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In American history, a Scalawag was a Southern white who joined the Republican party during Reconstruction, 1863-1877. They formed a coalition with Freedmen (blacks who were former slaves) and Northern newcomers (called Carpetbaggers) to take control of their state and local governments at various times, 1867-1877.

Men who had not supported the Confederacy were eligible to take the "ironclad oath," as required by the Reconstruction laws in 1867 to vote or hold office. In the 1870s, many switched from the Republican Party to the conservative-Democrat coalition, called the Redeemers, which defeated and replaced all the state Republican regimes by 1877.

Their primary interest was in supporting a party that would build the South on a broader base than the plantation aristocracy of ante-bellum days. They found it expedient to do business with blacks and carpetbaggers; increasingly after 1872 they returned to the Democratic party as it gained sufficient strength to be a factor in Southern politics.[1]

Prominent scalawags

The most prominent scalawags included General James Longstreet (Robert E. Lee's top general), Joseph E. Brown, the wartime governor of Georgia, and General John Mosby, famed cavalry leader. Joe Brown later joined the Klan and was elected to the U.S. Senate.[2]


Lieutenant General James Longstreet became a controversial public figure after the Civil War had ended. As one of Lee's senior corps commanders he was, in Lee's words, his "old war-horse." After Appomattox, he made his way to New Orleans and entered business there as a cotton factor, then expanded his reach into railroad investments and the management of an insurance company. As he became a respected figure in the city, he was still admired across the South for his wartime role as Lee's devoted lieutenant. Longstreet joined the Republican party and accepted federal patronage appointment from his old friend, President Ulysses S. Grant. In 1874 the Crescent City White League, a paramilitary force, attempted the violent overthrow of Louisiana's Republican governor. Longstreet, in command of the state militia, led his mostly black troops against the White Leaguers, mostly former Confederate soldiers. By the time Federal troops finally restored order, 38 were dead. Longstreet moved to Gainesville, Georgia

In an effort to restore Lee's reputation, General Jubal Early and others began to attack Longstreet's war record, blaming him for the key mistakes at Gettysburg. In particular the allegation was made (without evidence) that Lee had ordered an attack at dawn on July 2; it is known that Longstreet attacked later in the day. For years historians, including Douglas Southall Freeman in 1934, made Longstreet the goat of the battle. Revisionists later tempered much of the anti-Longstreet rhetoric. However, not until 1998 was his loyal service to Lee and the Confederacy recognized by the placing of an equestrian statue of Longstreet on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg.[3]

Political activism

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).[4]


In Alabama, Scalawags dominated the Republican Party.[5] 117 Republicans were nominated, elected, or appointed to the most lucrative and important state executive positions, judgeships, and federal legislative and judicial offices between 1868 and 1881. They included 76 white southerners, 35 northerners, and 6 blacks. In state offices during Reconstruction, white southerners were even more predominant: 51 won nominations, compared to 11 carpetbaggers and one black. 27 scalawags won state executive nominations (75%), 24 won state judicial nominations (89%), and 101 were elected to the Alabama General Assembly (39%). However, fewer scalawags won nominations to federal offices: 15 were nominated or elected to Congress (48%) compared to 11 carpetbaggers and 5 blacks. 48 scalawags were members of the 1867 constitutional convention (49.5% of the Republican membership); and seven scalawags were members of the 1875 constitutional convention (58% of the minuscule Republican membership.)

Although the city of Mobile, Alabama, as a whole staunchly supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, a significant number of Mobilians remained loyal to the Union. Many of Mobile's business community and city elites dissented from the secessionist fervor that swept the city. Many of these dissenters were of Northern origins or had strong business ties to the North. Some loyalists eventually fled to Northern lines, while others stayed behind even in the face of political persecution. Significant numbers of Mobile Unionists were later scalawag leaders after the Civil War ended. Prominent Mobile Unionists included Gustavus Horton, William Rix, Moses Foote, John Bowen, Caleb Price, George W. Tarleton, and Francis Bromberg.[6]

Elisha Wolsey Peck of Tuscaloosa played a central role in Alabama politics during Reconstruction. Peck led the 1867 constitutional convention responsible for Alabama's Constitution of 1868 that allowed Alabama to be readmitted to the Union. Later, during 1869-73, he served as chief justice of the Alabama State Supreme Court. Peck was a Unionist and a Whig before the war, who joined the Republicans afterward. Accused by the local Conservative Democratic press of playing partisan politics and selling out to the Radical Republicans during the convention, once Peck reached the bench his rulings favored an independent judiciary, consistency with other newly reconstructed states, and the US Constitution.[7]

Charles Hays was one of the biggest planters before the war, with 100 slaves. He had supported Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas in the 1860 election, served in the Confederate army, and joined the Republicans shortly after the war. He helped write the 1867 state constitution, served in the state senate, and was elected to four terms in Congress from the Black Belt starting in 1869. Hays was enormously popular among the Freedmen, speaking with a Messianic voice that brought hope for a better future. In Congress he was a moderate, calling for amnesty for ex-Confederates. His career was undermined by intense factionalism among Republicans, battling over patronage jobs and corrupt payoffs.[8]


The most prominent Scalawag in Mississippi was James Lusk Alcorn. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1865 but, like all southerners, was not allowed to take a seat while Congress was pondering Reconstruction. He supported suffrage for Freedmen and endorsed the Fourteenth Amendment, as demanded by the Republicans in Congress. Alcorn became the leader of the Scalawags, who comprised about a third of the Republicans in the state. He was elected by the Republicans as governor in 1869 and served from 1870 to 1871. As a modernizer he appointed many like-minded former Whigs, even if they were Democrats. He strongly supported education, including public schools for blacks only, and a new college for them, now known as Alcorn State University. He maneuvered to make his ally Hiram Revels its president. Radical Republicans opposed Alcorn and were angry at his patronage policy. One complained that Alcorn's policy was to see "the old civilization of the South modernized" rather than lead a total political, social and economic revolution.[9]

Alcorn resigned the governorship to become a U.S. Senator (1871-1877), replacing his ally Hiram Revels, the first African American senator. Senator Alcorn urged the removal of the political disabilities of whites southerners and rejected Radical Republican proposals to enforce social equality by federal legislation[10] he denounced the federal cotton tax as robbery [11] and defended separate schools for both races in Mississippi. Although a former slaveholder, he characterized slavery as a cancer upon the body of the Nation and expressed the gratification which he and many other Southerners felt over its destruction.[12]

Alcorn led a furious political battle with Senator Adelbert Ames, the carpetbagger who led the other faction of the Republican Party in Mississippi. The fight ripped apart the party, with most blacks supporting Ames, but many—including Revels, supporting Alcorn. In 1873, they both sought a decision by running for governor. Ames was supported by the Radicals and most African Americans, while Alcorn won the votes of conservative whites and most of the scalawags. Ames won by a vote of 69,870 to 50,490, and Alcorn retired from state politics.[13]

Ellem (1992) examines the "Mississippi Plan" of 1875 that developed the statewide color-line tactics in which white Mississippians, voicing "white supremacy" and using violence and intimidation, regained control of state and local political institutions and reestablished Democratic power. Despite factionalism within the Democratic Party between the Regulars and New Departures, the Mississippi Republican Party suffered deeper rifts, best typified by the contrasting policies and attitudes of governors Ames, a carpetbagger, and scalawag Alcorn.

North Carolina

William Woods Holden (1818–92) was, throughout his public career, a controversial figure. As Scalawag governor of North Carolina, Holden enraged political opponents by his strong actions against the Ku Klux Klan's violence, the violation of political rights in the Piedmont, and by several political indiscretions. In 1870, a General Assembly dominated by Conservatives impeached and convicted him for violating the civil liberties of some citizens. This barred him from ever again holding state political office. For the rest of his life, he unsuccessfully sought repeal of this action and of the impeachment conviction.[14]

The career of scalawag politician Thomas Settle, Jr., shows that adherence to the Republican Party was partly motivated by a struggle to define the collective memory of the Civil War. Settle left the Confederate Army after one year and returned to his post as solicitor of North Carolina's fourth judicial circuit, where he agonized over home-front turmoil. He blamed the Confederate leadership for the South's devastation and defeat. As a Republican leader, Settle defined the postwar future in terms of racial cooperation that would lead to economic and political success. He condemned the Ku Klux Klan and sharecropping and welcomed Northern capital and free labor. North Carolinians ultimately rejected Settle's version of the Southern past and future, but his career shows that Republicans in the state did offer an alternative to the dominant white racial and economic ideology.[15]

South Carolina

In South Carolina there were about 10,000 Scalawags, or about 15% of the white population. During its heyday, the Republican coalition attracted some wealthier whites, especially moderates favoring cooperation between open-minded Democrats and responsible Republicans. Rubin shows that the collapse of the Republican coalition came from disturbing trends to corruption and factionalism that increasingly characterized the party's governance. These failings disappointed Northern allies who abandoned the state Republicans in 1876 as the Democrats under Wade Hampton reasserted conservative control, using the threat of violence to cause many Republicans to stay quiet or switch to the Democrats.[16]

Rubin (2006) tells the story of the South Carolina scalawags. Along with the "carpetbaggers" and the freedmen (who predominated numerically in the Republican party), the scalawags sought to reshape South Carolina politics to make it more democratic and inclusive. Their efforts in this direction were opposed by most white South Carolinians, who were willing to use any means at their disposal, including assassination, to reimpose white supremacy. Rubin (2006) explores the scalawags' backgrounds, actions, and fates, while telling the familiar story of Reconstruction—white Democrats versus black Republicans—from an unfamiliar perspective, that of white southerners who broke ranks and supported the rights of their black neighbors. Their reasons for doing so varied widely, but most commonly centered on resentment of the old ruling class, the planters who had dominated the state for so long and had led it to ruin in the Civil War.

Republicans succeeded in creating a much more representative and responsive government than any the state had seen before or would see for generations. During its heyday the party began to attract more and wealthier white South Carolinians. Nevertheless, these years also saw disturbing trends toward factionalism and corruption within southern Republican governments, trends in which scalawags took part. These failings led to the abandonment of southern Republicans by the federal government, allowing southern Democrats to overthrow the state government by force. After Reconstruction most scalawags saw continuing political involvement as futile, but some remained as prominent Republicans well into the twentieth century.[17]


John L. Haynes (1821–88) was a Texas politician and writer who dissented with many of the typical Southern views of the time. From the late 1850s through the 1880s, Haynes won notoriety as a protector of Mexican Americans, an opponent of secession, a Union army officer, a supporter of freedmen's rights, and a Republican "scalawag." The unifying theme in Haynes's life was his consistent opposition to the dominance of Texas politics and society by a minority of conservative, Democratic, and Anglo planters. He was a Southern dissenter by principle, not merely expedience.[18]


The term was originally a derogatory epithet but is now commonly used by all historians. Even in Reconstruction it never had the sting of "carpetbagger" (which emphasized outsider status).

Corruption issue

Scalawags were denounced as corrupt by Redeemers, claims that were validated by the historians of the Dunning School of scholars in the early 20th century. Black historian John Hope Franklin, agreeing with the Dunning school, concluded the Scalawags "must take at least part of the blame" for graft and corruption.[19]

The Democrats, who were the conservatives of the Reconstruction era, alleged the scalawags to be financially and politically corrupt, and willing to support bad government because they profited personally. One Alabama historian claimed: "On economic matters scalawags and Democrats eagerly sought aid for economic development of projects in which they had an economic stake, and they exhibited few scruples in the methods used to push beneficial financial legislation through the Alabama legislature. The quality of the bookkeeping habits of both Republicans and Democrats was equally notorious." [20] However, Neoabolitionist historian Eric Foner, downplaying the evils of corruption, argues there is not sufficient evidence that scalawags were any more or less corrupt than other politicians of any era, including Redeemers.[21]

White Republicans solicited black votes but reluctantly rewarded blacks with nominations for office only when necessary, even then reserving the more choice positions for whites. These half-a-loaf gestures satisfied neither black nor white Republicans. The fatal weakness of the Republican party in Alabama, as elsewhere in the South, was its inability to create a biracial political party. And while in power even briefly, they failed to protect their members from Democratic terror. Alabama Republicans were forever on the defensive, verbally and physically.[22]

Social pressure increasingly forced most Scalawags to join the conservative/Democratic Redeemer coalition. A minority persisted and formed the "tan" half of the "Black and Tan" Republican party, a minority in every southern state after 1877.[23]


The white Republicans included men who always detested slavery as well as former slaveowners who supported equal rights for freedmen. (The most famous of this latter group was Samuel F. Phillips, who later argued against segregation in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896)). Included, too, were people who wanted to be part of the ruling Republican Party simply because it provided more opportunities for successful political careers. Many historians have described scalawags in terms of social class, showing that on average they were less wealthy or prestigious than other whites.[24]

The mountain districts of Appalachia were often Republican enclaves.[25] They had few slaves, poor transportation, deep poverty, and a standing resentment against the low country politicians who dominated the Confederacy and conservative Democracy in Reconstruction. Their strongholds in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, western Virginia, and North Carolina, and the Ozark region of northern Arkansas, became Republicans bastions to the present day. These rural folk had a long-standing hostility toward the plantation class; they had harbored pro-Union sentiments during the war. Andrew Johnson was their representative leader. They welcomed Reconstruction and much of what the Radical Republicans in Congress advocated.

As Thomas Alexander (1961) has shown, there was a persistent Whiggery (support for the principles of the defunct Whig Party) in the South after 1865. Many ex-Whigs became Republicans who advocated modernization through education and infrastructure—especially better roads and railroads. Many also joined the Redeemers in their successful attempt to replace the brief period of civil rights promised to African Americans during the Reconstruction era with the Jim Crow era of segregation and second class citizenship that persisted into the 20th century.

Baggett (2003) profiled 742 Scalawags, comparing them to 666 Redeemers who opposed and eventually replaced them. He compares three regions, the Upper South, the Southeast, and the Southwest. Baggett follows the life of each scalawag before, during, and after the war, with respect to birthplace, occupation, value of estate, slave ownership, education, party activity, stand on secession, war politics, and postwar politics.

Baggett thus looked at 1400 political activists across the South, and gave each a score:

  • score = 1 an antisecessionist Breckinridge supporter in 1860 election
  • 2 1860 Bell or Douglas supporter in 1860 election
  • 3 1860-61 opponent of secession
  • 4 passive wartime unionist
  • 5 peace party advocate
  • 6 active wartime unionist
  • 7 postwar Union party supporter

He found the higher the score the more likely the person was a Scalawag.


For a more detailed guide see Reconstruction: Bibliography

  • Alexander, Thomas B. "Persistent Whiggery in the Confederate South, l860—77," Journal of Southern History 27 (1961) 305-29, in JSTOR
  • Baggett, James Alex. The Scalawags: Southern Dissenters in the Civil War and Reconstruction Louisiana State University Press, 2003.
  • Baggett, James Alex. "Origins of Upper South Scalawag Leadership." Civil War History 1983 29(1): 53-73. Issn: 0009-8078
  • DeSantis, Vincent P. Republicans Face the Southern Question: The New Departure Years, 1877—1897 (1998)
  • Donald, David. "'The Scalawag in Mississippi Reconstruction.” Journal of Southern History 10 (1944) 447—60 in JSTOR
  • Ellem, Warren A. “Who Were the Mississippi Scalawags?” Journal of Southern History 38 (May 1972): 2 17—40 in JSTOR
  • Ellem, Warren A. "The Overthrow of Reconstruction in Mississippi." Journal of Mississippi History 1992 54(2): 175-201. Issn: 0022-2771
  • Fitzgerald, Michael W. "From Unionists to Scalawags: Elite Dissent in Civil War Mobile." Alabama Review 2002 55(2): 106-121. Issn: 0002-4341 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Franklin, John Hope. Reconstruction after the Civil War (University of Chicago Press: 1961)
  • Garner; James Wilford. Reconstruction in Mississippi 1901. Dunning school online edition
  • Kolchin, Peter. “Scalawags, Carpetbaggers, and Reconstruction: A Quantitative Look at Southern Congressional Politics, 1868 to 1872” Journal of Southern History 45 (1979) 63—76, in JSTOR
  • McKinney, Gordon B. Southern Mountain Republicans, 1865—1900: Politics and the Appalachian Community (1998) online edition
  • Pereyra, Lillian A., James Lusk Alcorn: Persistent Whig. LSU Press, 1966.
  • Perman, Michael. The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics 1869—1879 (1984)
  • Rogers, William Warren, Jr. Black Belt Scalawag: Charles Hays and the Southern Republicans in the Era of Reconstruction. U. of Georgia Press, 1993. 179 pp.
  • Rubin, Hyman. South Carolina Scalawags (2006) excerpt and text search
  • 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 (1991) online edition

Primary sources


  1. Franklin p. 100
  2. Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (2008).
  3. Stephen W. Sears, "General Longstreet and the Lost Cause." American Heritage 2005 56(1): 46-53. Issn: 0002-8738 Fulltext: Ebsco; William Garrett Piston, Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant: James Longstreet and His Place in Southern History (1987)
  4. Hubbs, Guy W. (May 15, 2015). "Searching for Freedom after the Civil War: Klansman, Carpetbagger, Scalawag, and Freedman". University Alabama Press.
  5. Wiggins 131-38
  6. Fitzgerald, "From Unionists to Scalawags: Elite Dissent in Civil War Mobile." 2002
  7. Joel D. Kitchens, "E. W. Peck: Alabama's First Scalawag Chief Justice." Alabama Review 2001 54(1): 3-32. Issn: 0002-4341
  8. Rogers, Black Belt Scalawag (1993)
  9. Quoted in Eric Foner, Reconstruction (1988) p 298.
  10. Congressional Globe, 42 Cong., 2 Sess., pp. 246-47
  11. Ibid., pp. 2730-33
  12. Ibid., p. 3424
  13. Pereyra 1966
  14. William C. Harris, "William Woods Holden: in Search of Vindication." North Carolina Historical Review 1982 59(4): 354-372. Issn: 0029-2494 The Memoirs of W. W. Holden (1911), remain a valuable source; they are Online at Holden Memoirs
  15. Jeffrey J. Crow, "Thomas Settle Jr., Reconstruction, and the Memory of the Civil War." Journal of Southern History 1996 62(4): 689-726. Issn: 0022-4642 Fulltext: in Jstor
  16. Rubin 2006
  17. Rubin (2006)
  18. James Marten, "John L. Haynes: a Southern Dissenter in Texas." Southern Studies 1990 1(3): 257-279. Issn: 0735-8342
  19. Franklin, p. 101
  20. Wiggins p 134
  21. Foner, Reconstruction
  22. Wiggins p 134
  23. DeSantis 1998
  24. Baggett 2003
  25. McKinney 1998