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The Intent of the Carpetbagger

Updated on March 13, 2018
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

The influence of the carpetbaggers was more than just a result of the aftermath of war. The world had changed for the South. Overall life as it had been was over. A new world awaited Southerners whether they liked it or not with the main areas being politics, economics, and social aspects.

Carpetbaggers arriving showed how dramatically life in the south was going to change. One form of slavery was moved to another that wore the mask of freedom.

Time to Pay Up

Politically, the South was at the mercy of the Federal government. It had committed a hideous act of treason and now had to face the piper and pay up. The new President Andrew Johnson was facing something he never dreamed of when he took over the position of Vice-President under Abraham Lincoln.

Being a Southerner himself, he was under intense scrutiny in how to deal with the rebellious Southern states. He had to "launch his presidency and win favor from the North" while also finding the right way to "confront the rebellious, now defeated, white South." The best way he thought to do that was to tackle the Southern people individually, particularly the military and political leaders, and the South by state through a reconstruction plan that started in North Carolina.

New Freedom Equals New Challenges

By the amnesty given by the Federal government, the South found itself with many of the same political faces in front of them, but the change in the slave status also brought many new ones. Free blacks were now in a position to lead their own people. Politics became a war between the still strong Southern planter and that of close to four million new citizens who were looking for equality as they never had before. To those in the South, this was usually a repugnant thought. To those in the North, it spelled out opportunity.

What did the free blacks not have? They did not have the experience or know-how to fully participate in the white man's political world they suddenly found themselves thrust into. The blacks who were literate would rise up to become the political leaders for the freed community. Many of those had some exposure to the white political world through their associations with abolitionists and others. Yet they were still targeted by many carpetbaggers who saw a chance to control the South through the freed black man.

Different Intentions

Some carpetbaggers were intent to help the South and a little gain for them was good, but their hearts were in the right place as they tried to help educate the freed political leaders. In the states where the carpetbaggers were found in large numbers, they were able to execute more influence. For example, in Florida, carpetbaggers took a militant stance and organized political conventions "initially so that blacks, their major supporters, gained more committee chairmanships". The blacks found champions in many carpetbaggers who knew the lay of the political land and helped to guide them through it.

For some other carpetbaggers, gaining the support of the blacks was a step for their own personal gain. In the same state of Florida, Tallahassee found a set of carpetbaggers who were intent on less moral actions as they "purged black delegates from all standing committee chairmanship." The blacks saw the silver lining in the political world only to be pushed aside by the very men they trusted to give them the prize of the political voice.


Bergeron, Paul H.. Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011.

“Carpetbagger.” Merriam-Webster.

“Carpetbaggers and Scalawags.” Boundless.

Foner, Eric. “Q&A: Schools and Education During Reconstruction.”

“Free Labor to Slave Labor, America’s Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War.” Digital History. reconstruction/section3/section3_intro.html.

Hume, Richard L. and Jerry B. Gough. Blacks, Carpetbaggers, and Scalawags: the Constitutional Conventions of Radical Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2008.

“King Cotton.”

King, David C.. Civil War and Reconstruction. Hoboken: J. Wiley, 2003.

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Richardson, Heather Cox. Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

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Tunnell, Ted. “Creating the Propaganda of History: Southern Editors and the Origins of “Carpetbagger” and Scalawag..”. Journal of Southern History 72. no. 4. November 2006.


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