the Republicans party of every southern state. The Conservatives (as the opposition called itself), took advantage of the splits by wooing away the Scalawags, leaving the Republicans in a weakened position.

State politics


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.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12]

North Carolina

Corruption was a powerful charge for Democrats in North Carolina, notes historian Paul Escott, "because its truth was apparent."[13] 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.[14] 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."[15]

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 laboring class of people. With out a speedy refformation I will have to resign my post."[16]

  • 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.

South 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.[17]

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.[18]


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.[19]


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.[20]


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.[21]


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.[22] 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.[23]


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.[24]

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.[25]


The Dunning school of American historians (1900-1950) viewed carpetbaggers unfavorably, arguing that they degraded the political and business culture and violated republican principles. 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.


  • Ash, Stephen V. When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861-1865 U of North Carolina Press 1995.
  • Barnes, Kenneth C. Who Killed John Clayton Duke U.P. 1998; violence in Arkansas
  • Brown, Canter, Jr. "Carpetbagger Intrigues, Black Leadership, and a Southern Loyalist Triumph: Florida's Gubernatorial Election of 1872" Florida Historical Quarterly 1994 72(3): 275-301. ISSN 0015-4113. Shows how African Americans joined Redeemers to defeat corrupt carpetbagger running for reelection
  • Campbell, Randolph B. "Carpetbagger Rule in Reconstruction Texas: an Enduring Myth." Southwestern Historical Quarterly 1994 97(4): 587-596. ISSN 0038-478X
  • Richard Nelson Current. Those Terrible Carpetbaggers: A Reinterpretation (1988), a favorable view
  • Currie-Mcdaniel, Ruth. Carpetbagger of Conscience: A Biography of John Emory Bryant Fordham U.P. 1999; religious reformer in South Carolina
  • Durden, Robert Franklin; James Shepherd Pike: Republicanism and the American Negro, 1850-1882 Duke University Press, 1957
  • Paul D. Escott; Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1850-1900, University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
  • Foner, Eric. Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory Of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction, Oxford University Press, 1993, Revised, 1996, LSU Press.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (1988) Harper & Row, 1988, recent standard history
  • Fowler, Wilton B. "A Carpetbagger's Conversion to White Supremacy." North Carolina Historical Review 1966 43(3): 286-304. ISSN 0029-2494
  • Garner, James Wilford. Reconstruction in Mississippi (1902) online edition
  • Harris, William C. The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi Louisiana State University Press, 1979 online edition
  • Harris, William C. "James Lynch: Black Leader in Southern Reconstruction," Historian 1971 34(1): 40-61. ISSN 0018-2370; Lynch was Mississippi's first African American secretary of state
  • Klein, Maury. "Southern Railroad Leaders, 1865-1893: Identities and Ideologies" Business History Review 1968 42(3): 288-310. ISSN 0007-6805 Fulltext in JSTOR
  • Morrow, Ralph E.; Northern Methodism and Reconstruction Michigan State University Press, 1956
  • Olsen, Otto H. Carpetbagger's Crusade: The Life of Albion Winegar Tourgee (1965)
  • Simkins, Francis Butler, and Robert Hilliard Woody. South Carolina during Reconstruction (1932)
  • Tunnell, Ted. Edge of the Sword: The Ordeal of Carpetbagger Marshall H. Twitchell in the Civil War and Reconstruction LSU Press, 2001, on Louisiana.
  • Ted Tunnell, "Creating 'the Propaganda of History': Southern Editors and the Origins of Carpetbagger and Scalawag," Journal of Southern History (Nov 2006) 72#4
  • Wiggins, Sarah Woolfolk; The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865-1881 University of Alabama Press, 1991 online edition
  • Woolfolk, Sarah Van V. "George E. Spencer: a Carpetbagger in Alabama," Alabama Review 1966 19(1): 41-52. ISSN 0002-4341
  • Wintory, Blake. "William Hines Furbush: African-American Carpetbagger, Republican, Fusionist, and Democrat," Arkansas Historical Quarterly 2004 63(2): 107-165. ISSN 0004-1823
  • Wintory, Blake. "William Hines Furbush (1839–1902)" Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (2006).

Primary sources

  • Bryant, Emma Spaulding. Emma Spaulding Bryant: Civil War Bride, Carpetbagger's Wife, Ardent Feminist; Letters and Diaries, 1860-1900 Fordham U. Pr., 2004. 503 pp.
  • Fleming, Walter L. Documentary History of Reconstruction: Political, Military, Social, Religious, Educational, and Industrial 2 vol (1906). Uses broad collection of primary sources; vol 1 on national politics; vol 2 on states; volume 1 493 pp online and vol 2 480 pp online
  • Post, Louis F. "A 'Carpetbagger' in South Carolina," The Journal of Negro History Vol. 10, No. 1 (Jan., 1925), pp. 10–79 in Jstor; autobiography
  • Twitchell, Marshall Harvey. Carpetbagger from Vermont: The Autobiography of Marshall Harvey Twitchell. ed by Ted Tunnell; Louisiana State U. Press, 1989. 216 pp.


  1. See online
  2. Those Terrible Carpetbaggers by Richard Nelson Current. Oxford University Press.1988
  3. Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom 2006
  4. Foner 1988 pp 137, 194
  5. Foner 1988 pp 137
  6. Foner 1988 pp 294-295
  7. Foner 1988 pp 289
  8. Klein 1968 p 269
  9. Hubbs, Guy W. (May 15, 2015). "Searching for Freedom after the Civil War: Klansman, Carpetbagger, Scalawag, and Freedman". University Alabama Press.
  10. Garner (1902); Harris (1979)
  11. Garner 187-88
  12. full text in Garner pp. 399-400
  13. Escott 160
  14. Foner 387
  15. Escott 160
  16. Escott 160
  17. Simkins and Woody. (1932)
  18. Simkins and Woody. (1932)
  19. Foner (1968)
  20. Woolfolk (1966); Foner (1968) p 295
  21. Foner (1968)
  22. Wintory 2004
  23. Foner Freedom's Lawmakers" p. 79; Wintory 2004, 2006; Daniel Phillips Upham; Gov. Powell Clayton
  24. Campbell (1994)
  25. Campbell (1994)